Walking down a Tbilisi sidewalk can be akin to taking on an obstacle course, with pedestrians forced to circumnavigate both parked and moving cars.
Last week, several car owners in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, found large stickers emblazed with the message “I don’t care for the law. I park where I want,” attached to their vehicles’ windscreens. These stamps of shame were signed off by Stopxam, a Moscow-born movement of self-styled traffic cops that is spreading throughout Russia’s post-Soviet neighborhood. It has reached Tbilisi just as pedestrians begin to strike back against the cars which have long claimed the right of way here.
Drumming their fingers on their steering wheels and muttering an occasional curse, drivers trapped in Tbilisi’s increasingly congested district of Saburtalo often see a car speed past them on a sidewalk and then weasel its way into a lane. Many of the sidewalks in this city of some 1.1 million people and 400,000 cars now serve as a de-facto two-lane vehicular zone, with one lane used for parking and the other for getting in and out of traffic.
That can make walking on sidewalks a veritable obstacle course.
“I’ve got to learn pole vaulting,” bristled Elene Abuladze, a stay-at-home mom, as she tried to negotiate her stroller through cars on a sidewalk lining Chavchavadze Avenue, a main thoroughfare in the posh district of Vake. “I might as well take my son for a stroll in a junkyard. I swear, cars have more rights than humans in this city.”
Obnoxious driving and parking plague much of the post-Soviet world, but Georgia appears to be in a class by itself.
A screen adaptation of the South Caucasus’ famous love story, Ali and Nino, promoted by the Azerbaijani government, strikes many local viewers more as a travel commercial for Azerbaijan than as a faithful reenactment of the most enigmatic book to come out of this region in the past century.
Set during the Russian Empire’s twilight years, British director Ali Kapadia’s new take on Kurban Said’s 1937 novel follows the story of a passionate relationship between a spirited, young Muslim nobleman from Azerbaijan, Ali Khan Shirvanshir, and a Christian aristocrat, Nino Kipiani, from neighboring Georgia.
In the original novel, Ali Khan Shirvanshir’s choice for a wife echoes, as Said puts it, Azerbaijan’s own choice between “progressive Europe and reactionary Asia.” Shirvanshir, for instance, agrees that his wife will not have to wear a veil, yet his father initially objects to the wedding as unsuitable for a Muslim man.
But in the movie, the gaping cultural divide between the two star-crossed lovers (played by Palestinian actor Adam Bakri and Spanish actress Maria Velverde ) is reduced to a few cherry-picked, zingy one-liners. Shirvanshir's cunning Armenian friend Melik Nachararyan ("a fat man with sheep's eyes"), who, in the book, kidnaps Kipiani and is killed by Shirvanshir, becomes a debonair, decent man (played by Italian actor Riccardo Scamarcio), struggling to reconcile his love for Kipiani with his loyalty to his Azeri friend.
Viewers at one movie theater in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, the fictional Nino Kipiani’s hometown, felt they were left with a syrupy, placid melodrama.
Like some human Stretch Armstrong doll, former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili might have to stretch pretty far to play a political role in both Ukraine and Georgia after resigning from a key Ukrainian governorship on November 7.
At least one spectator, Russia, is likely to enjoy the sight, however. Particularly if the longtime nemesis of Russian President Vladimir Putin splits in the middle.
“How much can you lie and cheat?” the 48-year-old governor asked in a diatribe about Ukrainian corruption aimed both at his onetime university classmate, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, and the president's political pals.
Poroshenko appears to have no regrets at seeing him go. He told reporters in Slovenia on November 8 that he hoped the Ukrainian cabinet approved Saakashvili’s resignation if he is bent on joining the country’s opposition. “We are a democratic state . . . “ he asserted, Interfax-Ukraine reported. The cabinet is expected to discuss the matter on November 9.
Russia’s state-run or associated press – in other words, most of it -- can barely contain its glee at the news, seeing it as a precursor of Saakashvili's general political evaporation. “A farewell tour or escaping from a sinking ship,” proclaimed a Vesti.ru headline about Saakashvili’s resignation.
“Before Georgia actually joins NATO, the country has to take care that a U.S. military base is located on the territory of Georgia,” he said, the news website Democracy and Freedom Watch reported. “When they talk about non-bloc status and legalizing Russian military bases in Georgia, our response should be the following: to redirect the policy in another direction, the location of U.S. or any other NATO member states’ military base and we will fight for this.”
The Republicans are part of the current ruling Georgian Dream coalition, but are competing separately in the upcoming elections. It's also worth noting that Usupashvili's wife and fellow party member is Tinatin Khidasheli, the recently departed defense minister.
A screenshot of a video released by the State Security Service of Georgia, showing the questioning of a suspect alleged to have plotted to blow up a gas pipeline between Russia and Armenia.
Georgia's security services have arrested five men they claim were planning to blow up a gas pipeline between Russia and Armenia, setting off speculation about who could have been behind the alleged plot.
The State Security Service of Georgia announced that it had broken up the plot and released a video showing the explosives they seized, the accused men being taken into custody and questioned, and schemes of the attempted plan. Two others were also arrested in connection with the plot, a police officer accused of "abuse of power" and someone accused of not reporting the plot.
So the question immediately became: who would want to blow up the pipeline? Taken together, Russia and Armenia -- the likely targets of the plot -- have plenty of foes. At a press conference, the authorities alluded to an intriguing Ukraine connection. From Civil.ge:
One of the journalists at the briefing asked the State Security Service official if the arrested men had “links to Ukraine” – the journalist said that his question was stemming from a post on a social media by one of the Georgian volunteer fighters in Ukraine, who wrote that their supporters had been arrested in Georgia.
