So what do the Armenian government, the Armenian Apostolic Church and Sierra Leone all have in common? The answer is businessman Ashot Sukiasian, who was arrested in Tbilisi on February 1 in connection with an alleged $10.7-million con-job.
Several years back, Sukiasian borrowed that sum from AmeriaBank, an Armenian concern of uncertain ownership, to invest in importing raw diamonds from Sierra Leone for refining in Armenia, the Hetq.am investigative service reported last May. Diamond-refining is one of the few booming businesses in Armenia, and a key source of exports.
Documents unearthed by Hetq.am revealed that Sukiasian borrowed the money for his own diamond venture in the name of Wlispera Holdings, a Cyprus-based company allegedly co-owned by Armenian Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian and former Archbishop Navasard Kjoian.
Prime Minister Sarkisian and Kjoian have denied being Sukiasian's business partners, but the ownership documents for Wlispera Holdings have their signatures, Hetq reported.
“I need two corpses. Bring me two corpses. The bonus is high,” Merabishvili, then interior minister, is shown hurriedly telling military officers at an outdoor meeting at Mukhrovani, a tank-battalion camp near the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. At the time, President Mikheil Saakashvili's administration claimed that the mutiny was orchestrated by Moscow.
After a few cuts in the video, Saakashvili and senior members from his circle of trust – then Security Minister Zurab Adeishvili and Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava – show up at a building apparently on the base. “Where is Vano?” Saakashvili asks, looking at his watch, and then around. "Vano, what should we do?" he asks the off-screen interior minister as the video ends.
At a January 30 court appearance for unrelated charges he is facing, Merabishvili acknowledged that he had ordered the killings, but asserted that the "two corpses" referred to "two Russian advisers" who, he claimed, "were participating" in the uprising, news outlets reported. "I'm not ashamed that I made this statement," he said. "On the contrary, this was my duty . . ."
The alleged "two Russian advisers" have never been mentioned before. Merabishvili claimed that the two -- for reasons unknown -- were killed by organizers of the mutiny.
Lagging behind a former Soviet republic in caviar production is one thing. But now the US, that champion of capitalism, has to face the news that the World Bank and International Finance Corporation believe that autocratic Azerbaijan contains fewer bureaucratic hurdles for starting a business.
The latest installment of the duo's Doing Business series claims that it takes three bureaucratic procedures and one percent of per-capita income to get a business going in Azerbaijan, whereas in the US it takes twice as much red tape, and 1.5 percent of per-capita income.
But before entrepreneurs start packing for Baku, some divination of these findings is due.
The speed and the cost of starting a business are just two out of a slew of yardsticks used to gauge countries' business friendliness. Overall, the US is perched far above Azerbaijan as a place to do business -- #4 out of 188 countries, compared with #70.
In those sub-categories where Azerbaijan outperformed the US, a lot might be lost between the numbers.
The report looks at laws and regulations, but does little to look behind them and gauge informal business practices; an area in which Azerbaijan has something of a reputation.
Georgia has announced plans to extend 4.5 million lari (upwards of $2.5 million) to four religious minorities to compensate for the repression of their religious rights under Soviet rule. The payment, planned as a one-time disbursement, will mark the first time that religions or Christian denominations other than the dominant Georgian Orthodox Church have received state financing and, to some, suggests a step toward shaking up the country's religious pecking order.
The 4.5 million lari will be divided “proportionally” between the Roman Catholic Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church and Muslim and Jewish groups, elaborated State Minister for Reconciliation and Civil Equality Paata Zakareishvili. The government is still working on a concrete formula for the handout, he added.
“The Georgian government has long been compensating the damages to the Georgian Patriarchy and the Orthodox Church, but there were other religious groups that suffered no less,” Zakareishvili said.
The Patriarchy, one of Georgia's key power centers, has welcomed the planned payments, saying that the initiative shows a desire to restore justice.
Zakareishvili claims that the payments will apply to 90 percent of Georgia’s religious faithful, but other religious minorities have expressed disappointment for not being included in the arrangement.
To make it through a frigid winter, the Armenian government recently advised citizens to economize. But that advice apparently does not extend to Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and a few pals, who, according to the national South Korean news outlet Chosun Ibo, spent a week in mid-January undergoing a 200-million-wong ($184,391) "rejuvenation treatment" at the Chaum spa in Seoul's fashionable Gangnam district.
The Armenian president is better known as a military man than as an appearance-conscious metrosexual, but apparently he decided that his looks do require maintenance. Chosun.com claims that Sargsyan, accompanied by the unidentified "ex-president of a former Soviet satellite nation" and "a Russian-Armenian oligarch," went the whole hog during his stay -- stem cell therapy, spa and anti-aging therapy, also a body scrub and massage.
At first glance, you might assume that the oligarch -- identified by RFE/RL's Armenian service, based on a published photo, as Ara Abrahamian, president of the Union of Armenians of Russia -- picked up the tab. Sargsyan's monthly salary is 400,000 drams, or $979.
