Call it Azerbaijan's interpretation of traditional Caucasian hospitality. Its citizens may be facing a bad currency-crunch, brought on by devaluation and depressed oil prices, but that’s not gonna stop this South Caucasus country from footing the bill for travel and accommodation for the “more than 6,000” athletes competing in this June’s European Olympic Games in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku.
But the European Olympic Committee, which is running the Baku games, claims that covering athletes’ costs is standard for Olympic-host countries.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s government does, however, have a thing for “spectacular shows.” In 2012, almost $80 million was spent on Eurovision, a continental pop music extravaganza. Baku plans to foot a $8 billion bill for the European Olympic Games, even though its manat can buy 33.5 percent less per dollar now and fears persist that the nation’s hydrocarbon-supported revenues may halve this year.
Three-and-a-half tons of mimosas allegedly now are crossing each day from separatist Abkhazia into Russia, Russian news outlets allege. The tiny, subtropical region is hoping to make a roaring trade out of its resplendent yellow blossoms ahead of the March 8 International Women’s Day, a combination of Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day in the post-Soviet world.
As it blossoms early, mimosa, or acacia dealbata, makes a prime gift for the big day. Mother Nature has helped out as well. A moderate winter led to early blossoms this year on Abkhazia’s Black Sea coast, Russian media claim.
Yet contraband is also on the increase. Some smugglers are trying to hide Abkhazia’s mimosas in their car trunks, Russian customs officials complained, Vesti.ru reported, citing TASS.
A standard mimosa bouquet sells for 100 rubles, or $1.60, in Sochi, the largest Russian city near Abkhazia, according to one outlet.
But, soon, those mimosas may not rank as contraband. Russian President Vladimir Putin, ever land-hungry, would like to eliminate Russia’s de-facto border with flowering Abkhazia, which Moscow recognises as an independent country from Georgia.
A sighting of Russian army trucks in Georgia, just as the country was remembering the Red Army’s 1921 invasion, has set off a fresh furore over that most contentious of topics — the country’s ties with muscular next-door neighbour, Russia.
As the video and photo proof of general-purpose, Russian-made ZIL 131 military trucks rolling down highways or parked on streets, including in the Georgian capital,Tbilisi, went viral online, TV crews went chasing the vehicles. "It has begun!" one Twitter user wrote.
Reactions ranged from indignant to baffled to plain curiosity about the reasons for the trucks’ presence in Georgia. "I am not doing anything illegal," a stressed-out Russian-speaking driver told skeptical TV crews, who chased him down late on February 25.
With Russian troops already stationed in breakaway South Ossetia, just over half-an-hour from Tbilisi, and in fellow separatist Abkhazia, the reason for the alarm was plain.
The opposition United National Movement (UNM) Party, the self-styled torchbearer of patriotism, was hot on the case, demanding an explanation from the defense ministry. "This image shows Russian military vehicles, with a Russian driver and Russian license plates headed toward the reserve military base in Senaki [town in the west]," charged parliament member Nugzar Tsiklauri, Tabula.ge reported.
In a televised speech, President Aliyev said on February 24 that Azerbaijanis should have seen the devaluation coming, given the geopolitical oscillations afoot in the post-Soviet world and the drop in oil-prices. He appeared to have forgotten about the fact that only a month ago he had asserted that none of this would affect Azerbaijan’s currency.
He conceded, though, that if the manat-dollar rate had held, Azerbaijan’s foreign-currency reserves could have been reduced sharply by year's end. Five hundred million dollars, he alleged, was being bought a day; he did not name a time-period.
Nonetheless, in the Aliyev theory of economics, every dark cloud has a silver lining. The manat’s former strength just shows how successful Azerbaijan’s economic reforms have been, he argued. The catch is . . . “events in the neighborhood” made it too much of a good thing.
The mighty manat’s increase in value posed a problem for economic development, he claimed, making no mention of the currency’s nearly four-year-long peg to the US dollar. “This is why we decided to devalue the manat a little,” he said.
“A little” meant the Central Bank’s February-21 decision to slash the manat’s rate against the dollar by more than a third, and against the euro by 30 percent. It already had divorced the currency from the dollar.
Azerbaijan’s most prominent investigative reporter, Khadija Ismayilova remains in extended pre-trial detention, awaiting her day in court to face a variety of criminal charges. Meanwhile, Ismayilova’s fellow reporters at the Azeri service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty are experiencing a rising level of harassment.
Authorities seem intent on turning the screws slowly on Ismayilova. On February 23, following a closed-door trial, she was found guilty of libel and fined the equivalent of $2,400. Ismayilova was originally arrested on December 5 on charges of incitement of suicide. She denies all charges. Media freedom monitors consider the criminal case against her to be politically motivated.
In a recently published letter to The Washington Post, Ismayilova says she has no access to news and her family members are not allowed to visit her. “My cellmates are also my new audience, that most precious thing that every journalist must have, even a journalist whom the government is trying to silence,” Ismayilova wrote.
These days, Azerbaijani authorities are paying more attention to others with an RFE/RL affiliation. For example, Babek Bakirov, RFE/RL’s former Baku bureau chief, was not allowed to board an international flight on February 23, the same day when Ismayilova’s libel decision was announced. The RFE/RL bureau also revealed that one of its contributors was questioned by prosecutors. His name was not disclosed for safety concerns.
It was to national disappointment that Georgian director Zaza Urushadze’s Tangerines did not get an Oscar at last night’s Academy Awards. For Georgia’s glass-is-half-full crowd, however, the film’s nomination for Best Foreign Film was a sufficient accomplishment after almost two decades of creative stagnation in the country’s film-industry.
