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.
Even in this unpredictable US election year, it is not often that right-wing, evangelical Americans can find common cause with a committed socialist and a former KGB agent. But in the name of preservation of the heterosexual family and traditional gender identity, it appears they can.
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.
“Mimino” truck driver Rubik Khachikian, no doubt, would be proud: Armenian truck drivers recently came close to securing a breakthrough in the bitter breakaway dispute between Georgia, Russia and the separatist enclave South Ossetia that has bedeviled diplomats for years.
Since June, Georgia has been facing an Armenian-truck traffic jam in its north, where a landslide and flooding clogged the highway leading to its only official border-crossing with Russia. The road is the sole way by land for Armenia to reach Russia, a key economic and diplomatic partner, and its main military ally.
With this trade lifeline blocked, Armenia late last month tried its luck asking Tbilisi for passage through separatist South Ossetia, which Moscow calls an independent state, and Tbilisi Georgian territory occupied by Russia.
The Georgian government proved unexpectedly amenable to the idea, first raised by Armenian Transportation and Communications Minister Gagik Beglarian.
But the Georgian public heavily criticized the proposal. Government critics insisted that allowing transit through the breakaway territory region means capitulation to Russia and violation of the Georgian law on the occupied territories, which bans the transportation of cargo via the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Yet Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili and other proponents of Armenia’s proposal argued that it was in Georgia’s interests to ensure the continued passage of both Armenian and Georgian exports to Russia.
Dismissing the criticism as "hysteria," Kvirikashvili pointed out that using South Ossetia as a backup export route would be temporary.
Germany this week took its turn to appease and assure the South Caucasus about the European Union’s integration intentions by sending its top diplomat to the topsy-turvy region. Given Germany’s standing within the European Union and its structures, Frank-Walter Steinmeier came to the region not just as German foreign minister, but also as a key decision-maker for EU-South Caucasus ties.
As is par for the course with high-profile Western visitors to the region, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s visit was a triple-header. He zigzagged from Yerevan to Baku, and from Baku to Tbilisi on June 29, 30 and July 1, respectively. As also is usually the case with visiting Western diplomats, Steinmeier urged restraint on warring Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone, and patience on Euro-Atlantic-community hopeful Georgia.
On both of these counts, Germany holds a special role. Germany’s imprimatur is seen as decisive for granting Georgians much-desired visa-free access to the EU. Germany now holds the rotating presidency of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the continent’s top security and democracy-assurance body involved in negotiations and the monitoring of a ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Steinmeier urged a greater role for the OSCE in the conflict-resolution effort, which Russia has pretty much dominated in the wake of April’s Four Day War, the deadliest flare-up of Armenian-Azerbaijani hostilities since the 1994 ceasefire.
Shortly after the explosions, hundreds of travelers from nearby countries checked in as safe on Facebook, underscoring the facility’s role as the region’s ultimate layover point. A place where rabbis and mullahs hang out in one lounge, Slavs snap up perfumes and purses at duty-free stores, and Georgians seem to permanently hold court in Starbucks, IST is the world’s third busiest airport and a veritable melting pot.
For many, it is much more than that.
“I spent endless hours there, watching people and munching on that free rahat lokum [Turkish delight],” one Azerbaijani businesswoman, Aygul, who passed through Istanbul two days before the attack, said via Facebook Messenger. “You sit there, look at all these people from everywhere and all the world’s differences seem so small and unimportant.”
Canadian artist Melanie Mehrer wrote Tamada Tales that, on the night of the attack, she had been drawing at an airport Starbucks when two Pakistani men, artists en route to an exhibit in Moscow, noticed her work and struck up a conversation. “We spent a good hour gabbing about art, Islam, Islamic Art, politics, weird stories in our countries' news, what it feels like to feel connected and rooted in your own culture . . .or not. “
For Georgians like Zurab Tatanashvili, an assistant professor of social work at Tbilisi State University, Istanbul airport became synonymous with a door to the West after the Soviet Union imploded in 1991. “Many other Georgians and I first went to the West through that airport and the West came here through it as well,” he commented by phone.