Just as Georgia was about to snooze away the summer, its political scene was jolted wide awake by President Mikheil Saakashvili's June 30 appointment of the country's executive sheriff, Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili, as prime minister. The move has major implications for the October parliamentary vote and, potentially, for what direction Georgia takes once President Saakashvili steps down from power in 2013.
Until now, the “iron minister” has stayed outside the Saakashvili administration's ongoing game of musical chairs with ministerial appointments. This is the first time since 2005 that a figure with national heft has been chosen for the job, which, in recent years, has been mostly reserved for technocrats fluent in English and business.
Parliament, controlled by Saakashvili's United National Movement, is expected to approve the nomination.
Merabishvili, who presided over the oft-praised clean-up of Georgia’s legendarily corrupt police force, has a reputation as a skilled manager. The government, citing one recent survey, maintains that 87 percent of the population give the police a thumbs-up.
Conceivably, they must be hoping that, with Merabishvili as prime minister, some of that public trust will fob off on the government just in time for the elections.
Larry King was in Azerbaijan today to talk about a subject with which he is quite familiar -- women. At a Baku event staged by the Crans Montana Forum, a Swiss organization in search of "a more humane and impartial world," the legendary American talk-show host, known for his revolving-door love life, addressed the rights and the role of women "in tomorrow's world."
Georgia is in the midst of a tense campaign for its October parliamentary election that is increasingly reminiscent of a nasty battle between two rival corporations for market share, with plenty of legal fights thrown in for good measure.
In the other corner is billionaire opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili, the unspoken target of Saakashvili's comment. (Russia, making its umpteenth alleged appearance in a Georgian political drama, was the unnamed country.)
But neither the supposed attempts at vote buying nor the penalties imposed for them are actually cheap.
Just when you thought it would never happen, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has announced that Azerbaijan, Turkey and Europe will soon be tied “organically." The organic matter in question is, of course, natural gas, soon to flow through a new pipeline, per a long-awaited June 26 agreement between Azerbaijan and Turkey.
Europe’s organic dependence on Russia could decrease after some 16 billion cubic meters (bcm) of Azerbaijani gas start to flow each year via the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP), to be completed in 2018. Turkey will be happily siphoning off six billion cubic meters of the gas, while the rest will head further afield, to Europe. The volumes are projected to nearly double by 2023 and further increase to 31 bcm by 2026.
Shah Deniz 2, the second stage of development of a massive gas field off Azerbaijan's Caspian-Sea coast, will provide the bulk of the supplies, but Erdoğan expressed hope that, in future, the gas will come not only from Azerbaijan, but from its across-the-Caspian-Sea neighbors in Central Asia.
Speaking of ties, TANAP could further tie Azerbaijan to BP. The British energy giant, which leads the Shah Deniz project, has shown interest in purchasing a stake in the pipeline, co-owned by the states of Azerbaijan and Turkey.
A bearded Orthodox priest solemnly gliding by on rollerblades is not a usual sight in Georgia. Or elsewhere, for that matter. Yet along a bridge and into Tbilisi's downtown area a priest in flowing robes did glide the other day. Granted, the Bible chronicles stranger things, but several alarmed local priests promptly appeared on the scene and ordered the holy roller to give up his sinful ways.
In fact, the coasting reverend was an actor and the miraculous sight was part of a movie project, but the real clerics declared that the scene ridiculed the Georgian Orthodox Church and demanded a halt to production. Police had to intervene between the film crew and the priests, who were backed up by seminary students. In the end, the movie-makers beat a retreat, reported the Netgazeti.ge news site.
Back in the Soviet era, parodying priests in movies was frequent and keenly encouraged by the state. A confrontation between a rotund, gluttonous priest and a relentless anarchist ("Jesus was slim. What made you gain weight?") is a trademark of the 1970s classic, The Adventures of Lazarus. One of the best known Georgian movies from the same period, The Wishing Tree, features a frivolous village priest with a taste for the bottle.
Abkhazia may be an impoverished, largely unrecognized piece of separatist Caucasus territory, but, for many, it sure beats Syria these days.
