A Russian soldier who allegedly massacred an Armenian family is expected to stand trial in Armenia, not Russia. Armenian General Prosecutor Gevorg Kostanian on January 15 made this clear to outraged citizens, who were worried that Armenia would defer justice to its Russian big brother.
The January 12 slaughter of six people in the northwestern town of Gyumri, the site of Russia’s 102nd army base, could not have come at a worse time for Armenia. Just ten days previously, its controversial membership in the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union had become official. The sign-on took place amidst heavy criticism of Yerevan’s economic and security dependence on Russia.
The Gyumri murder now has put Armenia’s policies toward Russia further to the test. Angry Gyumri residents have demanded the handover of the alleged culprit, Private Valery Permyakov, and accused the authorities of mollycoddling Moscow.
Russia’s ambassador to Armenia, Ivan Volynkin, appears aware of the risks of such sentiments. In January 15 comments to the state-financed Russian news outlet Sputnik (picked up by Armenian news outlets), he expressed condolences for the tragedy, but emphasized that “this problem must not be politicized."
"Crime has no nationality, especially in this case," he emphasized.
Armenia’s small Heritage Party, the most outspoken of Armenian political party against economic integration with Russia, so far has called only for a transparent investigation into the crime.
Keeping up with the regional fad of being annexed by Russia, the separatist territory issued terms of reference for how it would like to be absorbed.
The draft document offers to surrender to Russia such attributes of de-facto statehood as the army, police and courts. Not to mention, the "protection and patrolling of national borders."
Customs checkpoints (not generally accepted for South Ossetia internationally) would be eliminated between the region and the Russian Federation and any restrictions on citizens moving across the de-facto border would be abolished, the draft continues.
In other words, no need to send little green men. There is a catch, though -- South Ossetia, an impoverished region of some 50,000 residents, wants Russia to pretty much sustain it financially.
The region, which was recognized by Moscow in 2008 as an independent country, purportedly sees this takeover as a way of reuniting with its Ossetian kin in neighboring North Ossetia, part of the Russian Federation.
The notion has been around for awhile, but the annexation of Crimea and proclamations of independence by Russian-backed separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine, breathed new life into South Ossetia’s plans.
“It is better to be under the Russian yoke,” reasoned MP Mher Sadrakian of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia, echoing other lawmakers’ views that alliance with Russia is a necessary evil. “Our people always have been under a foreign yoke,” Sadrakian went on saying, RFE/RL reported. “We are used to someone standing above us… the Persians, the Turks, the Russians… “
Without Russia, Armenia would not have “conquered” predominantly ethnic-Armenian Nagorno Karabakh, claimed by Azerbaijan, he continued. “Without them [the Russians], they will devour us,” Sadrakian said in reference to Azerbaijan and its longtime ally, Turkey.
Another Republican, Seryan Saroian, offered more transcendental reasoning, though getting somewhat confused in the process.
“Why are you lamenting us joining the European Union… the Euronews… I don’t know, Eurasia…Let’s say you eat two more kilos of sausage, will it change anything?” Saroian was quoted by RFE/RL's Armenian service as saying.
Lado Gurgenidze, a prominent banker who served as prime minister of Georgia during the 2008 war with Russia, will serve as a Ukrainian government economic advisor, according to newly appointed Ukrainian Health Minister Aleksandre Kvitashvili, a friend of Gurgenidze. (Kvitashvili was a member of Gurgenidze's cabinet.)
“They have already spoken to Lado,” Kvitashvili said in remarks reported by Georgian media. “Probably it is going to be a coordinating council or some committee.”
He also claimed that former Georgian Deputy Interior Minister Ekaterine Zghuladze was to be confirmed as Ukraine’s first deputy interior minister. Ukrainian officials, so far, have confirmed holding a job interview with Zghuladze.
Ex-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said earlier this week that he had turned down a job offer as Ukraine’s deputy prime minister.
Ukraine already has confirmed a former American diplomat, Natalie Jaresko, as its finance minister and a Lithuanian investment banker, Aivaras Abramovicius, as its economy minister. Like Kvitashvili, the two reportedly have given up their respective citizenships to become Ukrainians.
Now that separatist Abkhazia had been tied to Russia through an essentially federal pact, setting up a train link to the rest of Georgia may be the next stop in Vladimir Putin’s plan for cementing Russian hegemony over the region.
Strictly from a pragmatic point of view, in theory, everyone along the route could potentially benefit from it, including Georgian exporters. Landlocked, semi-blockaded Armenia would benefit the most from such a link to its main trade-partner, Russia.
But many Georgians fear that giving the green light to the project would reduce their chances for negotiating the return of hundreds of thousands of IDPs to Abkhazia and, also, precariously increase Georgia’s economic dependence on Russia. That could spell a potential threat to the country’s longheld EU and NATO ambitions, the thinking goes.
And signal a wider battle for the post-Soviet space as well. In response to Abkhazia’s agreement-signing with Moscow, Georgia has made a cry of creeping annexation of its territory, and the US and EU have denounced the document as a violation of Georgia’s territorial integrity.
The move fits in with the trend of the changing political order in the post-Soviet space, with countries and regions pulling in opposite directions of associating with the European Union or Russia.
