Forget the stereotypes about sun, wine and song. The Caucasus is a sad place and, in this region, Georgia is the saddest of all, according to a recent Gallup poll.
Georgia may persistently rank as the most democratic and liberal country within the South Caucasus, but it also ranks among the world's top ten countries with "the lowest positive emotions," the poll found.
In fact, the thousand Georgians surveyed in June-July 2014 came across as just a little happier than residents of the world’s most melancholy place, Sudan -- a score of 55 versus 47 on Gallup's "Positive Experience Index." And no happier than those of Afghanistan (also 55).
The survey, though, turned another local stereotype on its head, too. With a score of 59, the region’s smallest country, Armenia, was rated as the happiest — or, rather, the least unhappy -- after answering questions like “Did you feel well-rested yesterday? Were you treated with respect all day yesterday? Did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday?”
Azerbaijan, the largest and richest of the Caucasus three, finished only a notch higher than Georgia, with a score of 56.
Information on how the country-scores were computed, and on the geographic, gender and age-breakdown of the respondents was not immediately available. The Georgia survey had a margin of error of 3.6 percent.
Some Georgians have ascribed the results to a post-traumatic-stress-disorder-like malaise caused by the wars and economic misery they've suffered after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
A daughter of jailed Azerbaijani dissidents, Dinara Yunus, is among the growing choir of Azerbaijan’s critics who are using the upcoming “European Olympics” to draw attention to reported repressions in the Caspian-Sea country.
“My parents dedicated 30 years of their lives to human rights. Now they are in different cells in different prisons because they dared to speak out,” Yunus says in a recent YouTube video. Released by the UK human rights group Amnesty International, the video mixes her monologue with footage of the large-scale preparations in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, for the European Games this June.
“Mr. President [Ilham Aliyev], can you tell me why my mother is in prison after she was critical of the upcoming European games?” Yunus asks in the tape.
Dinara’s mother, prominent human-rights activist Leyla Yunus, is controversially jailed on charges that include tax evasion and spying for the enemy state of Armenia. International democracy-watchdogs scoff at these charges, and those against her husband Arif Yunus and many other activists, as politically motivated.
Charging that Azerbaijan now has as much freedom of speech as can fit inside a prison cell, international human rights groups and emigrant Azerbaijani activists are banking on the June 12-28 European Games to put an international spotlight on what they describe as the government’s authoritarian excesses.
Think the Georgian government is hard up for cash? If anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International is correct, you might want to think again.
In a recent statement, the group claimed that officials failed to spend a whopping 150 million lari (roughly $68 million) budgeted for 2014 expenditures. *
It alleged that the finance ministry had attempted to conceal the scale of the underspending by listing 80 million lari (about $36 million) as a sub-item in the government’s Treasury Single Account (defined by the IMF as “a unified structure of government bank accounts”) to make sure it was not reflected in the country’s annual financial statement.
As a result, the group continued, inaccurate budget-deficit calculations were shown to the public, potential investors and international organizations.
Critics claim that the underspending, the second year in a row, shows that government departments did not keep projects on schedule or even get started with them.
“This is a new paradox that the government has money, but cannot spend it,” drily remarked Roman Gotsiridze, a head of the Central Bank under former President Mikheil Saakashvili, local media reported.
Since regaining independence in 1991, Georgia generally has had the opposite problem, he added.
Armenia considers Russia to be its strategic ally. But it appears that such feelings of loyalty are not mutual: officials in Yerevan are far from thrilled to find out that Russia is by far the largest arms supplier to Azerbaijan, Armenia’s neighbor and sworn enemy.
Russia’s double-dealing prompted Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan to grouse at a March 18 media forum in Yerevan. “Armenian soldiers at the front know that they [Azerbaijani troops] are trying to kill them using Russian weapons,” Sargsyan said, referring to the ongoing struggle between the two countries over the Nagorno-Karabakh territory. Although a ceasefire has been in effect for more than two decades, skirmishes between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces are almost a daily occurrence.
Flush with cash from energy exports, and eager to reverse territorial loses at the hands of Armenian forces during the 1988-1994 hot phase of the Karabakh conflict, Azerbaijan has been on an arms procurement binge in recent years. Russia seems only too happy to serve as Azerbaijan’s chief purveyor of the machinery of death. Azerbaijan obtains 85 percent of its weaponry from Russia, according to a recent report.
Russian arms sales to Baku have long been a source of concern for Yerevan, which, lacking the same kind of lucrative revenue streams that its foes possess, has trouble keeping pace in the arms race with Azerbaijan. At the same time, Armenia’s Russia-reliant economy means that President Sargsyan must choose his words carefully when he chides the Kremlin.
Yet the Wednesday deal does merge certain parts of key institutions (de jure in Russia's case; de facto in South Ossetia's) -- namely, in the army, intelligence, law enforcement and customs.
South Ossetians long have been going around Moscow asking to be annexed (and united with neighboring North Ossetia), but the Kremlin has been rolling its eyes at the idea as “out of the question.”
Last week, the region’s separatist leadership had an embarrassing moment, when they arrived with their agreement in Moscow, but could not even catch Putin, much less have him sign on the dotted line.
Still, happy as Russia seems with the status quo, it won’t pass up an opportunity to blur the distinction between it and South Ossetia a bit more.
Not amidst the war in Ukraine. And particularly not so close to the anniversary of Moscow's takeover of Crimea.
Armenian participants in the upcoming Eurovision song contest are denying that their entry is about genocide denial. To ease concerns that the song violates competition rules by making a political statement, they have changed the title.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the mass slaughter of Armenians at the hands of Ottoman Turks amid the tumult of the First World War. Armenia insists the killings amounted to genocide; Turkey does not accept that the tragedy constituted genocide.
