Billionaire Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili laid aside the cares of office the other day and invited a select group of TV journalists to his Star-Wars-style residence to tell them that, well, they're no good at what they do.
Ivanishvili, whose speaking style combines the no-nonsense talk of Russian oligarchs from the 1990s with the call-‘em-as-you-see-‘em lexicon of a small-town Georgian man, recently decided to provide free lessons for professionals in various fields. Last week, he spent four hours wagging his finger at a group of policy and economy wonks for getting it all wrong. On October 2, it was the turn of news anchors and producers to get a journalism 101 lesson from him.
Getting in touch with his inner newsman, Ivanishvili pontificated on what journalism is all about and what his irritated guests should really be doing out there. These days “journalists forget about their mission, about their own responsibilities,” the prime minister said regretfully, informing his guests that they are covering the wrong topics, interviewing the wrong people and citing the wrong data.
Referring to a printout (as with the experts), he demanded explanations for the journalists' on-the-air quotes. The constant criticism of the government distracts his team from doing the great job that they do, though it may not always visible, he asserted.
He faulted the group for failing to see all the “wonderful” achievements of his government in the economy field, which in all honesty, with a mere 1.6-percent growth rate so far for 2013 and an official 15-percent unemployment rate, could indeed escape the naked eye.
The late US President Franklin D. Roosevelt would have had a hard time running for president in Azerbaijan, where doctors say that people with a physical impairment should not run the country.
In a campaign season, experts of all walks of life tend to pass judgment on presidential candidates, but an eye doctor advising voters is something new.
Nonetheless, last week, three Azerbaijani ophthalmologists called a press conference in Baku to declare that the man who plans to challenge President Iham Aliyev’s continuous hold on power is unfit for the country’s top job.
The vision of Jamil Hasanli, the 61-year-old candidate from the National Council of Democratic Forces, a bloc of Azerbaijan's main opposition parties, is seriously impaired and he will not be able to work full-time as president, claimed ophthalmologist Gurban Ismailov.
“As a doctor, I can tell you that he is unlikely to do well as a president and commander-in-chief,” said another opthalmologist, Jeyhun Alahverdiyev.
Hasanli has acknowledged that he has had recurring problems with his left eye since the 1980s; in 2011, he was diagnosed with diabetes, a condition, which, depending on his personal situation, could, potentially, complicate attempts at further surgery for his eye problem.
The esteemed panel, though, appeared to have acquired detailed knowledge. They claimed that Hasanli suffers from diabetic angiopathy -- a deterioration of the blood vessels -- which, they claim, has affected his eyesight. How they acquired this alleged information is unclear.
The doctors also offered no explanation, medical or otherwise, for why the Central Election Commission, aware of his condition, raised no objections to his candidacy.
Could Azerbaijan be facing encroachments on its territorial integrity by Italian fashion brands? Armenian and Karabakhi media have it that Versace, Armani, Prada and Moschino are considering setting up production lines in breakaway Nagorno Karabakh, a patch of territory that Azerbaijan claims as its own design.
According to the reports, a coterie of Italian businesspeople are visiting Karabakh this week to check out the potential for producing clothes in a decrepit, former textile factory, Gharmetakskombinat. The separatist authorities hope that the abandoned factory could soon start producing Versace outfits, among others, and have joked that perhaps Baku would care to set up a special black list for "prominent international brands and companies."
While this story may sound like something out of The Onion, officials in Baku took it seriously. Azerbaijan, which is trying to isolate Karabakh as part of its policy to regain control of the predominantly ethnic Armenian territory, tasked its embassy in Italy to look into the reports. One nationalist NGO called for a boycott of Versace clothes -- an action that, conceivably, might have put Azerbaijan's reigning fashionista, First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, in a potentially delicate situation.
Soon enough, though, Azerbaijani media distributed alleged comments from Versace that the company has no plans to extend production to the disputed region.
