Ever eager to use its underground energy riches to fuel its above-ground ambitions, Azerbaijan has selected an unnamed manufacturer to produce a second satellite. But along with developing a space industry, the South Caucasus country has now forayed into another, far more down-to-earth business, too — producing bicycles.
The satellite, of course, is the celebrity. Azerbaijani officials said on October 5 that they have made their pick from international bidders to supply AzerSpace-2. The bidders include two US companies — the Dulles, Virginia-based Orbital ATK and Palo Alto, California-based Space System Loral; China’s Great Wall Industry Corp and France’s Airbus Defense and Space.
Communications Minister Ali Abbasov said the selection will be announced soon. “The launch of the satellite is expected in late 2017 or early 2018,” the minister told Trend.az.
Azerbaijan bought its first satellite, AzerSpace-1, from Orbital Sciences Corporation, now part of Orbital ATK, a few years back. The deal came with some help from the US Export-Import Bank. The satellite’s launch from a space center in French Guiana in 2013 came amidst various efforts by Azerbaijan, brimming with energy wealth, to boost its presence internationally.
Both the US and European Union have criticized Azerbaijan for its Soviet-style control of the media and roughshod treatment of political dissent, but American and European companies alike continue to take an interest in such strategic investments.
Joseph Stalin's monument now lies in an abandoned lot outside of Gori, his hometown in Georgia.
The city council in Joseph Stalin’s Georgian hometown of Gori struck down on October 2 a motion to restore the Soviet dictator’s monument in the town square. The fierce debate left unclear the fate of the grand, six-meter statue that just refuses to be consigned to the ash heap of history.
Gori’s Stalinists have made stubborn attempts to bring their icon’s statue back to the town center, but central government officials have resisted these efforts, which they view as an embarrassment to the country’s goals of Western integration.
Today’s debate on the topic at Gori’s city council erupted into a shouting match between Stalin supporters and opponents.
The Stalinists argue that Joseph Visarionovich is Gori’s (and Georgia’s) most famous son and the major tourist attraction in gritty Gori, a town some 40 kilometers west of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. Visitors indeed flock to the Stalin Museum which features a massive collection of Stalin memorabilia, including his death mask and a tiny shack where the comrade-in-chief, then known as Soso, the Georgian diminutive for his first name, spent his early years.
Georgia’s top opposition-minded channel, the influential Rustavi2, claims that an October 1 court ruling that freezes a majority shareholder’s stake in the company will lead to the television station’s closure.
“Today we are as close to ceasing broadcasts as ever,” Rustavi2 Director Nika Gvaramia said at a news conference. “All sources of financing have been shut down,” he said.
A fierce critic of the ruling Georgian Dream Coalition and supportive of the opposition United National Movement, Rustavi2, the country's largest private TV station, has been bogged down in a property dispute with a former shareholder, Kibar Khalvashi, for some time. The dispute led the Tbilisi City Court first to freeze Rustavi2’s assets and, now, the 51-percent stake held in Rustavi2 by the channel’s majority shareholder company, Sakartvelo.
The freeze interrupted the sale of the company to a new owner, who, Gvaramia claimed, was planning to invest $6 million in the national broadcaster.
That new owner, Dimitri Chikovani, is the brother-in-law of ex-Defense Minister Davit Kezerashvili, a Saakashvili-era cabinet minister who was granted political asylum in France after being prosecuted by the Georgian government on various criminal charges.
Riling his Armenian hosts, the organization’s Russian deputy general secretary, General Valery Semerikov, made it abundantly clear on September 30 that the latest deadly escalation between the two countries is Armenia’s, not the security bloc’s, problem. In media comments in Yerevan, Semerikov said that the fast spiral of violence between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces is nothing that Armenia can’t handle on its own.
Armenian Army Chief of Staff Yuri Khachaturov did not conceal his frustration with these remarks in the middle of drills billed “Unbreakable Brotherhood 2015.” Khachaturov claimed that Armenia is, indeed, more than capable of handling the confrontation with Azerbaijan, but said that he would like to see some form of support from fellow members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) — Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
“After all we are in one organism, in one security system, so this [support] should be voiced,” RFE/RL's Armenian service quoted Khachaturov as saying. “We are not asking for help quite yet, but support, purely human support, we would like to hear.”
Georgia plays no small role in Europe’s efforts to diversify away from Russian natural gas, but the South-Caucasus country itself could find it needs to diversify back toward its enemy’s energy. Late last week, Russia and Georgia held talks on gas shipments, but have offered only scant details about the negotiations.
Observers in Georgia pricked up their ears when Gazprom’s Chief Executive Officer Alexei Miller met Georgian Energy Minister Kakha Kaladze on September 25 in Brussels. Gazprom said that exports to and through Georgia were discussed, prompting some local concern over the chance that Georgia would take on additional volumes of Russian gas, which for Moscow is as much a foreign policy instrument as it an export commodity. In comments to Georgian media, Gia Volski, chairperson of Georgia’s ruling Georgian Dream parliamentary faction, suggested that Tbilisi treads carefully on the topic of Russian gas imports.
