Monday, January 31, 2011

Week 24-30 Jan.: Куда?

When on 21st August 1991 the Georgian President Zviad Gamsakhurdia assessed the coup as a plot of Gorbachev himself to boost his own popularity before the Soviet presidential elections, he was most probably too blinded by his hate towards the Union and his Presidency to have a clear picture of what was going on.
Twenty years later Mikhail Saakashvili’s remark about Domodedovo’s terrorist attack sounds as out of place as his predecessor’s one. Hopefully it’s hate again to have made him comment that the attack is “payback" for the Russian Federation's policies in the North Caucasus, and not a rooted belief that terrorism is proper mean of political dispute.

The confrontational approach was not very fruitful for Gamsakhurdia and it’s not predictable where it is leading Saakashvili to.

Talking about directions and the proper way to reach a destination, if it’s clear where it is, it’s interesting to have an overview about infrastructure projects. Russia deployed three brigades, including 800 specialists, to rehabilitate the railway sections from the river Psou to Sokhumi, and a section between the towns of Tkvarcheli and Ochamchire. So, work in progress on the Abkhazia railways on the Russian border.

Railways projects were the main topic of the meeting between Ziya Mamedov, Minister of Transports and Ramaza Nikolaishvili, Minister of Infrastructures and Regional Development, in Tbilisi, on Tuesday. The very focus was The Baku-Tbilisi-Kars project, the railway supposed to be finished by 2012, if not before, and to carry up to 17 million tons of goods per year, at its full strength. The project foresees a totally new section of 105 kilometres, 76 of which in Turkey and 29 in Georgia. Moreover the Akhalkalaki-Marabda-Tbilisi will be rehabilitated. Akhalkalaki will be the main crossing point, and its strategic importance will rise.

The corridor’s costs have risen and Azerbaijan has pledged to do its part. At present the four kilometers tunnel to join Georgia and Turkey is under construction and the issue of customs and crossing simplification under discussion.

Armenia, cut out of the main regional projects, faces increased cost of import of goods from Turkey and China, via Armenian or Georgian shipping companies. Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan instructed the Minister of Transport and Communications Manuk Vardanyan to send requests to Georgian authorities to clarify the issue although some sources suggest that lack of transparency in the implementation of Armenian customs regulation may play its part.
According to Armenia now because of the high customs duties and shadow payments, the prices of imported goods rise constantly. In 2010, Armenian exports totaled about $1 billion and imports to Armenia about $3.7 billion, which is the worst rate among former Soviet countries.

So, confrontation and isolation lead Куда?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Week 17-23 Jan.: Look back (in anger)

In 1979 David Bowie’s song Look Back in Anger was pretty famous.
The action of looking back – mostly in anger – marked the week.

In Azerbaijan on the 20th was mourned the anniversary of Black Saturday, when twenty one years ago the Soviet Army entered Baku. The intervention resulted in almost two hundred casualties, it made Heydar Aliev leave the Communist Party as an official act of protest. The tragedy is remembered as the cornerstone of the independence of the country.

All along the year many similar celebrations can be expected, as the twentieth anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union is in 2011.
Indeed, Lithuania opened the floor, on the 13th. Commemorating the anniversary David Bakradze, Chairman of the Parliament of Georgia, stated "The collapse of the Soviet Union and the present independence of Lithuania and Georgia was determined by the heroism of the deceased during those struggles”. In Azerbaijan the victims of 20th Jan. 1990 were declared shahid, the honorific term used for those who have laid down their life fulfilling a religious commandment, or fighting defending their country or protecting their family.

There was a sad celebration for Armenia, as well. Four years have passed since Hrant Dink was killed, on the 19th of January. It’s a painful recurrence that affects both Armenia and Turkey, especially since justice hasn’t been done yet. A dark shadow that further divides the two countries, which – quite the opposite – would find extremely beneficial to open a public (and even common) debate on the suffers ultra-nationalistic groups may bestow over their civil societies.

