On the eve of Baku’s mini-Olympics for Europe, Germany’s body for Olympic sports seems to have become the first major European sports authority to heed calls to take Azerbaijan’s government to task for human-rights abuses.
With a week to go before the European Games kick off, the German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB) on June 4 said it shares international concerns over Azerbaijan’s crackdown against government-critics.
“We support human rights and freedom of the press, and we are going to talk about this in Baku, too,” the confederation’s chairperson, Michael Vasper, said, Frankfurter Allgemeine reported.
Giving away perhaps the last opportunity for energy independence, Armenia plans to sell its 41-kilometer-long section of an Iranian natural-gas export pipeline to Russian energy leviathan, Gazprom. The decision leaves Moscow in full control of natural-gas supply routes to Armenia.
Armenia Energy Minister Ara Simonian assured Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, however, that the terms of a state license will not allow Gazprom Armenia to mess with imports from Iran.
Those imports, though, are just a quarter of the annual 2 billion cubic meters Armenia receives from Russia, its economic and security patron.
Moscow is believed to use its position as Armenia’s economic, energy and security patron to ensure the country’s fealty – a situation that does not necessarily make it tolerant toward market-competitors.
Moscow first tried to set a limit to the Iranian-Armenian pipeline’s diameter and, hence, its supply capacity. Then, Gazprom muscled its way into taking over domestic distribution and, now, all import infrastructure.
Commenting on the takeover of the Iranian pipeline, Gazprom Armenia, Gazprom’s local distribution monopoly, said that it only made business sense to let one company operate the country’s supply-and-distribution infrastructure.
He may have lost his Georgian citizenship, but even as a regional governor in Ukraine, ex-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili appears to be planning a comeback in Georgia.
In an hour-long interview with the ever-Misha-friendly Georgian TV channel, Rustavi2, broadcast on June 2, the former Georgian leader shared grand plans for Georgia’s future and shook his fist at back-home foes.
Yes, he said, I shall return, and “we will” bring jobs, education and dignity to Georgia, which, he claims, has "become uncool" (gabandzda) under a government of amateurs and sycophants to billionaire ex-Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Yes, the seaside metropolis of Lazika, which so far exists only in Misha’s head, will be built for all the separatists to see and to be dazzled by its skyscrapers.
And, yes, he said, drawing on “very good experience in Ukraine with how to make oligarchs return their money,” he will wreak vengeance upon Ivanishvili, whom, he alleged, without offering detailed proof, supposedly has run off with billions at taxpayers' expense.
But when directly asked if he plans to lead his homeland again, Saakashvili, wearing a Georgian-flag lapel-pin, demurred. “People will vote for the man or the group who best fits their vision of what kind of country they want to live in,” he said.
Voters may have gone for Ivanishvili and the Georgian Dream back in 2012 “because they were given a hope for a better life,” he conceded, but not because, “as [Ivanishvili] thinks . . . he is so handsome and magnificent, so eloquent and educated . . . .”
The pull of sakartvelo (Georgia), though, does not come as a surprise to some regional observers.
There was little doubt Mikheil Saakashvili had a second political act in him after leaving the presidency of Georgia in 2013. But few would have predicted he would be politically reborn as a governor of Ukraine’s Black Sea region of Odessa.
Russia has already poured big money into building bases in scenic, separatist Abkhazia, but now it claims that it plans to pour big money as well into the iconic resort town of Gagra — the ruble equivalent of about $25 million over the next two years.
The amount makes up a big chunk of both the 4 billion rubles ($76 million) in annual investment and 5 billion rubles ($95 million) in annual aid that Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged to Abkhazia when the breakaway region agreed in 2014to address many policy-areas with the Russian Federation's assistance.
The breakdown about how the cash will be used is not yet clear. But, with summer on the way, no public sign that anyone in Abkhazia is sweating the details.
Many older people throughout the former Soviet Union pine over Gagra, once the Saint-Tropez of the Soviet Union, and the times when it was synonymous with swanky beach-holidays. Getting a путёвка (putyovka) – a vacation voucher – for a trip to Gagra was like winning a jackpot and many a popular movie was set in the town.
