Father Iotam rose to fame as a Georgian Internet meme after being filmed chasing gay-rights activists in Tbilisi with a three-legged stool.
Georgian police on May 23 pressed charges against two priests for participating in a mass disturbance of an anti-homophobia rally in Tbilisi that injured dozens and sparked international censure.
The two priests detained were caught on camera as they participated in the mayhem that erupted on May 17 when a crowd of protesters, including Georgian Orthodox Church priests, broke through a police cordon to disperse a small number of people meeting in a downtown square to mark the International Day against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia .
The clash has sparked a sharp debate over the power of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Georgia's most popular institution, and the degree to which the government is prepared to hold priests to account for violating the law. Arresting priests is not a move easily digested within Georgia's highly religious society.
Iotam Basilaia, the father superior at the Iione-Tornike Eristavi Monastery, and Antimoz Bichanashvili, an arch-priest at Tbilisi's Holy Trinity Cathedral, are charged with defying police orders and preventing citizens’ rights to free assembly. The two men may face a fine or even a prison term. Police did not specify if the clerics were being held in jail.
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.
President Mikheil Saakashvili’s political camp suffered a major blow on May 21 when two prominent presidential allies, former Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili, once one of Georgia’s most influential politicians, and Kakheti Governor Zurab Tchiaberashvili, were detained on criminal charges of misusing 5.2 million lari ($3.19 million) in public funds.
Lawyers for the two men interviewed by Maestro television reported that they had not yet received the official charges. Merabishvili and Tchiaberashvili are currently meeting with their attorneys in a jail in the parliamentary seat of Kutaisi. A court has 48 hours to decide whether to release them on bail.
Merabishvili, who, as interior minister from 2004 to 2012, led the charge under Saakashvili to revamp Georgia’s notoriously corrupt interior ministry, also faces separate charges for allegedly confiscating private property.
Prosecutors have indicated that Merabishvili, now head of the president’s United National Movement (UNM), will likely be charged for additional crimes stemming from the 2006 murder of banker Sandro Girgvliani and excessive use of police force during May 26, 2011 protests in Tbilisi as well, Interpressnews.ge reported.
Saakashvili blasted the arrests, accusing the Georgian Dream majority of turning Georgia into a pariah in the international community. The UNM has charged repeatedly that a desire for political retribution drives the government’s prosecution of former senior officials.
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.
A raging mob in Tbilisi chased away a downtown rally designed to commemorate the May 17 International Day against Homophobia. “Kill them! Tear them to pieces!” yelled the agitated crowd as police struggled to evacuate a handful of gay-rights supporters from the Georgian capital's central Freedom Square.
It was a scene of medieval mob violence, as thousands of Georgians -- mostly young men, but also robed priests and women in headscarves -- stormed through a police cordon and went pursuing the activists. “Where are they? Don’t let them leave alive!” screamed frenzied men, as they took over the square, outnumbering and overpowering police troops.
Police barely managed to herd some of the LGBT activists into municipal buses, before angry protesters surrounded the vehicles. The crowd hit, threw stones and followed the buses as they pushed their way out of the square.
The pursuit continued on the side streets. Just outside the square, a mob tried to storm a house, where several gay rights activists had sought refuge. “Drag them out, stomp them to death,” screamed one woman as she tried to push her way through a group of policemen, who wrestled with the mob at the entrance of the house.
Youngsters swore, beat and threw various objects at police officers, who eventually pulled the activists into a car. A stampede occurred as the mob tried to chase the car down the narrow street, with some falling into ditches.
At the different corner of the downtown, several activists sought asylum in a grocery store and police managed to fight off the mob that tried to break into the shop.
Very few civilians dared to speak against the violence. “Look at yourselves! You call yourselves Christians?” objected one elderly woman in tears, speaking from a balcony. “Go ahead, kill everyone you are told to hate in the name of God and national values.”
Prison may be just a click away for many Internet users in Azerbaijan now that the energy-rich, but rights-poor country has made online defamation and offensive languagea criminal offense. The move is seen by critics as an attempt to censor the Web ahead of this October's presidential election.
Human rights watchdogs have long maintained that Facebook-organized anti-government rallies, YouTube videos satirizing officials and other online activity have resulted in imprisonment of government opponents on various trumped-up charges. Now, they imply, prosecutors may not need to bother with tales of drugs or brawls to jail or fine critics.
What constitutes defamation or offensive language will be left to Azerbaijan’s government-loyal courts to decide. Judges can pick the preferred punitive measure from a list of punishment options for offline defamations and verbal abuse – a fine, corrective labor, or prison.
Rights groups have called on Azerbaijan to scrap the new law as a bad for democracy, something international watchdogs believe already is in short supply in the ex-Soviet republic.
"The authorities must not use the upcoming presidential election as a pretext to silence critical voices and a meaningful debate,” Amnesty International said.
Armenians may want to sit down before they take a look at their next utilities bill. Russia's Gazprom hopes to increase the price it charges for gas to Armenia, a country that relies almost exclusively on Russian gas.
