Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva at the sacred Black Stone inside the Haram Mosque's Kaaba, the most revered site in Islam.
Yes, you read that right. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev on April 7 swapped his usual suit-and-tie look for the white robes of a Muslim pilgrim to Mecca. His wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, and daughters Leyla and Arzu, the country’s glamor-icons, and teenage-son, Heydar, came along, too.
Azerbaijan may be a predominantly Shi’a Muslim country, but this is the first time that its all-powerful ruling family has been known to circumambulate the Haram Mosque’s Kaaba, the high holy point for Islam.
Religious piety, in fact, has never been seen as the strongest of suits for the 53-year-old Aliyev, who was born to a Soviet nomenklatura family and essentially inherited the presidency from his father, Heydar Aliyev, a Soviet-era leader of Azerbaijan.
Indeed, in keeping with that Soviet past, the Azerbaijani government and much of Azerbaijani society itself also remain resolutely secular. Azerbaijan has arms and energy deals with Israel, and did not flinch at hosting what clerics in neighboring Iran termed the “gay,” “Zionist” Eurovision Song Contest in 2012.
Yet with popular devotion to Islam on the rise within Azerbaijan, Aliyev most likely feels the need to show he’s in tune with the times; as the extensive photo-spread on the president’s official site suggests.
The fact that Aliyev and his family made it inside the Kaaba, solemnly observed the state-run Azertag, is "a manifestation of the importance the Islamic world attaches to the personality and activity of President Ilham Aliyev.”
That said, the surprising tableau could also have been seen as good for business. Energy-rich Azerbaijan, it appears, has its eye on Arab investment.
A series of brazen homicides, including of a police officer this weekend, are sowing worries about a resurgence of crime in Georgia. So far, the Georgian government has played down the problem and accuses the opposition of alarmism. But the fact that the murders occurred in broad daylight, and that police, so far, have failed to bring the killers to justice are prompting concerns that Georgia’s much-praised police is losing its grip.
Although his identity is well known, the man accused of killing two police officers since January remains on the loose. The suspect, Shalva Abuladze, is a convicted criminal released amidst the amnesties initiated by the ruling Georgian Dream coalition.
The latest shooting of which he is accused took place on April 5 in a Tbilisi suburb during a document-check. One policeman was killed and the other badly wounded. Abuladze was tracked down by police the next day, but again allegedly opened fire and managed to escape.
Relatives of the two killed policemen have laid blame on the amnesties, which released hundreds of prisoners allegedly convicted and incarcerated on insufficient evidence. The releases have been proving as controversial as the mass incarcerations by the previous Georgian government, under ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili.
Kim Kardashian, the US celebrity who conquered the Internet, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who conquered Crimea, will be among the VIPs to visit Armenia this month for the 100th anniversary of the mass slaughter of ethnic Armenians in Ottoman Turkey.
TV star Kardashian, her rapper husband Kanye West and much of her Armenian-American clan are headed this week to the tiny South Caucasus country that is the Kardashians’ paternal homeland, celebrity-news site X17 reported on April 4. The trip will be filmed for E!’s “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” television show.
Already, she has begun her preparations.
Concerned about her roots, Kardashian changed her look from platinum blonde back to brunette for the pilgrimage, US Magazine noted; a shade perhaps also seen as better suited for the occasion.
Putin may have made no similar adjustments, but, unlike Kardashian, he confirmed plans to attend the official commemoration ceremony itself on April 24.
Nonetheless, Kardashian’s presence in the country will help Armenia in what is proving to be fierce competition with Turkey over April 24, a date Ankara has selected to remember the landmark 1915 Battle of Gallipoli.
Yerevan and Ankara have accused one another of deliberately timing their respective commemorations to leave the world’s leaders and celebrities with an uncomfortable choice. The two countries are closely comparing RSVPs.
Georgians have developed a taste for fast food during the fasting period of Lent. The trend has highlighted a cultural paradox in this South Caucasus state, where Orthodox Christianity forms perhaps the main pillar of national identity.
The South-Caucasus representative for Human Rights Watch, Giorgi Gogia, was en route to Tbilisi on March 31 after being kept at the Baku airport for over 30 hours for unclear reasons.
Border officials on March 30 had barred Gogia from entering Azerbaijan and took away his passport, the New-York-City-based international rights group said.
In a brief phone-conversation on the evening of March 31, Gogia, a Georgian national, told EurasiaNet.org that he was now boarding a flight back to Tbilisi, his residence. Azerbaijani officials had given him no clear reason for the confiscation of his passport or holding him in the airport, he said.
Gogia left for Baku on March 30 to attend the controversial March-31 trials of imprisoned human-rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev and rights-activist Rasul Jafarov, said HRW Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia Rachel Denber.
