The closer it gets to the European Union’s May 21-22 summit in Riga, the clearer it becomes that the post-Soviet countries grouped together under the EU’s Eastern Partnership Program will not be making any big steps toward the EU.
Speaking from Brussels with reporters via a video-link, one senior EU official laid out priorities for the summit that likely will prove a disappointment to Georgia. The EU’s biggest fan in the South Caucasus is not going to get the much-touted visa-free arrangement with the EU this time around. Nor is it clear when Georgia, which signed an EU Association Agreement last June, should expect to get it.
Armenia and the EU will be weighing cooperation options that are limited by Armenia’s membership in the Moscow-led EU alternative, the Eurasian Economic Union. The EU official, who declined to be named, said that much of the future economic dealings between the EU and Armenia, will actually be dealings between the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union, rather than with Armenia per se.
Freewheeling Azerbaijan is essentially going to Riga to bargain on energy supplies to Europe. At the summit, EU is like to emphasize the importance of Azerbaijan as an energy partner. Not unpredictably.
Many observers see a slow-down in the EU’s interest in the region, as Russia becomes more aggressive in Ukraine and tries harder to keep the former Soviet area in its sphere of political and economic influence.
Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on April 23 made his first-ever visit to Tbilisi, becoming an unusual guest in a country generally seen as headed in a direction diametrically opposite to that of Belarus.
But that did not faze this 60-year-old strong-armed leader. Sounding all the key notes, Lukashenka promised investment, unwavering support for Georgia’s territorial integrity and even to play a role in helping reconcile Georgia and Russia.
“Let’s think of what steps can be taken to make sure… we live in one family, as we used to live once,” he said at a press-conference in reference to the days when Belarus and Georgia shared a home, the Soviet Union.
There is a cat story that Mikheil Saakashvili, now controversially appointed as Ukraine government’s top foreign advisor, likes to tell. Back in 2003, when the soon-to-be-Georgian-President Saakashvili first walked into the presidential office, he was greeted there by a cat, a purring testimony to the dysfunctional administration of his overthrown predecessor, the late Eduard Shevardnadze. Now, as Saakashvili is tasked to help modernize Ukraine and reach out to Washington for support, the ex-president says he is again having the Shevardnadze-cat moment.
“There was no functioning pest-control service back then, so the cat stepped in” to control the Georgian government’s rampant mice population, Saakashvili reminisced in a February 17 interview in Kyiv with Rustavi2 television. There was also a bucket to collect intermittently flowing tap water and a makeshift water-heater, he continued, in a lengthy prelude to his point about fixing Ukraine.
The previous cat-in-residence could not take the pressure and “committed suicide,” jumping to her death from the 11th floor, Saakashvili claimed. Screens were put up on the windows to make sure future presidential felines did not flip.
“It is more or less the same situation here [in Ukraine]. I have seen no cat so far, but … Ukraine is just in that shape” with its obsolete, Soviet-style state institutions, said Saakashvili, who now chairs Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s international advisory council.
Georgia is busy pondering the legal options to discourage its citizens from joining the jihad in Syria, which allegedly has attracted dozens of recruits from the country’s remote Pankisi Gorge, a predominantly Muslim area.
“It is going to be a preventive mechanism to make sure our citizens know that if they participate in illegal foreign military formations…the state will take measures against them,” said Parliamentary Committee for Defense and Security Chairperson Irakli Sesiashvili. Rustavi2 reported. The nature of the “measures” remains unknown, but they could entail tougher administrative and criminal penalties.
The actual impact of such a law is open to interpretation, however.
Addressing “endemic poverty and radical (usually foreign) influencers” could prove a more effective way of tackling the issue of Pankisi residents heading to Syria, one analyst familiar with Georgia, Michael H. Cecire of the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, commented to RFE/RL.
The number of Islamic-war recruits from Pankisi (and, reportedly, from Muslim communities in the Black-Sea region of Achara) reportedly remains low, but it has resulted in embarrassment for Georgia’s plans to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Ukraine thinks it could use a little bit of Misha — that is, ex-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili — to fix its dyed-in-the-wool corruption problems. And not only Misha. Several former officials from Saakashvili’s 2004-2012 administration also reportedly have been offered important jobs in Ukraine’s post-Maidan government.
One of Saakashvili’s former cabinet members, though, may indeed be contemplating a move to Kyiv. On December 2, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko tweeted that he had granted Ukrainian citizenship to Aleksandre Kvitashvili, a former Misha-era health minister who had been offered the same position in the Ukrainian government.
Kvitashvili could not be reached by EurasiaNet.org to confirm whether or not he has accepted the post.
The killing of an 18-year-old Georgian fighter in Syria has displayed Georgia’s homegrown radical Islam issue, just as this South-Caucasus country tries to contribute to the US-led efforts against Islamic-State terrorists.
