Betting on tourism as an important lifeline, Georgia has become a place where Turks, Arabs and Israelis can convene around a poker table. But, to hear ex-Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili tell it, one of the country’s neighbors, Turkey, wants the casinos to close.
In a meeting last week with regional reporters, Ivanishvili, founder of Georgia’s ruling Georgian Dream Party, claimed that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had personally asked him to do away with Georgia’s gambling business a few years back, when both men served as prime ministers of their respective countries.
Watching fellow Turks return with empty wallets from neighboring Georgia apparently had taken its toll on Erdoğan, a practicing Muslim. Islam forbids gambling, and so does Turkey.
The Turkish embassy in Georgia told Tamada Tales, however, that the 2013 meeting with Ivanishvili happened too long ago for it to be able to comment about the two men’s conversation.
Nonetheless, the attractions of Georgia’s casinos for Turkish gamblers are clear.
With gambling banned in all of its Muslim neighbors – Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan – Georgia has essentially become the region’s Vegas (Armenia ranks a distant second) – an unimaginable status 21 years ago, when the James Bond movie “Golden Eye” depicted a Georgian-born honey trap playing a game of baccarat with OO7.
Georgia’s casino capital, the Black Sea city of Batumi, is only a short drive from the Turkish border. Many of Batumi’s casinos have Turkish investment, and are run by and cater to Turks, local media report.
But the proliferation of gambling has caused grumbling on Georgia’s side of the border as well.
A Georgian opera singer did not invite a Georgian billionaire to his birthday party and now they hate each other, fighting for their country in an election campaign that is as much a battle of egos as it is a contest in lavish promises.
Declining the billionaire’s advances to team up for Georgia’s October 8 parliamentary election, renowned operatic bass Paata Burchuladze, 61, will be challenging the incumbent party, Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia, which Ivanishvili founded and brought to power four years ago.
Back then, when Ivanishvili was corralling supporters to dislodge Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, he asked the singer to join the party. “He asked for oodles of money for it and I was offended. I have obviously refused,” Ivanishvili claimed in the latest of his sit-downs with the media, meant to sway public opinion in favor of the government, widely believed to still be under his thumb.
“Could I have possibly asked for a sum that he could not afford? I must have charged a good rate for myself,” Burchuladze quipped in his dulcet bass.
It’s election time in Georgia and, once again, just like summer swallows, accusations about political pressure have returned. This time, though, they come from the head of state himself, with the chairperson of Georgia’s highest court further broadening their scope.
Such allegations come at a sensitive time for the ruling Georgian Dream, which faces an October 8 parliamentary election. The coalition came to power in 2012 after itself facing down various forms of pressure from then President Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration. The group has long maintained that it doesn’t get up to the same sort of tricks.
But some seem to think that depends on the alleged violation. A senior Georgian Dream lawmaker this week suggested that President Giorgi Margvelashvili had been drunk when he claimed that a police run-in with a family member was meant to intimidate him. “He must’ve had a little too much on that day,” said Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Manana Kobakhidze.
Police surround one of the two Yerevan gunmen who decided to surrender to law enforcement on July 26.
New hostages were taken in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, on July 27 as an armed standoff between police and gunmen entered its tenth day. Despite the surrender of two of the gunmen, with street support for the group’s defiance of the government persisting, the crisis shows no sign of ending soon.
Officials said that the anti-government militants holed up in the city’s Erebuni police station seized four medical personnel dispatched by the health ministry this morning to treat gunmen wounded by an exchange of gunfire with police late last night.
A representative of the fringe opposition political group to which the gunmen belong, Founding Parliament, categorically denied that the men, mostly Karabakh war veterans, have taken any more hostages.
“The guys aren’t holding anyone as a hostage. They only want the medical presence there to be continuous and . . . for another brigade of doctors to rotate with this brigade,” Founding Parliament member Alek Enigomshian told reporters, RFE/RL’s Armenian service reported.
One policeman and two insurgents -- the gunmen’s most prominent leader, Pavlik Manukian, and his son, Aram -- suffered serious injuries in the overnight shootout and were hospitalized.
The surrender of another two members of the armed group early this morning created a prospect for resolution of the nerve-wracking drama, but the fresh hostage-taking situation brought the drama back to square one.
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.
As Turkey focused its coup-cleanup operations on its education system, its close ally Azerbaijan on July 20 announced the closure of Caucasus University, the country's first private university, founded by supporters of the influential Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, now charged by Ankara with plotting to overthrow Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
The decision brought back memories of 2014 when, as Turkey started to raise the alarm about Gülen, a former government pal, Azerbaijani authorities closed 13 education centers and 11 high schools associated with the cleric’s movement. They were transferred to the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijani Republic (SOCAR).
