An image of Ismayilova emerging from prison on May 25 with a smile and a here-I-am gesture spread online as a symbol of a collective victory over the powerful political machine that tried to silence her. "That's how you leave prison, smiling, [like] you've been to a nice vacation in Italy," said Keti Abashidze, South Caucasus coordinator for the Human Rights House Foundation. Abashidze along with several other of Ismayilova's friends, colleagues and supporters gathered in Tbilisi, Georgia on the reporter's 40th birthday, May 27.
They recalled that it was with that same smile that Ismayilova in late 2014 dismissed friends' pleas not to return from Strasbourg to Baku, where she was to face certain arrest. "Even the prison officials were asking me why I'm smiling all the time," Ismayilova said in videoed comments to RFE/RL, one of the outlets for which she worked.
Her globally acclaimed work and the positive attitude she has kept through her ordeal, which included blackmail with a sex tape, turned her into an international investigative journalism icon. As various celebrities and public figures spoke up for her, her imprisonment became an embarrassment for the international-spotlight-seeking Azerbaijani state.
Election season in Georgia can only mean one thing: a slugfest. Four years ago the nation did witness its first peaceful, post-Soviet handover of power by elections, but it has yet to experience an electoral process that does not involve broken noses. A recent brawlduring municipal council by-elections came as a troubling theatrical trailer for this fall’s main attraction, a parliamentary vote.
On May 19, outside a polling station in the western village of Kortskheli, able-bodied supporters of the Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia, the flagship party in the country’s ruling coalition, brutally beat key figures from the party’s main political antagonist, the United National Movement (UNM). UNM leaders such as Giga Bokeria, an ex-national security chief and key political strategist for former President Mikheil Saakashvili, suffered beatings. The police have launched an investigation.
The UNM still managed to prevail in that particular district, for a total of two wins overall, according to preliminary results.
The party released a list of alleged attackers, among whom were recognized martial arts professionals, including Olympic athlete Vladimer Gegeshidze, a member of the national Greco-Roman wrestling team and a European wrestling championship medalist. How these individuals happened to be in the village at the time has not been clarified.
Thirty-year-old Giga Otkhozoria was beaten and shot dead on Georgian-controlled territory by Abkhaz border guards in broad daylight and full public view on May 19. The murder was caught on camera.
Otkhozoria, who was displaced from Abkhazia, but, like many in western Georgia, had relatives there, was trying to cross into Abkhazia but was not allowed by separatist border guards, which led to a brawl.
CCTV footage aired on Georgian television showed Otkhozoria pursued by four men into the Georgia-controlled side of Georgia-Abkhaz de-facto border crossing of Nabakevi-Khurcha.
An elderly woman tried to pull them apart, but one man pulled Otkhozoria down and another, uniformed assailant shot him twice, firing the second bullet into his head at near point-blank as people milled about the place. The attackers then scurried off back to the Abkhaz side.
Police on either side of the separatist line have launched investigations. Abkhazia’s de-facto military prosecutors acknowledged the incident took place, and said they would ask the Georgian side to share their own evidence. The Georgian prosecutors identified the shooter as Abkhaz resident Rashid Khajinogli. How they arrived at that conclusion is not clear.
The Turkish tomato, the ultimate victim of the Russia-Turkey food fight, is suspected of finding an unlikely way around Russian import ban -- Armenia.
Following its embargo on agricultural imports from Turkey -- Moscow’s retaliation for Ankara’s downing a Russian warplane last year -- Russia began getting its tomatoes and other salad ingredients from other countries and territories in the neighborhood. “Iran, our friends from Abkhazia, colleagues from Armenia have been taking over the market,” elaborated Igor Artemyev, head of Russia’s Anti-Trust Service, to the Kremlin-run Sputnik news network.
But Moscow also suspects that the Turkish tomato went undercover to infiltrate Russia, trying to pass itself off as Armenian, among other fake identities. Earlier this month, the Russian food safety agency, Rosselkhoznadzor, said that the spike of food imports from Armenia and other countries prompt some doubts. The agency pointed out that imports of tomatoes from Armenia reached a rate of a thousand tons in January and February this year, while in the same period of the last year Armenia did not export any tomatoes to Russia.
Rosselkhoznadzor, long known for its vigilance against suspected covert culinary operations, said that it contacted Armenian officials to make sure that the tomatoes were not coming from Turkey or the European Union. Fruits and veggies from both Armenia and Azerbaijan have been held at the Russian border on several occasions as Russian officials tried to check the quality and the provenance of the imports.
