Armenia appears to be settling down to a time of change -- via both the appointment of a new prime minister and, now, potentially, a new influx of refugees from Syria.
On April 13, President Serzh Sargsyan named 56-year-old Parliamentary Speaker Hovik Abrahamian, as Armenia's new prime minister. He replaces Tigran Sarkisian, who resigned on April 3 for unclear reasons.
Abrahamian, a former cognac-wine-and-brandy businessman-turned-politician, told parliament during his April 14 introduction by Sargsyan that he did not have a "clear vision" yet of the makeup of his cabinet. He has 20 days to decide.
One parliamentarian from the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (RPA), however, has said that the government's goals will not change, even if the methods for attaining them do. To get a deeper line on Abrahamian, an Ararat-region villager by birth, one Armenian outlet, Epress.am, turned to leaked US embassy cables published by WikiLeaks. The assortment may not raise optimism about chances for reform under an Abrahamian cabinet.
A 2008 cable from US Ambassador Marie L. Yovanovitch described Abrahamian, a senior RPA official, as representative of "the type of Republican politician that makes up a large chunk of the parliament and of the ruling party establishment: politico-oligarchs who use political power to advance their business interests and vice versa."
Azerbaijan, unsurprisingly, was the region's leader, with defense expenditure nearly quintupling over the last decade. And that was the second-greatest increase in the world over that period, beaten only by Afghanistan, which obviously started from a relatively low level in 2004. The data from the Caucasus and Central Asia:
Armenia: $427 million in 2013, up 115 percent since 2004.
Azerbaijan: $3.44 billion in 2013, up 493 percent since 2004
Georgia: $443 million in 2013, up 230 percent since 2004
Kazakhstan: $2.8 billion in 2013, up 248 percent since 2004
Among the report's other findings:
-- Over the last year, Russia’s military spending increased by 4.8 per cent, "and for the ﬁrst time since 2003 it spent a bigger share of its GDP on the military than the USA."
-- Over the same period, Kazakhstan saw among the biggest defense spending increases in the Asia-Pacific region, with a ten percent increase, despite enjoying what SIPRI called an "essentially peaceful security environment."
-- Turkey entered the list of 15 top defense spenders worldwide, spending $19.1 billion in 2013.
-- China's defense spending in 2013 increased 7.4 percent over the previous year.
The Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Donald Cook, just arrived in the Black Sea, in a file photo. (photo: Morgan Over. U.S. Navy)
Russia continues to complain about the U.S. and NATO's naval presence in the Black Sea, suggesting the Kremlin is going to keep pushing to limit western military influence in the sea.
After Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov criticized the U.S. and Turkey for ignoring the Montreux Convention, the 1938 treaty that regulates the naval presence in the Black Sea, the Kremlin has doubled down on its criticism, saying that the U.S. had kept a warship in the sea for longer than the 21 days it is allowed. Turkey -- which enforces the convention -- had responded to that accusations, saying they "do not in any way represent the truth"
In an April 20 statement, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the Turkish statement "extremely bewildering" and that the USS Taylor had stayed 11 days longer than it was supposed to. "Turkey did not inform us about the overstay. We have expressed our concern to the Turkish and US side in a verbal note," the statement said. "We presume that Turkey, as well as non-neighboring countries, will in the future strictly observe their obligations with respect to the convention."
The USS Taylor, recall, had run aground in the Black Sea and had to be serviced in Samsun, Turkey, as a result (a fact the Russian statement didn't mention).
At the same time, Russia responded strongly to the entrance of another U.S. warship into the Black Sea, the USS Donald Cook. An unnamed Russian Defense Ministry source told ITAR-TASS that, given the presence of a French warship already in the sea and the planned arrival of two more, we can say that NATO is building a naval grouping in the Black Sea in the vicinity of the Russian border for the first time since 2008." The source went on:
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is presented with a gift horse during his visit to Mongolia. (photo: DoD)
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited Mongolia, promising to increase military cooperation with the country and saying that it was a key part of the U.S. "rebalance" to Asia.