Granted, most of Gazprom supplies to Georgia only go through the country to reach neighboring Armenia, which relies on Russia for most of its energy needs. Georgia retains 10 percent of shipments to Armenia as a transit fee. Last year, Georgia received 200 million cubic meters of Russia gas, which accounted for only nine percent of the gas consumed by Georgia in 2014, the energy ministry told EurasiaNet.org. Gazprom puts the figure at 300 million cubic meters.
In a Tbilisi restaurant this week, 16 contestants from the Miss Chinese Cosmos Pageant waited expectantly for a dish of pelamushi, a grape-juice pudding and traditional Georgian dessert. The 12 who were served it made it to the semifinal. In compensation, the remaining four were presented with plates of jewelry and got — who could resist this? — a photo memento with Georgian government officials.
Google, Bing, Yahoo, all move aside. In a first for the South Caucasus, Azerbaijan is working on its own web-search service. Officials in the tightly controlled energy-exporter say that both national security and commercial considerations prompted the idea.
Under the guidance of the Ministry of Communications, the government body that oversaw the launch of the world’s first Azerbaijani satellite, Azerbaijani coders have already developed a web crawler and are now working on a software application, Trend news agency reported on September 23.
A government-run technology developer, Dilmanc, said that the national search engine will bring more information security to Azerbaijan. The ministry has not elaborated about perceived threats, but some rights activists likely would surmise that government critics are among the ministry’s main concerns.
The government, however, already has a reputation for pressing for netizen loyalty. Democracy-watchdog Freedom House reports that online activists and bloggers have faced growing harassment over the past few years.
On the other hand, Dilmanc’s director, Abulfat Fatulayev, claims the national search engine offers attractive money-making opportunities -- always a consideration amidst low oil prices and an economy heavily dependent on hydrocarbons.
There is something about Steven Seagal that really appeals to authoritarian leaders across the former Soviet Union. Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev now has become the latest regional strongman to host the Hollywood b-list action hero and BFF of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Stevan Seagal noted that he was pleased to visit Azerbaijan, saying that he was deeply impressed by what he saw in the county,” announced the presenter of an English-language, government video that showed Seagal chatting away with Aliyev on September 21. The actor, the announcer assured viewers, was impressed by the high-level conduct of the European Games, a continental sports contest hosted by Azerbaijan in June. Aliyev thanked his aikido black-belt master visitor for the kind words and could not help but agree that the Games were, indeed, fabulous.
On a mission to bring the world together through aikido, the actor then took the opportunity to share some tricks with Azerbaijan’s aspiring young fighters. Taking off his shoes and getting on the mat with an aikido class in Baku, he told them that “I was lucky enough to meet with your president… and look forward to working with you as my family.” And then sent one of his new pupils flying with a single move.
Seagal, who said he will be coming back to Azerbaijan to teach his trade, has been giving martial arts workshops in many a post-Soviet place, from Kazakhstan to Russia, and cavorting with local leaders like Chechnya’s redoubtable Ramzan Kadyrov. In 2013 in the Chechen capital, Grozny, he even broke into a frantic dance, with arms wind-milling wildly as a traditional female dancer gracefully glided around him.
After putting yet another journalist in jail, a top official in Azerbaijan advised foreign news companies to comply with the country’s tight media regulations or face the consequences. The warning was addressed, among others, to Voice of America, the foreign broadcasting outlet of the US government.
News operations like Voice of America and the Berlin-based Meydan TV “do not comply with the rules and operate in the country illegally,” mainstream Azerbaijani news outlets cited Ali Hasanov, President Ilham Aliyev’s senior aide for political issues, as saying. Failure to get accreditation from Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry, as required by government regulations, led to the recent detentions of journalists from MeydanTV, he claimed.
Such measures may not be the usual response for bureaucratic lapses, but that didn’t give Hasanov pause. As international criticism of Azerbaijan’s rights-record increases, particularly in the wake of investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova's imprisonment*, Hasanov and other officials show no sign of loosening things up.
Most recently, a 19-year-old reporter with Meydan TV was detained and sentenced to 30 days in jail for allegedly resisting police. Several other journalists from the Internet broadcaster, an outlet critical of President Aliyev’s rule, were summoned to police stations. Meydan TV and international media-rights observers said the company and its director, Emin Milli, have become the target for a government harassment campaign.
A high-court decision in Georgia this week ended more than a year’s worth of pre-trial detention for a major opposition figure, former Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava, but a subsequent trial judgement has sent him back to prison for a four-and-a-half-year-long stretch.
The string of events already has revived a longstanding debate about whether the rule of law does indeed outweigh politics in Georgia.
Ugulava, 40, was released late on September 17 to a hero’s welcome from fellow members of the United National Movement (UNM), former President Mikheil Saakashvili’s party and the largest opposition to the ruling Georgian Dream coalition. The day before, the Constitutional Court, the country's highest judicial body, ruled that the constitution does not allow a defendant to be kept in detention for over nine months.
Many lawyers hailed the decision as “historic” for declaring unconstitutional a criminal law provision that allowed pre-trial detention to be extended beyond nine months if new charges are brought.
Ironically, that “unconstitutional” measure was voted into law by Ugulava’s own UNM party back in 2010.
But Ugalava’s time out of jail proved brief. Late on September 18, the Tbilisi City Court sentenced the ex-mayor, once one of the country’s most powerful political figures, to 4.5 years in prison for the alleged misspending of public funds. He was acquitted on money-laundering charges.