Off-limits for Georgians, the separatist side of breakaway South Ossetia’s boundary with Georgian-controlled territory will now become partly restricted for South Ossetians, too, leaving little opportunity for civilian contact across the Russian-policed line of conflict.
South Ossetians will need a permit from the KGB, as the separatist region’s security services are still called, to visit villages along the boundary, the de-facto body announced on February 15. South Ossetians living in these villages reportedly are worried that they will eventually face eviction. Their ethnic Georgian population was evicted en masse during the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia over the territory.
The South Ossetian KGB and Russia’s FSB, which handles keeping a watch on the contact line with Georgian-controlled territory, assured local villagers, however, that no evictions plans are in the can and that the travel restrictions will not extend to residents themselves
“Before visiting you, your guests, be it friends or relatives, will need to go to the KGB’s border service, which will be issuing the permits,” said South Ossetian KGB official Soslan Tigiyev, reported a local outlet of the Russian-government-owned Sputnik news network. Locals objected to the travel restrictions.
Separatist officials also said that South Ossetian and Russian border guards must be notified of weddings or funerals – usually large-scale events in the South Caucasus -- to lift the restrictions temporarily. Friends and relatives residing on the Georgian-controlled side of the conflict line are altogether barred from attending social functions in the breakaway region.
Georgia has dropped a proposed anti-blasphemy bill ardently opposed by freedom-of-speech activists. With a stated goal of protecting the feelings of Christian believers, the bill pitted civil liberties against faith in this passionately Christian nation.
The draft appeared to be causing a split in the ruling Georgian Dream coalition – never desirable in a parliamentary election year. Saying that the bill needs more work, parliamentarian Soso Jachvliani on February 15 withdrew his own proposal, which already had been conditionally approved by parliament’s human rights committee. Parliamentary Speaker Davit Usupashvili announced that the legislature has stopped discussion of the legislation.
The proposal to set fines for religiously insulting words and behavior was criticized for its potential to make the Georgian Orthodox Church, seen by many as the embodiment of Georgia’s national identity, all but immune to criticism. The Church earlier had asked for legal defenses against insults, but now distanced itself from the bill. The Patriarchy, the holy see of the Georgian Orthodox Church, is known for thin-skinned reactions to criticism and to any sort of irreverent take on Christian beliefs.
Some liberal clerics, however, spoke against the bill. One Georgian Orthodox priest in Germany described it as absurd. “Who can define religious feelings? What judge can rule on whether a certain action is insulting to someone’s religion?” Deacon Tamaz Lomidze asked in a recent sermon, PalitraTV reported.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva wave to the crowds during the 2015 European Games at Baku's Olympic Stadium, now available for wedding rentals.
If anyone’s looking for an extravagant venue for upcoming nuptials, Azerbaijan is now renting a new, $640.5-million stadium in its capital, Baku, for weddings. Built specifically for the 2015 European Games, a quasi-Olympic contest, the arena now stands as an empty, 68,195-seat testimony to the hydrocarbon-blessed country’s runaway spending on international-attention-grabbing, mega-undertakings.
That the stadium is open for wedding parties may be an exciting opportunity for well-heeled Azerbaijanis to score the event of their lifetime, but many Bakuvians criticize what they deem an embarrassing waste of taxpayer money by President Ilham Aliyev’s government on glitzy, one-off vanity projects.
“This stadium is the apotheosis of a mindless waste of money and corruption,” Ali Kerimli, chairperson of the opposition National Front of Azerbaijan Party, told the Kavkazsky Uzel news site. The millions could instead have been invested in creating jobs, he added.
Some Facebook users joked that soccer stars like Barcelona’s Lionel Messi and Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo should be invited as tamadas, Caucasus-style party emcees, for the stadium’s weddings.
As Moscow tests for Turkey’s weaknesses in the fight over the downed SU-24 fighter plane, Russia’s communists have gone on a mission to revoke a treaty that their Soviet forefathers signed with Ankara. Heads are turning in the South Caucasus, which was essentially sliced and diced into its modern-day shape by the treaty and another 1921 Soviet-Turkish accord.
