Hovering on the brink of closer ties with the European Union, Georgia wants to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
When Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili last week proposed a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, it seemed that he had picked Georgia's biggest non-issue ever. In this predominantly Christian, conservative South-Caucasus country, the topic is not a hot one. The LGBT community is largely closeted, and LGBT-rights discussions usually get drubbed out.
But in Georgia, gay marriage is so much more than just gay marriage. It is geopolitics.
As it moves toward signing an association agreement with the European Union this June, Georgia is trying to make its legal environment more EU-compatible. As part of the change, an anti-discrimination bill is intended that would protect the oft-violated civil-rights of LGBT Georgians.
Gharibashvili’s move is largely meant to appease the most conservative and less EU-versed Georgian voters, who view the European Union as synonymous with gay marriage. Georgian law already defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, but Gharibashvili argues that the constitutional ban on gay marriage will help prevent “speculations” about the anti-discrimination law and about EU association in general.
So, Georgia could end up protecting gay rights and banning gay marriage simultaneously. But the government sees no irony.
If passed, the change to Armenia's civil code will restrict Armenians from hiding behind avatars or fake names when posting comments online. The amendment's proposes to make media responsible for anonymous user commentary on their websites and also to restrict information crossovers from anonymous internet sources into mainstream news. Proponents from the ruling Republican Party of Armenia claim that the initiative is meant to fight the spread of slanderous and offensive information by Internet users with fake profiles, which, it alleges, often mask interest groups.
But reporters, bloggers and media activists say that the amendment is a threat to freedom of expression in Armenia.
“Although the goal given by the parliamentarians is praiseworthy, this bill poses serious dangers to online freedom of information in Armenia,” said Johann Bihr, the head of Reporters without Borders’ Eastern Europe and Central Asia Desk in a statement. “The media cannot be held responsible for the content they did not create and online anonymity is one of the founding principles of the Internet as a space for debate and freely reported information."
At the time, scoffers said Georgia was only attracted to Tuvalu’s vote at the United Nations General Assembly. For Georgia and Russia, every vote counts at the UN, where the two battle for the international non-recognition or recognition, respectively, of separatist Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
But Georgia severed ties with Tuvalu less than a year after learning where to find the island on a map. The split was caused by Tuvalu suddenly wanting to do its own thing and support breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia's independence in September 2011.
It was widely believed that Russia, ever the debonaire seducer, had wooed Funafuti away. Before Tuvalu, nearby Nauru also had stepped forth to recognize the independence of the breakaway couple. Vanuatu nearly went bipolar on the issue, changing its mood nearly every month.
After first trying to look the other way when Russia mugged Ukraine, Azerbaijan now has joined the international show of hands against the conquest of Crimea.
Aside from hitting its yes button in the United Nations on March 27 to declare Crimea's referendum on joining Russia invalid, Azerbaijan’s embassy in Kyiv issued a statement supporting the inviolability of Ukraine's borders. “Azerbaijan condemns extremism, radicalism and separatism in its every manifestation and once again confirms its adherence to the principles of sovereignty, independence and support of the territorial integrity of Ukraine,” the embassy said.
Until this point, Baku has treaded the ground carefully on Crimea. Moscow, along with the US and France, is one of three mediators for the critical Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.
But within Armenia, many believe that Yerevan, under Russia’s thumb for both energy and homeland security, was just doing Moscow’s bidding. Earlier on, President Serzh Sargsyan pretty much congratulated Russia’s Putin on a happy annexation, according to an official release. These moves prompted a diplomatic slap from Kyiv, though Ukraine has refrained from severing ties with Armenia.
But that’s exactly how it has been perceived by Georgian Facebook and Twitter users. “Nice to know that all those people died in Afghanistan for nothing,” bristled one Facebook user, referring to the more than two dozen Georgian soldiers who have died in NATO’s Afghanistan campaign.
With experience also in Iraq and Kosovo, Georgia has supplied the largest number of troops to that operation out of any non-NATO country.
Georgia's ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili has repeated his earlier defiance of Tbilisi's summons for questioning on March 27 about a range of controversial issues, including the death of the late Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania. He claims, albeit without definitive evidence, that the measure is part of a larger confrontation between Russia and the West.
Speaking late on March 25 with the ever-friendly Georgian TV station Rustavi2 in Kyiv, where he is advising the acting Ukrainian government, Saakashvili again dismissed the subpoena as allegedly another attempt by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, the former Georgian prime minister and founder of the country's ruling Georgian Dream coalition, to "shut me up."
Georgian government members have expressed frustration about Saakashvili's frequent appearances on international news channels to denounce Russia's invasion of Crimea. To many, this criticism appeared to stem more from the government's ongoing feud with Misha than from any sympathy for Russia. But Saakashvili, long wary of Ivanishvili's business ties to Russia, apparently doesn't see it that way.
