The world’s top chess-playing country, Armenia, faces a tough gambit. Two upcoming big games will be held right next door in, arguably, the world's most anti-Armenian country, Azerbaijan. Armenian sports officials have threatened to boycott the tournaments.
Azerbaijan’s glittery capital, Baku, was chosen as the venue for the 2015 World Cup and 2016 World Olympiad by the World Chess Federation (FIDE). Armenia, dubbed "the cleverest nation" in the world by the BBC after winning two chess Olympiads in a row (it won this year as well), is not ready to move its players to the enemy’s board.
The animosity has grown stronger still since Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev last month pardoned and honored an army officer convicted of decapitating an Armenian man in Budapest.
It may indeed be a little hard for the Armenian grandmasters to travel to Baku and fix their eyes on the chessboard when there is a convicted axe-murderer walking the streets freely.
Azerbaijani sports officials, for their part, have vowed to ensure the safety of the Armenian players. Sports Minister Azad Ragimov noted that Armenia has participated in boxing competitions in Baku before, with no untoward incidents.
Last week, The New York Times' travel section offered a tip to other explorers about how to visit Karabakh and still be able to hop over to Azerbaijani-controlled territory later -- namely, just “ask for the visa to be put on a separate piece of paper that can be removed from your passport.”
The trick is hardly a secret. And one that prudent visitors quickly learn, with or without a how-to in the American "newspaper of record."
The covert footage released by the Georgian Interior Ministry implicates the Georgian Dream and its billionaire leader, Bidzina Ivanishvili, in attempts to bribe police officers to stage the beatings of a youth activist and army recruits, among other scenarios; events that, when made public, would help tarnish the ruling United National Movement's public standing.
One video shows a purported Georgian Dream representative offering $50,000 to a police official and requesting him to record the beating on camera. “We will give you a man… from the youth wing of the party… just make sure not to beat him to death,” the man says.
The Georgian Dream described the videos as fabricated. “The government is busy putting together a false TV series,” with a script long familiar to viewers, the coalition said in a statement.
The videos were met with a dose of public skepticism. Whether or not they question the authenticity of the police recordings, many commentators say that the alleged evidence will neither diminish nor redirect public anger at the government over the earlier exposure of torture in Georgia's Prison .
After this past week's revelations of the torture and sexual abuse of prisoners, everyone agrees that something is rotten in the country of Georgia. But the question is: what's really going to be done about it?
For now, there're a lot of promises, and a lot of show -- be it the televised updates about the government's investigation into the abuse for Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili or the opposition Georgian Dream coalition's frenzied cries for President Mikheil Saakashvili's resignation.
The media is part of it, too. During a September 21 tour of prison #8, the facility outside of Tbilisi where the abuse was filmed, broadcast outlets eagerly scampered up to prison-cell windows to ask prisoners if the abuse continues. It was as if the videos showing the sadistic humiliation of inmates were the first these reporters had heard of it.
Sadly, for many of them, it may well have been. The reports from prison activists and Georgia's ombudsman detailing physical abuse in the country's overstuffed jails have been coming for years. In 2011, Georgia’s public defender, Giorgi Tugushi, now its newly appointed prison minister, reported that 40 of the 140 people who died in Georgian jails in 2011 showed signs of physical injury.
But the government-friendly national broadcasters were preoccupied with promoting the government's achievements, while opposition-minded press often discredited their coverage of Georgia's human rights woes by frosting it with sensationalism and political bias.
The government, for its part, often appeared to prefer to focus on the bright and the beautiful -- the opening of medical clinics, the Disney-Land makeover of Batumi or the comforts of safer, crime-free streets.
Thousands rallied in the streets of Tbilisi on September 20 and convicts’ relatives continued to besiege Prison 8, the notorious site of the abuse, amid rumors of ongoing torture and intimidation of inmates following the videos' release. Mothers pushed themselves against prison gates, demanding meetings with their sons out of fear that some inmates may face retribution for revealing violence inside the prison.
For a president whose political party faces a hotly contested parliamentary election in just over a week, the situation is far from ideal. With the clock ticking, Mikheil Saakashvili appointed ombudsman Giorgi Tugushvili, a frequent critic of abuses in Georgian prisons as the new head of the correctional system.
Some welcomed the move, while particularly vocal government critics lambasted the ex-ombudsman for accepting the job. The government, in the past, has paid scant attention to his reports of abuses. Others argue that the test for the new prison minister will be his eagerness to take on high-ranking officials, such as Interior Minister Bacho Akhalaia, who ran the prison system from 2005 to 2008, for their suspected contributions to the practice of prisoner abuse.
“Please don’t film this, I will do anything,” begs a young inmate as he is sexually assaulted with a broom while being handcuffed to the bars of his cell. “Does it hurt?” calmly inquires a voice behind the camera.
When Georgian television stations warned their audiences on September 18 that they were about to roll disturbing imagery of prison abuse, viewers still did not know just how harrowing the glimpse of the reality behind bars was going to be.
Human rights advocates, both Georgian and foreign, have long sounded the alarm over allegations of torture in Georgian prisons, but Georgia had to see it to believe it.
Some viewers cried, while others watched in silent shock as several wardens at Prison 8, in the Tbilisi outskirts, stomped on a prisoner, with other inmates purportedly awaiting their turn. Television stations critical of the government took it to another extreme, airing videos of prisoners, including allegedly juvenile detainees, being humiliated and sexually abused.
