Armenia may now sign on to the Moscow-led Eurasian Union by the end of April, roughly a month before neighboring Georgia is slated to enter a free-trade and political pact with the European Union. The signings of both agreements have been expedited as the competition for the South Caucasus picks up speed between Russia and Europe.
Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan is scheduled to travel to Belarus on April 29 for a meeting of the council of the Eurasian Union, an economic bloc roughly modeled by Moscow after (and against) the European Union. Armenian officials say that Sargsyan will sign an agreement in Minsk on Armenia’s joining the Customs Union, the flagship project of the Eurasian Union meant to create a shared economic space for Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and, Moscow hopes, more ex-Soviet states.
The new sign-on date is not a huge difference from the earlier deadline of May, but, apparently, as East-West ties deteriorate over Ukraine, someone feels the need to pick up the pace.
Wary of Ukraine-style pressure from Russia, the EU chiefs have been trying to fast-forward their plans with Georgia and Moldova. José Manuel Borroso, the president of the European Commission, the executive body of the EU, is expected in Tbilisi in June to sign an association agreement, which includes a free trade deal, with Georgia.
Gazprom, the Russian energy goliath, reportedly continues its shopping spree in Armenia; this time around, setting its eyes on the Caucasus country's power-distribution grid. Such a buy would get Gazprom closer to becoming the main source of light and heat in Armenia, second only to the sun.
If the deal is done, the electricity network will change hands from one Russian company, Inter RAO UES, to another. But then, Gazprom is, of course, not just another Russian company. It is the Kremlin’s magic wand for political clout and foreign policy.
As the main supplier of Armenia's natural gas and security (and possibly electricity), and its main trade partner, Russia, some fear, practically owns the country.
Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili has become another Georgian leader to go to Washington in search of US protection from Russia. This time around, Georgia hopes that the US can help make sure Russia does not try to pull a Ukraine in Georgia to prevent it from entering the European Union’s economic space.
“[The Sochi Olympic] Games are over, and we expect Russia to increase pressure on Georgia before signing the association agreement with the European Union,” Gharibashvili said after meeting President Barack Obama and Vice-President Joseph Biden on February 25. “[W]e would highly appreciate the US administration, Congress, think-tanks…. [expressing] support [to] us through constant and proper messaging to Russia, upholding the European choices of Georgia,” Gharibashvili commented at a talk the same day at the Atlantic Council.
The customs-free wonderland that Russia is busy building around itself to counterbalance the European Union will come with still more unrecognized or half-recognized lands. On December 10, the Russian Duma approved a 2012 agreement to drop customs duties between Russia and the twin breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
“Ratification of the agreements will become an important step toward intensifying trade turnover between Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and Russia and members of the Customs Union,” pledged Eurasian Integration Parliamentary Committee Chairman Leonid Slutskiy, ITAR-TASS reported.
The two tiny enclaves -- in Moscow’s view, perfectly sovereign lands -- are tied to Russia’s apron both by their economies and their claims to independent statehood. Now, they can export customs-free to Russia anything but sugar, tobacco and alcohol. Russia also cancelled export duties on set volumes of petroleum exported to Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Of course, there is more in this for the territories than for Russia, which periodically injects aid into both breakaway territories. The Kremlin is pouring so much money into Abkhazia and South Ossetia that it will not even notice a revenue-drop from the removal of duties on imports from and petroleum exports into the regions, said Slutskiy.
In 2014-2015, Moscow plans to invest over 3 billion rubles (about $92 million) in Abkhazia alone, according to the region's de-facto official news agency, Apsnypress.
A colossal, bronze Jesus Christ, cast in Armenia, has appeared in war-ravaged Syria “to save the world.”
Soaring higher than Rio’s famous Christ the Redeemer, the statue stands 39 meters tall in the mountaintop, Byzantine-era Cherubim Monastery, lording it over the city of Saidnaya, 27 kilometers north of Damascus, Armenian news outlets reported. Some Russian outlets said that the statue is one meter shorter than its Brazilian counterpart.
From its vantage point above the sea, the statue overlooks an historic pilgrimage route from Istanbul to Jerusalem. The statue, created by Armenian sculptor Artush Papoian, was installed on October 14, when Orthodox Christians celebrate a commemoration of the Virgin Mary, whose icon is a chief draw for the monastery.
But the statue was not born of recent events in Syria. While Syria's ethnic Armenian population has been fleeing the country in droves -- including to Armenia itself, which has built a "New Aleppo" to accommodate the arrivals -- the project has been in the works since 2005, Russia's Komsomol'skaya Pravda reports.