The Armenian entry for the Eurovision contest was originally titled “Don’t Deny.” That title drew protests from Turkey, along with its close ally Azerbaijan. Austria is this year’s host for the Eurovision finals, which will take place in late May.
Eurovision’s rules require that contestants keep politics out of their acts. So to quash the controversy before it could gain traction, Armenia changed the title of its entry from “Don’t Deny” into “Face the Shadow.” The refrain “don’t deny” is still there.
The song’s producers insist that it is about peace, unity and tolerance, and about connecting to roots. Even so, the song is seen by many as a thinly veiled call for international recognition of 1915 mass slaughter as genocide. In the song’s recently released video, the members of the sextet called Genealogy pose for a photo in World War I period outfits and then vanish one by one.
Billionaire ex-Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, long annoyed by the alleged lack of “correct” current-affairs analysis in Georgia, has launched a daily TV talk-show as part of his ongoing campaign to shape public opinion about the government he brought to power.
Not surprisingly, he was the first guest.
Charging that his enemies’ propaganda dominates much of Georgian television, the 59-year-old Ivanishvili, who left power in 2013, observed that “it is difficult for people to understand what is happening in reality.”
Called 2030, in honor of the year when Ivanishvili expects European-style democracy and wealth to hit Georgia, the 90-minute talkathon is intended as a counterweight to the country’s most popular TV channel, Rustavi2, a station Ivanishvili terms a “machine of lies” run by ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili and his cohort.
“It is about doing the right analysis,” said Ivanishvili, getting on his favorite soap box. He promised to use the 2030 show and an eponymous NGO to produce a new cadre of wonks to tell Georgians what’s really going on in the country.
Of course, one can’t be too careful when choosing the means for delivering such information. The ex-PM has selected GDS, an MTV-style station owned by his rapper son, Bera — an individual he presumably believes also capable of making the “right” analyses.
Ivanishvili opted against the original idea to co-host the show, but he will make frequent appearances to deliver — if the premiere is any indication — lengthy, didactic lectures as host and co-panelists nod approvingly.
Armenia plans to use Eurovision, the pop-and-politics fest extraordinaire, to ask Europe not to “deny” that the slaughter of thousands of ethnic Armenians in Ottoman Turkey amounted to genocide.
The Armenian entry for Eurovision, “Don’t Deny,” has not formally been linked to many countries’ – most notably, Turkey’s – reluctance to admit that the slaying amounted to genocide. But in the song’s video, presented on March 12, the subtext is fairly obvious.
The performers, a sextet called Genealogy, are made up of five ethnic Armenian artists (from Australia, Ethiopia, France, Japan and the US), reportedly all descendants of survivors of the 1915 massacre, and a singer from Armenia.
The group, mostly kitted out in contemporary renditions of early 20th-century outfits, sing amidst retro-shots of an extended World-War-I-era family. The family ultimately vanishes, leaving empty chairs behind.
Armenian Weekly claimed that each singer in the collective stands for a petal of the forget-me-not flower, the symbol chosen for the April 24 genocide-centennial in the Armenian capital, Yerevan. The publication claimed that Armenian singer Inga Arshakian represents the midpoint of the flower — the center of gravity, if you will — for the far-flung Armenian Diaspora.
The centennial’s official commemoration date hits roughly a month before Eurovision’s May 19-23 run in Vienna.
Reports about Vladimir Putin’s death might be slightly exaggerated, but they have kept Internet-users entertained for two days now. Yet, as journalists go chasing the vanished Russian president, perhaps someone needs to talk to his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sargsyan, who insisted that he spoke to Putin over the phone just yesterday.
According to the Armenian president’s office, Putin told Sargsyan he was planning to come visit Yerevan on April 24 for Armenia’s commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the massive slaughter of ethnic Armenians in Ottoman Turkey.
If the chat did take place, Sargsyan may be the last leader to have spoken to Putin. A trip to Kazakhstan was canceled, as was a meeting with a delegation from breakaway South Ossetia.
Armenia ranks as Russia's main ally in the South Caucasus, so, presumably, Sargsyan would know when he's talking to Putin himself.
But how did Putin sound to the Armenian leader? For now, Sargsyan's office ain't sayin'.
The chat, though, is likely to feed the fire of speculation since Putin disappeared from public view after late last week. What began as a “have you seen Putin?” whisper is turning into a wildly trending “Putin died” phenomenon that some take seriously and others as a total joke. Even an oracular website has been set up to let users ask if Putin is dead or not.
March 11 was supposed to be a big day for South Ossetia, the tiny breakaway region with a wish to become one with Russia. A South Ossetian delegation had arrived in Moscow with an engagement ring — the so-called Treaty on Alliance and Integration — but Russia was just not ready to commit. Perhaps because it has too much going on in its life right now.
The main battleground for the 2008 Georgian-Russian war, South Ossetia never made a secret of its desire to become the next Crimea. Its leadership had left for the signing-ceremony in Moscow to much fanfare at home and teeth-grinding in jilted Tbilisi, which claims the mountainous border region as its own.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin did not even receive the delegation, much less sign the agreement meant to merge the Russian and South Ossetian economies and government agencies.
Russian media was awash with speculation: Putin had a running nose or thinks the territory did a sloppy job with the agreement or is bogged down in Ukraine and does not feel like adding another region to his land-grab collection right now. “Indefinite postponement of such a document’s signing on the eve of an event is an unprecedented development,” wrote Russia’s Vzglyad newspaper.