"Should I return to Georgia and fulfill Putin's dream?" he asked rhetorically. "I will continue to do that which I'm doing as a free person."
Specific grounds for any questioning were not furnished, he added.
When a dismal and sensational video hits the Internet, you know it is election time in Georgia. A YouTube video showing the corpse of the late Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania has rocked the country ahead of local elections this June, and raised questions about the government's involvement in its release.
Zhvania and a young regional official, Raul Usupov, were found dead on February 3, 2005 in a rented Tbilisi apartment; the official cause of death was carbon-monoxide poisoning from a faulty gas heater, but has been widely disputed.
The ruling Georgian Dream coalition has long made ample promise to shed light on the deaths of both men, yet, so far, has unearthed little new information.
The leaked video offers more shock-value than conclusive evidence. (Warning: Some viewers may find the scenes disturbing.)
The identity of the YouTube user who posted it is unknown, but generally suspected to be somehow linked with the government. A former chief prosecutor told Georgian media that the footage had been kept in a safe under lock and key in his office.
Like a teaser from some sinister TV series, the video opens with a close-up of Zhvania’s lifeless face. After a relay of photos from the autopsy, the video shows Usupov lying lifeless on the apartment floor.
For viewers’ convenience, the anonymous YouTube user has highlighted suspicious marks on the dead bodies, which could be anything from bruises to Photoshop. The photos do not eliminate any existing explanations for Zhvania’s death or validate the YouTube user’s claim that “[President Mikheil] Saakashvili killed Zhvania.”
The European Union has announced the approximate date for the signing of association agreements with Georgia and Moldova, and set the timer ticking for another potential face-off with Russia. The countdown began with both countries bracing for Russia to stir up Ukraine-style trouble to prevent seeing either former Soviet republic pass into the EU's camp.
A day before Ukraine hastily signed a redacted version of the agreement on March 21, an EU statement declared that Georgia and Moldova are coming up next, “no later than June.” This is the second time that the signing has been moved forward to leave less time for Moscow to jam sticks into the wheels -- a sign of the unease sparked by Russia absconding with Ukraine's Crimean peninsula.
And the geopolitical cogwheels are still in motion.
NATO is wary of Russia trying to bite off even a bigger chunk of Ukraine. Moldova fears that after Crimea, Moscow will try to annex Transdniester, which split away from Moldova in the 1990s. Transdniester’s separatist officials already have traveled to Moscow to discuss Russia taking on the territory.
A March 18 appeal to the EU from Moldova’s Prime Minister Nicolae Timofti to speed up the association process preceded a Twitter announcement from José Manuel Barroso, the president of the EU’s executive body, the European Council, that Moldova and Georgia will be signing association agreements by June.
Georgia’s billionaire kingmaker, Bidzina Ivanishvili, has said he is disappointed in the man he tapped to be president of Georgia, Giorgi Margvelashvili.
Such musings are no mere tittle-tattle. In Georgia, where ex-Prime Minister Ivanishvili, the country's richest resident, is seen as the real power behind the government, they invariably become the talk of the town.
In a March 18 interview with Imedi TV, the tycoon commented that he can no longer recognise the man whom, less than a year ago, he told voters would make "the best president ever."
But since Margvelashvili became president last October, the two have grown estranged, the billionaire confided sorrowfully. “I can’t think of any instance of a man changed like this,” he complained.
The two no longer talk, he continued. “We don’t have informal relations,” said Ivanishvili. But he will find the strength to get over it. “This is not a tragedy; we both decided that we don’t need this [relationship].”
There is virtually no space for opposition in Azerbaijan’s parliament, but the government often appears happy to provide room for its rivals in prison. Some prominent faces from the country's drubbed-into-a-corner opposition were handed prison sentences on March 17 on controversial charges of inciting riots in a provincial town last year.
A court in the northeastern city of Sheki sentenced Tofi Yagublu, deputy chairperson of the Musavat Party, and Ilgar Mammadov, leader of the Republican Alternative (ReAl) rights group*, to five and seven years in jail, respectively. The court found the two guilty of sparking riots in Ismayilli, where thousands last January took to the streets, burning a hotel and laying siege to the local governor’s office. The government responded with sending riot police and keeping the city in a lockdown for several days.
Yagublu and Mammadov counter that they trekked out to Ismayilli to support the protesters and arrived when the unrest, sparked by a traffic accident involving the son of a cabinet minister, was already in full rage. Nevertheless, the Sheki court turned a deaf ear to the protests from defense lawyers, as well as local and international rights groups.