Hagel's visit came at the end of a ten-day trip around Asia, which also included stops in China and Japan. He promised to increase cooperation, like joint training. The promise of increased help seemed modest: "As Mongolia invests in defense modernization, the United States will continue to work with our Mongolian partners to improve joint training and exercises," Hagel said in a press conference with his Mongolian counterpart, "And this will include increasing opportunities for Mongolia to observe and participate in multilateral exercises. We will also work together to increase the ability of our forces to work even closer together." The two sides also signed a "joint vision" document formalizing the promise of increased cooperation.
And he framed his visit in geopolitical terms:" A strong U.S.-Mongolia defense relationship is important to America's rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region. I have noted that point in the last 10 days I've been in the region and the minister and I discussed it this afternoon," Hagel said.
"The [joint vision] document is mostly symbolic but is likely to irritate Beijing, which has accused Washington of trying to hold back its rise by cultivating military ties with smaller Asian neighbors," the AFP wrote, which seems accurate.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea stands to have a potentially devastating impact on the tourism industry, the peninsula’s economic engine.
Crimea attracted about 6 million tourists annually in 2012 and 2013. This year, Russian authorities will be hard-pressed to attract half that number, despite very costly government subsidies for air travel and vacation packages. That’s because recent statistics show that about two-thirds of tourists came to Crimea from mainland Ukraine, and roughly a third came from Russia. Visitors from other countries traditionally have accounted for a negligible percentage of tourists.
Ukrainians are unlikely to be arriving in large numbers this year because of security concerns and newly erected, and tightly-sealed, Russian checkpoints on the Crimean border. Making up for the loss of such a huge chunk of tourists will be a tremendous challenge, especially because Russian tourists can expect to encounter difficulty getting to Crimea this year too, mostly due to transport issues.
Russian officials are striving to achieve roughly 50 percent growth in the number of Russian tourists in 2014, as compared to 2013 totals. “We should strive to increase the number of tourists from Russia [to Crimea in 2014] to 3 million,” Dmitry Amunts, the deputy head of Rostourism, Russia's federal government agency regulating the tourism industry, said on April 9.
The Kremlin has pledged to send hordes of public employees on semi-compulsory, heavily-government-subsidized vacations to Crimea to support the region's tourism business and even has started a national campaign, called "Vacation in Crimea." But tourism professionals do not see the program as having a major impact.
With possible changes afoot in the country's power structure, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan has announced that he will not run for president again. “I would like to place on the record that I, Serzh Sargsyan, will never nominate my candidacy for President of Armenia,” he announced on April 10, RFE/RL's Armenian service reported.
Sargsyan does not intend to cut short his second term, expiring in 2018. But local political wonks sense fatigue in the erstwhile warrior.
Analyst Stepan Danyelian believes that Sargsyan, who already has experienced a run of anti-government protests, has moved from his usual strongman position to a sit-back-and-let-it-happen stance. “Serzh Sargsyan’s influence has weakened,” Danielian told the Hetq news site. “The fact that Sargsyan said he would appoint a new prime minister acceptable to all [the main political factions] proves that his position and that of the [ruling] Republican Party has weakened.”
Sargsyan's entourage indicated that the next cabinet chief, to be announced on April 14, may be selected from minority parties.
Danielian believes that the perceived symptoms of their leader’s mellowing will weaken the hold on power by the ruling Republican Party of Armenia, which Sargsyan heads.
But others believe that Sargsyan is giving up some power to gain power. Those, who have confidence in Sargsyan’s tactician skills believe that by agreeing to form a coalition government, he may take the wind of out the sails of an opposition-proposed vote of no confidence scheduled in parliament for April 28.
Tashkent is set to host an international tourism expo on April 17 and 18. But the timing isn’t very auspicious, coming only a few days after state television warned viewers that inviting unknown foreigners to Uzbekistan is “like playing with fire.”
Uzbekistan TV reported this month that an Uzbek citizen had set up "fake" tourist outfits to unlawfully provide visa support to 300 Pakistani and Chinese nationals since February 2013. Another Uzbek woman "illegally" helped 42 foreigners enter Uzbekistan in 2013 alone, the program said.
The broadcast criticized such people "for bringing so many people from abroad and not doing any business with them.”
Tourism might count as doing business with visitors, though the tone of the program echoed other state media campaigns warning Uzbeks to shun anything alien. The authorities regularly use state media to warn about the “harmful” effects of foreign toys, video games, and anything else that might undermine Uzbeks’ “moral heritage and mentality.”