One Turkish company Çağ Öğrətim (Era Education), believed linked to Gülen, however, had shared control of Caucasus University with SOCAR and another firm.
No more. SOCAR Vice-President for Human Resources Khalig Mammadov posted on his Facebook page that control over Caucasus University has been given to the state-run Baku Higher Oil School .
“Students . . . will continue their education as before,” Mammadov wrote. “The teaching staff of the university will also continue their work.”
The education ministry told APA that after receiving the relevant documents, it will create a working group to allow Caucasus University students to continue their education elsewhere.
With no end in sight to Yerevan’s police-hostage crisis, the arrest of scores of people – political activists, protesters and, in some cases, non-protesters alike -- appears to be widening divisions within Armenia between the government and the governed.
Although police do not provide details, human rights organizations claim that over 200 people have been arrested from different parts of the Armenian capital since gunmen from a fringe extremist opposition group took over a police station on July 17.
On the night of July 20, that tally presumably increased after a violent clash between police and hundreds of protesters attempting to bring food to the gunmen. The health ministry reported that at least 51 people were injured, including 25 police officers. The ombudsman's office indicated that reporters were among the wounded.
Protesters built a barricade against police, but by dawn law enforcement had reportedly mopped up the resistance. The number of arrests has not yet been released, although opposition MP Nikol Pashinian stated that 15 members of his own party, Civil Contract, had been taken in, Panarmenian.net reported.
The clash, which police tried to put down by using tear gas and batons, topped off three days of building tensions over attempts to stifle any anti-government protests.
In remarks to the Batumi broadcaster TV25, Consul Yasin Temizkan charged that the Refaiddin Şahin Friendship School, which teaches five to 12-year-old children, “is not serving the government; they’re serving terrorist groups.” The Gülen network, he claimed, uses such schools “to strengthen their own position.”
Temizkan said that he would petition Georgia’s education ministry “in the nearest future” to close the school. In the meantime, he called on parents to withdraw their children from the school.
Speaking with TV25, Refaiddin Şahin Friendship School Principal Elguja Davitadze, however, denied the allegations.
How the Georgian government will respond is unclear, but a demand from Ankara to close the school could put Tbilisi in an awkward situation. Turkey is a close economic and security partner for Georgia, yet, at the same time, the government can ill afford to shut the door on foreign investors without cause.
Russian politicians and state media sounded sharp alarm about the July 15 military-coup attempt in Turkey, Moscow's traditional regional rival, with some calling for "responsible organs" to come to the rescue of Russian citizens in Turkey. By contrast, officials in the South Caucasus, which borders directly on Turkey, expressed much greater caution .
The failed coup attempt led to the deaths of 1,661 people, and the injury of 1,440, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim announced at an afternoon briefing on July 16 in the Turkish capital, Ankara. Some 2,839 armed-forces personnel allegedly involved in the coup-plot have now been arrested, he said, according to Turkey's official Anadolu Agency.
Yet even as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that the coup had been put down, Russia’s state-run TASS news agency led with a statement from Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev that “we should undertake all measures for the defense of the interests of our citizens, and also our companies, our entities . . . “ in Turkey.
What measures, if any, were under consideration is not clear, but Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Alexander Romanovich, citing alleged bombing by Turkish military planes, earlier in the morning of July 16 called for "our responsible organs" to organize the immediate evacuation of all Russian citizens from Turkey.
Islamic State terrorists may have confirmed the death of their Georgian military commander Omar al-Shishani (Omar the Chechen aka Tarkhan Batirashvili), but in the 30-year-old militant’s native Pankisi Gorge, locals appear to have adopted a wait-and-see attitude.
Georgia’s largest national broadcaster, Rustavi2, reported on July 14 that unnamed residents of Pankisi, a narrow valley about 161 kilometers/100 miles northeast of the capital, Tbilisi, did not confirm Batirashvili’s death, saying that his family knows nothing about it.
Over the past few years, multiple reports of Batirashvili’s death have surfaced periodically; the most recent, in March. His father, 72-year-old Temur Batirashvili, a Georgian Orthodox believer who says he has not heard from his son in years, has not responded to these latest reports of his death.
But in Georgia, as elsewhere in the South Caucasus, locals will still look to relatives first for confirmation.
Batirashvili’s older brother Tamaz is reportedly another ISIS military commander, supposedly handling security issues. For residents of Pankisi, the daily Rezonansi reported in June, this brother is “the most reliable” source of information.
“He’s always by his brother’s side and, as they say, they’ll confirm the information about [Tarkhan Batirashvili] with Tamaz as well,” Pankisi elder Khasan Khangoshvili commented to the paper, denying the March report of the younger Batirashvili's death.