Beso Kushtanashvili reportedly became the sixth Georgian to die fighting in Syria. Like all others, Kushtanashvili was from the largely Muslim Pankisi Gorge, an isolated area to the northeast of the capital, Tbilisi.
Whether or not he was fighting for ISIS is not clear. Villagers from the Pankisi Gorge told Georgian television channels that they last saw Kushtanashvili at a summer high-school graduation party before he left for neighboring Turkey. Friends and relatives say they are clueless about how he ended up in Syria.
Earlier on, one Pankisi resident Leila Achishvili lost two of her sons in the Syria war. She told Rustavi2 TV that she had travelled all the way to Syria to beg her sons to come back.
“I was telling them that this is not our war,” Achishvili told Rustavi2. She said that she even met Tarkhan Batirashvili, the Pankisi native who, under the name of Omar al-Shishani, commands a unit within the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The US recently placed Al-Shishani on its black list of terrorists.
No official information has been released about the number of men who have gone from Pankisi to fight for the so-called Islamic State or other radical Islamic groups.
Georgia on July 18 legislatively cemented its European aspirations, while Armenia set a new date for a trip in the opposite direction— integration with the Russian-centric Eurasian Economic Union. The last but not least in the South Caucasus trio, Azerbaijan, remains content with its status as the region’s geopolitical maverick, but wants more appreciation from the European Union.
With EU officials on hand in Tbilisi, the Georgian parliament unanimously ratified the signed association and free-trade agreements with the European Union, and Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili declared, in case there was any doubt, that the country’s European path is "irreversible."
For one thing, they’ve drunk on it. “The ratification of this agreement will not be valid if we don’t chase it with a glass of wine,” observed Parliamentary Speaker Davit Usupashvili, inviting all to move on to the reception.
The session opened with the Georgian national anthem and closed with the EU anthem
Moldova, a fellow EU-enthusiast (and serious wine-producer), ratified the agreements earlier this month, while Ukraine is expected to do the same shortly.
But, as often happens in the South Caucasus, Armenia and Azerbaijan had their own tales to tell as well.
After missing a few earlier targets, Armenia set October as its date for entering the Eurasian Economic Union, Moscow’s response to the European Union. Speculation runs rife about the reasons for the repeated delays, but Yerevan says the deadline's for real this time, and the necessary
But that’s exactly how it has been perceived by Georgian Facebook and Twitter users. “Nice to know that all those people died in Afghanistan for nothing,” bristled one Facebook user, referring to the more than two dozen Georgian soldiers who have died in NATO’s Afghanistan campaign.
With experience also in Iraq and Kosovo, Georgia has supplied the largest number of troops to that operation out of any non-NATO country.
Government officials call that pragmatism. But, increasingly, some Georgians term it schizophrenia.
Georgia has shown signs of such an ailment before. In an attempt to establish what they term the border of breakaway South Ossetia, Russian troops, stationed in South Ossetia since the 2008 war with Georgia, have been weaving fences through Georgian-held territory, often cutting through villages and pasture-land.
Tbilisi also has protested the fence fetish, and alerted its friends in the West, who, in turn, have shook their heads with the requisite expression of concern, but gone no further.
Yet despite these affronts from Moscow, Tbilisi is still dispatching a team of athletes to the Olympics. To appease domestic criticism, though, no senior government officials will be tagging along. Team Georgia will include a mere four athletes.
As another overture, Georgia earlier had offered to help Russia in providing security for the Sochi Games. That’s kind of you, Moscow said, but added that to normalize ties, Tbilisi needs to perform a little “formality” and accept the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
So, where has the policy of "pragmatism" gotten Tbilisi?
As Georgia and Russia prepare to drown the memories of their 2008 war in wine and water, Georgia's legendary mineral-water company Borjomi, the nation's carbonated pride and joy, has been sold to a Russian firm.
Russian billionaire Mikhail Fridman’s Alfa Group, a Kremlin-friendly investment group, has purchased a controlling stake in the production of the salty-tasting Borjomi, Georgian and Russian news outlets reported on January 27. The family of the late Georgian oligarch Badri Patarkatsishvili, who owned the stake, confirmed the deal, estimated at $300 million, but noted that they will retain a role in the company's management.
The controversial sale -- some Georgians view it as part of a sell-out to the enemy -- comes against the backdrop of Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili's attempts to find a way to Russian hearts through Russian stomachs. Next week, Moscow will host key talks on canceling the prohibition on Georgian drinks, which has put the Russians on a Georgian-free diet since 2006. At the time, Gennady Onishchenko, Russia’s top food-taster, declared that beverages from NATO-aspiring, US-friendly Georgia were inimical to Russian health.