You know it’s time for change when you’ve had an armed standoff in the capital city with hundreds calling for your resignation. And so, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, two months after a showdown in Yerevan between police and anti-government gunmen, has replaced his prime minister and several key ministers, ordaining the new cabinet to carry out a “great change.”
But how great that change will actually be is open to debate. Dubbed a government of millionaires by some, the updated cabinet features a few ministers known for their business successes, but others object that it’s still the same old crowd.
The change, noted one analyst, is that this cabinet’s alleged “millionaire ministers” – Prime Minister Karen Karapetian, Health Minister Levon Altunian and Agriculture Minister Ignati Arakelian – come from outside the government and, therefore, are not seen as having recently used an official post to feather their nests.
“The difference is that at least some of the members of [the] new government, including the new prime minister, have not been part of the government institutions, so their assets are not seen as illegitimate by the public,” commented Mikayel Zolyan, a policy analyst with the Regional Studies Center, a Yerevan-based think-tank.
The provenance of a few of the new ministers’ wealth is linked to Russia. Most notably, 53-year-old Prime Minister Karapetian, a former deputy energy minister, held executive positions with Russia’s gas giant Gazprom structures: first, in Yerevan, and then in Moscow.
Not surprisingly, earlier this month he announced that Armenia’s ties with Russia would grow still stronger.
Georgia’s opposition parties are scrambling to piece together their future after the October 8 parliamentary election left the governing Georgian Dream ruling the roost.
Some are turning to emotional eating. Outgoing Georgian Parliamentary Speaker Davit Usupashvili, whose Republican Party failed to make it back into parliament, has said that, in all likelihood, he would dunk his head into a bowl of food.
“When Irakli Gharibashvili stepped down [as prime minister in December 2015], I advised him to … shove his head into satsivi and ponder the future. Now, I have pretty much the same advice for myself,” commented the already relatively rotund Usupashvili. (Satsivi is a spicy walnut purée traditionally served with turkey on New Year’s.)
He might be joined by other opposition politicians, both old-timers and newbies.
United National Movement (UNM) candidate Sevdia Ugrekhelidze, for one, could bring to the table her self-described outstanding khachapuri-baking skills. In a televised pre-election debate, she invited her Georgian Dream rival in a Tbilisi district to have a piece of her rendition of Georgia’s trademark cheese pastry to help digest his loss. But the reverse happened.
Overall, with a total of 67 seats in the 150-seat parliament, the Georgian Dream left the UNM (including Ugrekhelidze) in the dust (with 27 seats) and will get a supermajority if it prevails in pending runoffs for another 51 seats.
The only other opposition presence, the nationalist Patriots' Alliance of Georgia, has a mere six seats and is unlikely to join forces with the UNM on any issue.
A new, Moscow-tolerant player looks set to enter parliament in Georgia after barely clearing the bar in the October 8 elections. Meanwhile, leaders of the country’s fervently pro-Western United National Movement are debating whether to boycott the 150-seat legislature.
As Georgia prepares to dive into another stormy parliamentary vote, two men stand on the opposite shores of the bordering Black Sea, shaking their fists at one another and calling each other names. Yes, they’re at it again. Mikheil Saakashvili and Bidzina Ivanishvili, the perpetual Tom and Jerry of Georgian politics, are getting ready for another of their grand showdowns.
Three days ahead of the October-8 vote, Saakashvili’s smiling, plump face presented itself on a giant screen in downtown Tbilisi. “We may be separated by this sea,” said the 48-year-old ex-president, speaking from Ukraine and pointing at the Black Sea swishing behind him, “but my heart beats in unison with yours, counting . . . the days and seconds to our final victory.” he told a rally for the United National Movement (UNM), the party he founded and Georgia’s largest opposition group.
Vowing to end the dominance of the “Russian oligarch” Ivanishvili, Saakashvili, now governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region, signed off saying that “three days are left before I cross this sea . . .see you in a victorious Georgia!”
The oligarch in question said that a well-fitted prison cell will be ready for Georgia’s former leader should he come ashore in Georgia. “That wretch can go nowhere…He is even afraid to get stuck in an elevator because he has a fear of confined spaces,” alleged Ivanishvili, the 60-year-old former prime minister and billionaire founder and benefactor of the ruling Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia.
As Georgian voters prepare for a parliamentary election on October 8, various irregularities – among them, coup-plot allegations and the explosion of an opposition politician’s car – suggest that democratic practices in Georgia still leave much to be desired.
