Be advised that drinking and getting naked in public may soon be strictly prohibited in Georgia, so adjust your plans accordingly.
For reasons unknown, the country's ever-reforming interior ministry has proposed a law to impose hefty fines for “morally offensive public behavior." Since the authors of the law did not bother to provide an operational definition of “morally offensive public behavior,” the project has raised many questions and eyebrows.
Many Georgians assumed that a public kissing ban was underway. In this fairly conservative country, public displays of affection other than hugs and kisses (the latter often for greetings or farewells) are rarely encountered, unless someone is really looking for it.
But an ongoing conflict over values (as seen recently with the May 17 attack on an anti-homophobia rally in Tbilisi) prompted some to fear the worst. A wave of protest spread across social networking sites and threatened to spill into the streets in the form of a mass act of protest-kissing.
Interior ministry spokesperson Nino Giorgobiani finally had to intervene (via Facebook) with an attempt at explanation. She said that the law does not consider “dating and kissing” as morally inappropriate. Rather, a good example of what the law will try to prevent is public nudity, Giorgobiani said.
But Tbilisi is not Munich, and there is no practice of naked picnicking or Frisbee tournaments here. Police did not specify why, of all things at hand, they prioritized tackling the non-existent problem of public nudity or why they wanted to propose such legislation.
The main concern is that the ambiguous wording leaves it to police officers and judges to decide what constitutes indecency, or even nudity.
The results for Azerbaijan proved the big surprise from the South Caucasus in this year's Global Corruption Barometer by anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International.*
Though Azerbaijan is repeatedly rated and berated as the region’s most corrupt country, many of the 1,001 Azerbaijanis surveyed for the poll by the Baku-based SIAR (Social and Marketing Research Company) had a more positive assessment of their national corruption situation than did respondents for neighboring Armenia and Georgia.
Azerbaijan long has had run-ins with allegations that senior officials and members of President Ilham Aliyev's family are cashing in on their positions, but, apparently, most respondents believe the government now is giving the corruption fight all it's got. Sixty-eight percent of respondents deemed the government's actions "effective," a rate which topped Georgia, often described as the region's main corruption-buster, by 14-percentage points.
On perceptions of corruption in the public sector, Azerbaijan finished a half point behind Georgia, roughly mid-range on a scale of one to five, while Armenia settled firmly into the trouble zone at 4.4.
Similarly, both in Azerbaijan and Georgia, public perception of corruption of political parties was 28 percent of respondents, according to Transparency International (TI). The rate is noticeably higher in Armenia, at 57 percent.
A group of Azerbaijani feminists has given a blow-up female doll to an Azerbaijani official who said that women should stick to the kitchen.
“We hope that our gift will really tie your kitchen together,” the activists wrote in a note attached to the package, delivered last week to the door of Namik Hasanov, spokesperson for Azerbaijan's Ministry of Transportation.
On the eve of International Women's Day (March 8), Hasanov took sexism -- a persistent issue in the macho mountains of the Caucasus -- to a whole new level by saying that a “grave or a kitchen” is a good place for women.
After a consequent outpouring of anger, Hasanov tried to moderate his remarks, but chose a strange way to do so.
In comments to Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty, he said that he did not mean the observation in a bad way. “I just think women look best in the kitchen,” Hasanov was quoted as saying by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. “I don’t want a woman to destroy her family for the sake of her work or a career.”
A group of women, mainly rights activists, then chose to present Hasanov with the woman of his dreams; someone he could firmly place in a kitchen or “a coffin” or whatever other place floats his boat.
“We reminded him that a woman is not a home appliance…but, rather, a citizen with full rights,” said activist Ulviya Mamedova, Sehife news service reported.
Armenians were busy dousing each other with buckets of water on July 7 both to cool down in the scorching summer heat and to celebrate the miracle of Jesus Christ. Or the pagan goddess Astghik. Or Noah and his ark. Or just to get wet.
Mention Vardavar in Armenia and the locals "will look at you with big and scared eyes," according to one travel site. This is the time when anyone who ventures outside, be it locals or unsuspecting visitors, risks getting showered with water thrown from the balconies or by people in the street.
The Armenian Apostolic Church says it has it on good authority that the sight pleases the Lord. The festival marks the Transfiguration, the episode in the Bible when a radiant Christ appears alongside the prophets Moses and Elijah. Jesus may have left no specific instructions to go around throwing water in honor of the event, but that’s what Armenia, the first state to go Christian, religiously does every year, 98 days after Easter.
Some trace the roots of the water-throwing fest further into Armenia’s ancient history, to pagan festivities dedicated to Astghik, a goddess of water, love and fertility. Pagan Armenians are believed to have thrown doves and presented roses ("vard" in Armenian) to Astghik, who, as one publication put it, sowed "the seeds of love" in Armenian soil.
Others look to Noah, who, according to legend, anchored his ark on the Armenian national symbol of Mount Ararat, now located in neighboring Turkey.
Oscar-winning screenwriter Rustam Ibragimbekov has been nominated for president of Azerbaijan, an award that the post-Soviet cinema celebrity will need to snatch from the current, all-powerful, ever-incumbent president, Ilham Aliyev.
“The East is a delicate matter,” goes a popular trope from a cult Soviet movie co-written by Ibragimbekov, "The White Sun of the Desert", a Soviet version of a Spaghetti Western where a cowboy-style hero confronts a guerrilla ringleader on the Caspian Sea's shores. This movie, and numerous others, such as the Academy-Award-winning "Burnt by the Sun," are what Ibragimbekov brings to the table in this real-life fight with a Caspian boss.
Opposition groups, long drubbed into a political corner by President Aliyev’s Yeni Azerbaijan Party juggernaut, hope that the Moscow-based Ibragimbekov’s status and connections will help them get voters' nod for Azerbaijan's lead political role.
