Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine all know the routine.
In the past, Russia swore off Ukrainian candy and dairy products as relations between the two countries worsened over Crimea, the war against Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, and Kyiv’s pro-Western inclinations. In 2013, it took particular aim at Roshen chocolate, the source of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s personal wealth.
Russia also has closed its borders for European cheese and other foodstuffs as a payback for Western sanctions against Russia over Ukraine. European cheddar cheese was once literally bulldozed off Russian tables.
For years, the Russian dinner table has told the story of Russia’s foreign policy.
Russia is relaxing its visa requirements for Georgians, possibly trumping the European Union’s best card in the ongoing game of influence between the two powers.
“The Russian side confirmed its readiness to continue the liberalization of the visa regime for Georgian citizens visiting Russia,” the Russian foreign ministry announced in a November 19 précis of the latest bout of talks between Moscow and Tbilisi. Georgian officials confirmed that efforts are in progress to ease travel for their citizens to Russia, even though the two countries remain irreconcilably at odds over the location of Georgia’s borders.
Georgia ended its diplomatic relations with Russia after the 2008 war over the breakaway region of South Ossetia.
The visa-liberalization announcement came two days after Georgia went to Brussels for talks about visa-free travel to the European Union. The prospect of visa exemption, largely contingent on Georgia’s ability to keep illegal migration in check, is seen as the major impetus for keeping the Caucasus country on track to closer integration with Europe.
Visa-liberalization had been seen as a chance for Brussels to present a tangible benefit of Georgia’s EU alignment. In explaining Russia’s announcement, Georgian State Minister for European Integration Davit Bakradze emphasized that the talks with Moscow are centered on simplification, rather than cancelation of the visa regime.
Hundreds of Georgians gathered on October 17 in Tbilisi to protest talks with Gazprom about increased supplies of gas to Georgia. Posters blamed the talks on former Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, a onetime Gazprom investor who supports closer trade ties with Russia.
Georgia could be on the cusp of a bargain with Gazprom, Russia’s device for exports of natural gas and foreign policy, that many Georgians deem Faustian. The Georgian government’s intention to increase its imports of Russian gas has been met with fervent resistance as a potential threat to the country's pro-Western track.
On October 17, a crowd gathered in front of Georgia’s central government building to protest ongoing negotiations with the Russian energy behemoth. Seeking more gas from Gazprom amounts to Georgia bucking the trend among “developed countries” to reduce Gazprom’s influence, declared former ombudsman Giorgi Tughushi, who served when Georgia’s Russia suspicions were at their height, under ex-President Mikhail Saakashvili.
“This is tantamount to relinquishing our statehood,” charged Tughushi, warning that Georgia should expect Russia’s President Vladimir Putin “to come out of that pipeline.”
Talks with Gazprom have taken many aback, and, some locals believe, also neighboring Azerbaijan, which provides the bulk of Georgia’s natural-gas supplies. Initially, a surprise September 25 meeting between Georgian Energy Minister Kakha Kaladze and Gazprom Chief Executive Officer Alexei Miller was put down to routine seasonal adjustments for gas transit to Armenia via Georgia. Later on, after Russia media reported plans for another meeting between Kaladze and Miller, the Georgian energy minister said that several Georgian corporate clients were interested in purchasing Russian gas.
In a setup indicative of the changing economic and, possibly, geopolitical dynamics in the South Caucasus, Armenia hopes China soon will agree to pay for a planned railway to Iran. At the same time, it also is lobbying for a free-trade agreement between Iran and the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union.
Economically and otherwise dependent on the big brother to the north, Russia, and sandwiched between hostile Azerbaijan and Turkey to the east and west, Armenia hopes that things can go south, to Iran. The planned railway could give Iran access to the Black Sea for large-scale shipments of exports and landlocked Armenia a significant role as a transit country.
The state of the railway link is not clear yet. Iranian officials said they are building their portion of it, while Armenia is looking for the means to construct its own. Armenian Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian hopes to scare up investment for the railroad from China during his upcoming September 23-25 visit. Yerevan and Beijing have already been in touch about the railway, according to Abrahamian.
A fresh scuffle between police and demonstrators in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, suggests that widespread complaints about officials' handling of a 16.5-percent increase in electricity prices could still have legs.
The latest rally, scattered by police on September 12, did not boast the numbers comparable to the “high-voltage rallies,” a series of sit-ins in the city center in June known as Electric Yerevan. It was a much smaller crowd, made up mainly of activists from the No to Plunder group, which claims that the government, counter to its earlier promises, has not entirely covered the cost of the higher power prices.