But presidential spokesperson Arman Sagatelian claims that isn't the case. He asserted to Epress.am that the cited 200-million-wong price tag was the overall price for the
“I am going away: this world and this country are not for me. I am going away to be happy. Tell Mom that I love her,” wrote 20-year-old gay rights advocate Isa Shahmarli before he apparently hanged himself on January 22 in his apartment in Baku. His death has sparked a debate about LGBT rights in conservative Azerbaijan.
In his suicide note, posted on his Facebook page, Shahmarli, who chaired the LGBT group Azad (Free), blamed “everyone” for his death. “This world is not colorful enough to accept my color too. So long,” the message reads.
One local outlet carried footage of an ambulance team trying to resuscitate Sharmarli. Some news reports suggested that problems with his family and Azerbaijan's largely homophobic society drove the young man to suicide.
Though authoritarian, Azerbaijan is often viewed as the world’s most socially liberal Muslim country, and less homophobic than its Christian neighbors, Armenia and Georgia. A small rally in support of gay rights was held in Baku last year. A similar event was thwarted by mob violence in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.
But being liberal is a highly relative concept in the South Caucasus. As discussants at a Heinrich Böll Foundation conference on the LGBT situation in Azerbaijan put it, while a degree of tolerance exists for men with feminine appearances in such professions as hair-styling and show business, Azerbaijan’s sexual minorities live in a suffocating world of discrimination and rejection.
Government officials call that pragmatism. But, increasingly, some Georgians term it schizophrenia.
Georgia has shown signs of such an ailment before. In an attempt to establish what they term the border of breakaway South Ossetia, Russian troops, stationed in South Ossetia since the 2008 war with Georgia, have been weaving fences through Georgian-held territory, often cutting through villages and pasture-land.
Tbilisi also has protested the fence fetish, and alerted its friends in the West, who, in turn, have shook their heads with the requisite expression of concern, but gone no further.
Yet despite these affronts from Moscow, Tbilisi is still dispatching a team of athletes to the Olympics. To appease domestic criticism, though, no senior government officials will be tagging along. Team Georgia will include a mere four athletes.
As another overture, Georgia earlier had offered to help Russia in providing security for the Sochi Games. That’s kind of you, Moscow said, but added that to normalize ties, Tbilisi needs to perform a little “formality” and accept the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
So, where has the policy of "pragmatism" gotten Tbilisi?
They are eye-catching, stylish and rich. They are the first daughters of the oil-soaked Caspian Sea autocracy, Azerbaijan, and when they decided to model for a local fashion magazine, the adoration from some Azerbaijani media outlets made the Bible's Song of Songs sound reserved.
But it's what's left unsaid that truly puts the fashion-show in focus. Decked out in the snazzy outfits that they allegedly picked out of their wardrobes for the shoot, the august Aliyev sisters -- 28-year-old Leyla and 24-year-old Arzu -- prompted praise so ebullient that the authors must have been taking breaks to tear up while writing it.
The two provide "clear proof," Azerbaijani public television and Büro 24/7 simultaneously gushed, that “not only physical appearance, but also wisdom, the inner world, charm and individuality are inherited genetically."
Taking a breath, the public television writer goes on to advise readers that “Every public appearance of the eastern beauties offers a chance to feast your eyes on their beautiful manners, their skill at socializing with friends, family and the people around them."
Georgia claims it has averted an accidental encroachment on its sovereignty by one of the world's most powerful forces. No, not by Russia. By McDonald's.
The Illinois-based hamburger giant recently advertised on its website for a franchisee in Abkhazia, a breakaway region that Tbilisi and most of the international community (unlike Russia and a handful of pals) see as part of Georgia, and not, as the McDonald's ad suggested, an independent country.
Given Abkhazia's proximity to the 2014 Winter Olympics host city of Sochi, opening up a restaurant in the region may well have struck some at the Games' "Official Restaurant" as a swell idea. But in Tbilisi, the ad was construed as a plan to recognize Abkhazia’s de-facto independence from Georgia.
The question was how to respond. Severing ties with McDonald's was not in the cards. McDonald's has pretty much got Georgia hooked on its menu, free wifi and kids' parties.
Some people mooted the idea of boycotting the company's four Georgia-based restaurants. Or of protests, that ancient Georgian tradition.
But before matters reached such a head, the company deleted the statement, now found only in a Google cache or referenced in news stories.
McDonald’s franchisee for Georgia, businessman Temur Chkonia, took credit for the move. Calling the Abkhazia ad "a very primitive mistake," Chkonia told Netgazeti.ge that he had talked with a lawyer for McDonald's about the solicitation, and is awaiting a written explanation.
Episode 4: Iconic filmmaker Sergo (Sergei) Parajanov – a man who in his lifetime gained a reputation as the Soviet Union’s Fellini – would have turned 90 today. This EurasiaNet video pays tribute to Parajanov’s legacy, which extends well beyond his native region, the South Caucasus.