The expectation may sound a little optimistic given how well cemented Aliyev’s power is, but the nomination does seem to have put the ruling elite out of humor.
Ibragimbekov “political movie” is going to flop, scoffed Siyavush Novruzov, a senior Yeni Azerbaijan Party member. “Rustam Ibragimbekov is fooling himself,” Novruzov said, APA news agency reported. “He will only embarrass himself and the political parties that have united behind him.”
With Georgia's politicians long accustomed to describing each other as devils, demons and all things beside, it is, perhaps, only fitting that the election for the country's next president will take place on Halloween.
Georgians are not likely to hit the polls in costumes, however. The Halloween tradition is still only just beginning to emerge here -- primarily in Tbilisi -- over the objections of the Georgian Orthodox Church. But the timing will add to the suspense.
By law, President Mikhail Saakashvili was required to set the day for the vote sometime in October. And, obliged to step down after two terms in office, he has chosen to hold on to power until the last constitutionally allowed day, October 31.
But, the Halloween backdrop aside, some local commentators believe that the election is going to be the least eventful presidential vote since Georgia regained its independence in 1991.
Thanks to constitutional reforms, whoever becomes the new inhabitant of Tbilisi's glass-domed, cliff-top presidential palace will be much weaker than his or her predecessors. The key powers will be concentrated in no less glassy a palace on the opposite hill, the dwelling place of Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.
The exodus of Syria’s ethnic Armenian community to Armenia was seen, at least in part, as a temporary phenomenon. But it appears that the thousands of Syrian war migrants have come to Armenia to stay, Armenian officials say.
“If . . . last year, some 80-90 percent of Syrian Armenians were saying that they planned on going back to Syria, now they are thinking of making their home here,” Firdus Zakaryan, a representative of the Diaspora ministry told the Panorama news site.
Extending a helping hand to ethnic Armenian communities in trouble is a matter of national honor for the Armenian state, which maintains close ties with the far-flung Armenian Diaspora. Over the past few years, Yerevan has been carrying in and making room for thousands of ethnic Armenians caught in the crossfire between the Syrian government and rebels.
Yerevan says it is happy to have Armenia's Syrian relatives over for as long as they want. But the extended hospitality is a major humanitarian burden. The Armenian government needs to find housing, jobs and schools for the endless stream of arrivals, who have spent generations apart from Armenia, and speak Arabic and/or Western Armenian, not the official Eastern Armenian of the motherland.
But with the country still struggling to cope with massive labor migration -- disputed government data claims 49,660 citizens emigrated for good in 2012, EurasiaNet.org's Marianna Grigoryan has reported -- dealing with an influx of newcomers is a task Armenia is more than willing to take on, however.
Graybeards may recall a quote that defined American involvement in the Vietnam War, attributed to an anonymous officer in the US Army in 1968: “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”
In Georgia these days, the ruling Georgian Dream Party, led by Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, seems to be operating according to a variant of that twisted maxim: In order to restore the rule of law, it’s ok to play fast and loose with due process.
The wacky way the Georgian Dream is trying to promote justice was on full display June 27, when police detained 23 officials from Tbilisi municipality, then released them, only to re-arrest a few of them later the same day.
Representatives of the minority United National Movement (UNM), loyal to President Mikheil Saakashvili, say the arrests are nothing more than an act of political revenge, and assert they will protest by boycotting parliamentary work. Among those arrested were city council officials and deputy Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava, a senior UNM member and close ally of President Saakashvili.
Police charged the officials with embezzlement of public funds, while vigorously denying any political motivation in their actions. Some members of the Georgian Dream did concede that the original round-up ran afoul of proper arrest procedures. The Interior Ministry claimed that the officials misappropriated sums from the city development fund and used public money provide hors d’oeuvres for UNM party gatherings. To substantiate the claim, the ministry released footage showing the officials collecting cash from ATMs.
The frozen conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is being flavored with some Cold-War spice, namely a space race.
Readers will recall that earlier this year Azerbaijan succeeded in flinging a satellite into orbit. Not to be outdone, Armenia is now making plans to place its own satellite in space.
The estimated cost of Armenia’s space ambitions – $250 million – should raise some eyebrows given that the country’s GDP (based on purchasing power parity) is roughly $19 billion, and it already has $4.37 billion in sovereign debt. But the economic practicality of the venture probably isn’t the most important consideration for Yerevan. With the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict still stalemated, Armenian leaders don’t want to give their Azerbaijani counterparts any idea that they can’t keep up in any type of arms race.
Azerbaijan used its oil and gas wealth to underwrite its satellite project. Armenian telecommunications officials are saying they will scrape together funds from private investors for their satellite. To succeed, the country may put to use its key natural resource, the Armenian diaspora. Remittances from Armenians abroad make up a significant share of Armenia’s national income. Meanwhile, Russia, Armenia’s main regional ally and a space-exploration heavyweight, may lend money for the venture and help manufacture the satellite.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty claims its satellite news broadcasts are being sabotaged in Azerbaijan, where the US-Congress-funded outlet is among the few outlets that offer criticism of the government.
Its signal has repeatedly gone static over the past few months and changing satellites did not solve the problem, RFE/RL* said on June 20. “On three successive weekends the [news] show, “Different News” . . . registered interference that began four to five minutes into programming and ended shortly after it concluded,” the organization said.
RFE/RL did not directly point the finger at the Azerbaijani government, but listed some facts that suggest who may have the capacity or the desire to put the kibbosh on a free flow of news. Reporters from RFE/RL's Azerbaijani service have faced many cases and forms of harassment. None of the cases have been investigated, while the authorities don’t miss the chance to take RFE/RL reporters to task.