The many benefits of being a high-profile public official or his scion in Armenia apparently include getting away with violence and murder. At least that is how human rights defenders have reacted to the September 8 decision to drop all murder charges against the son of former strongman governor, Suren Khachatrian.
In a Quentin-Tarantino-esque shootout near the ex-governor’s mansion in the southeastern town of Goris, Khachatrian fils this June shot dead local businessman Avetik Budaghian. Budaghian’s brother Artak, a military officer, was wounded in the clash with Kachatrian’s son, Tigran, and his bodyguards.
Tigran Khachatrian and one of the bodyguards were arrested on murder and illegal weapons possession charges, but were released after the military police, which are handling the case, decided that all the shots fired by Khachatrian were made in self-defense. Human rights activists, the victims' family and the family's lawyer all have condemned the ruling. A local representative of Human Rights Watch alleged in a conversation with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, a former defense minister, may personally have pushed for the ex-gubernatorial son.
Suren Khachatrian, who used to run the province as his personal fiefdom, is believed to have been a vote hoarder for President Sargsyan and the ruling Republican Party of Armenia.Voter support for the duo reportedly ran stronger in Syunik than anywhere else in Armenia.
Prosecutors in Azerbaijan have questioned the leader of an opposition group on suspicion of conspiring to stir up riots to undermine strongman President Iham Aliyev's bid to run for a third term in office this October.
Eldar Namazov, the administrative chief of Azerbaijan's main opposition bloc, the National Council, was questioned for four and a half hours after a former associate alleged that the bloc was planning to provoke public disturbances if its candidate, celebrity screenwriter Rustam Ibragimbekov, is not allowed to run in the October 9 vote.
Ibragimbekov was suspended from the race on August 27 after election officials said his second, Russian citizenship made him ineligible to run for Azerbaijani office. He has since appealed the decision in court.
Historian Jamil Hasanli has been tapped by the National Council as its backup candidate.
In tackling Namazov, though, the government has chosen a target well versed in its own modes of operation. The 56-year-old Namazov formerly served as the chief of staff and as a senior adviser to President Aliyev's father, the late President Heydar Aliyev.
Aflan Ibragimov, a former deputy chairperson of the executive council of the EL movement that Namazov heads, alleges that EL and the National Council had discussed ways of using public disorder to push Ibragimbekov's candidacy through.
The National Council and the EL movement have denied the accusations and claim that Ibragimov, who has since resigned from his post, is an agent provocateur planted by the Aliyev establishment.
After a forced separation from the mosque it calls home, a minaret in Georgia has taken on a life of its own. Claiming that the ready-to-go-style structure was essentially smuggled in from Turkey, officials in the small, southern town of Chela pulled the minaret down this week and carted it away, leaving local Muslims sizzling with anger.
Police sealed off the town on August 26 when the authorities ran off with the mosque's call-to-prayer tower. Protests against the measure resulted in clashes with police and several arrests. The residents were quickly released, but protests among Georgia's Muslims, who make up the largest religious minority in this predominantly Christian country, continued to swell, spreading concerns of religious confrontation.
Faced with criticism by rights activists, as well as the rallies, central government officials issued assurances that nobody intended to limit Georgian Muslims' right to practice their religion. The minaret, they said, was removed because it had not been properly cleared through customs and was put up without the proper permit.
Members of Chela’s Muslim community, however, alleged that several Georgian Orthodox Church priests and members of a nearby Church parish had pushed officials to take the measure so as to stop the mosque from broadcasting its daily calls to prayer.
Anna Chapman, the Russian-spy-turned-sex-icon, has been sighted in breakaway Nagorno Karabakh, causing a bit of furor in the region.
Chapman, who since her scandalous arrest and deportation from the US in 2010 became a reporter with Russia's REN-TV news channel, arrived in Karabakh on August 26 with a gaggle of Russian journalists to discuss separatist officials' take on the chances for resolving their Armenia-backed conflict with Baku over the territory. She is also reportedly there to work on her TV show series “Mysteries of the World.”