(“Yakin broke up with his hag and talked me into going with him to Gagra!” enthused one parvenue in a famous moment in the 1973 Soviet comedy hit, “Иван Васильиевич Меняет Профессию" (released in the US as "Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future"). The line turned into a popular meme when Russian President Vladimir Putin divorced his wife, Lyudmila, in 2014.)
An investigative report provides details on alleged dirty dealings in Azerbaijan involving Stockholm-based telecom giant TeliaSonera and a company purportedly controlled by President Ilham Aliyev’s family.
The report, published May 27, was the result of a months-long investigation conducted by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, Swedish public television SVT and the Swedish news agency TT. It alleges that TeliaSonera, a former majority shareholder in Azerbaijan’s largest telecommunications company, Azercell, facilitated the takeover of a large Azercell stake by an entity believed to be associated with President Aliyev’s family via offshore companies. The transaction cost Azerbaijani taxpayers an estimated $600 million, according to the report.
The cost to TeliaSonera investors, who are now demanding the details, is reckoned at roughly $709 million.
The report was based on work initially undertaken by now-jailed Azerbaijani investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova. In December 2014, Ismayilova, whose work has appeared on EurasiaNet.org, was arrested on criminal charges several months after releasing a story that examined the connection between Azercell and Aliyev’s two daughters, Leyla and Arzu. Ismayilova remains in official custody pending trial.
They knew it would not be a milestone event. But many in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine nonetheless are finding it difficult to accept the results of the May 21-22 European Union gathering in Riga, Latvia.
At war over territories and ideology, Russia and Ukraine are also fighting over World War II, the conflict that bonded the two countries together for over a half century as part of the Soviet Union. But this struggle over history is not a straightforward one.
In a smack-down to Georgia and Ukraine’s European aspirations, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on May 21 that the two countries should not have expectations for a visa-free regime with the EU anytime soon.
Merkel’s comments came amid the European Union’s summit with its EU-curious neighbors in the Latvian capital, Riga. In the run-up to the summit, it was clear that the EU would not be granting a visa-waiver at this time, but Georgia and Ukraine expected to make significant progress toward such a waiver, as well as toward integration with the bloc.
As of early evening, Tbilisi had not yet responded officially to Merkel’s remarks. In comments earlier in the day in Riga, however, Georgian Foreign Minister Tamar Beruchashvili told Georgian reporters that Georgia has met with flying colors most of the EU’s requirements for a visa-free regime, and that it is “only a step “ away from heading toward receiving that status.
Kyiv’s reaction was not immediately available.
Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova are the main EU-enthusiasts among the six ex-Soviet republics courted by the EU under its Eastern Partnership Program. Moldova, Ukraine's southwestern neighbor, received its visa-free deal in 2014.
After the last Eastern Partnership in Vilnius, Lithuania, where Ukraine had pulled away from signing an association agreement with the EU, helping to set in motion a domestic conflict over Ukraine’s leadership, the bloc arrived at this next summit in Riga with far less enthusiasm for integrating the countries and to engage Russia in a full-on competition for the region.
Local news reported trapped residents jumping to their death from the burning high-rise in the Binagadi district. Harrowing footage shows friends and families rushing to the scene and arguing with police who blocked access to the building. Scores of apartment-dwellers were hospitalized for burns and smoke-poisoning.
Murisif Makhmudov, the head of the company, Global Construction, which allegedly put the facing on the building, has been charged with the use of low-quality materials and was arrested on May 19, news agencies have reported.
Outrage over the incident, strongly expressed on Facebook, is running strong and building. Five children, including a one-and-a-half-year-old, died in the fire. Sick of rampant corruption, many Azerbaijanis see this tragedy as the result of many officials and businesspeople’s willingness to go cheap on building materials or blind on safety standards. This was the second Baku-fire this year blamed on polyurethane-based sidings.