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],” posted one Azerbaijani businesswoman, Aygul, who passed through Istanbul two days before the attack. “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.
The fallout from the May 19 murder of Giga Otkhozoria has put to the test Tbilisi’s policy of piecemeal reconciliation with Abkhazia and its separatist twin, South Ossetia, and their overlord, Russia.
Georgian public anger over Otkhozoria’s slaying has been directed mainly at Russia, seen as the one calling the shots in both of the breakaways. Russian troops are stationed along both Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s administrative borders with Georgian-controlled territory.
That view of Russia’s role may not jive with that of Abkhazia’s separatist government, but, for now, Tbilisi is sticking with it.
Brexit is seen as a win for Russia over the European Union in countries wedged between the two powers. The British decision to leave the EU may be primarily a European affair, but its repercussions have rippled into the EU’s so-called Eastern Neighborhood, a longtime sparring ground for Brussels and Moscow.
“Great, now there is plenty of room for us,” many joked in Georgia, a longtime aspirant for EU membership and signatory of a 2014 Association Agreement with the bloc. For all the online giggling about the “United Yet Breakaway Kingdom” and how Georgia should sneak into the EU unnoticed while the door is still open, the South Caucasus country knows that the “out vote” was a blow to its EU hopes.
“The European Union… will be in a state of shock for some time and will not have time for others,” commented Georgian political scientist Ghia Nodia, a former education minister, to Netgazeti.ge. “In Georgia, unlike Britain, but much like other continental countries, a Eurosceptic primarily stands for pro-Russian.”
“The biggest loser is the EU, as a project,” while Russia is the biggest winner, he added.
Sensing the risk, Georgian officials on June 24 were publicly silent on the Brexit topic, until Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili released a diplomatic statement late in the afternoon that “This vote will not change the fact that the European Union is [one of] the most important and powerful regional political and economic unions in the world, and its strength will continue to grow."
“We have planned out concrete steps to boost the process of negotiations, and the presidents agreed on a trilateral statement, which reaffirms their commitment to normalization of the situation on the line of contact and also includes their consent to increasing the number of the OSCE monitors,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has a small ceasefire monitoring mission in Karabakh. For years, the OSCE has arranged peace talks on Karabakh through its Minsk Group, a mediation mechanism led by Russia, the US and France.
American singer Pharrell Williams became the only visiting celebrity to call for freedom in Azerbaijan during Baku's June 16-19 Formula One race, an event criticized for “sports-washing” the country’s authoritarian ways. Activists say it has been a struggle to coax world celebrities performing in Baku on its rich government’s tab to put human rights first.
The Sport for Rights coalition of international rights groups said most singers, who visited Baku to provide musical acts for the European Grand Prix, snubbed calls to push for change in the repressive ex-Soviet republic. “It has historically been very difficult to engage celebrities on human rights issues in Azerbaijan,” Rebecca Vincent, the coordinator of the Sport for Rights campaign, told EurasiaNet.org.
“Chris Brown and Enrique Iglesias completely ignored our calls,” Vincent said of two other star singers who performed in Baku during Formula One. “We received no response from their managers or publicists, and they have performed without uttering a single word about the situation in the country – [a] real shame, as they have become part of the Azerbaijani regime’s propaganda machine.”
F1 managers did not prove cooperative, either. Williams, who capped the entertainment program, was the only exception. “Make some noise for the youth of Azerbaijan!” he said at his June 19 performance. “Those beautiful children: they are the future! When they grow up they will change things not only here, but around the world and no one can stop them.”
So far, the India-Russia railway project is not a fully rail-based route, rather a rail-sea-road-rail-shipment arrangement. Goods coming by rail from Mumbai will be ferried to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas in the Persian Gulf, then carried north across Iran by rail to the city of Rasht. Trucks will carry the load to the Azerbaijani border town of Astara, and then a train will carry it to Moscow, said Javid Gurbanov, chairperson of Azerbaijan Railways.
Baku says the route, part of a north-south transit corridor, will carry 5 million tons of goods annually. For a smoother shipment, Iran and Azerbaijan are negotiating the construction of a rail link between the cities of Rasht and Astara. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is due in Baku in August to discuss funding and technical matters. Azerbaijani officials say they may lend part of the estimated $900 million to Iran for the railway project.
One year after a devastating flood that killed 21 people and sent zoo animals into the streets of Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, both the city’s zoo and its famous wandering hippopotamus, Begi, are back in shape.
Amidst objections from France, Germany and Italy, the European Union’s ambassadors on June 8 opted to postpone discussions about scrapping EU entry visas for Georgian citizens. Their second thoughts are causing concerns in Georgia, where the government has long touted visa-free travel to the EU as a major leap toward Tbilisi’s ultimate goal of Western integration.
Increased public wariness toward immigrants appears to be to blame for the EU dragging its feet on the visa liberalization plan, which has been plodding along through various EU structures.
France, Germany and Italy appear to be the main European opponents to the visa-liberalization plans for Georgia.
Politico reported in late April that Germany and France had crafted a proposal that argues that the “current migration and refugee trends make it necessary to have an efficient mechanism in place to suspend visa liberalization.”
Refugee concerns apparently prompted Italy to agree with that position.
The EU’s row with Turkey, Georgia’s western neighbor, over Ankara’s refusal to amend its anti-terrorism laws in exchange for visa-free travel may well have soured France, Germany and Italy further. That spells trouble not only for Georgia, but Ukraine and Kosovo as well.
Germany, though, had a bit of its own concern. German officials have recently expressed worries that the easing of visa requirements for Georgia could somehow result in a hike in city burglaries by “[i]nternational traveling gangs.”