Pink protest hats were not the only piece of clothing to mark US President Donald Trump’s January 20 inauguration. He did, in fact, receive a chokha, a traditional wool coat from the Caucasus for men, usually worn with a dagger.
Little suggests that Trump will soon cut a dash in the bandoliered, cinched-at-the-waist costume from a Tbilisi apparel shop. But its offering symbolizes the regional hope that he will not overlook the Caucasus.
Even before Trump’s calls for “America First,” local analysts believe that American foreign policy had become introverted under Barack Obama, with the Caucasus fading fast on Washington’s radar.
So far, expectations are not high that Trump will reverse that trend. Aside from two defunct hotel projects, he has never shown a personal interest in this geostrategic crossroads.
Nonetheless, mulling the Trump future and the Obama past, the South Caucasus closely watched the new American leader’s swearing-in. Some in Tbilisi even opted to take part in a local Women’s March.
Yet Trump’s divisive flamboyance is not what counts in this part of the world. What does is Washington’s actual role in global and regional affairs.
In Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, some observers say that Obama was the least concerned with post-Soviet affairs of any US president in memory. And when the US takes a step back, it can only mean one thing in these parts: Russia steps in.
Georgia's Father Frost pours acid on a dead Santa Claus in New Studio's controversial online video.
Murdered in an online video and framed for an armed robbery, Santa Claus had a tough holiday season in Georgia this year.
His troubles began with what seemed at first like just another one of those cuddly Christmas commercials.
As a jingle plays, a bespectacled Santa, fresh from the chimney, checks out the room, helps himself to candy and starts placing presents under a glittering Christmas tree. Suddenly, a menacing voice rasps: “Real men come in through the door.” Santa turns around to see his Georgian counterpart, Tovlis Papa (Father Frost), sporting his traditional gear and an unusual bad mood. While grudgingly watching his Western rival, Tovlis Papa has been using his dagger to whittle a piece of wood into the Georgian version of a Christmas tree, a chichilaki.
The next scene shows a trail of blood, leading to the bathroom. Santa’s leg is sticking out of the bathtub. Tovlis Papa, changed into protective coveralls and glasses, is getting ready to pour acid into the tub when a little boy walks in. After a suspenseful moment, the kid, with an approving nod from Tovlis Papa, drags off the dead Santa’s bag of gifts.
For many Georgians, the art-video, produced by a Tbilisi studio known for its edgy TV ads, hit a raw nerve with its allusion to friction between nationalism and Westernization.
Interpretations vary widely about whether the intention was to support or mock the tendency of being jealously protective of traditional Georgian ways against “corrupting” Western influences.
Georgia’s largest opposition group, the avidly pro-Western United National Movement, has broken apart amid infighting over the role of the party’s chief, ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili, and the party’s loss in the 2016 parliamentary vote. The divorce could further weaken the country’s already fragmented political opposition.
The split was essentially between the brain and the body of the party, which ruled and reformed Georgia for over a decade until it was ejected by the Georgian Dream coalition in 2012. Top figures in Saakashvili’s presidential brain trust, including ex-National Security Council Secretary Giga Bokeria, ex-Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava and ex-Parliamentary Chairperson/Foreign Minister Davit Bokeria are among the score or so who opted for a political life after Misha.
Citing irreconcilable differences with the party and their former boss, the group announced a new party, as yet unnamed.
Fresh from prison, where he served a year and nine months for allegedly misspending public funds, Ugulava went straight for the jugular, blaming Saakashvili for the split.
“Saakasvhili was the party’s founder, but he has become its undoing,” he thundered, excoriating his former mentor for refusing to let go of the party and for engaging in divisive “ravings” from afar.
“This man does not radiate leadership anymore. It pains me to say this, but he is not the Mikheil Saakashvili who united the people in 2002 [ahead of the 2003 Rose Revolution] . . .” Ugulava said. “We need to look forward. If you turn back, you turn into a pillar of salt.”
Travel-blogger Alexander Lapshin’s irreverent reviews have left him in the doghouse before, but it was an alleged trip to separatist Nagorno Karabakh that really landed him in hot water. The Israeli-Russian blogger was detained in Belarus almost a month ago, and now, reportedly, is about to get extradited to Azerbaijan for supposedly trespassing on what Baku sees as Azerbaijani territory and supporting Karabakhi independence.
The case appears to mark the first time that a foreign national has been detained outside of Azerbaijan on such grounds.
A bout of camaraderie between two mustachioed strongmen, Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, appears to have entrapped the blogger. Cooperation has been tightening recently between the two, who share a propensity for never-ending presidential terms and a dislike of critical, independent media.
To be sure, Lapshin is no freedom-fighter, like many of those who have been jailed in Belarus and Azerbaijan. Catering to Russian-speaking audiences, his Livejournal blog Puerrtto details his travels to 122 countries and territories. He has been doing mostly what travel writers do: posting photographs of landmarks and dishes, complaining about bureaucracy and bad driving, but also throwing in an occasional coarse word.
One rubric, billed as the author’s quarrels and lawsuits “with just about everyone in the world,” features Lapshin’s jeremiads about impediments to international travel. There are entries that blast Uzbekistan for requiring its citizens to get exit visas to leave the country, criticize Israel for supposedly over-zealous border guards and offer tips on how to conceal visits to Israel from select Arab countries.
