If Armenia ever decided to adapt "A West Side Story," it's conceivable that “I Like to Be in America” might well be changed into “I Like to Be in Russia" to describe the choices faced by thousands of Armenian migrants each year.
But those choices are slightly less tempting now. A controversial Russian state program that grants jobs and citizenship to foreign nationals from former Soviet republics has stopped accepting applications from Armenians, Armenian news sources report.
Grappling with the double whammy of a low birthrate and a population exodus, Yerevan repeatedly has urged Moscow to stop the program, called Compatriots, which Armenian officials say has become a floodgate for emigration.
“We have a serious demographic problem in Armenia… and the organized outflow of the population is a blow to our national interests,” Armenian Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian said of the program last month.
According to official numbers, some 26,000 Armenians have applied for the program since its start in 2007; 2,500 have actually left for Russia.
Baku has said it before and now it says it again: Azerbaijan will not become a launching pad for an Israeli attack on Iran, so, naysayers, check your sources.
On December 2, the British Sunday Times ran a story on supposed plans by Tel-Aviv to use Azerbaijani bases to send off terminator drones into Iran if there is an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear sites and if Tehran moves to respond to it. The drone fleet would lay to waste Iran’s missile system before the Islamic Republic can pull out its guns, the paper said, citing unnamed sources.
In response, Azerbaijan claimed that The Sunday Times was essentially delirious. “Baku will never let anyone use its territory for an attack on our neighbors,” asserted foreign ministry spokesperson Elman Abdulayev, ANSPress.com reported.
Azerbaijan’s relations with fellow Muslim neighbor may be less than neighborly, but since Iran is home to millions of ethnic Azeris, Baku repeatedly has said it would never get pulled into a conflict with Iran.
The latest and perhaps the most bizarre case are allegations that the once-all-powerful Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili doctored a passport to travel with a Saakashvili-led delegation on November 30 to Armenia.
In testimonies published by the interior ministry, airport passport control officials assert that the ID presented by Merabishvili contained his photo, but somebody else’s ("a certain Levan Maisuradze") name.
Only after the snafu was pointed out to a Merabishvili aide, did the ex-prime minister pull out "his real" passport, they claim.
Merabishvili has denied that he tried to pass a false passport, and charged that the interior ministry, which later questioned him, was being turned into a "repressive machine" for the selective prosecution of critics.
Merabishvili, Georgia's last prime minister, now works as the secretary-general of Saakashvili's United National Movement.
Responding to the fake-passport allegations, the president, in turn, termed them "so absurd . . . that it is hard for me to even make a comment about this."
Meanwhile, online commentators point to various holes in the government's line of argument.
What does a national border mean for a man and his cows on the quest for better grazing land? That's the question that, in the run-up to next week's OSCE meeting in Dublin, illustrates both the absurdities and the dangers of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict for both Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Let’s get this, well, straight. The Georgian parliament's deputy speaker, Manana Kobakhidze, is a heterosexual woman and, in her words, nothing, not even all the bureaucratic institutions of Europe, can change that.
You might wonder why 41-year-old Kobakhidze, a longtime civil-rights activist, feels obliged to share this information. But, in today's Georgia, consumed by feuding between Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition and President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement, politicians' attitudes toward homosexuality are a topic that has come out of the closet and can be used as ammunition by either side.
In Kobakhidze's case, it all began last weekend, when the center-right French daily Le Figaro published a story portraying the ongoing arrests and investigations of some of Saakashvili's political nearest and dearest as a vindictive witch hunt by a government with questionable democratic credentials.
The paper quoted Kobakhidze*, a Georgian Dream member, as noting that the Saakashvili administration had believed that the defense of all minorities, sexual included, was inherent to a democracy, but that the European concept that all citizens are equal is hard for Orthodox Georgia to accept.
Le Figaro claimed that the comment made French nationalist politician Marine Le Pen, an outspoken opponent of gay marriages, look like "a leftist."
Responding to Le Figaro's article, LGBT groups, rights activists and prominent Saakashvili supporters quickly attacked Kobakhidze as a homophobe; particularly on Facebook, where much of Georgia's debates now take place.
