Georgia will strike up an “historic” alliance with the European Union by signing an association agreement on June 27, Tbilisi announced on May 14. And the agreement is not the country's final stop on the road to Europe, one key EU official, on hand in Tbilisi for the announcement, declared. Yet for all the high hopes, the announced schedule of Europeanization could be -- with apologies to the late Gabriel Garcia Márquez -- a chronicle of trouble foretold.
When a secret-recordings scandal hits Georgia, it can only mean one thing – an election. Georgia’s top national TV broadcaster, Rustavi2, dropped a bomb on Friday by airing leaked conversations involving big wigs from politics and business. With municipal elections around the corner next month, this could be just a teaser.
But those Georgian viewers used to more salacious or shocking revelations from past campaign seasons were disappointed this time. Nobody asked for two corpses, or used less-than-flattering epithets to describe their bosses, or revealed a Manchurian-Candidate-style collusion with Russia, the favorite plot line of secret recordings broadcast during ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili's rule.
This time around, the larger sensation is the perception that, despite a change in government, phone-tapping continues, including on top officials and perhaps just about everyone of interest.
Rights groups long have been struggling to end that alleged practice. When allegations surfaced late last year about a government-stash of black boxes, the interior ministry claimed it only listened into phone conversations during criminal investigations.
Go ask the EU and the US, said Russia Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov when asked if Georgia should worry about Ukraine-style troubles this summer. “You should ask the EU and the US if they have some plans in mind for the Georgian government if it fails to do what is expected of it,” Lavrov told journalists on May 6.
Georgia is expected to sign an association pact with the European Union this June. Commotion over Ukraine's similar plans contributed to pulling that country into a separatist war. But Moscow squarely puts the blame on the West. “The EU had a near-hysterical reaction to the legitimate decision of the Ukrainian president [Victor Yanukovich] to postpone the agreement,” Lavrov said. “Then, public rallies were organized and the radicals jumped on the bandwagon.”
He passed the buck to Brussels and Washington for any potential similar developments in Georgia after pen meets paper on the EU association agreement. “Not to sound rude, but this question is better put to people there [the EU and US],” Lavrov said. “We do not go around changing regimes and making color revolutions; especially with a brown hue, as is the one in Ukraine,” he added, referring to Russian allegations of the interim Ukrainian government's so-called "fascist" inclinations.
He expressed the hope that Georgia has a sober understanding of current events in the region.
Perhaps to help Tbilisi stay clear-headed on this score, Moscow announced plans to move 80,000 new armored personnel carriers to separatist Abkhazia; like Crimea, another Black-Sea Russian hangout.
Banning bigotry toward sexual minorities is no small event in socially conservative Georgia, which, for the past few days, has experienced a maelstrom of emotions over an anti-discrimination bill. On May 2, the legislation passed parliament without a single vote against it. But the debate, set against the backdrop of a struggle between Europe and Russia for influence, looks likely to rage on.
A recently released poll of 3,942 Georgians shows, though, that minority rights are not a pressing concern nationwide. More people are troubled about making ends meet. Out of those minorities named in the survey (commissioned by the National Democratic Institute), rights protection for sexual minorities ranked dead last as a priority.
So, why pass the bill now? Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili sees it as part and parcel of Georgia's integration with the European Union; a goal desired by 65 percent of those surveyed in the NDI poll.
The Patriarchy also has expressed its support for Georgia’s EU integration, but despite many assurances to the contrary, many prelates remain suspicious that, by introducing legal protection for the LGBT community, Brussels will eventually trick Georgia into adopting gay marriage.
In coordination with the Kremlin, Russian activists plan an ex-USSR-wide distribution of black-and-orange ribbons meant to commemorate the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. The caveat is that the St. George’s ribbon has evolved to embody Russian power and nostalgia for the USSR; concepts that many in the Caucasus are not willing to wear on their sleeves.
The state-run Russian Information Agency (RIA Novosti), a champion of the annual St.-George's-ribbon campaign, has announced that on May 9, the 69th anniversary of the 1945 Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, millions of ribbons will rain down on ex-Soviet countries, the South Caucasus included.