It is unclear what a Russian femme fatale can do to enlighten the world about the decades-long dispute, but now Azerbaijan is likely to become another country where she won’t be welcome anymore.
Azerbaijan, which routinely blacklists those who visit Karabakh without its permission, is unhappy to see any celebrity visitors there, including celebrity spies. Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry said that Chapman and other Russian journalists, who visited Karabakh and met with separatist officials, will be regarded as personae-non-gratae, a status to which Chapman must be growing accustomed by now.
Anyone out there interested in buying a troubled television station for a third of its market value? Well, the family of Georgia’s Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili has one to sell. The channel comes with state-of-the-art equipment and has a successful record as a political campaign tool. The prime minister may be willing to throw in a news agency, too, as a lagniappe.
The signal for Tbilisi-based TV9 went static on August 19 after barely a year and a half on the air. Ivanishvili went through fire and water last year to create the national channel, owned by his wife, Ekaterine Kvedelidze, and Kakha Kobiashvili, a relative of Ivanishvili.
The station was intended to insert a dose of criticism into the airwaves then dominated by broadcasts friendly toward President Mikheil Saakashvili. The news channel may have helped bring Ivanishvili and his Georgian Dream coalition to power, but has since become a money pit and source of awkwardness for the prime minister.
“I have always believed and I still believe today that national leaders should not own television stations,” Ivanishvili said, Netgazeti.ge reported. “As I said many times before, it puts me personally and my family in an awkward situation."
After the 2012 parliamentary elections brought the Georgian Dream to power, the prime minister's family "wanted to sell TV9 and Info9 news agency, but out of responsibility and respect for journalists and other employees we extended its operations for 10 more months.”
But enough is enough. Ivanishvili, who has pledged to leave his post by the end of the year, said he can’t continue spending a million dollars a month to keep the station alive.
But Ibragimbekov, the country's most prominent prospective opposition candidate, may not get the chance to duel with the powerful President Aliyev. According to local media reports, Ibragimbekov failed to secure cancelation of his second, Russian citizenship.
Azerbaijani law bars double citizens from running for president. Ibragimbekov appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin to expedite his denaturalization, a process that may last up to a year.
Putin, who recently visited Baku to achieve less than phenomenal progress on gas and oil talks, has not publicly commented on Ibragimbekov’s appeal. Russia’s Federal Migration Service told the Haqqin.az civil-rights-news portal that Ibragimbekov’s case is most likely to be reviewed in the beginning of 2014 at the earliest.
Citing the Federal Migration Service, Haqqin reported that Ibragimbekov, who has a house in Los Angeles, holds a US Green Card, which farther complicates his case.
These hurdles, however, did not prevent the National Council of Democratic Forces, an alliance of Azerbaijani opposition parties, from turning in Ibragimbekov’s application to Azerbaijan's Central Election Commission.
To many, it may come as no surprise. Politics is a man’s world in the South Caucasus, where women remain a legislative minority, according to recent data from the World Bank.
The study showed that, regionally, Armenia has the lowest share of female parliamentarians, at 11 percent of its 131-seat National Assembly. Georgia comes next on the list with 12 percent, though the 2012 election marked a slight improvement. Azerbaijan is doing the best, though the female presence in its 125-seat Milli Majlis still stands at a modest 16 percent.
Azerbaijan is also doing better than Russia (14 percent), and, like its Caucasian neighbors, far better than Ukraine, which, with women accounting for nine percent of its 450-seat legislature, boasts the most testosterone-heavy parliament among the former Soviet republics.
Many Azerbaijanis might say that their country comes naturally by this regional first . While often socially conservative toward the roles of women (public criticism of President Ilham Aliyev's wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, as an MP tends to be studiously avoided), Azerbaijan, under its short-lived Azerbaijani Democratic Republic (1918-1921), became the first predominantly Muslim country to give women the vote.(The country has enjoyed less success in other areas of women's rights; according to the United Nations Population Fund, violence against women has reached "epidemic proportions.")