In the heart of Tbilisi, not far from luxury hotels and high-end shops, lie dingy, Soviet-era catacombs that serve as everything from a public urinal and dumpster to the capital’s alleged epicenter of sex tourism.
An embattled Israeli-Russian travel blogger was trotted in front of news crews in Baku on February 8 following his extradition from Belarus to Azerbaijan, where he is facing charges of illegal border-crossing and hostile activity.
News reports showed handcuffed blogger Alexander Lapshin emerging from a government jet in the Baku airport and escorted with gun-wielding guards in balaclavas. “The extradition of Alexander Lapshin is another testimony that Azerbaijan is capable of defending its national interests,” said Deputy Prime Minister Ali Akhmedov.
He remains in pre-trial detention, his next destination not disclosed.
The Russian-language blogger stands accused of unauthorized entry into Nagorno Karabakh, a breakaway territory from Azerbaijan controlled by ethnic Armenian rebels and Armenian military forces. Baku also accuses Lapshin of posting entries supportive of Karabakh’s independence on his Livejournal blog, Puerrtto.
Azerbaijan long has tried to coerce Karabakh back under Baku’s fold through international isolation; mainly by blacklisting foreign travelers to the territory. But this is the first time Azerbaijan had a foreign national arrested in a foreign country and then handed over to its control for such an offense.
One week after the European Parliament granted Georgia visa-free access to the European Union, the South Caucasus country has entered into a rivalry with Russia over laying a road to the EU for breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Parliament’s February 2 approval of the visa-free plan marks a big leap forward for Georgia in its long journey from the Soviet Union into Europe, and it wants its Russian-backed separatists to get Georgian passports and come along for the ride.
The separatists have dismissed Tbilisi’s advances as wishful thinking, but it appears that Moscow, which recognizes Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, and provides them with military and economic support, was put on guard.
It claims it can trump Tbilisi’s offer by convincing the EU to start accepting the breakaway regions’ own passports for travel.
In a February 7 remark, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin half-heartedly welcomed the EU’s decision to exempt Georgia from short-stay visas as a “positive act,” but advised that the EU should next start accepting visa applications from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and “abandon its restrictions” for their “citizens.” Moscow, he said, will raise the matter with Brussels soon.
This might be the emptiest promise Moscow could make to its protectorates, as the EU is fairly strict about its policy of not recognizing the statehood of the Russian-backed breakaway regions.
It also is hardly in Moscow’s interest to let go of the two territories’ tight ties with Russia, which has backed separatism – in Ukraine, as well – as a way to curb the EU’s influence in the post-Soviet space.
Georgia erupted in jubilation February 2 as EU lawmakers approved visa-free access for Georgian citizens, a prize Tbilisi has long sought. The former Soviet republic hopes that the short-stay visa waiver becomes a major step toward eventual full membership in the European Union.
Pink protest hats were not the only piece of clothing to mark US President Donald Trump’s January 20 inauguration. He did, in fact, receive a chokha, a traditional wool coat from the Caucasus for men, usually worn with a dagger.
Little suggests that Trump will soon cut a dash in the bandoliered, cinched-at-the-waist costume from a Tbilisi apparel shop. But its offering symbolizes the regional hope that he will not overlook the Caucasus.
Even before Trump’s calls for “America First,” local analysts believe that American foreign policy had become introverted under Barack Obama, with the Caucasus fading fast on Washington’s radar.
So far, expectations are not high that Trump will reverse that trend. Aside from two defunct hotel projects, he has never shown a personal interest in this geostrategic crossroads.
Nonetheless, mulling the Trump future and the Obama past, the South Caucasus closely watched the new American leader’s swearing-in. Some in Tbilisi even opted to take part in a local Women’s March.
Yet Trump’s divisive flamboyance is not what counts in this part of the world. What does is Washington’s actual role in global and regional affairs.
In Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, some observers say that Obama was the least concerned with post-Soviet affairs of any US president in memory. And when the US takes a step back, it can only mean one thing in these parts: Russia steps in.
Georgia's Father Frost pours acid on a dead Santa Claus in New Studio's controversial online video.
Murdered in an online video and framed for an armed robbery, Santa Claus had a tough holiday season in Georgia this year.
His troubles began with what seemed at first like just another one of those cuddly Christmas commercials.
As a jingle plays, a bespectacled Santa, fresh from the chimney, checks out the room, helps himself to candy and starts placing presents under a glittering Christmas tree. Suddenly, a menacing voice rasps: “Real men come in through the door.” Santa turns around to see his Georgian counterpart, Tovlis Papa (Father Frost), sporting his traditional gear and an unusual bad mood. While grudgingly watching his Western rival, Tovlis Papa has been using his dagger to whittle a piece of wood into the Georgian version of a Christmas tree, a chichilaki.
