Georgians have developed a taste for fast food during the fasting period of Lent. The trend has highlighted a cultural paradox in this South Caucasus state, where Orthodox Christianity forms perhaps the main pillar of national identity.
The South-Caucasus representative for Human Rights Watch, Giorgi Gogia, was en route to Tbilisi on March 31 after being kept at the Baku airport for over 30 hours for unclear reasons.
Border officials on March 30 had barred Gogia from entering Azerbaijan and took away his passport, the New-York-City-based international rights group said.
In a brief phone-conversation on the evening of March 31, Gogia, a Georgian national, told EurasiaNet.org that he was now boarding a flight back to Tbilisi, his residence. Azerbaijani officials had given him no clear reason for the confiscation of his passport or holding him in the airport, he said.
Gogia left for Baku on March 30 to attend the controversial March-31 trials of imprisoned human-rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev and rights-activist Rasul Jafarov, said HRW Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia Rachel Denber.
“Authorities in Azerbaijan have not provided any explanation to us,” Denber commented to EurasiaNet.org
Human Rights Watch and Gogia personally have been frequent critics of what democracy watchdogs calls Azerbaijan’s authoritarian slide. Increasingly, journalists and rights activists are being jailed in Azerbaijan on what many observers deem spurious charges designed to squash criticism of President Ilham Aliyev's government.
In a tweet, Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe’s former human-rights commissioner, on March 31 termed the actions toward Gogia a “sad sign of worsening clamp down.”
EurasiaNet.org could not reach the Azerbaijani foreign ministry for comment.
In a state-of-the-nation address snubbed by Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili and his cabinet, Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili on March 31 called for a more participatory democracy, and cautioned against any one group trying to lay exclusive claim to the country’s political processes.
“Improving democracy is a constant process. There never will be a time when we can say ‘Stop working on it,’” Margvelashvili said.
But the cabinet and the prime minister weren’t there to hear it. Gharibashvili, the president’s regular sparring partner, earlier had explained their absence by an alleged desire to avoid “pomp.”
Georgia’s constitution does not require the prime minister and cabinet to attend the speech, but the empty seats once again underscored a sharp, ongoing rivalry between the head of state and the head of government.
Constitutional reform in 2010 largely reduced the Georgian president’s role to a guardian of the constitution, but still left him with some key functions, such as that of commander-in-chief and the power to strike down parliamentary bills and cabinet nominations. The president is a directly elected official, unlike the parliament-appointed prime minister.
Yet critics, including opposition groups, charge that the Georgian Dream coalition and its chairperson, Gharibashvili, construe separating powers between the prime minister and president as trying to prevent the president, who no longer bears the blessing of Georgian-Dream founder Bidzina Ivanishvili, from taking part in government.
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.