An investigator from the State Security Service, Savle Motiashvili, responded: “According to available information, one of the arrested men was visiting Ukraine often, but it is not yet clear whether this criminal group was directed from Ukraine.”
Screenshot of a television ad, aired by Georgia's Centrist Party on state television, advocating for the legalization of Russian military bases in Georgia.
Geopolitics has taken center stage in Georgia's election campaign, with one party calling to legalize Russian military bases in the country, another calling for the constitution to enshrine Georgia's "non-bloc" status, and another calling for the constitution to reflect the country's NATO aspirations.
At the end of June, the Democratic Movement party called for Georgia to be officially neutral. The party leader, Nino Burjanadze, was once a leader of Georgia's pro-Western Rose Revolution but has since developed close ties with Russia.
“We believe that a clause should be added to the Georgian constitution, which would stipulate non-bloc status for Georgia,” she said, according to Civil.ge. “It means that Georgia should reject joining any kind of military bloc be it NATO or any other military alliance. There should be no troops of any foreign country or a bloc on the Georgian soil." She argued that Georgia's “authorities and significant part of country’s political elite act pursuant to NATO and the U.S. interests, instead of Georgia’s interests.”
Then, in response, the pro-NATO Republican Party introduced a counterproposal, to amend the constiution so that its preamble included the direction "to establish a full-fledged place in the Euro-Atlantic system of security and cooperation of democratic states."
Georgia appointed a new defense minister who immediately became the subject of controversy when the outgoing minister criticized the selection.
The new minister, Levon Izoria, was announced on Monday, and spoke to the press on Tuesday. From a policy perspective, he signaled little new, vowing to continue Georgia's "active participation in NATO Resolute Support – we will pursue it with our strategic partner, the United States,” he said, referring to the western military mission in Afghanistan. Izoria also emphasized the importance of the new security cooperation agreement with the U.S. which will focus on building up Georgia's ability to defend itself, reported Civil.ge.
But the woman whom Izoria is replacing, Tinatin Khidasheli, took a public shot at his appointment. Izoria comes from Georgia's internal security services; he had been serving as deputy head of the State Security Service, and before that deputy interior minister. That background is inappropriate for a defense minister, Khidasheli said shortly after the appointment was announced.
“It is a wrong message to our partners abroad, as well as internally, when at first Irakli Alasania, a political figure, was replaced by a security official [Mindia Janelidze] as defense minister and then Khidasheli was replaced again by a security [official]… It indicates on a very negative trend,” Khidasheli said. Her husband and speaker of the parliament Davit Usupashvili echoed the comments.
Two whisteblowers have gone public with allegations that Georgia's Ministry of Defense is loaded with unqualified officials who were appointed only because they were political allies of the minister, and that ministry officials are using their posts to promote the minister's political party.
While this sort of behavior is common in post-Soviet government structures, including in Georgia, it is relatively rare for allegations like this to be made publicly. And the claims could damage Georgia's reputation as a reform-oriented state aiming to join Western structures like NATO.
The two MoD employees made the allegations at a press conference in Tbilisi this week. Senior officials have been appointed illegally, not through open and transparent "Western-style" competition, but through a system of nepotism and party patronage, said Beka Kiria, a senior specialist at the ministry's Defense Policy and Planning Department. The minister, Tina Khidasheli (who has just stepped down for unrelated reasons) is a member of the Republican Party.
In addition, the Strategic Communications section of the ministry has devoted all of its resources to promoting party leadership rather than the activities of the ministry, said Mariam Takaishvili, head of the ministry's section on Communication with NATO and International Organisations. Both officials said they had been reprimanded for complaining about these issues internally.
The Ministry of Defense has not publicly responded to the allegations.
Georgian soldiers take part in U.S. Marine Corps training program in Georgia. (photo: U.S. Marine Corps)
The United States will devote more military aid towards arming and equipping the Georgian armed forces, direct more training towards building combat skills, and help Georgia build a local training center oriented towards helping it defend itself rather than only deploying to Afghanistan.
The broad contours of the policy shift were laid out in a new agreement between the two countries announced during a visit to Tbilisi by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this month. On Monday, a U.S. embassy official in Tbilisi provided more details to The Bug Pit.
“Much like in the U.S. Army, where we've focused on deployment requirements for several years, there's been a certain level of atrophy in the core warfighting capabilities, so much of our security assistance over the next few years will address those areas: territorial defense capabilities and readiness," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Georgian National Olympic Committee; Creator: Nugzar Metreveli
Georgia's Olympic team shows off their traditional garb for Rio, while Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili and Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili (front left) play it safe with suits and ties; A composite image widely circulated on Facebook shows Rio de Janeiro's iconic Christ the Redeemer statue modeling the Georgian women's conservative Olympic look..
Georgia will field one of the most conservatively and warmly attired teams for the Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, and the design choice is causing furor in the appearances-conscious ex-Soviet country.
The July 23 unveiling of the Georgian athletes’ Rio Olympic looks mortified much of this South Caucasus nation. Many cringed to see their favorite athletes buttoned up to the top, carefully covered in coats, slacks and ankle-length gowns. “Did we have the Islamic State come up with the design? They are going to bikini country, not the tundra, for crying out loud,” users fumed on social media.