Technically, Tangerines is an Estonian film. But although it was submitted and also co-sponsored by Estonians, it is essentially a Georgian film, directed and mostly acted by Georgians.
Set during the 1992-1994 war with separatists in Abkhazia, the film tells the story of an Estonian carpenter and farmer Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak), who saves two wounded warring combatants, Akhmed, a Chechen (Giorgi Nakashidze) supporting the separatists, and the Georgian Niko (Mikheil Meskhi). As the enemies recover from their gun wounds at Ivo’s house, they also slowly recover from their hatred of each other.
Yet for all its noble aims, the film’s peace message is so loud that it comes at the expense of verisimilitude. In one awkwardly written and played bit, the fighters even exchange condolences to each other for their respective sides’ losses.
Such an exchange of courtesies may tick off all the boxes in a wish-list for a reconciliation-promoting NGO, but, for many Georgian viewers, who know how characters like Akhmed and Niko would normally speak and act in real life, such scenes damaged the movie’s artistic value.
Nonetheless, the film boasts a well-structured and paced script, with handsomely done visuals and an atmospheric setting for the three-men drama as a microcosm of the larger crisis happening outside Ivo’s house.
Amidst an angry backlash from Armenian-Americans, Starbucks has removed from cafés around Los Angeles artwork depicting women in Armenian national dress under Turkish flags.
The coffee chain was apparently attempting to cater to LA’s large ethnic Armenian community , but anyone with a smattering of an understanding of Armenian-Turkish relations — or of Google searches — could see how displaying such a poster could go awfully wrong; especially ahead of the centennial commemoration of the slaughter of over a million ethnic Armenians in Turkey.
With the centennial planned for April 24, the century-old dispute about whether or not the killings amounted to genocide has reached a fever-pitch. Armenia already has withdrawn from a largely defunct reconciliation plan with Turkey.
The Armenian National Committee for America, a Diaspora group, launched a social-media campaign at #boycottstarbucks deeming the art “Tasteless!” and calling for the coffee-colossus to remove the photos and apologize.
The outpouring has prompted the company to issue an apology. In what appears to have become the company’s standard response to press-queries, a Starbucks spokesperson wrote to EurasiaNet.org that “We missed the mark here and we apologize for upsetting our customers and the community.”
The spokesperson stated that the artwork has been removed from “our Mulholland & Calabasas store in Woodland Hills” and that the company is “working to make this right" and "to ensure this image is not in any other Starbucks locations."
Similar statements appear to have been sent to RFE/RL and the Armenian-American publication Asbarez.com, according to their reports.
Offline, the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh may be outside of Baku’s control, but, online, Azerbaijan seems to have reclaimed the disputed land. Azerbaijani officials are boasting of allegedly having convinced Facebook to strip the separatist territory’s page of its verified status, which denotes that the page is authentic.
This reported victory, preceded by an avalanche of complaints from Azerbaijani users, is nothing to sneeze at in the South Caucasus, where Facebook is by far the most popular social network. It is also often the prime online venue for social activism and political debate.
And yet, Baku’s victory was not complete. Though the "Nagorno-Karabakh Republic" page is not accessible, pages using the region’s Armenian name (Artsakh) and calling for recognition of its independence remain intact.
Facebook, which has faced flak before over its page-decisions, has not yet commented officially on the downgrading of the breakaway region's page.
But Facebook is not the only part of the virtual world in which Azerbaijan has been asserting its internationally recognized right to Karabakh. In the past, the country engaged in toponymic arguments with Google for using “pro-Armenian” place-names in its maps, and with MSN for describing Karabakh as an independent entity in its weather listings.
There is a cat story that Mikheil Saakashvili, now controversially appointed as Ukraine government’s top foreign advisor, likes to tell. Back in 2003, when the soon-to-be-Georgian-President Saakashvili first walked into the presidential office, he was greeted there by a cat, a purring testimony to the dysfunctional administration of his overthrown predecessor, the late Eduard Shevardnadze. Now, as Saakashvili is tasked to help modernize Ukraine and reach out to Washington for support, the ex-president says he is again having the Shevardnadze-cat moment.
“There was no functioning pest-control service back then, so the cat stepped in” to control the Georgian government’s rampant mice population, Saakashvili reminisced in a February 17 interview in Kyiv with Rustavi2 television. There was also a bucket to collect intermittently flowing tap water and a makeshift water-heater, he continued, in a lengthy prelude to his point about fixing Ukraine.
The previous cat-in-residence could not take the pressure and “committed suicide,” jumping to her death from the 11th floor, Saakashvili claimed. Screens were put up on the windows to make sure future presidential felines did not flip.
“It is more or less the same situation here [in Ukraine]. I have seen no cat so far, but … Ukraine is just in that shape” with its obsolete, Soviet-style state institutions, said Saakashvili, who now chairs Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s international advisory council.
If you haven't yet made your plans for Valentine’s Day, but have 100 grand to spare and no qualms about decadent luxury, you may have missed an opportunity. The Four Seasons Hotel in Baku, capital of the hydrocarbon-rich, freedom-poor country of Azerbaijan, is laying a claim to the world's priciest and swankiest Valentine’s Day offer.
The roughly $128,000 (100,000 manats) deal includes a limousine pickup anywhere in the world, first-class flight to Baku, the regional center for affluence and corruption, and two nights of pampering in a presidential suite. It comes with a personal butler and roses and candles galore. Topping it off is a milk bath and a pair of Cartier watches with "his and her" names engraved.