The Azerbaijani government has never been celebrated for its sense of irony. Yet even as it settles into its chair at the Council of Europe's Commission of Ministers and assures the world that it's got that democracy thing down pat, Baku appears to be busy cracking the whip.
Most recently, with a demand for lengthy prison sentences for three imprisoned civil-rights activists -- deemed political prisoners by international human-rights groups -- and by the May 19 arrest of three Jehovah's Witnesses.
But perhaps Council of Europe Secretary-General Thorbjørn Jagland got the full story. Jagland spent May 20-21 in Baku for the official kickoff of an "action plan" intended to help Azerbaijan meet its CoE obligations and "address some fundamental human rights and rule of law issues," as the document states.
On May 21, prosecutors addressed those issues in their own way -- by requesting prison sentences of between six to nine years for civil-society activists Anar Mammadli, Bashir Suleymanli and Elnur Mammadov, charged, after critical monitoring of the 2013 presidential election, with alleged violation of NGO-registration rules and abuse of their official duties.
Nashville, Tennessee has apparently become another unlikely proxy battleground for a war going on a world away -- between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which both are busy building strategic alliances in the United States.
In an investigative piece, the CBS-affiliate claimed that Towns, a Memphis Democrat, allegedly had accepted $10,000 in campaign donations from seven supposedly Azerbaijan-linked sources. When confronted by the station's chief investigative reporter, Phil Williams, Towns could not coherently explain what motivated him to lobby for Baku-Nashville friendship or who were the alleged campaign contributors.
Williams implied that Representative Towns’ story was a case of Azerbaijan buying lawmakers in Tennessee to promote questionable policies.
The reporter's sole commentator, Barry Barsoumian, identified as an Armenian immigrant and activist, pointed at the suspicious link between the “strange” resolution, which eventually flopped, and the murky donors. The concerned Barsoumian also presented the channel with the Armenian version of the decades-long confrontation between the Caucasus nations over the breakaway territory of Nagorno Karabakh.
Rainbow-colors represent "invisible" LGBT-Georgians at this downtown Tbilisi stairway, near the city's Freedom-Square subway station.
Opting against a public protest, Georgia’s gay community instead staged a “invisible” rally in the capital, Tbilisi, on May 17, the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia. Passers-by on May 18 found downtown stairs emblazoned with rainbow colors, while, the day before, dozens of shoes appeared in a nearby park. “This art installation is for the invisible people, for those who are not seen, are not heard, and whose existence is not recognized,” read a poster.
Gay-rights have become a major civil-rights issue in this conservative city after an angry mob last May 17 chased LGBT-rights supporters from the streets. This year, the powerful Georgian Orthodox Church declared May 17 a “family day” and mobilized thousands of believers, many of whom vowed to prevent any repeat demonstration by LGBT activists.
But Georgia’s embattled LGBT community still tried to leave a footprint in Tbilisi through the “invisible” rallies. While a conservative group collected signatures on May 19 against a recently passed anti-discrimination law, just steps away the rainbow-colored stairs maintained their mute presence.
With the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, already on tenterhooks for May 17, the International Day of Homophobia and Transphobia [IDAHO], tensions are rising over a media report that police officers allegedly demanded that one hipster Tbilisi cafe hand over the names and contacts of all its “gay, transgender, and lesbian" clients. The Georgian interior ministry denied the café-management’s allegation as “absurd.”
Violetta Kolbaia, manager of the reputedly gay-friendly Gallery Café, wrote on Facebook on May 14, that the establishment had refused to hand over "any such information," Tabula.ge reported. “They told us not to post this [on Facebook] or they’d break the computer over our heads,” Kolbaia claimed.
In subsequent media comments, she alleged that the policemen had said the contacts were needed to create “a list.” It is not clear why the police would need such a list -- if, indeed, it is being compiled.
Some argue that it was likely intended to use against Tbilisi's LGBT community, while others wonder if it was to know whom to protect from possible attacks on May 17.
Last year, an angry mob led by priests overpowered police protecting a small rally marking IDAHO on Tbilisi's central Freedom Square. Amidst the violence, many were wounded.
Mindful of last year's controversy, the interior ministry roundly denied the café-manager’s report. They claimed that no police officers had been sent to her club, Netgazeti .ge reported. Kolbaia stood by her story, though she does not rule out the possibility that the police officers acted arbitrarily.
The Armenian government has revised its controversial pension plan umpteen times, but many Armenians just don’t like it. And the government just does not give up.
The main problem -- mandatory salary deductions for a national retirement plan -- was discarded after a wave of protests, battles in parliament and a smack-down by the Constitutional Court. In a rare policy-concession to the opposition, the ruling establishment gave workers the discretion to opt out of contributing five percent of their salaries to the pension fund, but now questions are asked about how optional is optional.
On May 13, Armenia's parliament reluctantly approved in its first reading a truncated, deductions-optional version of the original bill. Some political parties welcomed the “free will” addition to the draft, but still the ruling Republican Party of Armenia was the bill's lone supporter. Others chose to abstain or oppose.
The most ardent critic of the pension scheme, and of the government in general – the Armenian National Congress (ANC) – maintained that, despite the compromise, a compulsory savings system has been forced on Armenia. The government has the means to put pressure on public and even private companies to force employees to make the transfers to the pension fund no matter what their individual decisions, asserted the ANC, RFE/RL reported.
The claim is debatable, but some media reports already alleged that the government is putting pressure on public servants to keep pitching into the pension fund.
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.