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.
In coordination with the Kremlin, Russian activists plan an ex-USSR-wide distribution of black-and-orange ribbons meant to commemorate the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. The caveat is that the St. George’s ribbon has evolved to embody Russian power and nostalgia for the USSR; concepts that many in the Caucasus are not willing to wear on their sleeves.
The state-run Russian Information Agency (RIA Novosti), a champion of the annual St.-George's-ribbon campaign, has announced that on May 9, the 69th anniversary of the 1945 Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, millions of ribbons will rain down on ex-Soviet countries, the South Caucasus included.
In an April 29 talk show, headlined “St. George’s Ribbon Struts across the Planet,” RIA Novosti claimed that a massive ribbon-handout rally would be held in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku. The ribbons, talk-show participants said, also would be up for grabs at the Russian embassies in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Moldova. In the case of Georgia, which severed diplomatic ties with Russia after the two countries' 2008 war, the Russian consulate at the Swiss embassy would provide the ribbons.
Many pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine are wearing these ribbons, and the show host made sure to take a swipe at Ukrainian “nationalists” and their alleged attempts to “erase the historic memory" of the war.
But it looks like the show and its claims of a post-Soviet team spirit may have been ultimately meant for a domestic, Russian audience.
Not to underestimate the power of social media, but officials in Azerbaijan believe it takes more than active tweeting to resolve an ethnic conflict; especially if it's the longest-running conflict to come out of the Soviet Union.
In a swipe at James Warlick, Washington's point-man for negotiations between Baku and Yerevan on the 26-year Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, a senior Azerbaijani presidential administration official commented on May 1 that he would like to see the US mediator's tweets matched by actions.
“Sometimes it seems to me that Mr. Warlick seeks to resolve the #NagornoKarabakh conflict through his tweets,” tweeted Novruz Mammadov, deputy chief of staff to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.
Twitter debates with the ambassador about certain events in the Karabakh
conflict are not possible, Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov added in an interview with APA news agency, since a tweet "must
consist of only 120 letters."
Azimov went still further, charging that the US envoy is pro-Armenian, and "spreading rumors about a possible escalation of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan." Baku has "every reason" to demand his recall, he said.
Ambassador Warlick, who recently attended an Azerbaijani gala dinner in Washington, has not yet responded. But he is, indeed, a prolific Twitter user.
Many of his tweets provide relatively innocuous progress reports about the Karabakh peace talks led by the US, France and Russia (the so-called Minsk Group), but one tweet in particular already has encountered Baku's ire -- an
observation that he had been "corrected" (presumably by
Armenia) that the conflict is between Azerbaijan and Karabakh; a
A group of Georgian Orthodox priests has threatened to curse those lawmakers who sign off on an anti-discrimination bill meant to introduce legal protections for minorities as part of Georgia's integration with the European Union. Confronted by influential clerics who claim the law will turn Georgia into a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah, many lawmakers face a tough choice between principle and populism.
“Behave wisely,” warned one of the bearded men in cassocks and skufias who formed a black, nay-saying corner at a parliamentary human-rights committee hearing on April 29. From the other corner, a group of rights activists fired back, saying that there should be no place for discrimination and sectarian interference with political processes in a modern state.
Most lawmakers responded to the priests patiently. But in this Orthodox country, where many fast and cross themselves at any sight of a church steeple, a priest's warning is nothing to brush off.
Last year, a mob led by priests overpowered police at an anti-homophobia rally. Now, priests have warned that support for the anti-discrimination bill, slotted for a second parliamentary hearing on April 30, would spell trouble for the government.
Azerbaijan's arrest of a respected human-rights activist is fuelling fears that the country is pulling out all the stops on crushing dissent before it takes over the Council of Europe's Commission of Ministers next month.
Fifty-eight-year-old Leyla Yunus, who chairs the Baku-based Institute for Peace and Democracy, and her husband, Arif Yunus, were detained in the Baku airport late on April 28 as they were about to depart for Doha, Qatar.
The reasons for their detention were not made known, but, after an interrogation on April 29, investigators reversed course and released Leyla Yunus, Trend news agency reported. (Yunus' spouse earlier had been hospitalized with heart problems.) The similarly pro-government APA agency added, however, that her office would be searched anyway. The information has not yet been confirmed, but any memory of prosecutors' actions is not likely to fade away fast . In a video published by RFE/RL's Azeri-language service and widely distributed on Facebook, Yunus, who has 30 years of rights and peace advocacy behind her, was shown defying police officers after they searched her apartment. She claimed the police did not present her with a warrant, nor explain the reasons for her arrest.