The signing in Sochi by Putin and fellow former KGB'er, Raul Khadjimba, Abkhazia's de-facto leader, has touched off an outcry in Tbilisi. From the Georgian perspective, the pact marks the virtual annexation of its territory and the ultimate failure of the current Georgian government's latter-day policy of reconciliation with Moscow.
“Despite the many constructive steps… no progress in political terms has been achieved with Russia,” the Georgian foreign ministry announced in a statement. “Together with the Georgian government and the Georgian people, we will resist this absurd move,” said Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili.
There are not too many mechanisms in Georgia’s diplomatic or economic arsenal for resisting Russian expansionism other than requesting the international community to pressure Moscow away from its perceived attempts of stealing another piece of land.
Thousands of Georgians on November 15 took a stand against “Russia’s creeping annexation" of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia in a Tbilisi rally that was as much patriotic as it was partisan. The demonstration, led by the opposition United National Movement, provided a venue for many to vent their anger with Moscow’s latest plans for integration with the two separatist regions, but also offered a chance for ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili force to make a push for a comeback.
“You don’t sell your homeland for parsley,” bristled one middle-aged woman who attended the protest, speaking in reference to the Georgian government’s efforts to restore trade relations with Russia. “Nobody is doing anything to help me and my children go back to my home in Abkhazia. They are just letting it slowly slip away to Russia. All the government is worried about is how much greens and wine we can sell to Russia.”
The perceived failure by the Georgian government to come up with a meaningful response to Russia’s proposed pacts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia has stoked such resentment. That, in turn, has opened a window of opportunity for the United National Movement (UNM), Georgia’s largest opposition movement, to take ownership of the territorial integrity issue, which now rates as the country’s second-largest national concern after unemployment.
Never one to miss a rally, Saakashvili, now wanted in Georgia on several criminal charges, addressed the crowd from Ukraine via large screens. Staying true to his flamboyant speaking style, he described his arch-foe Bidzina Ivanishvili, the ex-prime minister and founder of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, as a “provincial dictator,” and described “Ivanishvili’s Georgia” as debased and degrading, to use polite terms for the actual words used.
In an act with potentially perilous consequences for the South Caucasus' longest running military conflict, Azerbaijan on November 12 shot down a MI-24 helicopter that it claims belongs to Armenian forces stationed near the Nagorno-Karabakh frontline. Armenia, however, asserts that the helicopter belongs to breakaway Karabakh’s military forces.
Additional information, for now, is scarce. The Azerbaijani defense ministry alleged that the helicopter “violated the country’s airspace,” and had “attempted to attack positions of the Azerbaijani army near Agdam district.,” the pro-government news agency Trend reported.
In a statement posted only in Azeri, the defense ministry claimed that three crew members were killed. A second helicopter “managed to get away” from the line of fire, it alleged.
The commander who oversaw the operation, one “M. Muradov,” has been “awarded with valuable prizes and awards” by Azerbaijani Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov, the ministry said.
Armenian defense ministry spokesperson Artsrun Hovhannisian has refused to confirm reports that three crew members were killed, a Karabakhi news outlet reported.
In a statement, Armenia’s defense ministry claimed only that the helicopter was downed while taking part in a regular training exercise, and that Azerbaijan had continued with “intensive fire . . . in the direction of the event.” Details are still being determined, it said.
While Russia is on a land-grabbing binge, South Ossetia hopes Moscow will not forget about its aspirations, too. The region’s separatist leadership is drawing up an agreement meant to insert the disputed territory into the Russian Federation.
The agreement is influenced by a recent integration plan that Moscow offered to South Ossetia’s separatist twin, Abkhazia, but reportedly goes far beyond it. Both regions maintain de-facto independence from Georgia and almost existentially rely on backing from Russia. Abkhazia, however, insists on some ground rules in its relationship with Moscow, such as keeping space for sovereignty.
The particulars of the changes made by the Abkhaz remain under wraps, but, reportedly, they took out the clause on bilateral simplification of naturalization of each other’s citizens. Also, reportedly, axed was the most contentious part that proposed to allow Russians to take the command of a joint military force in times of war in Abkhazia.
But if the Abkhaz found the Russian integration plan overbearing, the South Ossetians believe that such a deal would not be going far enough. “The version of the agreement, which is being prepared for signing between Russia and Abkhazia, would not reflect all the yearnings of the South Ossetian people, their aspirations for the Russian Federation,” said the region’s de-facto parliamentary speaker, Anatoly Bibilov.
Tbilisi has accused Moscow of plans to pull a Crimea in breakaway Abkhazia through a treaty that proposes a merger of military forces, coordination of police and an alignment with the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union.
On the surface, it may seem that Abkhazia's fate could not be any more tied to Moscow than it already is. The Russian military is the only outside guarantee of the region's de-facto independence from Georgia, while the Russian market provides an economic lifeline. But for all that, Abkhazia is actually serious about its claim to independence from everyone, Russia including.
In an interview with Ekho Kavkaza, the speaker of Abkhazia's de-facto parliament, Valery Bganba, complained that the document "in many places" amounts to a "loss of sovereignty."
The cornerstone of the treaty is the formation of a collective military force, with Russia appointing an ad-hoc command in times of crisis. Many Abkhaz think such force is necessary to repel any attempt from Georgia to retake the territory; an event which Abkhazia has been expecting ever since its 1992-1994 war with Tbilisi. Many believe that events in Ukraine have increased the likelihood of such an attack.