White Noise protesters gather in Tbilisi on December 10, 2016 to call for the decriminalization of drug use. "It's time for change," a protester's poster reads.
A Georgian political party plans to ring in the New Year by planting weed as an act of civil disobedience against the Caucasus country’s stringent anti-drug policies.
Members of the party, which, incidentally, has the botanical name of Pine Cone (Girchi/გირჩი), are inviting likeminded individuals to join them in a pot-planting fest a minute before midnight on December 31. Anyone of age is welcome to come along, Pine Cone said in a press release.
The procedure, staged at the party’s main Tbilisi office, will be broadcast live in a bid to push the Georgian government toward the full decriminalization of marijuana use. The name of the broadcaster was not given.
Perhaps for good reason. Police already have said that they will respond according to the law, which mandates prison sentences of six to 12 years for an organized, group cultivation of psychoactive plants.
If they follow through, some extra prison space might be needed -- so far, up to 553 people have signed up to plant pot, according to the Pine Cone site. Another 1,673 said they support the protest.
But the people’s representatives have spoken. Much to the bewilderment of the rest of Georgia, the decree went on to get published in the Legislative Herald of Georgia, the official register for new laws and regulations.
Akhmeta Town Council Chairperson Gela Jugashvili told the local television station Gurjaani that the resolution was a “technical error,” but Georgia’s news and social media, much entertained, interpreted it more as a technological challenge that the tiny town had decided to take on.
“Akhmeta, you totally forgot about the spaceport. Correct that egregious oversight immediately! The world is watching,” ran the online commentary. “Which metro line do I take over to Chechnya?” others joked.
Tamada Tales could not reach the Akhmeta council to find out why the resolution was on their agenda to begin with.
Azerbaijan made a double PR-play on December 14 that could have proven a winning ticket with the upcoming administration of US President-Elect Donald Trump. But, ultimately, it fumbled the ball.
In Washington, the embassy of the predominantly Shi’a Muslim country co-hosted a Hanukkah party at the Trump International Hotel with a prominent American Jewish organization. In Baku, the Azerbaijani government welcomed to town Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a declared Trump fan, and talked big and beautiful.
Everything was in place for showing the world Azerbaijan’s alleged religious tolerance and multiculturalism (two recurring official PR themes), but, then, Donald Trump had to get into the act.
Or, rather, his hotel.
Ahead of Wednesday’s party, over a hundred protesters from the Jewish American activist group If Not Now marched down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Trump International Hotel to denounce the Azerbaijani embassy and its co-host, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations (COP), for celebrating Hanukkah at a venue owned by Trump.
“They are economically supporting Trump tonight and there is also a lot of symbolism around this,” one protester complained about the COP, a local ABC News affiliate reported.
The small, emphatically pro-Western country of Georgia is on tenterhooks after the European Union on December 8 finally came within a fingernail of scrapping its visa-requirement for Georgian and Ukrainian citizens.
A European Parliament committee has approved the mechanism for suspending the visa-free rule for Georgia and Ukraine, and agreed to put it to general parliamentary vote next week. A green light for this mechanism, which allows the EU to halt visa-free travel if somehow overcome by immigrants from these two countries, clears the way for approval of visa-free travel to the EU for Georgians and Ukrainians.
The breakthrough put Georgia’s European-integration-seeking government and its supporters within the EU in high spirits. The “EU is delivering” on its promise of visa-free access, tweeted Manfred Weber, chairperson of the European People’s Party.
You know it’s that time of year again when the government of a far-off, predominantly Muslim country throws a Hanukkah party in a Donald-Trump hotel in Washington, DC. Trump may have been less than inspiring for many Muslims and Jews alike, but leave it to energy-rich Azerbaijan, full of the holiday spirit, to sense an opportunity to bring everyone together, bar the skeptics.
Ever keen to put itself on the map as a diversity-embracing nation, Azerbaijan – or, rather, its US embassy – will cohost this December 14 Hanukkah reception with the 52-member Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. Washington, DC’s newly opened Trump International Hotel is the venue of choice for the pair’s celebration of “freedom and diversity," according to news agency JTA.
Freedom is one thing for which Azerbaijan is not renowned, but the ex-Soviet republic indeed serves as a rare example of a Jewish-friendly, predominantly Muslim nation. For years, Israel and Azerbaijan have been trading guns, intelligence and professions of friendship.
Cursing the president online has become a criminal offense in Azerbaijan, an ex-Soviet republic that is big on energy, but, critics say, short on freedom. On November 30, the Azerbaijani parliament amended the country’s criminal code to protect the long-serving President Ilham Aliyev from online insults, defamation and trolls.
Azerbaijan already had a ban in place against online defamation, but, ever solicitous about the country’s 54-year-old ruler, the general prosecutor’s office apparently felt the need to prohibit the online “defamation, and derogation of honor and dignity” of the president as well.
Violations of the new amendment will be subject to a fine of up to 1,000 manats ($570) or two years of community service or two years in prison, depending on the instance.
Those with an urge to rail against Aliyev (or any successor) are not advised to hide behind fake social-media profiles. The amendment stipulates that individuals using “fake profiles and nick-names” and allegedly defaming or insulting the president could face a 1,500-manat ($866) fine, two years of community service and even one year of imprisonment.