Most businesses, the group alleges, have been left out.
At first glance, to many outsiders, paying roughly ten cents (48.78 drams) per kilowatt hour of daytime energy use may not seem high. But protesters claim the real issue relates to the practice of officials handing out special favors for the government's corporate chums -- a longtime complaint in Armenia. The government, they charge, always covers up accordingly.
No to Plunder has demanded that the new prices, seen as the result of government collusion with the Russian-owned Electricity Networks of Armenia (ENA), be scrapped entirely. “We will go to the end,” the protesters told Interfax.
As anger builds in Georgia over Russia’s latest alleged attempt to redesign the country’s borders, Tbilisi is urging Georgians
not to let their emotions get in the way of attempts at rapprochement with Moscow.
“Let’s not be naïve and expect that some meeting will convince Russia to change its policy toward Georgia, toward neighboring countries,” commented Zurab Abashidze, Georgia’s envoy to talks with Russia, after meeting with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin in Prague on July 15.
The ever concerned Karasin had a few tips of his own.
“We have to do our utmost to make sure emotional explosions like this do not disrupt the process of normalization of Georgian-Russian relations,” RIA Novosti reported him as saying.
The calls for calm are easy for Karasin to make, many Georgians believe. His country’s borders and the de-facto frontiers of its separatist proteges are only expanding, while the space Moscow has allotted to neighbors Georgia and Ukraine is getting smaller.
In response to this latest land grab, various rallies have been staged, with a larger-scale event planned for downtown Tbilisi on July 18 in front of the government chancellory.
Separatist Abkhazia has been picked as the venue for the wannabe and stateless nations’ soccer championship in 2016.
It is soccer without borders in a direct sense. Arameans, Laplanders, Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians and all sorts of “sportingly isolated” peoples will be heading down to the Russian-backed, Georgian-claimed Black Sea region for the next installment of the soccer event that debuted in Sweden last year.
Twelve teams, including from Darfur and the Isle of Man, participated in the competition with the County of Nice as the winner.
The enthusiast group behind the event – the Confederation of Independent Football Associations (CONIFA) that some describe as the anti-FIFA – is on a mission to put unrecognized or less-recognized self-declared countries like Abkhazia “on the world map” to have them share “the joy of international soccer.
“We are sure that Abkhazia is a perfect choice to enjoy a perfect football and cultural experience,” CONIFA said in a statement. Although Abkhazia has the reputation of a twilight zone still recovering from the ruins of the early 1990s separatist war with Tbilisi, CONIFA claims that “top-class infrastructure” can be found there.
When a Russian TV reporter went live from the Yerevan protests last night, a poster behind her read “Russia 24: Go to hell,” to use a mellow translation of the original choice of words.
The crowd gathered around the journalist was angry that Russian media draws parallels between their protest against higher electricity fees from a Russian-owned power company and Ukraine’s pro-Western uprising in 2013.
“People here do not want the word Yerevan to be used in the same sentence with Kyiv,” the LifeNews journalist explained.
Igor Morozov, a member of Russia’s legislative upper house, the Federation Council, opined on June 24 that Yerevan’s protests carbon-copy the build-up to EuroMaidan, and will end in a coup if “the nation’s President Serzh Sargsyan does not learn lessons from Ukraine’s Maidan and does not draw the right conclusions," RIA Novosti reported.
And, in the time-honored fashion of Russian politicians, Morozov is eager to make sure he does. Morozov and his colleague in the lower house, the State Duma, Valery Rishkin, advised Sargsyan to boot US Ambassador Richard Mills out of Armenia.
In Russian political folklore, US embassies in Ukraine, Armenia and elsewhere in the post-Soviet world work as regional headquarters of an anti-Kremlin conspiracy thought up in Washington, DC.
As the tense standoff between protesters and police in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, continues, Moscow is keeping a cautious eye on events. Armenia is Russia’s only sure ally in the South Caucasus, and, the Kremlin, no doubt with Ukraine on its mind, wants to be sure of its friend.
“Armenia is our closest partner… Of course, we closely follow the developments and hope the situation will be settled in the near future in strict accordance with the law,” Public Radio of Armenia quoted Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov as saying.
Russian media continues to look at the “Maidan-ability” of the demonstrations; in other words, if the protests against a 16-percent hike in electricity prices can become a real threat to Armenia’s government and its close alliance with Moscow.
Although some anti-Moscow (and anti-Putin) notes were sounded at the Electric Yerevan protest, protesters do not appear to be calling for grand shifts in Armenia’s geo-strategy.
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.