To reflect the hike in the cost of Russian gas supplies, the local distributor, ArmRosGazprom, majority-owned by Gazprom, and associated transporter TransGaz want to increase the fee for domestic consumers from the current 132,000 ($318) to 221,000 drams (over $530) per 1,000 cubic meters.
The proposed hike, which regulators have yet to approve, is hard to digest for Armenians, already struggling with rampant unemployment and flat incomes. The news also sent coughing fits across the business community. ArmRosGazprom said that corporate users will also get a higher charge, but did not specify the desired new fee.
Utility fees have long been a worry for Armenians and the emotions are already heating up at the planned increased. Some believe that President Serzh Sargsyan is lucky he just got reelected, before the gas news hit. Speculation has circulated that his ruling party requested the distributor to keep gas prices low until after the February 18 vote.
The outpouring of anger is likely to force the government to petition for Moscow’s understanding. Yerevan does not have too many options to find a gas supply elsewhere. Its next-door enemy, Azerbaijan, most likely would rather supply gas to the moon. Iran, meanwhile, has yet to lay a pipeline to supply gas to Armenia in significant volumes.
Belarus’ leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka went down to Armenia this week to pick President Serzh Sargsyan’s brain about how to operate nuclear reactors.
That might sound like the beginning of an anecdote, but it's for real.
Belarus plans to build two nuclear power plants and, so, any safety tips from Armenia would be much appreciated, Lukashenka said on May 13 in Yerevan.
“You have serious experience in exploiting such facilities and we hope Armenia will be able to send at least a dozen good specialists so that they assist us in the initial stages of operating the under-construction power plants,” Lukashenka told Sargsyan, RFE/RL reported.
Armenia’s nuclear expertise comes in the form of a rusty, Soviet-era plant that huffs and puffs in the town of Metsamor, thirty kilometers west of Yerevan. Built in the 1970s, Metsamor has no primary containment enclosures to hold escaping radiation and sits in an earthquake and conflict-prone vicinity. The plant was put on the back burner during the devastating 1988 earthquake, but was reopened in 1993 as Azerbaijani and Turkish blockades starved Armenia of energy.
Citing safety concerns, the US and EU both have pled with the Armenian government to modernize the Russian-operated plant. Armenia plans to replace the plant with a modern facility soon, but, in the meantime, the tired plant continues churning out 405.7 megawatts of power, feeding some 40 percent of Armenia’s needs.
Nonetheless, Lukashenka is convinced he needs Armenia’s two cents on nuclear safety; even though the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, which had a devastating effect on Belarus, might have taught him that Soviet-made plants do not provide examples of the best safety practices.
After weeks of suspense and guesswork, Georgia finally has a nominee for president from its ruling Georgian Dream coalition. To the fanfare in walks 43-year-old Education Minister Giorgi Margvelashvili.
Margvelashvili, who holds a doctorate in philosophy, may not cut as prominent a figure as the last three individuals who ended up becoming Georgia's president (in order of appearance: a nationalist dissident, a USSR foreign affairs chief and a pro-West revolutionary), but neither is the president’s office the desired job it used to be.
Constitutional changes, which go into effect after the October presidential election, will place key powers in the hands of Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, while the president, aside from the role of commander-in-chief, becomes largely a ceremonial head of state.
Fluent in English and Russian, Margvelashvili is mostly known in Georgia as the former rector of the private Georgian Institute for Public Affairs, a higher-education facility, and as a frequent commentator on politics. He has not been in public office long enough to succeed or to fail, and the biggest controversy involving him pales compared to the bare-knuckle battles of the past.
That said, Margvelashvili does not command a wide personal following, and, arguably, Ivanishvili could have found more popular candidates in his cabinet of ministers. Among those whose names Georgian media bandied about were soccer- star-turned-energy-minister Kakha Kaladze and Defense Minister Irakli Alasania.
California’s Fresno County has become entangled in a conflict from another world.
Late last month, on the eve of the April 24 anniversary of the 1915 slaughter of ethnic Armenians in Ottoman Turkey, the county government felt the urge to weigh in on the decades-long dispute over the predominantly ethnic-Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh region and recognize Karabakh's independence from Azerbaijan. Soon enough, angry Azerbaijan, which has vowed to reclaim the territory, came knocking on the county’s door.
The Fresno Bee has the story:“The resolution [supporting Karabakh's independence], even if symbolic and from a seemingly irrelevant county government, undermines Azerbaijan’s sovereignty, wrote the nation’s officials in a recent letter to the county. The [county] supervisors’ support, they wrote, contradicts even the US government’s official position that Nagorno-Karabakh is rightfully part of Azerbaijan.”
But Fresno has snapped its fingers back at Azerbaijan, saying the energy power picked the wrong guy. “We will not be muscled by a well-funded lobbying effort by the Azerbaijanis," Supervisor Andreas Borgeas, who penned the Karabakh resolution, proudly commented to The Fresno Bee.