President Mikheil Saakashvili's opposition United National Movement was quick to describe their secretary-general's detention as a further step in the party's alleged ongoing harassment by Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili's government. Merabishvili, who served as interior minister from 2004 to 2012, is on a short-list of contenders that the party was considering for a primary for nomination as its candidate for this October's presidential election.
Ex-Health Minister Zurab Chiaberashvili, a former ambassador who was detained on May 21 together with Merabishvili on corruption and abuse of power charges, was offered bail of 20,000 lari (about $12,300), payable within 30 days.
Both men have denied the charges against them. Chiaberashvili is one of the few remaining governors loyal to Saakashvili.
The European Union pledged to cast a cautious eye on the proceedings against them. In a joint statement on May 22, the EU's chiefs for foreign affairs and neighborhood relations – Catherine Ashton and Stefan Fule, respectively – said that they “take a careful note” of the double detention.
Uneasy neighbors: An Armenian flag provides the backdrop for a bust to the late Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev in downtown Tbilisi.
Tbilisi’s Old Town has long been an area where ethnic Armenians, Azeris, Jews, Kurds, and Georgians intermingle.
There’s the Azeri teahouse run by ethnic Armenians on one street, and, on another, one run by ethnic Azeris, where an ethnic Armenian waitress serves customers.
A mosque frequented mainly by ethnic Azeri Muslims sits atop a hill just a few minutes away from an Armenian church where Sayat Nova, the 18th century troubadour who wrote songs and poetry mainly in Azeri, is buried.
A statue to Sergei Paradjanov, the surrealist ethnic Armenian filmmaker whose last film was shot in Azerbaijan, stands just meters away from a shisha café, staffed by ethnic Armenians from the Middle East and often frequented by customers from Azerbaijan.
Home to sizable ethnic Azeri and Armenian populations, Georgia is well-accustomed to such coexistence. But, nonetheless, that doesn’t mean that awkward situations cannot occur.
Recently, for example, an Armenian flag appeared flying outside a privately owned, neighborhood bathhouse that adjoins a park featuring a bust of Heydar Aliyev, the late Azerbaijani president.
The flag was still flying until the eve of Azerbaijan’s May 10 Flower Day celebration, an event to mark the birthday of the late president. On the day itself, the flag reportedly disappeared. A day later, it reappeared.
The juxtaposition, needless to say, is unusual. Aliyev, in office from 1993 until 2003, was Azerbaijan’s president when the war with Armenia and Karabakhi separatists over the breakaway region of Nagorno Karabakh ended with a cease-fire in 1994.
Precise reasons for the flag’s appearance, disappearance, and reappearance could not be confirmed. The management of the bathhouse that displays the flags was not available for comment. “They just chose some international flags from somewhere,” an employee commented, with a shrug.
Shouting “Kill them! Tear them to pieces!” a mob of several thousand mostly young men, but also robed priests and women in headscarves, broke through police lines to attack several dozen gay-rights supporters gathered in Tbilisi's central Freedom Square.
Georgia is in discussions with Azerbaijan to jointly produce Su-25 close air support jets, Azerbaijani military sources have told the news agency APA:
Military sources told APA that Georgia plans to produce the modernized versions of SU-25 aircrafts at the Tbilisi Aerospace Manufacturing Company (TAM). Tbilisi has addressed Azerbaijan for financing the project and establishing joint production. The Azerbaijani military circles welcomed the proposal, but the government will make a final decision.
If the project is implemented, certain part of the aircrafts may be produced at the military plants of Azerbaijan.
There doesn't seem to be any news on this from any Georgian sources. (The last reports about Georgia-Azerbaijan defense deals, about Azerbaijan possibly buying Georgian APCs, came only from Georgian sources, for what it's worth.)
TAM was renationalized by the Georgian government in 2010 after having been privatized in 2004. And it was the original manufacturer of the Su-25 during the Soviet era.
This news, of course, comes as a number of reports suggest that Moscow may be stopping the sale of military aircraft that Azerbaijan had been trying to buy from Russia. But those deals were for Su-27, Su-30 and MiG-31s, and the Su-25 carries out a different mission than those. And it's also not made clear here whether or not Azerbaijan is the intended customer or not. So it may or may not be connected. But it does seem evidence of slowly growing ties between Azerbaijan and Georgia.
Georgia's prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, has said that he intends to get a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) next year. Getting MAP -- which would be a substantial step towards eventually gaining membership in the alliance -- has been the Holy Grail for Ivanishvili's foe, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. But Saakashvili and his allies have spared no effort to tar Ivanishvili as a crypto-Russian agent who will lead Georgia away from its Western geopolitical orientation. And while Ivanishvili has repeatedly declared his intention to continue to work towards NATO integration, this is the first time that Ivanishvili has laid out such a specific goal vis-a-vis the alliance. He made his comments at an event celebrating Georgian Armed Forces Day on Tuesday, reports Civil.ge:
“Next year we should undertake a very vigorous step and get at least MAP,” PM Ivanishvili told the audience...
“We probably won’t be able to get more than that, but we have strictly set MAP as a target and next year when there is a gathering of NATO [leaders] we should undertake a powerful step in this direction,” Ivanishvili said drawing applause from the audience.
