Just in time for the 2012 parliamentary elections, Armenia's Constitutional Court has instructed lower courts to make defamation compensation proportional to the size of media companies’ wallets.
The November 15 ruling, the response to a case brought by Ombudsman Karen Andreasian and eight local newspapers, can make life easier for the Armenian news industry, which has faced a rise in libel suits and hefty fines that media observers link to 2010 amendments of media laws, which decriminalized slander, but also toughened the penalties for libel.
That has meant a serious problem for some print outlets with a penchant for government criticism. Armenian newspapers, mostly shoestring operations, have struggled to pay thousands of dollars in damages. One even asked its readers to help foot the bill, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports.
But the Constitutional Court's ruling does not mean that Armenian media is now off the hook. Ombudsman Karen Andreasian welcomed the ruling, but also said that the legislation is too ambiguous on the matter of slander, leaving too much room for broad interpretations in the plaintiff’s favor.
Both in 1991 as a presidential aide (to then US President George Bush) and in 2007 as secretary of state (under then President George W. Bush), Rice worked to defeat the congressional push for recognizing the World-War I-era slaughter of ethnic Armenians by Ottoman Turks as genocide.
While acknowledging the brutality and the scale of the bloodshed, Rice writes that US recognition of the act as genocide would have antagonized Turkey, a key strategic ally for the US. She argues that she was guided by the raison d’état that labels are best left to historians.
Not in the view of American-Armenian Diaspora groups or many Armenian-language news services, who have republished a letter from Harut Sassounian, the publisher of Los Angeles' The California Courier, a weekly catering to the city's sizable Diaspora Armenian community, that advises Stanford University (where Rice now works as a political science professor, a political economy professor at Stanford's business school and, lastly, a public policy fellow) to inform the 57-year-old foreign policy veteran that "genocide deniers are not welcome at one of America’s most distinguished institutions of higher learning."
Just get in better democratic and military shape and you are almost there, guys, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization told ever-aspiring NATO member Georgia during a November 9-10 visit to Tbilisi. The country may have heard this line before, but, for many Georgians, it still sounds like music to their ears.
Parliamentary Speaker Davit Bakradze took it a notch higher, saying “boldly” (in the words of one Georgian news service) that Georgia is now “closer to NATO than ever.” He expressed hope that the 2012 NATO summit in Chicago would bring Georgia still closer to the military club.
And, to sweeten the pitch, Tbilisi pledged to beef up its military presence to NATO's Afghanistan campaign still further next year, with another battalion. At 937 personnel, it currently ranks as the second largest non-NATO contributor (after Australia at 1,550). Even after the loss of ten personnel, it looks like Georgia wants to top the charts.
But, as it pulls itself toward the alliance -- ever closer, ever closer -- Georgia remains mired in a conflict with Russia and two separatist regions that make NATO accession far from a paint-by-the-numbers project.
Amid the growing threat of a Western shakedown for its alleged nuclear secrets, Iran is continuing with its regional charm campaign in the South Caucasus. During Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi’s November 8 visit to Yerevan, Tehran again pushed for visa-free travel with Armenia and for boosting bilateral trade.
Visa-free relations have become a major regional policy theme for Iran, which already dropped visa requirements for Armenia’s neighbors, Azerbaijan and Georgia. But only Georgia -- curiously, the most fervently Western-centric of the three -- has reciprocated the move.
For landlocked Armenia, friendship works vertically, and animosity horizontally. It is sandwiched between enemies to the west and east (Turkey and Azerbaijan), while its only close regional friends sit to the north and south (Russia and Iran).
Recently, one of Iran’s key turbaned bosses threatened that Azerbaijanis may soon take the noncommittally Muslim leader of neighboring Azerbaijan, President Ilham Aliyev, “by the scuff of his neck and kick him out of his seat.” Now, Baku is again hearing an angry rumble from its hardcore Islamist neighbor over its attempts to keep Azerbaijan walking the straight and secular.
“We regret that the criminal, anti-Islamic work of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev is part of [the] official policies of Baku,” opined scholars, clerics and students in a joint statement issued at a gathering in the Iranian city of Tabriz, which contains a large ethnic Azeri population.
Azerbaijan has just agreed to export gas to Iran and is also keen to talk business with its neighbor, but Baku and Tehran find it increasingly hard to hide their differences behind a neighborly veneer. Azerbaijan’s efforts to restrain Islam by allowing an informal ban on Muslim headdresses in public schools and restraining the publication of certain Islamic literature, have long had Iran’s spiritual leaders hot under their collars. Influential Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi recently even came close to threatening jihad on the Azerbaijani authorities.
“The day will come when they [the people of Azerbaijan]…will drag you down from your seats,” he said. “Learn the lessons from the events in the region,” Ayatollah said in reference to the Arab uprisings, which he apparently sees as signs of an Islamic revival. In an earlier fatwa, Shirazi said that he may declare a holy war on Azerbaijani officials if they continue closing down mosques.
Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan is moving key pieces to a new center of action on Armenia’s political chessboard for election 2012. Mikael Minasian, the president’s son-in-law-cum-deputy-chief-of-staff, became the latest and perhaps most influential figure to quit his day job in the presidential entourage to join Team Sargsyan for next year's parliamentary vote.
Minasian will be joining [ex-Parliamentary Speaker] Hovik Abrahamian in running the campaign of Sargsyan's ruling Republican Party of Armenia.
Armenian media linked the reshuffle to efforts to build up defensive lines against a possible election bid by President Sargsyan’s predecessor (and fellow Nagorno-Karabakh native), Robert Kocharian. Media have also speculated about possible defections from the Sargsyan team to Kocharian.
Perhaps with the chaotic presidential election of 2008 in mind, Minasian said he will make sure that Armenia will emerge post-election strong and “looking confidently into the future.”
But, given that the election is likely to be about confrontation between at least two presidents, one former (Levon Ter-Petrosian) and one current, Armenian politics may ultimately prove to be what one fictional chess queen (Alice in Wonderland) would term “living backwards" -- something that may “make one a little giddy at first,” but allows “one’s memory" to work "both ways."
Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire on everyone’s lips here in Georgia, made another of his oracular appearances from his futuristic Tbilisi hermitage yesterday. Just like his previous appearances, the messy, hour-and-a-half-long news conference with President Mikheil Saakashvili's latest opponent is now being poured over obsessively.
Ivanishvili did not get too much down to brass tacks about his plans, though. The rowdy news conference was perhaps more informative about the state of Georgian news media than anything else. As reporters -- reportedly, 200-strong -- literally wrestled for a microphone and for a chance to ask a question, the much-anticipated rendez-vous, televised live on Georgian Public Television, nearly turned into a hair-pulling match.
Hacks from government-friendly television channels went out of their way to grill the tycoon on his ties to Russia; other reporters offered up coquettish adulation. One opted for a question about a penguin and sparrows, but that's a separate story.
All of this was MC'd by Ivanishvili’s overly emotional spokesperson, former Georgian Public Broadcasting Board of Trustees Chairperson Irakli Tripolski, who, gesticulating angrily, barked at inattentive journalists during Ivanishvili's comments to "Listen to him, listen to him!"
Ivanishvili himself remained composed -- "Don't get upset. Everything will be fine," he told the frantic Tripolski at one point -- and stuck to the general, delivering largely diplomatic responses. In a few fresh details about his political plans, he pledged to push for Saakashvili's impeachment upon taking over parliament in the 2012 election. (Apparently, even Saakashvili's "mother would not vote for him.")
Georgia’s first-ever jury trial is scheduled to commence soon in Tbilisi. The reform is meant to increase sagging public confidence in the country’s judicial system, but it also may force Georgians to confront some socially sensitive questions.
Zeynallov may be facing serious charges of blackmail and bribery, but, given Azerbaijan’s record of jailing journalists/bloggers critical of the government, local observers are erring on the side of skepticism. Before his arrest, Zeynallov crossed the country’s ruling elite with a series of articles about corruption allegations.
If found guilty, he faces a punishment of up to 12 years in jail and the confiscation of personal property.
Zeynallov was remanded after Gular Ahmadova, a parliamentarian from the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party, claimed that he had demanded a bribe from her to hold off on publishing an article that covered corruption accusations against Ahmadova. Zeynallov’s attorney alleges the exact opposite -- that it was Ahmadova who offered to pay the editor for his silence.
Although the journalist's attorney says he has not yet seen any of the government's evidence against his client, police already have been busy searching away. The day of Zeynallov's arrest, they tackled the Khural newsroom and his apartment.
Well, as of this week, he'll be able to look forward to a car, a personal driver, lifetime diplomatic immunity, all-inclusive, taxpayer-funded medical service and a pension of about $6,358 (5,000 manats) per month. If that doesn't convince Azerbaijan's 49-year-old head of state to retire one day, nothing will.
This post-presidential future was offered to President Aliyev by Azerbaijan's parliament, dominated by his Yeni Azerbaijan Party, which, in a stroke of generosity on October 25 adopted a new law on ex-presidents.
Retiring, though, doesn’t run in the family. Running Azerbaijan was pretty much a lifetime job for his father, Heydar Aliyev (President: 1993-2003; Azerbaijan Communist Party boss 1969-1982; Azerbaijan KGB chairman 1967-1969), and Aliyev junior can also run Azerbaijan till death do them part.
Aliyev's current term expires in 2013; if Azerbaijan still considers itself in "a state of war," then Aliyev, pending a Constitutional Court ruling, potentially could just stay put.
But if the habit of retiring or losing elections comes back to Azerbaijan, then life after the presidency may not be that bad at all.
Ex-President Ayaz Mutalibov may also benefit from the law as well as the family of late Abulfaz Elchibey, said senior YAP parliamentarian Ali Ahmedov. But parliament is still debating.