“Authorities in Azerbaijan have not provided any explanation to us,” Denber commented to EurasiaNet.org
Human Rights Watch and Gogia personally have been frequent critics of what democracy watchdogs calls Azerbaijan’s authoritarian slide. Increasingly, journalists and rights activists are being jailed in Azerbaijan on what many observers deem spurious charges designed to squash criticism of President Ilham Aliyev's government.
In a tweet, Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe’s former human-rights commissioner, on March 31 termed the actions toward Gogia a “sad sign of worsening clamp down.”
EurasiaNet.org could not reach the Azerbaijani foreign ministry for comment.
In a state-of-the-nation address snubbed by Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili and his cabinet, Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili on March 31 called for a more participatory democracy, and cautioned against any one group trying to lay exclusive claim to the country’s political processes.
“Improving democracy is a constant process. There never will be a time when we can say ‘Stop working on it,’” Margvelashvili said.
But the cabinet and the prime minister weren’t there to hear it. Gharibashvili, the president’s regular sparring partner, earlier had explained their absence by an alleged desire to avoid “pomp.”
Georgia’s constitution does not require the prime minister and cabinet to attend the speech, but the empty seats once again underscored a sharp, ongoing rivalry between the head of state and the head of government.
Constitutional reform in 2010 largely reduced the Georgian president’s role to a guardian of the constitution, but still left him with some key functions, such as that of commander-in-chief and the power to strike down parliamentary bills and cabinet nominations. The president is a directly elected official, unlike the parliament-appointed prime minister.
Yet critics, including opposition groups, charge that the Georgian Dream coalition and its chairperson, Gharibashvili, construe separating powers between the prime minister and president as trying to prevent the president, who no longer bears the blessing of Georgian-Dream founder Bidzina Ivanishvili, from taking part in government.
Forget the stereotypes about sun, wine and song. The Caucasus is a sad place and, in this region, Georgia is the saddest of all, according to a recent Gallup poll.
Georgia may persistently rank as the most democratic and liberal country within the South Caucasus, but it also ranks among the world's top ten countries with "the lowest positive emotions," the poll found.
In fact, the thousand Georgians surveyed in June-July 2014 came across as just a little happier than residents of the world’s most melancholy place, Sudan -- a score of 55 versus 47 on Gallup's "Positive Experience Index." And no happier than those of Afghanistan (also 55).
The survey, though, turned another local stereotype on its head, too. With a score of 59, the region’s smallest country, Armenia, was rated as the happiest — or, rather, the least unhappy -- after answering questions like “Did you feel well-rested yesterday? Were you treated with respect all day yesterday? Did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday?”
Azerbaijan, the largest and richest of the Caucasus three, finished only a notch higher than Georgia, with a score of 56.
Information on how the country-scores were computed, and on the geographic, gender and age-breakdown of the respondents was not immediately available. The Georgia survey had a margin of error of 3.6 percent.
Some Georgians have ascribed the results to a post-traumatic-stress-disorder-like malaise caused by the wars and economic misery they've suffered after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
A daughter of jailed Azerbaijani dissidents, Dinara Yunus, is among the growing choir of Azerbaijan’s critics who are using the upcoming “European Olympics” to draw attention to reported repressions in the Caspian-Sea country.
“My parents dedicated 30 years of their lives to human rights. Now they are in different cells in different prisons because they dared to speak out,” Yunus says in a recent YouTube video. Released by the UK human rights group Amnesty International, the video mixes her monologue with footage of the large-scale preparations in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, for the European Games this June.
“Mr. President [Ilham Aliyev], can you tell me why my mother is in prison after she was critical of the upcoming European games?” Yunus asks in the tape.
Dinara’s mother, prominent human-rights activist Leyla Yunus, is controversially jailed on charges that include tax evasion and spying for the enemy state of Armenia. International democracy-watchdogs scoff at these charges, and those against her husband Arif Yunus and many other activists, as politically motivated.
Charging that Azerbaijan now has as much freedom of speech as can fit inside a prison cell, international human rights groups and emigrant Azerbaijani activists are banking on the June 12-28 European Games to put an international spotlight on what they describe as the government’s authoritarian excesses.
Think the Georgian government is hard up for cash? If anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International is correct, you might want to think again.
In a recent statement, the group claimed that officials failed to spend a whopping 150 million lari (roughly $68 million) budgeted for 2014 expenditures. *
It alleged that the finance ministry had attempted to conceal the scale of the underspending by listing 80 million lari (about $36 million) as a sub-item in the government’s Treasury Single Account (defined by the IMF as “a unified structure of government bank accounts”) to make sure it was not reflected in the country’s annual financial statement.
As a result, the group continued, inaccurate budget-deficit calculations were shown to the public, potential investors and international organizations.
Critics claim that the underspending, the second year in a row, shows that government departments did not keep projects on schedule or even get started with them.
“This is a new paradox that the government has money, but cannot spend it,” drily remarked Roman Gotsiridze, a head of the Central Bank under former President Mikheil Saakashvili, local media reported.
Since regaining independence in 1991, Georgia generally has had the opposite problem, he added.