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.
A bottle of wine could become Georgia’s peace ambassador to Russia, as key talks are underway in Moscow on lifting a ban on Georgia’s alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, and on removing the post-2008-war chill between the two neighbors.
Georgian wine is likely to return to Russian tables by the end of the spring, Georgian wine officials and winemakers said on February 4, after meeting in Moscow with Russia’s executive butler, Gennady Onishchenko.
Moscow has made it very clear that the 2006 ban was motivated by politics, rather than the supposed quality concerns. Now, ahead of the meeting with the Georgian wine delegation, Onishchenko, the food safety chief, said that politics is the “only barrier” to lifting the embargo.
Lifting the wine ban could serve as an aperitif for resolution of other issues between Tbilisi and Moscow, and has implications for the wider region. As another ice-breaker, Georgia’s new government said it might restore a railway link through breakaway Abkhazia to Russia, a proposal that led to eager nods from neighboring Armenia, Moscow’s main business and defense partner in the region.
But the recent overtures to Moscow have not made all and sundry happy in Georgia. While farmers and companies stand to benefit from lifting the ban, there is a tidal pull against seeking closer ties with Moscow from a large part of the Georgian intelligentsia.
If the weather and Azerbaijan cooperate, we're repeatedly told, passenger planes will soon take off from the separatist airstrip of Nagorno-Karabakh. Any passengers, though, will probably be uneasily shifting in their seats with every shake or rattle, trying to figure out whether their plane has encountered turbulence or is dodging Azerbaijani missiles.
If it’s any reassurance for those prospective passengers, a top Russian general thinks that Azerbaijan is just kidding about its threats to knock down the planned flights from the breakaway territory. “It is either an unsuccessful articulation of thoughts or an unfortunate joke,” asserted Nikolai Bordyuzha, the secretary general of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Russia's response to NATO, while on a trip to Yerevan. “I don’t take this information seriously."
Committed to reclaiming Karabakh and the adjoining occupied territories, and returning tens of thousands of IDPs, Baku threatened to gun down any planes from the newly renovated airport outside the Karabakhi capital Stepanakert (known to Azerbaijanis as Khankendi), and said it has the full right to do so. Armenia threatened to respond in kind, and the Caucasus again got filled with the threat of war.
Cue Russia. Armenia is part of the CSTO, which vowed to protect, honor and cherish its members in good times and bad.
But the Azerbaijanis told Bordyuzha that they can match words with intentions, and again accused Moscow of siding with Armenia in the conflict over breakaway Karabakh. “Azerbaijan is not joking,” said Azerbaijani defense ministry spokesperson Eldar Sabiroglu, 1news.az reported.
(The claim appears to rest primarily on a documentary by the pro-Kremlin TV station NTV that explored the alleged Givi question. )
And now they want Georgia's new government -- political opponents of Givi and Misha both -- to help them with their investigation.
The request comes on the eve of a face-to-face meeting between Russian diplomats and Zurab Abashidze, a former Georgian ambassador to Moscow who has become Tbilisi's new point man for trying to get Russia to meet Georgia halfway.
Accusing domestic political opponents of being in cahoots with an enemy state is a classic device in the former Soviet Union's political playbook. Georgia and Russia are especially keen on pulling out that card.
Every time Russia comes to play war in the Caucasus, a sense of alert spreads in the neighborhood. And it does not help if the Russians are running around with guns for two separate war games at the same time.
Azerbaijan is keeping a wary eye on its sworn enemy, Armenia, as it hosts drills for the Collective Security Treaty Organization (Moscow's response to NATO), while Georgia has its vision trained on the Caucasus-2012 training to the north.
Tbilisi is particularly uneasy to see Moscow mobilize 8,000 troops, 200 military vehicles, artillery and military vessels in the Black and Caspian Seas and Russia's southern Krasnodar region just as Georgia is approaching a critical parliamentary election on October 1.
“We all remember the consequences of the 2008 drills, which were much smaller in scale [than Caucasus 2012],” commented Georgian Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze. He claimed that the operations threaten the sovereignty of the three Caucasus countries, and, at least in part, are meant to affect their domestic politics.
There is clearly a serious armed crisis near Georgia's border with the Russian republic of Daghestan, but it is not fully clear what exactly the crisis is all about. Georgian officials speak cautiously of a hostage-taking situation; 14 are reported dead. Hearsay and conspiracy theories fill in the gaps.
All morning, Georgian TV and online media rolled footage of military trucks carrying troops, an emergency government meeting chaired by Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili (and featuring Defense Minister Dimitri Shashkin, Interior Minister Bacho Akhalaia and Justice Minister Zurab Adeishvili), and shots of scared residents of Lapankuri, the village home of some of the hostages. Security was tightened around military hospitals and officials kept talking about an ongoing pursuit of an unspecified armed group that purportedly had crossed into Georgia from Daghestan.
In short, it all went from a teaser to a thriller, when just enough action is shown not to reveal the plot.
Later in the afternoon, Georgian police posted videos showing two men from villages in the area who said they were taken hostage by about 15 “heavily armed” and “bearded” men; a description that, within the region, suggests a connection to fighters from Russia’s North Caucasus. Later, at about 4pm, the interior ministry said that three members of Georgia's special forces and 11 attackers had died in the standoff. Most of the Georgian hostages have been released, while another six hostage-takers have been surrounded by Georgian troops, the ministry said.
The new arrivals will be temporary -- the "permanent" troop presence at Gyumri, the northern Armenian site of Russia's 102nd Military Base, will stay at 5,000, according to Colonel Igor Gorbul, a spokesperson for Russia's Southern Military District, RIA Novosti reported -- and will receive a higher salary and undefined benefits to whet their interest in sticking around.
They'll arrive at a base that's been a bit on the bustling side of late. Russian jets have been busy drilling in Armenian airspace, and, in March, Moscow held war games in Gyumri. Earlier on, the head of the Collective Security Treaty Organization -- a Russian response to NATO -- said that the Moscow-led alliance will protect Armenia from enemy attacks. “If unfriendly actions are taken against Armenia, all member states will provide relevant assistance to Armenia,” pledged CSTO Secretary-General Nikolai Bordyuzha.
“Think of all the beautiful moments we had together. Think of your international commitments. Don’t do it, Fiji!”
That's essentially the message from Tbilisi as the tiny South Pacific country of Fiji prepares to welcome Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on February 1 for what Georgia fears could be a lot of sweet talk from Moscow about recognizing the independence of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Moscow has denied having any plans to bribe Fiji, a developing country, in exchange for recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It says it's just in the region for (with apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein) some "happy talk."