The document under debate, the 1921 Treaty of Moscow, drew a line between the Turkish Republic and the Soviet Union, and also set the borders of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia without the consent of the three newly Bolshevik-occupied nations. The partitioning was further cinched by the Treaty of Kars, signed by the then Soviet republics’ Bolshevik-installed authorities.
The idea of revoking the treaty, pitched to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, comes amidst an unscheduled military exercise in Russia’s Southern Military District, which borders on the South Caucasus. Russian military analyst Viktor Murakhovsky commented to gazeta.ru that the exercises are meant as “a little signal” to Turkey. “[B]ecause we’re headed toward war with them, very quickly and certainly,” he predicted.
In remarks to the Azerbaijani news service APA, however, the Russian Communist Party’s deputy chairperson, Valery Rashkin, pooh-pooh’d the notion that Moscow withdrawing its signature from the 1921 Treaty of Moscow could lead to war with Turkey. “[O]n the contrary, we will begin the negotiation process.”
In a first for the Caucasus, a Georgian man has filed a lawsuit for the legalization of same-sex marriages in Georgia, a conservative, predominantly Orthodox Christian country. With his suit, civil-rights lawyer Giorgi Tatishvili disputes the constitutionality of a civil law that defines marriage as a union between man and a woman.
Georgia’s vastly influential Orthodox Church requested on February 7 that Tatishvili be placed under police protection as his safety is at risk. Nearly three years ago, a mob led by priests violently scattered an anti-homophobia rally in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, and the violence damaged the Church’s reputation.
Its governing body, the Patriarchy, distanced itself from the violence then and has now spoken out against what it described as likely attacks against Tatisvhili.
“Although we find his initiative, let alone the passing of a [same-sex marriage] law, condemnable and completely unacceptable, acts of violence are also unacceptable,” the Patriarchy said in a statement. Tatishvili has not responded.
No date been set yet for the Constitutional Court to hear the case, but attitudes toward homosexuality are broadly negative in Georgia and throughout the Caucasus.
Well-known minority-rights activists have not embraced Tatishvili's petition, a case which they worry may result in public hostility toward and further marginalization of Georgia’s LGBT community. “In an environment where LGBT groups are virtually banished from the public space . . .it is all but science fiction to speak about gay marriage and request the Constitutional Court to weigh in on it,” Lasha Kavtaradze, spokesperson for the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center, commented to EurasiaNet.org.
Georgia has moved ahead with plans to make religious irreverence punishable by law, prompting freedom-of-expression concerns in this observant Orthodox Christian society. The so-called blasphemy bill, now approved at committee-level and headed for the parliamentary floor, bodes ill for groups at odds with the mainstream, critics claim.
In a country where cars, apartments and offices sport cross-emblazoned stickers as a sign of a priest’s blessing, the concern is not idle. According to a 2015 poll conducted by WIN/Gallup International, Georgia ranks among the world’s most religious nations. Many Georgians are hypersensitive to any criticism of the Church, seen as the historical defender of Georgia’s national identity. In 2013, Patriarch Ilia II ranked as the country's most trusted public figure.
Against that backdrop, individuals ranging from writers and artists to minority religions and the LGBT community have encountered a fight at one time or another with those who believe veneration for the Church should take precedence over civil rights.
Some observers charge that the draft law will make the Church all but impervious to critical scrutiny.
Ministry of Culture of Georgia/ Gela Bedianashvili
This past weekend’s reopening of Tbilisi’s neo-Moorish opera house after a six-year intermission ranks as Georgia’s cultural event of the year, but it also has provided a stage for a dispute over whether the country is reviving the elitism of the Soviet past.
Grand opera events may be a preserve for the rich and powerful elsewhere in the world, but in Georgia, where fascination with the opera long has cut across class lines, many were expecting a national celebration open to anyone who bought a ticket. It was not to be.
Though a state-run facility, the theater’s January 30 red-carpet opening was invitation-only.
Decked out in their finest threads — most notably, fur coats — the carefully selected invitees featured “le tout Tbilisi" -- senior government officials, Georgian Orthodox Church dignitaries and business leaders.
How the invitation list was compiled was not clear, but the identity of the main sponsor of the estimated $40-million restoration certainly was — Kartu Group, a business and charitable concern founded by Bidzina Ivanishvili, onetime prime minister and longtime billionaire, seen as the country’s shadow leader.