Saakashvili's United National Movement party, of course, couldn't disagree with that:
“Receiving MAP would really be a step forward and we fully share and support what the Prime Minister has stated,” UNM MP Giorgi Gabashvili said on May 1. “The country should do everything possible both in internal and foreign policy… in order to get membership action plan in 2014.”
In a departure from its usual fascination with President Mikheil Saakashvili's administration, Georgia plans to take a fresh look at the 1993 killing of CIA station chief Freddie Woodruff during the murky, riotous epoch of President Eduard Shevardnadze.
"We have some serious doubts about what really happened, " Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani told The New York Times in reference to the shooting.
Investigators at the time said that Woodruff was killed by a pot shot fired by a drunken ex-soldier, a frequent occurrence in Georgia those days. But the circumstances and the timing led to many theories -- some straight from a film noir plot -- that linked the death to Washington-Moscow turf wars over the newly independent South Caucasus.
The man blamed for Woodruff's murder, Anzor Sharmaidze, spent 12 years in prison before being released in 2008 after witnesses claimed police had tortured them into implicating Sharmaidze. Tsulukiani commented to the Times that she suspects that Sharmaidze was jailed just because Tbilisi was under pressure to present Washington with a killer.
Aside from its profession of "serious doubts," it is unclear what has motivated the Georgian government to take a second look into the Woodruff case just now. Prosecutors already are facing a series of high-profile investigations into senior officials under the nearly nine-year rule of President Saakashvili’s United National Movement -- including a potential questioning of Saakashvili himself about the 2008 war with Russia -- that alone could prove a hefty burden.
It's not often that a prime minister of one country announces his citizenship in another country to justify addressing an international body in a language other than his own.
But when the prime minister is Georgia's Bidzina Ivanishvili and the venue is in Europe, what matters is showing you can fit in.
And so, at his April 23 début before the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Ivanishvili, "as a citizen of France . . . ," spoke to the European parliamentarians in French before switching into his native Georgian.
If the PACE deputies, who politely applauded his French intro, found his citizenship odd, it did not register.
After a long and bitter fight to regain his Georgian citizenship, Ivanishvili announced in February that he still is not a Georgian citizen. For that reason, he says, he has not, as previously expected, renounced his French citizenship, which, he claims, under Georgian law, allows him to remain prime minister.
Now it could, conceivably, also provide him with a useful PR tool.
Throwing in a little French, heavily accented as it was, may well have been meant to help make a good first impression at the gathering, and add, along with his profession of French citizenship, a slight punch to the pledges that he will keep Georgia on the track to European and trans-Atlantic integration.
Once again, Azerbaijan, the region's energy giant, led the pack with diagnoses of chronic cases of intolerance for freedom of expression, corruption in the judiciary system and abuse of detainees by police.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s senior political advisor, Ali Hasanov, did temper his response with elaborations about the importance of Baku's strategic partnership with the US, but he could not help noticing an alleged double-standard in the American criticism.
A country that, as he sees it, had no qualms about folding the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York City is in no position to lecture a country that does not want to allow similarly impromptu demonstrations in the heart of its capital, he implied.
Everyone can sigh with relief. Georgia’s justice officials say they are not in league with the devil and have no plans to assist the Antichrist to take over the world.
In a bizarre public-service announcement, Georgia’s Justice Ministry on April 20 announced that new, biometric ID cards for Georgian citizens are not a satanic creation. “The assumption that the new ID card is the seal of the Antichrist and that it contains the sign of the beast is not correct,” explained an earnest young man in a video produced by the ministry.
“Georgia’s Public Registry took upon itself a commitment not to place the number six three times in a row on any of the IDs,” the man elaborated, in reference to the mark, which, according to the Bible's Book of Revelation, will be the mark of a beast which will force worship of another beast. "Nor will it be in the future."
But the assurances have not assuaged widespread suspicions. This January, Georgian Orthodox Church faithful gathered in front of the justice ministry to protest against the cards, which, they claim, will help the devil control Georgia and bring on the Antichrist.
It's not many politicians who can manage to be a doting family man, a gallant cavalier and a busy head of state all at the same time. But, according to declassified government expense records released on April 17, Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili, long touted as an anti-corruption crusader, has spared no public expense for parental, party and pretty-lady needs.
Frequently expatiating on the importance of education, the Georgian president stands accused of putting taxpayers' money where his mouth is by allegedly taking cash from state coffers to pay for his two sons' studies at prestigious private schools in Tbilisi.
While forking out for family needs, Saakashvili also supposedly catered to the interests of young women, too. The released records suggest that he gave an iPhone 4 and a gold bracelet to two young female members of his United National Movement party, and also gifted an expensive necklace to a visiting Russian media diva, all courtesy of the Georgian taxpayer.
Speaking of the latter, he did not forget voters, and allegedly used the presidential security budget to purchase 40 sheep for farmers.
Busy as the president may have been dispensing gifts from the state budget, he did purportedly find time for himself and a close circle of friends. The records state that he spent about $140,000 on a New Year's party in Dubai and some $70,000 on weight-loss procedures for himself and the loyally plump mayor of Tbilisi, Gigi Ugulava.
Most of these expenses supposedly came from the president’s security budget.