In Azerbaijan, apparent national enthusiasm for prolonging the rule of the ex-Soviet republic’s longtime leader, Ilham Aliyev, has resulted in a vote-count total for a referendum on the proposed change that exceeds 100 percent.
The energy-blessed Caucasus country’s September 26 referendum on 29 constitutional amendments included a proposal to extend the presidential term in office from five to seven years. The Central Election Commission announced that day that a whopping 91.2 percent of 2,669,430 voters approved the extension (among other amendments) and 4.7 percent voted against, while 4.5 percent of the votes were invalidated. It all adds up to an odd total of 100.4 percent.
The official results report that 110,095 of the votes were invalidated, which usually would amount to 4.1 percent of the total, but Azerbaijan’s election commission seems to disagree.
Critics, however, hold that mathematical wonders can indeed happen under Aliyev’s dynastic and clannish rule. Democracy watchdogs long have maintained that Ilham Aliyev, who took over the presidency in 2003 from his late father, Heydar Aliyev, has all of Azerbaijan’s government offices, including the election commission, under his thumb.
The vote-tally results, therefore, did not come as a surprise to Emin Milli, director of Meydan TV, an independent Azerbaijani news outlet based in Berlin. Milli, a former political prisoner, pointed out the count snafu on his widely followed Facebook page.
Betting on tourism as an important lifeline, Georgia has become a place where Turks, Arabs and Israelis can convene around a poker table. But, to hear ex-Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili tell it, one of the country’s neighbors, Turkey, wants the casinos to close.
In a meeting last week with regional reporters, Ivanishvili, founder of Georgia’s ruling Georgian Dream Party, claimed that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had personally asked him to do away with Georgia’s gambling business a few years back, when both men served as prime ministers of their respective countries.
Watching fellow Turks return with empty wallets from neighboring Georgia apparently had taken its toll on Erdoğan, a practicing Muslim. Islam forbids gambling, and so does Turkey.
The Turkish embassy in Georgia told Tamada Tales, however, that the 2013 meeting with Ivanishvili happened too long ago for it to be able to comment about the two men’s conversation.
Nonetheless, the attractions of Georgia’s casinos for Turkish gamblers are clear.
With gambling banned in all of its Muslim neighbors – Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan – Georgia has essentially become the region’s Vegas (Armenia ranks a distant second) – an unimaginable status 21 years ago, when the James Bond movie “Golden Eye” depicted a Georgian-born honey trap playing a game of baccarat with OO7.
Georgia’s casino capital, the Black Sea city of Batumi, is only a short drive from the Turkish border. Many of Batumi’s casinos have Turkish investment, and are run by and cater to Turks, local media report.
But the proliferation of gambling has caused grumbling on Georgia’s side of the border as well.
A Georgian opera singer did not invite a Georgian billionaire to his birthday party and now they hate each other, fighting for their country in an election campaign that is as much a battle of egos as it is a contest in lavish promises.
Declining the billionaire’s advances to team up for Georgia’s October 8 parliamentary election, renowned operatic bass Paata Burchuladze, 61, will be challenging the incumbent party, Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia, which Ivanishvili founded and brought to power four years ago.
Back then, when Ivanishvili was corralling supporters to dislodge Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, he asked the singer to join the party. “He asked for oodles of money for it and I was offended. I have obviously refused,” Ivanishvili claimed in the latest of his sit-downs with the media, meant to sway public opinion in favor of the government, widely believed to still be under his thumb.
“Could I have possibly asked for a sum that he could not afford? I must have charged a good rate for myself,” Burchuladze quipped in his dulcet bass.
It’s election time in Georgia and, once again, just like summer swallows, accusations about political pressure have returned. This time, though, they come from the head of state himself, with the chairperson of Georgia’s highest court further broadening their scope.
Such allegations come at a sensitive time for the ruling Georgian Dream, which faces an October 8 parliamentary election. The coalition came to power in 2012 after itself facing down various forms of pressure from then President Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration. The group has long maintained that it doesn’t get up to the same sort of tricks.
But some seem to think that depends on the alleged violation. A senior Georgian Dream lawmaker this week suggested that President Giorgi Margvelashvili had been drunk when he claimed that a police run-in with a family member was meant to intimidate him. “He must’ve had a little too much on that day,” said Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Manana Kobakhidze.