If they were to bet on which high-ranking Georgian official goes to prison next, many Georgians would put their money on the nation’s erstwhile top cop, Vano Merabishvili.
Image-wise, the 44-year-old Merabishvili has always been a combination of good cop and bad cop. As interior minister from 2004 until this July, he was praised for the overhaul of the country's once notoriously corrupt police force, but criticized for bending the laws to make sure nothing and no one could challenge his boss, President Mikheil Saakashvili. Some accused him of turning Georgia into one big prison cell, while others credited him for cleaning crime off city streets.
Many Georgians predict that now, in a process that would make for a Bertolt Brecht play, he may soon get a taste of prison cells himself.
It's a prediction that Merabishvili, now the target of an investigation into alleged abuse of office at the interior ministry, did not neglect to make in a televised interview on November 25.
Merabishvili, who now acts as general secretary of Saakashvili's United National Movement, has not yet been charged. Terming the affair "political vengeance," he's dismissed the allegations as "not serious."
But the allegations against Merabishvili do not end there.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili once called him "my biggest mistake." With the surprise return of ex-Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili to Tbilisi today, many in Georgia are wondering whether Saakashvili may soon have cause to repeat those words.
After returning early this morning to Tbilisi from years of refuge in Paris, Okruashvili, wanted in Georgia on various criminal charges, went straight to prison. His trial has been scheduled for December 3.
But before settling into his cell room, the onetime-friend-turned-bitter-foe of Saakashvili expressed hopes that he will be cleared of the charges brought against him in 2007, and expressed a keen willingness to assist the Ivanishvili government's prosecutions of former Saakashvili officials.
In a recent streak of arrests and investigations by Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanshvili’s government, several loyalists of Mikheil Saakashvili have been snatched away from the Georgian president’s side.
The decades-long row between Azerbaijan and Armenia about Karabakh has been increasingly playing out in Latin America, with Yerevan seeking supporters for the territory’s independence from Azerbaijan, and Baku working to nip such ideas in the bud.
Uruguay, with one of Latin America's largest Armenian Diasporas and a track record of having already recognized as genocide the Ottoman Empire's slaughter of ethnic Armenians, has now found itself in the middle of this tug-of-war.
After arriving in Yerevan early last week, Uruguayan House of Representatives Speaker Jorge Orrico and other delegates hopped over to Karabakh to meet de-facto leader Bako Sahakian and other local officials.
In comments similar to an earlier statement by Uruguay’s foreign minister, Luis Almagro, Orrico expressed support for Karabakh, but stopped short of making unequivocal promises to recognize the territory.
Episode 1: Take a look at the news, and the Caucasus is all about power struggles. But live there awhile, and it becomes all about its people’s passion for living, and the colorful stories that can get missed from a distance.
Last week, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan said his country would respond with an all-out military attack should Azerbaijan attempt to reclaim by force the predominantly ethnic Armenian breakaway region of Nagorno Karabakh. Sargsyan cited recent war games as proof of Armenia’s capabilities, but the drills did not envision a scenario of invasion by cowherd and cows.
To hear some media tell it, Armenia experienced a wanton breach of its national border on November 12 after an Azerbaijani cowherd and his squadron of cows supposedly stormed across the line of contact for the Karabakh conflict, and into Armenia.
Herdsman Telman Aliyev, who shares a last name with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, is now being questioned by Armenian military officials. As one Armenian news outlet put it, "Azerbaijan now has one fewer Aliyev . . ."
The whereabouts of his charges are unknown; if in captivity, they're no doubt maintaining a stoic silence.
But work is underway to bring back Aliyev the herder, according to Azerbaijan’s State Commission for War Prisoners, Hostages and Missing Citizens Secretary Shahin Sailov, who argues that Armenia has "taken [him] hostage."
Baku quickly alerted international organizations about the incident, and cited a search for greener pastures amidst heavy fog and what they describe as Aliyev's difficulties with speaking and hearing as mitigating circumstances.
Yet, after 23-plus years of conflict, don't expect Armenia to take Azerbaijan's word for it. Armenian military officials said they are testing Aliyev's speech skills and hearing.