The next scene shows a trail of blood, leading to the bathroom. Santa’s leg is sticking out of the bathtub. Tovlis Papa, changed into protective coveralls and glasses, is getting ready to pour acid into the tub when a little boy walks in. After a suspenseful moment, the kid, with an approving nod from Tovlis Papa, drags off the dead Santa’s bag of gifts.
For many Georgians, the art-video, produced by a Tbilisi studio known for its edgy TV ads, hit a raw nerve with its allusion to friction between nationalism and Westernization.
Interpretations vary widely about whether the intention was to support or mock the tendency of being jealously protective of traditional Georgian ways against “corrupting” Western influences.
Georgia’s largest opposition group, the avidly pro-Western United National Movement, has broken apart amid infighting over the role of the party’s chief, ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili, and the party’s loss in the 2016 parliamentary vote. The divorce could further weaken the country’s already fragmented political opposition.
The split was essentially between the brain and the body of the party, which ruled and reformed Georgia for over a decade until it was ejected by the Georgian Dream coalition in 2012. Top figures in Saakashvili’s presidential brain trust, including ex-National Security Council Secretary Giga Bokeria, ex-Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava and ex-Parliamentary Chairperson/Foreign Minister Davit Bokeria are among the score or so who opted for a political life after Misha.
Citing irreconcilable differences with the party and their former boss, the group announced a new party, as yet unnamed.
Fresh from prison, where he served a year and nine months for allegedly misspending public funds, Ugulava went straight for the jugular, blaming Saakashvili for the split.
“Saakasvhili was the party’s founder, but he has become its undoing,” he thundered, excoriating his former mentor for refusing to let go of the party and for engaging in divisive “ravings” from afar.
“This man does not radiate leadership anymore. It pains me to say this, but he is not the Mikheil Saakashvili who united the people in 2002 [ahead of the 2003 Rose Revolution] . . .” Ugulava said. “We need to look forward. If you turn back, you turn into a pillar of salt.”
Travel-blogger Alexander Lapshin’s irreverent reviews have left him in the doghouse before, but it was an alleged trip to separatist Nagorno Karabakh that really landed him in hot water. The Israeli-Russian blogger was detained in Belarus almost a month ago, and now, reportedly, is about to get extradited to Azerbaijan for supposedly trespassing on what Baku sees as Azerbaijani territory and supporting Karabakhi independence.
The case appears to mark the first time that a foreign national has been detained outside of Azerbaijan on such grounds.
A bout of camaraderie between two mustachioed strongmen, Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, appears to have entrapped the blogger. Cooperation has been tightening recently between the two, who share a propensity for never-ending presidential terms and a dislike of critical, independent media.
To be sure, Lapshin is no freedom-fighter, like many of those who have been jailed in Belarus and Azerbaijan. Catering to Russian-speaking audiences, his Livejournal blog Puerrtto details his travels to 122 countries and territories. He has been doing mostly what travel writers do: posting photographs of landmarks and dishes, complaining about bureaucracy and bad driving, but also throwing in an occasional coarse word.
One rubric, billed as the author’s quarrels and lawsuits “with just about everyone in the world,” features Lapshin’s jeremiads about impediments to international travel. There are entries that blast Uzbekistan for requiring its citizens to get exit visas to leave the country, criticize Israel for supposedly over-zealous border guards and offer tips on how to conceal visits to Israel from select Arab countries.
It is Christmas Eve and all sorts of mischief is afoot in Dikanka, a Ukrainian village made famous by Nikolai (Mykola) Gogol, the iconic 19th century writer reluctantly shared by Ukraine and Russia. As Dikanka’s cheerful denizens go caroling in the night, in one house a devil is cavorting with a local witch; in another, a sorcerer is magically sucking up dumplings.
White Noise protesters gather in Tbilisi on December 10, 2016 to call for the decriminalization of drug use. "It's time for change," a protester's poster reads.
A Georgian political party plans to ring in the New Year by planting weed as an act of civil disobedience against the Caucasus country’s stringent anti-drug policies.
Members of the party, which, incidentally, has the botanical name of Pine Cone (Girchi/გირჩი), are inviting likeminded individuals to join them in a pot-planting fest a minute before midnight on December 31. Anyone of age is welcome to come along, Pine Cone said in a press release.
The procedure, staged at the party’s main Tbilisi office, will be broadcast live in a bid to push the Georgian government toward the full decriminalization of marijuana use. The name of the broadcaster was not given.
Perhaps for good reason. Police already have said that they will respond according to the law, which mandates prison sentences of six to 12 years for an organized, group cultivation of psychoactive plants.
If they follow through, some extra prison space might be needed -- so far, up to 553 people have signed up to plant pot, according to the Pine Cone site. Another 1,673 said they support the protest.