As Georgian voters prepare for a parliamentary election on October 8, various irregularities – among them, coup-plot allegations and the explosion of an opposition politician’s car – suggest that democratic practices in Georgia still leave much to be desired.
You know it’s that time of year again when the government of a far-off, predominantly Muslim country throws a Hanukkah party in a Donald-Trump hotel in Washington, DC. Trump may have been less than inspiring for many Muslims and Jews alike, but leave it to energy-rich Azerbaijan, full of the holiday spirit, to sense an opportunity to bring everyone together, bar the skeptics.
Ever keen to put itself on the map as a diversity-embracing nation, Azerbaijan – or, rather, its US embassy – will cohost this December 14 Hanukkah reception with the 52-member Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. Washington, DC’s newly opened Trump International Hotel is the venue of choice for the pair’s celebration of “freedom and diversity," according to news agency JTA.
Freedom is one thing for which Azerbaijan is not renowned, but the ex-Soviet republic indeed serves as a rare example of a Jewish-friendly, predominantly Muslim nation. For years, Israel and Azerbaijan have been trading guns, intelligence and professions of friendship.
Cursing the president online has become a criminal offense in Azerbaijan, an ex-Soviet republic that is big on energy, but, critics say, short on freedom. On November 30, the Azerbaijani parliament amended the country’s criminal code to protect the long-serving President Ilham Aliyev from online insults, defamation and trolls.
Azerbaijan already had a ban in place against online defamation, but, ever solicitous about the country’s 54-year-old ruler, the general prosecutor’s office apparently felt the need to prohibit the online “defamation, and derogation of honor and dignity” of the president as well.
Violations of the new amendment will be subject to a fine of up to 1,000 manats ($570) or two years of community service or two years in prison, depending on the instance.
Those with an urge to rail against Aliyev (or any successor) are not advised to hide behind fake social-media profiles. The amendment stipulates that individuals using “fake profiles and nick-names” and allegedly defaming or insulting the president could face a 1,500-manat ($866) fine, two years of community service and even one year of imprisonment.
Walking down a Tbilisi sidewalk can be akin to taking on an obstacle course, with pedestrians forced to circumnavigate both parked and moving cars.
Last week, several car owners in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, found large stickers emblazed with the message “I don’t care for the law. I park where I want,” attached to their vehicles’ windscreens. These stamps of shame were signed off by Stopxam, a Moscow-born movement of self-styled traffic cops that is spreading throughout Russia’s post-Soviet neighborhood. It has reached Tbilisi just as pedestrians begin to strike back against the cars which have long claimed the right of way here.
Drumming their fingers on their steering wheels and muttering an occasional curse, drivers trapped in Tbilisi’s increasingly congested district of Saburtalo often see a car speed past them on a sidewalk and then weasel its way into a lane. Many of the sidewalks in this city of some 1.1 million people and 400,000 cars now serve as a de-facto two-lane vehicular zone, with one lane used for parking and the other for getting in and out of traffic.
That can make walking on sidewalks a veritable obstacle course.
“I’ve got to learn pole vaulting,” bristled Elene Abuladze, a stay-at-home mom, as she tried to negotiate her stroller through cars on a sidewalk lining Chavchavadze Avenue, a main thoroughfare in the posh district of Vake. “I might as well take my son for a stroll in a junkyard. I swear, cars have more rights than humans in this city.”
Obnoxious driving and parking plague much of the post-Soviet world, but Georgia appears to be in a class by itself.
A screen adaptation of the South Caucasus’ famous love story, Ali and Nino, promoted by the Azerbaijani government, strikes many local viewers more as a travel commercial for Azerbaijan than as a faithful reenactment of the most enigmatic book to come out of this region in the past century.
Set during the Russian Empire’s twilight years, British director Ali Kapadia’s new take on Kurban Said’s 1937 novel follows the story of a passionate relationship between a spirited, young Muslim nobleman from Azerbaijan, Ali Khan Shirvanshir, and a Christian aristocrat, Nino Kipiani, from neighboring Georgia.