Critics charge that that connection turned the season-opener performance of Georgian composer Zakaria Paliashvili’s “Abesalom and Eteri” into a partisan event that put the claustrophobically close-knit world of Georgian politics and far-reaching influence of Ivanishvili on display.
The Kartu Group even purchased made-to-order crystals from Austria’s Swarovski to restore the 120-year-old theater building’s prized, 600-bulb chandelier.
The billionaire in question, however, did not attend the opening. Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili, though, earlier had thanked Ivanishvili on national TV for underwriting the return of Georgian opera. As well he might.
The latest seasonal outbreak of conspiracy theories in Russia has it that the Americans are infecting the former Soviet Union with swine flu through a laboratory in Georgia.
A surge in H1N1 influenza in the Caucasus provided a fresh news peg for Russian paranoia about a US-funded biolab in Georgia, named after former US Senator Richard Lugar. The Kremlin long has declared the facility a bioweapon planted by the US next to the Russian border, and blamed it for spreading everything from anthrax to cow madness.
Now, Russian media, be it the Kremlin’s international propaganda arm Sputnik or local tabloids, are connecting the dots between post-Soviet sneezing and the Indiana Republican. Russian news cited concerns about the Georgian facility in neighboring Armenia, where the swine-flu death toll reached 18 last week, but all such headlines seem to be coming from Russia.
Even reporting on denials from Georgian health officials offers Russian media an opportunity to keep the theories in the spotlight.
“This is utter nonsense . . . spewed by the special services of a certain country,” said Paata Imnadze, deputy chief of the Georgian National Center for Disease Control and Public Health. The Lugar Lab’s mission, Innadze said, is to study and prevent the spread of diseases in humans and animals.
Azerbaijan on January 28 denied reports of having asked for billions of dollars in aid from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to avert an economic crisis amidst plunging oil prices.
“Requesting a $4-billion aid package is out of the question,” claimed Azerbaijan’s Finance Minister Samir Sharifov. “We ourselves lend money to others,” he said, dismissing reports by The Financial Times and Reuters. Citing the International Monetary Fund, the reports said that the IMF and the World Bank were considering requests from Azerbaijan for loans of $3 billion and $1 billion, respectively.
A decade ago, booming oil and gas sales allowed Azerbaijan to stop borrowing from the IMF, and the Caspian-Sea country began to turn from international borrower to international lender. Low oil prices, though, have depleted Azerbaijan’s wellspring and led to dramatic depreciation of the energy-propped national currency, the manat.
The Financial Times said that the donor groups were scheduled to arrive in Baku on February 4 to discuss options for slowing the country’s economic tailspin. Sharifov ardently denied these reports.
Azerbaijan also has rejected thoughts that the oil-price crunch could force it to scale back on another upcoming mega-vanity project. Plans to host a Formula-1 race in the capital, Baku, this June. remain on track, a project spokesperson insisted, Motorsport.com reported.
Moscow’s allegation that Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge is a playground for Islamic State fighters is spreading worry in Tbilisi, which recently has gone to great lengths to improve ties with its big, northern neighbor after severing diplomatic relations in 2008.
“Reports are coming in that the Islamic State of Levant and Syria fighters are using this remote territory to train, rest and restock their supplies,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed during a January 27 press-conference. He did not substantiate or elaborate about the allegation, which came amidst a discussion of the obstacles for restoring diplomatic ties with Georgia and removing visa requirements for Georgian citizens.
In Lavrov’s telling, Islamic terrorist activity in the Pankisi Gorge, a reclusive valley inhabited by Kists, a Muslim people related to Chechens, prompted Russia to impose visas on Georgia in 2000. The problem is still there, said Lavrov. His boss, Russian President Vladimir Putin, stated earlier that Russia was ready to scrap visa requirements for Georgians.
The Russian minister’s comment alarmed many in Tbilisi, which long has maintained that Moscow uses Pankisi as an excuse for hostile actions against Georgia. In 2002, the Georgian government and its allies charged that Russia conducted repeated bombing raids in the Gorge against supposed Chechen rebels.The Kremlin denied it.