Rockford, Illinois is 5,959 miles (9,590 kilometers) and a total mindset away from the Georgian capital of 1.2 million, Tbilisi. So, perhaps it came as no surprise that some of the attendees at the May 15-17 World Congress of Families, a Rockford, Illinois-based Christian cooperative which promotes heterosexual marriage, were taken aback by the anti-Western stance vehemently espoused by their host, the outspoken nationalist businessman Levan Vasadze, in his crusade against gay marriage.
In a fiery speech to conference goers on May 16, the 45-year-old Vasadze stressed that there are no LGBT groups in Georgia; only provocateurs sponsored by Western non-governmental organizations that will soon be kicked out of the country. He did not elaborate about the basis for his prediction, but identified whom to blame.
The West, he said, owes Georgia an apology for attacking Georgian traditions; a reference to heterosexual marriage and families, both actively encouraged in this emphatically Orthodox Christian country. Vasadze, who holds an MBA from an American university (Emory), demanded that the US apologize “for supporting homosexuality globally” and predicted that Georgia will ally itself with Russia, with which Georgia shares a religious faith and, as he put it, traditional values.
The day when Moscow “realizes its mistake” and ends its support for separatist Abkhazia and South Ossetia will be the day “the West will finally lose Georgia,” he concluded.
Vasadze’s rage, however, did not easily resonate with all Western conference-goers, who saw their gathering as designed to promote an evangelical message of Christian love and the need to fight “Satan’s lies” to preserve the sanctity of a traditional family.
Nor, conceivably, would it have jived with former US President George W. Bush, who sent greetings to the conference.
Ongoing NATO war games in Georgia have elicited not just fears of a vindictive reaction from Russia, but also a healthy dose of homegrown sexism.
“You can’t give a woman a gun or let her make decisions,” proclaimed parliamentarian Tamaz Mechiauri, chairperson of the budget and finance committee, and a member of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition.
He was referring to one particular woman, who packs more guns than anybody else in Georgia, 42-year-old Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli.
Khidasheli is the main host of the May 11-25 US-UK-Georgia drills, marked by columns of US tanks shipped by sea and paratroopers raining down from the sky. Moscow, as always, is warily watching this Western military show close to its borders; essentially a gunshot away from Russian military bases in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Mechiauri is worried that Russia is worried. Following an angry statement by the Kremlin, Mechiauri, 61, came out to say on the eve of the drills that they spell danger for Georgia and the country should keep the Alliance at arm’s length lest it incur Moscow’s wrath.
He called for firing Khidasheli because a) she will get Georgia into trouble and; b) defense ain’t a woman’s job. “This country is a not a toy. You can’t have her drag tanks in and out,” he fumed, proposing that Khidasheli play computer war games instead.
The South Caucasus country of Georgia marked May 9, the day former Soviet republics celebrate the 1945 victory over Nazi Germany, with a debate about its Stalinist past and its NATO future.
As per tradition, elderly communists dusted off photos of their favorite Soviet dictator, wartime leader Joseph Stalin, as well as Soviet flags and World War II medals. Demanding the return of a monument to the Great Leader, they paraded Stalin’s bust through his hometown of Gori.
But this year they faced a rival rally, in which several rock bands performed to prove that Stalin is not the only rock star in town.
Just as the Communists marched with slogans proclaiming “Glory to Stalin!,” young activists gathered nearby with slogans declaring “Totalitarianism Kills!” and “Gori Is Not Red.” The red stars were pitted against the stars of the European Union, the place where Georgia, at least most of it, hopes to be in the future.
“The victory over fascism was undoubtedly a momentous event. Nobody denies that,” activist Nino Dalakishvili told Netgazeti.ge. “However, today when we see that [World War II] veterans are being used by political forces and these forces are being sponsored by Russia, we believe this is detrimental to our country. This is what we rally against. We want to defend our nation’s progressive, pro-Western policy.”
There are widespread concerns that Moscow, seeking a political foothold in Georgia, is enabling the growing, but still relatively marginal anti-Western rhetoric in the country.
A group of concerned citizens at Georgia’s non-profit Demographic Development Fund (GDF) believe that sagging marriage and birth rates have brought the small post-Soviet nation to the cusp of a “demographic catastrophe.” And this is something Tinder, the get-acquainted app, and the like won’t fix. A government-backed dating service is in order, they say.
“We will take a census of all singles, widows, widowers, the divorced and enter their details in a database,” Davit Khizanishvili, the fund’s president, announced last month. Via an agency dedicated to this particular exercise, the non-profit has already started to profile Georgia’s singles, taking careful note of such personal details as “weight, height and zodiac sign.”
The GDF carries the blessing of the Georgian Orthodox Church, the country's most influential public institution, and parliamentarians have scurried to make donations from their salaries.