Georgia would have been forced to look back in anger to 2008 war, had its delegation taken part to the works of the Monitoring Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, where the consequences of war were discussed. According to MP Davit Darchiashvili, a member of the Georgian delegation in PACE and chairman of European integration committee in the Georgian Parliament, the Georgian side was skeptical because the main focus was the humanitarian aspect. The political aspect is deemed as a precondition to any negotiation for Tbilisi. Perhaps a reluctant pragmatism could help to alleviate the suffering of people affected by the war and to overcome substantial problems of interoperability which may have far-reaching implications, especially in ri-affirming a partial Georgian sovereignty over the breakaway regions. The “wall against wall” strategy so far implied just an assertive Abkhazian and South Ossetian sovereignty.

To quote David Bowie’s Look back in Anger, “Waiting so long, Waiting so long, I've been waiting so, waiting so”...

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Week 27 Dec.- 2 Jan.: The centres (and beyond)

The literature about South Caucasus is full with analysis of the centre-periphery relations, regional development gaps and so on.
Perhaps a new chapter should be written, entitled: the Georgian case.

Georgia is moving part of its power in its regions. It’s somehow a weird process, started few years ago, when the Constitutional Court was placed in Adjara. Now it’s going to be the Parliament’s turn. Kutaisi, the second city of Georgia, will be the temple of Georgian Legislative power.

Kutaisi is the main city of Western Georgia. It was the capital city of the Western region of the zarist governatorate (1864-1917) and of the Region of Kutaisi in Soviet time (1951-1953). According to President Saakashvili, 2011 will be Kutaisi’s year. The opening of the Parliament there will help to re-qualify the city, which will be targeted by some other works and investments.
Вack to 2009, the city became the focus of interest of the "Fresh Electric Company", an Egyptian company that, after the signature of a memorandum of cooperation, turned the area of the previous KAZ, Kutaisi Car Industry, into a free industrial zone. The project implied at its first stage an investment of $ and, as typical of many similar ones in the post Soviet space, replaced heavy industry production with light one (furniture, textile), and was supposed to give occupation up to 15 000 workers. The then Minister of Economic Development Lasha Zhvania described the company’s plans as “unprecedented investments for Georgia”.

Remaining seized on the matter of the consequences of localization of powers, which to many observers looks like an alienation from the center of power, it has to be seen if it’s really going to be a good chance for western Georgia to develop its own way to growth, politically and economically.

At Georgia’s east, Azerbaijan keeps its door wide open towards its neighbour. SOCAR is keeping high level of investments in Georgia in 2011, up to $50-60 million, as already foreseen in the agreed investment projects for which permits were obtained. There is still place for improvement, adding some extras available to a maximum sum of $100 million, save additional investments in the implementation of gas transport project AGRI, which will have a separate funding. The core of investment plans is the gasification program in Georgia.

In the Azerbaijani centre a new Ambassador is –eventually- waited: Matthew Bryza, appointed by the White House bypassing the Senate, where the Armenian lobby had ostracized his candidacy due to his allegedly doubtful impartiality over the NK issue. As Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs he had gained knowledge and experience about South Caucasus, in conflict solution and in energy policy. About the later topic, it should be recalled that from July 1998 to March 2001, as the deputy to the Special Advisor to the President and Secretary of State on Caspian Basin Energy Diplomacy, he coordinated the U.S. Government’s inter-agency effort to develop a network of oil and gas pipelines in the Caspian region.

In Armenia, in Yerevan the Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan chaired a sitting with the newly appointed Ministers of Economy and Finance, Hrayr Tovmasyan and Vache Gabrielyan. The Government approved the draft law on free economic zones and the amendments to 6 other laws to be in line with the implementation of the budget recently approved. This is the first time that a separate bill is adopted on free economic zones. It is all part of a package to improve the business environment in Armenia, according to the guidelines of the “Doing Business in Armenia” memorandum of understanding.

In the southernmost Marz of the country, Syunik, a new wave of demonstrations to halt uranium mining might start. Local residents believe that their health and the environment should be prioritized to mining profits.

The year has just begun, priorities are on the way to be defined, in the centres and beyond.