Yunus said they would not let her use the bathroom after her detention and, when finally so permitted, a male police officer went in with her. “He followed me into the toilet and stood there watching me… get him on camera!” Yunus yelled, taking the individual's police hat and throwing it to the ground.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decree to return ethnic minorities deported from Crimea under Joseph Stalin has revived homecoming-hopes among the peninsula's ethnic Armenian community.
“We hope that, based on the decree and a subsequent federal program, we can bring back at least 20,000 Crimean Armenians,” Vagarshak Melkonian, the leader of the Crimean Armenian Society, told RIA Novosti.
Running his empire as a strategy game, Stalin used to copy and paste entire ethnic groups from one place to another for tactical considerations; a process that is believed to have left millions uprooted or dead. Melkonian estimates that anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 ethnic Armenians were forced out of Crimea in the 1940s, when their and other minorities’ loyalty to the Soviet state was questioned.
Yet, rather than correcting past injustices, Putin’s move on this matter is largely seen as an attempt to consolidate his de-facto control of Crimea against opposition from Ukraine and the West.
The April 21 measure is primarily meant to court the Tatar minority, which bore the brunt of the Soviet-era deportations and is now wary of Moscow's takeover of the region.
The Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Jemilev has blasted the decree as Putin’s attempt to “ingratiate” himself with the Tatar population.
But Putin said that other minorities, such as “Armenian population, Germans, Greeks,” would also be rehabilitated.
Few people might be tempted to move to Crimea now, with Ukraine and Russia on the brink of war, but Melkonian believes Armenians will return gradually.
Nice try, but, no, your condolences were not accepted, said Yerevan after Ankara expressed commiseration on the April 24 anniversary of Ottoman Turkey's 1915 slaughter of thousands of ethnic Armenians.
In what Washington praised as an “historic” move, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan offered words of consolation to the “grandchildren” of the victims of the World-War I-era massacre, describing the events of that period as “a shared pain” for both Turks and Armenians. He added, however, that other peoples, including Turks, also endured brutalities during that time.
The comment was the closest Ankara has come to recognising the slaughter.
But Yerevan was having none of it. The statement was merely “another, perhaps a little more sophisticated way, of concealing and denying the genocide of the Armenians,” said Vigen Sarkisian, spokesperson for Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan.
Ethnic Armenians in Turkey seem to have displayed some appreciation for Erdoğan’s words, but Yerevan described them as putting “killers and victims” on the same footing. It repeated that Turkey needs to own up to its Ottoman predecessors having committed genocide against ethnic Armenians.
Erdoğan called on Armenia to leave the past behind it and move on, but Yerevan believes that recognizing that past is the best way for Turkey to do the same.
Imprisoned Azerbaijani youth activists and their mothers on April 24 entered the fifth day of a hunger strike intended to protest the activists' detention in prison, pending trial, for over a year.
“Our hunger strike is first of all an act of solidarity with our children, who are facing prison sentences,” Kavkazsky Uzel news site quoted Sakina Qurbanova, whose son, Zaur Qurbanli and seven fellow young government critics, have been awaiting trial since last year. “This is a desperate move. Perhaps at least now the authorities hear our voice and they will put a stop to this injustice,” Qurbanova went on saying.
The activists, most of them members of the NIDA (exclamation mark) civil rights movement, were arrested in 2013 on hooliganism, drug abuse and procession of firearms charges. Human-rights groups have dismissed the accusations, which are often levied against young dissenters in Azerbaijan. The prosecutors also accused the group of plotting an armed uprising -- another standard claim -- but the activists' supporters and lawyers maintain that the youths only planned a peaceful rally.
Amnesty International, a frequent critic of Azerbaijan, accused the Azerbaijani authorities of torturing the prisoners, inventing charges against them, and demanded the group's immediate release. On April 22, police dispersed a rally in support of the arrested activists.
Despite mounting concerns over their health, both the activists and their mothers pledged to continue their strike until the authorities drop their charges.
Russia's April 21 offer to turn into Russians anyone who has lived on the territory of the former Soviet Union or Russian Empire and speaks Russian fluently has got the South Caucasus on edge.
The law on simplifying access to citizenship for Russian-speakers across the former Soviet Union is ostensibly meant to replenish the thinning numbers of Russians, who, even at over 142.47 million people ( the world's tenth largest country), apparently just don’t reproduce like they used to. Azerbaijan, and especially Armenia and Georgia, which do not exactly boast high birth rates, are worried that Russia could annex many of their citizens to make up the difference.
Knowledge of Russian may have weakened of late in the South Caucasus, but widespread poverty still makes the region a prime place for creating born-again Russians. Armenia, which lacks Azerbaijan's natural resources and Georgia's status as a regional trade conduit, is particularly vulnerable to a citizenship drain. Russia also tightened its migrant- worker laws, which may prompt many Armenians, who travel to Russia for work, to opt for citizenship.