Russia's April 21 offer to turn into Russians anyone who has lived on the territory of the former Soviet Union or Russian Empire and speaks Russian fluently has got the South Caucasus on edge.
The law on simplifying access to citizenship for Russian-speakers across the former Soviet Union is ostensibly meant to replenish the thinning numbers of Russians, who, even at over 142.47 million people ( the world's tenth largest country), apparently just don’t reproduce like they used to. Azerbaijan, and especially Armenia and Georgia, which do not exactly boast high birth rates, are worried that Russia could annex many of their citizens to make up the difference.
Knowledge of Russian may have weakened of late in the South Caucasus, but widespread poverty still makes the region a prime place for creating born-again Russians. Armenia, which lacks Azerbaijan's natural resources and Georgia's status as a regional trade conduit, is particularly vulnerable to a citizenship drain. Russia also tightened its migrant- worker laws, which may prompt many Armenians, who travel to Russia for work, to opt for citizenship.
Armenia may now sign on to the Moscow-led Eurasian Union by the end of April, roughly a month before neighboring Georgia is slated to enter a free-trade and political pact with the European Union. The signings of both agreements have been expedited as the competition for the South Caucasus picks up speed between Russia and Europe.
Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan is scheduled to travel to Belarus on April 29 for a meeting of the council of the Eurasian Union, an economic bloc roughly modeled by Moscow after (and against) the European Union. Armenian officials say that Sargsyan will sign an agreement in Minsk on Armenia’s joining the Customs Union, the flagship project of the Eurasian Union meant to create a shared economic space for Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and, Moscow hopes, more ex-Soviet states.
The new sign-on date is not a huge difference from the earlier deadline of May, but, apparently, as East-West ties deteriorate over Ukraine, someone feels the need to pick up the pace.
Wary of Ukraine-style pressure from Russia, the EU chiefs have been trying to fast-forward their plans with Georgia and Moldova. José Manuel Borroso, the president of the European Commission, the executive body of the EU, is expected in Tbilisi in June to sign an association agreement, which includes a free trade deal, with Georgia.
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.
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.
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."
In a valedictory Facebook message, Tigran Sarkisian said that he actually had tendered his resignation back in February -- his reasons for staying on were not specified -- and wished the best of luck to the government team. That team, led by President Serzh Sargsyan, might well need it, for their economic policies, including pension-reform, energy and public-transportation fees, have been putting an increasing number of Armenians on edge.
Under the Constitution, though, the cabinet must step down now that the prime minister has.
Few are buying that 54-year-old Sarkisian quit because he wants, as the line goes, to spend more time with his family. Most reports link Sarkisian’s departure after six years in office to the looming collapse of his controversial pet project on pension reform.
The ethnic Armenian village of Kesab in 2010. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
An attack by Syrian rebels on an ethnic Armenian town has raised questions about Turkey's role in supporting the opposition and prompted claims by many Armenians that the attack was orchestrated by the Turkish government as an attack on Armenians.
The town, Kesab, is in Syria's far northwestern corner, on the border with Turkey and on the Mediterranean coast. It has been Armenian for centuries, unlike most of the Armenian communities in Syria which were settled by refugees from the 1915 genocide in Turkey.
Last week, Syrian rebels attacked Kesab, "part of an offensive aimed at opening up a rebel link to the sea," Reuters reported. And Syria's government blamed Turkey: "Syrian authorities accused Turkey of helping the fighters launch their attack on Kasab from Turkish territory, saying Ankara's army 'provided cover for this terrorist attack' on the wooded and hilly border region."
And a number of Armenian sources took that accusation further, and said that it was a deliberate Turkish attack on Armenians. The Armenian website Mediamax posted an interview with Mudar Barakat, a pro-government Syria commentator, in which he said that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan arranged the attack as part of his campaign for Turkey's upcoming elections. "Erdogan is targeting Kassab’s symbolic importance as a peaceful Syrian cradle for the Armenian families who survived the massacres enforced by his Ottoman predecessors and it seems that this attack on Kassab is a reflection of Erdogan’s anger towards Armenia’s stand against his terrorism in Syria, and a reminder of the 1915 massacres and the historical Turkish animosity towards the Armenians."
In the cellars of the Yerevan Brandy Company sits a barrel of brandy that has been waiting 13 years for resolution of Armenia’s conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan over the breakaway region of Nagorno Karabakh.
Armenia's favorite drink, brandy became widely popular in Soviet days when the country (and Georgia) ranked as the USSR's alternative to the south of France. For many visitors, touring the Yerevan Brandy Company, now owned by French booze giant Pernod Ricard, remains a must.
It may seem a bold move to ply a Frenchwoman with a beverage Armenians call "cognac," yet Kaas had no reason to complain; the Yerevan Brandy Company sponsored her March 9 concert in Yerevan.
In the company's cellar, she was introduced to the “Barrel of Peace,” a cask containing brandy from 1994, when Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to a (constantly violated) cease-fire. The cask was sealed in 2001, when the US, Russian, and, of course, French chairpersons of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk Group, the body overseeing the Karabakh talks, visited Yerevan and toured the factory. The brandy-makers vowed to open the barrel when the Karabakh conflict is resolved.
Unfortunately for peace and brandy-lovers, the conflict remains a powder keg with occasional deadly escalations, and Armenia and Azerbaijan are not expected to drink themselves to peace anytime soon. The ongoing international conflict over Russia's incursion into Ukraine's Crimea is not expected to improve those chances.
Four days after Crimean Tatars sent an SOS to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, nothing has been heard from Baku but silence. For all its grievances with Moscow, chances are slim that Azerbaijan, the Tatars' rich South-Caucasus cousin, will stick its neck out over Crimea.
But Crimean Tatar community leader Mustafa Dzhemilyev, a Ukrainian parliamentarian, gave it his best shot in a March 6 interview with the news site Haqqin. “Do not leave your Crimean brothers and sisters at this difficult time,” Dzhemilyev implored Aliyev.
Recalling repressions by Tsarist and Soviet Russia, he underlined that the Tatars will never put up with a Russian takeover of the Crimean peninsula, and asked Aliyev to use his influence with Russian President Vladimir Putin to prevent such an event.
The request was cc-ed to Turkish President Abdullah Gül and another Turkic leader, Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Turkey has so far weighed in the strongest on the issue, while Aliyev and Nazarbayev have been slow to provide even a non-binding, thinking-of-you response.
Azerbaijani officials routinely emphasize Azerbaijan's emergence as a regional power, but don’t expect Aliyev to snap his fingers in Putin’s face over Crimea. Through its economic and political involvement in the region and its many conflicts, Nagorno-Karabakh included, Russia could hurt Azerbaijan.