In the original novel, Ali Khan Shirvanshir’s choice for a wife echoes, as Said puts it, Azerbaijan’s own choice between “progressive Europe and reactionary Asia.” Shirvanshir, for instance, agrees that his wife will not have to wear a veil, yet his father initially objects to the wedding as unsuitable for a Muslim man.
But in the movie, the gaping cultural divide between the two star-crossed lovers (played by Palestinian actor Adam Bakri and Spanish actress Maria Velverde ) is reduced to a few cherry-picked, zingy one-liners. Shirvanshir's cunning Armenian friend Melik Nachararyan ("a fat man with sheep's eyes"), who, in the book, kidnaps Kipiani and is killed by Shirvanshir, becomes a debonair, decent man (played by Italian actor Riccardo Scamarcio), struggling to reconcile his love for Kipiani with his loyalty to his Azeri friend.
Viewers at one movie theater in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, the fictional Nino Kipiani’s hometown, felt they were left with a syrupy, placid melodrama.
In US elections, very little is reported about the inner workings of polling stations, though in some other countries, such as ex-Soviet Georgia, that’s where all the fun and drama happens. Here, media coverage of voting imparts many curious facts -- for instance, which polling-station official has a good singing voice, who could use anger-management therapy, and, also, why tangerines are bad for democracy.
In the November 8 US presidential vote, humans and machines toiled through the night, tallying and testing ballots, but as far as the lay man is concerned, all these labors have been abridged into infographics, maps and charts. In Georgia, where there is far less trust in the electoral process, polling stations were closely watched during the October parliamentary elections for funny business and funny matters.
The result led to the birth of a few stars.
In perhaps the most unlikely scenario for an election, one middle-aged polling-station worker decided to put her soprano voice to good use and broke into song during voting at a station on the outskirts of the capital, Tbilisi. “I love you tonight,” she crooned in English, captivating both the rest of the election commission and, later on, internet users, by her rendition of the dolorous theme song from Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 take on “Romeo and Juliet.”
On the cusp of what appears a new era of unpredictability in international affairs, countries in the Caucasus, that sensitive borderland between East and West, are wondering what to expect from Donald Trump, the United States’ choice for president.
In what many see as schadenfreude, Moscow is the only place in the larger region where politicians unabashedly hail Trump. The State Duma, in fact, met the news of Trump’s victory with a standing ovation.
“Man to man, I don’t envy Bill Clinton because his old lady, for whom he trailed around all the states like a threadbare backpack, will be going through the roof over losing,” predicted Sergei Mironov, leader of the social-democratic Fair Russia.
“Our dear Trump, congratulations on your victory,” chimed in the Liberal Democratic Party’s Vladimir Zhirinovsky, an ultranationalist known for his ebullient pre-election endorsement of Trump. “Babushka Hillary should go have a rest,” he advised.
A lobbyist connection between Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and Azerbaijan could create the appearance of a conflict of interest, if the democratic nominee wins the US general election on November 8.
The debate is part of a larger effort by liberal Georgian opposition parties to reinvent themselves after the Georgian Dream nabbed an overwhelming 76.6-percent parliamentary majority in the October polls. Among this crowd, only the United National Movement (UNM) gained a sizable number of seats (27) in the 150-seat legislature.
As the UNM, which ruled Georgia from 2004 to 2012, scrambles to figure out what went wrong, the outspoken, 48-year-old Saakashvili, now a regional Ukrainian governor without Georgian citizenship, has become the chief suspect.
The UNM has been synonymous with “Misha” ever since, as a brash, young political upstart, he led the party to power in the wake of the 2003 Rose Revolution. Four election seasons later, however, many see him as the party’s main drag.
Ahead of the October 8 vote, Saakashvili grandly promised to return to Georgia if the UNM wins, but, clearly, that prospect did nothing to attract additional voters.