In a move laden with unfortunate symbolism, the government this week in Azerbaijan, a country with already very little room for free thinking, according to international rights groups, closed down Free Thought University, an alternative education project for young people. The authorities claim that the closure of the Western-funded center is temporary, but, coming amidst a crackdown on the young organizers of recent unsanctioned anti-government rallies, many are taking that assurance with a grain of salt.
Established by young civil-rights activists, the Baku-based facility provides a forum for the free exchange of ideas via "interactive lectures, workshops and presentations" on human rights, governance and economy. Prosecutors claim that its criminal investigation of the youth group NIDA led them to Free Thought University, founded by another youth group, Ol.
Charges have not yet been filed against the Free Thinkers. Nonetheless, documents have been seized, the office door sealed shut, and a tax audit begun to "investigate the legality of the activities of this organization and its establishment, purpose of the money spent and received from foreign organizations as well as determine other details," Trend reported.
A group of Iranian lawmakers has begun drafting a bill on reattaching Azerbaijan to Iran by updating the terms and conditions of a 19th century treaty that ceded part of modern-day Azerbaijan and most of Armenia to Russian control.
The 1828 Turkmenchay Treaty ended the last war between Russia and Persia and paved the way for St. Petersburg to establish suzerainty over the South Caucasus. (Tehran already had given up its claims on Georgia in the 1813 Treaty of Gulistan.)
But the Iranians now argue that there was a critical detail in the fine print.
The treaty, they say, was valid only for 100 years and, therefore, the lawmakers’ logic goes,“re-annexing” Azerbaijan, Iran's northern next-door neighbor, is in order, Iran's government-run FARS news agency reported. Cities "lost" to the Russian Empire were supposed to be returned to Tehran just like "the British-Chinese deal over Hong Kong," the agency claimed.
Politicians in Baku were quick to counter that it is actually Iran that needs to hand over a chunk of its territory to Azerbaijan -- specifically, the northwestern border areas whose primarily ethnic Azeri residents make up about a quarter of Iran's population of roughly 74.8 million.
"Persians have always been in our bondage," asserted ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party Executive Secretary Siyavush Novruzov, APA news agency reported.
Armenians on April 9 can choose which of two presidential inaugurations they wish to attend; a choice which could take the divided country to the next stage of the protracted power struggle between Serzh Sargsyan, the official president-elect, and Raffi Hovhannisian, the feel-good opposition leader who says he just wants an oath for "a new Armenia."
Sargsyan and Hovhannisian have tried to keep their joust peaceful, but, given Armenia's history of post-election violence, tension is in the air. Sargsyan’s inauguration will take place in the National Assembly with foreign dignitaries, officials and clergymen in attendance. Hovhannisian, in the meantime, has invited the discontented to gather at Yerevan’s central Liberty Square for “a little bit of song and dance” -- a frequent occurrence at Armenian opposition rallies -- followed by a formal declaration of the "people’s" (ergo, Hovhannisian’s) victory, and a march .
The legitimacy of either event is in the eyes of the beholder. Many in Armenia, worn out by a sour economy and political strife, have had enough of Sargsyan for the past five years and say they saw enough election fraud during the February presidential vote to accuse him of pocketing another term. But many others contend that Hovhannisian is just a sore loser.
The two ceremonies, therefore, most likely will largely be an exercise in outnumbering and outshouting each other.
The agency claimed that negotiations in Moscow with its Russian counterpart, succinctly known as Rosselkhoznadzor, went well and that, after some changes in agricultural regulations, a taste of Georgia will soon reappear in Russian salads and pirogis.
But, of course, Russian officials want to be the first to get that taste. In what is slowly turning into supra diplomacy, they've been invited back to Georgia to munch on tomatoes and cucumbers at an unspecified date in the future.
Wine-tasting is a serious procedure that brooks no haste, especially when it comes as a form of post-conflict diplomacy and, also, when there is so much wine to taste. For months now, Russian federal wine-tasters have gotten to sniff, slurp, roll the wine around their mouths, look quizzically at each other and make sure the political terroir is acceptable for the Kremlin.
There is a war going on in ex-Soviet parts between governments and non-government organizations. While Russia already has started on an office search of hundreds of NGOs suspected of being "foreign agents," Azerbaijan now is writing a chapter of its own in this epic struggle by picking a bone with the local chapter of the Washington, DC-based National Democratic Institute (NDI).