The initial shock gave way to anger that spilled into the streets of Tbilisi and several other cities last night and today, straining an atmosphere already taut with tensions ahead of the country's October 1 parliamentary elections.
At around midnight, students, rights activists, opposition politicians, some carrying posters reading "We Are [expletive] Angry!" and "Rape Me!," gathered near the Tbilisi Philharmonia, where they believed that President Mikheil Saakashvili was attending a performance.
Distraught family members of Prison 8 inmates rushed to the jail last night. The pro-opposition Maestro television channel showed an emotional woman claiming she had identified her son in the videos. “He told me ‘Don’t tell anyone or they will kill me,’” the woman cried.
Every time Russia comes to play war in the Caucasus, a sense of alert spreads in the neighborhood. And it does not help if the Russians are running around with guns for two separate war games at the same time.
Azerbaijan is keeping a wary eye on its sworn enemy, Armenia, as it hosts drills for the Collective Security Treaty Organization (Moscow's response to NATO), while Georgia has its vision trained on the Caucasus-2012 training to the north.
Tbilisi is particularly uneasy to see Moscow mobilize 8,000 troops, 200 military vehicles, artillery and military vessels in the Black and Caspian Seas and Russia's southern Krasnodar region just as Georgia is approaching a critical parliamentary election on October 1.
“We all remember the consequences of the 2008 drills, which were much smaller in scale [than Caucasus 2012],” commented Georgian Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze. He claimed that the operations threaten the sovereignty of the three Caucasus countries, and, at least in part, are meant to affect their domestic politics.
Political candidates around the world routinely insert God into their election campaigns, but, in passionately Orthodox Christian Georgia, politicians appear to be experiencing a particularly pressing need for divine assistance ahead of the October 1 parliamentary vote.
The popularity of the Georgian Orthodox Church at times could make the entire country seem like one big, happy parish. The Church always tops approval charts for public institutions and no public figure can challenge the celebrity of Georgian Orthodox Church Patriarch Ilia II. In the streets, drivers and pedestrians often halt -- sometimes in hazardous traffic situations -- and make signs of the cross whenever they see a church, whether near or far.
So, perhaps it is only logical for politicians to try to identify themselves with the Church and turn parishioners into voters. President Mikheil Saakashvili, leader of the ruling United National Movement, was recently spotted hoisting a cross over the newly-rebuilt, 11th-century Cathedral of the Dormition in Georgia's second-largest city, Kutaisi. Meanwhile, in Tbilisi's outskirts, a flag for billionaire opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition flies outside the St. Ilia Chavchavadze church.
Both the billionaire and the president are rumored to be closet religious skeptics, but keeping a distance is proving harder as the elections draw nearer.
Used to public shows of piety, some clerics don’t take kindly to reporters seeking an explanation for the occasionally blurred line between Church and campaign.
If there is any conclusion that can already be made about the September 13 bomb attack against separatist South Ossetia’s de-facto deputy defense minister, it is that it is always a good idea to own a large plasma TV.
It was such a television set that shielded Ibragim Gaseyev, his mother and daughter from shrapnel and detritus as an explosion ripped through the door to their apartment in Tskhinvali in the wee hours this morning, investigators told the Russian newspaper Izvestia. Gaseyev and his family survived the attack.
Other deductions made by South Ossetia investigators are both speculative and predictable. Separatist officials claim that the blast is either a product of domestic turf wars or a result of the work of a foreign country's secret services; a list, which, in Tskhinvali’s books, can mean only one place -- Tbilisi.
De-facto General Prosecutor Merab Chigoyev reasoned that Gaseyev is one of South Ossetia’s better military minds, so an enemy state might have tried to cripple the territory’s army. But formidable as those forces may be, it, arguably, was Russia’s involvement, rather than the South Ossetians' display of military know-how, that decided the outcome of the 2008 war with Georgia.
That said, logic does not always come first in the Caucasus.
South Ossetia's de-facto leader, Leonid Tibilov, echoed Chigoyev’s assumptions, but he didn’t rule out the attack being homegrown, either. In the past, violence has marked the competition for political and economic clout in the territory.
The return of ethnic Armenians from Syria to their ancestral homeland has born its fruit. RFE/RL has posted a video of a baby boy born in Yerevan late last month to one of the many Syrian-Armenian families who have escaped the fighting in Aleppo for refuge among their ethnic kin. In a symbolic gesture, the baby has been named "Christ" in recognition of Armenia's status as the first country in the world to adopt Christianity.
The baby Christ weighs 3.5 kilos, is 53 centimeters tall and is the first child to be born to a Syrian-Armenian family in Armenia after fleeing Syria.
There may not be three kings in Yerevan to greet and shower the baby with frankincense, gold and myrrh, but there is Diaspora Minister Hranush Hakobian. She visited the mother and child in the hospital, and promised state assistance should Christ decide to make Armenia his home.
But not all the Syrian-Armenian news is that heart-warming. In the hometown of Christ's parents, Aleppo, four Syrians of Armenian descent were killed and 11 were wounded on September 11 after returning from Yerevan. The rebel Free Syria Army reportedly shot at the group as they were looking for a safe way to head home from the airport, according to Armenpress.am.