“What if the visiting foreign entrepreneurs have totally different intentions? Our point is reinforced by the fact that some of the people are complete strangers to business," Uzbekistan TV said on April 3, in remarks carried by BBC Monitoring. The report did not specify what kind of intentions the unwanted visitors may have had, but warned, “Every one of us should be vigilant and watchful.”
Wine tastings at a bucolic vineyard sound like a distinctly foreign idea. At the very least, for $50 to $75 per person, they’re more likely to attract foreigners.
NATO is planning to increase its cooperation with Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Moldova as a result of the crisis in Ukraine. But regional experts say that NATO is nevertheless likely to remain a marginal factor in the security and geopolitics of the Caucasus.
The German newspaper Der Spiegel originally reported NATO's plans, which then were largely confirmed by NATO's special representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia James Appathurai in an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (available only in Azeri and Romanian). They include boosting training with all three countries, increasing the interoperability of the countries' militaries with NATO, and, in the case of Azerbaijan, helping to protect oil and gas fields in the Caspian Sea.
Armenia's government appreciates its cooperation with NATO both as a balance against Russia and as a way to improve its armed forces, but it's skeptical that the cooperation will amount to much, said Yerevan-based analyst Sergey Minasyan. "After the Ukrainian events ... Armenia should be worried that closer cooperation with NATO would anger Russia, especially if the West-East tensions continue," he said in an email interview with The Bug Pit. "At least in the South Caucasus the West, including NATO, is too far while the 'angry Russians' are already here," he said. "If Brussels think it can offer Armenia something more serious as a real addition to the current level of security cooperation, that would be very welcomed by Yerevan, but it seems too unrealistic from here."
“Come out, come out,” chanted demonstrators, marching through Tbilisi's empty streets after midnight on April 9, 1989. The rhythmic, polyphonic call resounded eerily as the city held its breath for the culmination of Georgia’s push to end the rule of Soviet-era Moscow.
Several hours later, it woke up to the news that the Soviet army had brutally dispersed the pro-independence rally. A combination of beatings, stampede and tear-gas poisoning left 20 dead that night and hundreds injured.
Every April 9, the scenes are revisited. TV stations broadcast archival footage showing thousands of people holding candles on downtown Rustaveli Avenue; nationalist leaders making fiery speeches; Georgian Orthodox Church Patriarch Ilia II calling for demonstrators to disperse to a nearby church to avoid conflict; and, last, armored vehicles moving into the crowd, as violence and panic ensues.
The old footage revives memories of a more naive time when everyone, however briefly, united around a common cause. With all its songs, dances and lofty ideals, April 9 seems very distant compared to latter-day Georgia with its bare-knuckle politics. But for many Georgians, their country is still waging the same battle against the same enemy.
“Unfortunately, after 25 years ago [sic], it feels like we have never left that moment,” Tina Khidasheli, a leader of the Republican Party, part of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, told the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) on April 9 this year.
“Year after another, we are seeing [the] Russian army, Russian boots marching from one independent country to another… pursuing their very imperial cause of restoring . .. their imperial pride,” Khidasheli went on.
As Ukraine battles pro-Russia separatists in its east, Kazakhstan is holding nationwide security drills to check the ability of its law enforcement forces to maintain public order. Some of the exercises are being held in areas abutting Kazakhstan’s long border with Russia.
The drills are designed to coordinate responses of the police, army, and emergency services if “crisis situations” arise, Kazinform reports. Underlining their significance, Security Council head Kayrat Kozhamzharov is personally overseeing the maneuvers and Prime Minister Karim Masimov is observing.
Astana has supported the Kremlin’s position on Ukraine, including Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula last month. Yet the pro-Russian activists making trouble in eastern Ukrainian cities like Donetsk and Luhansk cannot fail to arouse consternation within the administration of President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Like Ukraine, Kazakhstan is home to a large ethnic Russian minority, which forms 22 percent of the overall population, but a far higher proportion in northern areas along the 7,000-kilometer border with Russia.
On April 9 EurasiaNet.org witnessed riot police in the sleepy Altay mountain town of Ridder, where ethnic Russians make up 85 percent of the population, marching out of the city police precinct. The security forces, helmets donned and sporting riot shields, batons and assault rifles, were headed out for “training,” one officer said.