NDI’s chief of party Alex Grigorievs denied the accusations, but General Prosecutor Zakir Garalov last week sent a letter to US Ambassador to Azerbaijan Richard Morningstar laying out the government's grievances with the group.
But they could lie deeper than finances. The group has been accused of sponsoring youth activists' protests, which already have become a pain in the neck for the Azerbaijani establishment. Particularly during this presidential election year.
The fact that local NDI employee Ruslan Asad was detained twice after participating in two recent such rallies in Baku presumably has not helped NDI’s case any with the Azerbaijani government.
Georgia ran a boot camp of Chechen warriors to prep them for a mission in Russia’s North Caucasus, the Georgian ombudsman claimed in an April 1 parliamentary presentation of his annual report on the state of human rights.
Ombudsman Ucha Naniashvili told lawmakers that the Georgian interior ministry under President Mikheil Saakashvili pulled together a force of over a hundred exiles from Chechnya and other parts of the North Caucasus, armed and coached them, and promised them passage to Russia. The report assumes that the alleged Chechen gambit was Georgia’s way of getting back at Moscow for Russia's occupation of the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia since 2008.
The allegations come as perhaps an unintentional gift for Moscow, whose long-running claims of Georgia sponsoring North Caucasus fighters Tbilisi used to attribute to seasonal fits of paranoia. Under the new government of Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishili, Tbilisi is seeking to mend fences with Moscow, while, at the same time, every busying itself with investigations into the past government. Yet, why it now falls to Georgia's ombudsman to unveil this alleged covert operation may not be immediately clear to some. The report mainly focuses on human rights violations that were allegedly committed by Georgian forces against the fighters and their relatives after an August 2012 standoff, but delves into details far beyond that.
Not me, declared Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava on March 28, thereby making even smaller the potential cast of characters for this October's Georgian presidential election.
Thirty-seven-year-old Ugulava has long been rumored as likely to take the torch from his mentor, President Mikheil Saakashvili, who is now using his lame-duck year to keep his United National Movement afloat in its revived role as opposition force.
“I don’t plan to run. Nor is the party considering my candidacy,” said Ugulava, whose mayoral term expires in 2014. “It is a privilege and a challenge to hold this position and, therefore, I have no intention of leaving [the office of mayor], tempting as the other opportunities out there may be.”
The highfalutin' aside, Mr. Mayor may be making a pragmatic move here. Ugulava is currently awaiting trial on criminal charges of alleged embezzlement/misappropriation of budgetary funds and money laundering -- a tricky detail to explain to voters, despite his denials of guilt.
Even without that, though, the chances for a UNM candidate’s success are not a given these days. Though the coalition may have lost some of its initial, crowd-pleasing luster, Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream juggernaut is still seen as sitting in the catbird seat.
Plus, as Georgia slowly metamorphoses into a parliamentary republic, the presidential position is just not as enticing as it used to be.
A new mosque will be a bridge between Turkey and Georgia, according to Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoğlu, but, depending on how the matter is handled, the sanctuary could also become a wall between the two countries.
Armenia’s post-election standoff has moved into the direction of an epistolary novel as President Serzh Sargsyan and his challenger, Raffi Hovhannisian, work their way to a truce through correspondence that is cc'd to the rest of the nation.
In his latest letter, President Sargsyan kindly asked his hunger-striking rival to have a bite of something, cut the dramatics and sit down to talk. “Please stop the hunger strike, take a day or two to recover and then we will do some serious work, without the theatrics,” the president wrote to Hovhannisian, who claims that Sargsyan stole the presidency from him in Armenia's February 18 election.
Both sides, though, combine the careful courtesy with pointed barbs. Sargsyan, for instance, agreed to entertain Hovhannisian’s ideas for crisis resolution -- “half-baked” and “anti-constitutional” though they may be.
The ideas, laid out in an earlier missive from Hovhannisian, center on a request to hold a repeat presidential election or a parliamentary election preceded by an overhaul of the electoral system. And the prerogative to appoint some key officials such as the general prosecutor and the foreign minister, among others.
Hovhannisian, in turn, has agreed to consider Sargsyan's proposal to meet, thanked his political pen pal for his concern about his health, but assured him that there is no reason to be worried.