Some Armenian officials would have you believe that Yerevan's surprise decision to join the Russia-led Customs Union all came down to economic moxie. And, in a way, perhaps it did. But in gaseous form.
Armenian Energy and Natural Resources Minister Armen Movsisian told parliament on September 11 that the question of how to grapple with the higher prices Russia's state-owned Gazprom is now charging for natural gas would be decided within the framework of the Customs Union.
"The decision already has been found, and soon [everything] will be resolved," Movsisian said, expressing his support for the trade deal, Lragir.am reported.
Announced this summer, the 18-percent price hike by Gazprom, Armenia's chief provider of natural gas, had fueled not only further worries for the country's hard-pressed economy, but, also, predictions of widespread opposition to the government.
President Serzh Sargsyan had made no mention of gas when announcing on September 3 the plan to form a trade pact with Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus -- an unexpected decision that has ruined (at least for now) Armenia's chances of an Association Agreement with the European Union.
Officials since have scrambled to make it seem that the Customs Union was the only choice going.
Try as he might, Russia's Dr. Strangelove, otherwise known as food security tsar Dr. Gennadiy Onishchenko, has not yet stopped worrying and learned to love a Georgian tomato. Or a peach. Or a bottle of wine.
Onishchenko, who apparently has a nose like no other for potential alimentary attacks, now has deduced that a US-sponsored biological lab in Georgia supposedly could be used to poison fruit, vegetables and wine bound for Russia.
To hear him describe it, the lab, named after former US Senator Richard Lugar, sounds like a military-guarded facility hemmed with barbed wire, and with a dark storm cloud constantly hovering overhead. It is a “powerful offensive” weapon and “is out of the control of the Georgian authorities,” Onishchenko said in a statement. The presence of such a force in the proximity of the Russian border is “a direct violation of the Biological Weapons Convention,” he asserted.
The upshot: If Georgia wants to keep selling its agricultural produce to Russia, it has to shut down the Lugar Lab.
Armenia may be Moscow’s best bet for a sovereign friend south of the Caucasus mountains, but careful political maneuvering by Yerevan suggests that Armenia is committed to maintaining personal space in this relationship and to keeping its options open.
New Russian ballistic missiles were reportedly moved to the Gyumri base, the only remaining military outpost for Russia in the undisputed part of the South Caucasus. Armenia also lets the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) -- Russia’s response to NATO -- hold war games, move troops and set up training facilities on its territory. Plans are reportedly also underway to set up the CSTO’s joint air force headquarters in Armenia.
All of this prompts internal complaints that Armenia is becoming little more than a Russian garrison, with national security, economy and culture all tied to Moscow.
Anxious for peace with Russia, Georgian officials and businessmen recently have been taking turns bowing and refilling 62-year-old Russian food security tsar Gennadiy Onishchenko's glass with the finest beverages Georgia’s got to offer. But nothing seems to suit the delicate palate of Gennady Grigoryevich.
His complaints range from the quality-related to the political and downright philosophical. But the Onishchenkoisms, delivered with a stern face, always tend to hit whenever Tbilisi-Moscow ties are going south.
In 2006, with the Kremlin increasingly uneasy about Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili as a potential exporter of revolution, Onishchenko struck, slapping an embargo on Georgian wines, mineral waters and fruits and vegetables as unsafe.
But after Georgia’s new government began an active campaign of reconciliation with Russia, Onishchenko allowed long-banned Georgian wine and prized mineral water Borjomi back north of the Caucasus mountain range.
In its cautious, arduous attempts to make up with Russia, Georgia brought to the negotiation table its key natural resources: wine, mineral water and folk dancing. But the ongoing cultural and business rapprochement, which Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili hopes will usher in a diplomatic reconciliation, is pitting pragmatic Georgians against patriotic Georgians in an increasingly bitter fight.
After nearly seven years of abstinence from Georgian alcohol, Russia on March 6 essentially allowed wine and mineral water from its southern neighbor back on its national dinner table. The decision came after Russia’s federal wine-tasters spent many hours in Georgia, scrupulously sampling the wine to make sure the NATO-aspiring country’s alcohol didn’t taste anti-Russian.
Concurrently, one prominent Georgian cultural act took place in Russia. But the performers face stone-pelting at home for what some call selling-out to the oppressor, as many Georgians are not buying the art-and-business-are-above-politics argument.
A series of Moscow performances by the Erisioni ensemble may be a success in Russia, but is a flop in Georgia. The collective of folk dancers, musicians and singers has become the target of vitriolic attacks online and in the media.