In an April 29 talk show, headlined “St. George’s Ribbon Struts across the Planet,” RIA Novosti claimed that a massive ribbon-handout rally would be held in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku. The ribbons, talk-show participants said, also would be up for grabs at the Russian embassies in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Moldova. In the case of Georgia, which severed diplomatic ties with Russia after the two countries' 2008 war, the Russian consulate at the Swiss embassy would provide the ribbons.
Many pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine are wearing these ribbons, and the show host made sure to take a swipe at Ukrainian “nationalists” and their alleged attempts to “erase the historic memory" of the war.
But it looks like the show and its claims of a post-Soviet team spirit may have been ultimately meant for a domestic, Russian audience.
Not to underestimate the power of social media, but officials in Azerbaijan believe it takes more than active tweeting to resolve an ethnic conflict; especially if it's the longest-running conflict to come out of the Soviet Union.
In a swipe at James Warlick, Washington's point-man for negotiations between Baku and Yerevan on the 26-year Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, a senior Azerbaijani presidential administration official commented on May 1 that he would like to see the US mediator's tweets matched by actions.
“Sometimes it seems to me that Mr. Warlick seeks to resolve the #NagornoKarabakh conflict through his tweets,” tweeted Novruz Mammadov, deputy chief of staff to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.
Twitter debates with the ambassador about certain events in the Karabakh
conflict are not possible, Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov added in an interview with APA news agency, since a tweet "must
consist of only 120 letters."
Azimov went still further, charging that the US envoy is pro-Armenian, and "spreading rumors about a possible escalation of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan." Baku has "every reason" to demand his recall, he said.
Ambassador Warlick, who recently attended an Azerbaijani gala dinner in Washington, has not yet responded. But he is, indeed, a prolific Twitter user.
Many of his tweets provide relatively innocuous progress reports about the Karabakh peace talks led by the US, France and Russia (the so-called Minsk Group), but one tweet in particular already has encountered Baku's ire -- an
observation that he had been "corrected" (presumably by
Armenia) that the conflict is between Azerbaijan and Karabakh; a
A group of Georgian Orthodox priests has threatened to curse those lawmakers who sign off on an anti-discrimination bill meant to introduce legal protections for minorities as part of Georgia's integration with the European Union. Confronted by influential clerics who claim the law will turn Georgia into a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah, many lawmakers face a tough choice between principle and populism.
“Behave wisely,” warned one of the bearded men in cassocks and skufias who formed a black, nay-saying corner at a parliamentary human-rights committee hearing on April 29. From the other corner, a group of rights activists fired back, saying that there should be no place for discrimination and sectarian interference with political processes in a modern state.
Most lawmakers responded to the priests patiently. But in this Orthodox country, where many fast and cross themselves at any sight of a church steeple, a priest's warning is nothing to brush off.
Last year, a mob led by priests overpowered police at an anti-homophobia rally. Now, priests have warned that support for the anti-discrimination bill, slotted for a second parliamentary hearing on April 30, would spell trouble for the government.
Azerbaijan's arrest of a respected human-rights activist is fuelling fears that the country is pulling out all the stops on crushing dissent before it takes over the Council of Europe's Commission of Ministers next month.
Fifty-eight-year-old Leyla Yunus, who chairs the Baku-based Institute for Peace and Democracy, and her husband, Arif Yunus, were detained in the Baku airport late on April 28 as they were about to depart for Doha, Qatar.
The reasons for their detention were not made known, but, after an interrogation on April 29, investigators reversed course and released Leyla Yunus, Trend news agency reported. (Yunus' spouse earlier had been hospitalized with heart problems.) The similarly pro-government APA agency added, however, that her office would be searched anyway. The information has not yet been confirmed, but any memory of prosecutors' actions is not likely to fade away fast . In a video published by RFE/RL's Azeri-language service and widely distributed on Facebook, Yunus, who has 30 years of rights and peace advocacy behind her, was shown defying police officers after they searched her apartment. She claimed the police did not present her with a warrant, nor explain the reasons for her arrest.
Yunus said they would not let her use the bathroom after her detention and, when finally so permitted, a male police officer went in with her. “He followed me into the toilet and stood there watching me… get him on camera!” Yunus yelled, taking the individual's police hat and throwing it to the ground.