Thirty-two Syrians of Abkhaz descent have escaped the violence at home and moved to the breakaway territory in a transfer facilitated by the de-facto Abkhaz authorities (and, perhaps, their patrons in Moscow).
Another 50 Syrian-Abkhaz are expected "in the near future," the region's de-facto Repatriation Committee Chairperson Zurab Adleiby told Kavkazsky Uzel news service. One hundred total are expected this year, Apsnypress reported.
The de-facto Abkhaz government reportedly is trying to fix them up with jobs and is preparing permanent housing near the capital city, Sukhumi.
As they have for Abkhaz-Turks as well, the Abkhaz have hailed the Syrians' arrival as a homecoming. It may have been a while (a century and half, to be specific) since these families’ ancestors were driven out of Abkhazia by Tsarist Russia, but, in the Caucasus, centuries-old events are often discussed as things that happened yesterday.
Some Syrian-Abkhaz have done a better job preserving their knowledge of Abkhaz language and customs over the generations, than others, however. A video report from the Kavkazsky Uzel shows a seven-year-old Syrian girl reciting a poem in Abkhaz, while an elderly woman in an Arab-style headdress says it is harder for older people to learn the local language.
Little is known about what brings Rummy to George W. Bush’s beacon of regional democracy; perhaps because local media are too busy covering the government's seizure of property belonging to a cable television company accused of bribing voters for Ivanishvili. What we know is that Rumsfeld met Georgian Defense Minister Bacho Akhalia, who thanked him for his contribution to deepening US-Georgia military ties.
The two past and present defense bosses chatted about Georgia’s plans to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the ongoing military reforms in the country. Rumsfeld will stay in town for a week; perhaps he is working on a chapter for a new installment of memoirs?
The new arrivals will be temporary -- the "permanent" troop presence at Gyumri, the northern Armenian site of Russia's 102nd Military Base, will stay at 5,000, according to Colonel Igor Gorbul, a spokesperson for Russia's Southern Military District, RIA Novosti reported -- and will receive a higher salary and undefined benefits to whet their interest in sticking around.
They'll arrive at a base that's been a bit on the bustling side of late. Russian jets have been busy drilling in Armenian airspace, and, in March, Moscow held war games in Gyumri. Earlier on, the head of the Collective Security Treaty Organization -- a Russian response to NATO -- said that the Moscow-led alliance will protect Armenia from enemy attacks. “If unfriendly actions are taken against Armenia, all member states will provide relevant assistance to Armenia,” pledged CSTO Secretary-General Nikolai Bordyuzha.
Surveys show that Armenians tend to believe that the man has to be the principal moneymaker in a family. But looks like the country's presidential family is bucking that trend. Judging by official income disclosures, President Serzh Sargsyan lives, financially speaking, in the shadow of his richer wife, Rita.
While the president was scrimping together a modest annual income in drams of some $34,900 (salary plus accruals on loans) in 2011, Rita Sargsyan was busy making the dram equivalent of $41,000, reported the investigative news service Hetq. Perhaps because of his modest revenue, the Armenian president did not do any large-scale shopping or investment in 2011, if we go by his income declaration.
In neighboring Georgia, President Mikheil Saakashvili seems to be the breadwinner in his family. President Saakashvili’s annual salary in laris is just $1,000 higher than that of his Armenian counterpart, while his wife, Sandra Roelofs, has not disclosed any earned wages for 2011. Saakashvili owns more property than his wife, but the his and her bank accounts seem to be about the same size in that family. As of May 16, 2012, the president reported about $85,000 in his bank accounts (in dollars, euros and laris), while the first lady has above $86,000 worth of euros and laris.
Residents of Baku, a handsome city awash in petrodollars, have been given something new to worry about by earthquake forecasters from the Massachusetts Institute for Technology.
While buildings in the Azerbaijani capital are soaring ever upwards, seismic tension down below is building ever deeper, and could cause a devastating earthquake, MIT scientists announced in a June 14 statement.
Ten years of GPS tracking of seismic shifts suggest that fault lines near Baku may snap under the strain of a face-off between the North Eurasian and South Arabian plates, they found. That means that the city could share the fate of Azerbaijan's former capital of Shemakha, leveled by a quake in 1859.
“It is an extremely vulnerable area in terms of density of the people, the density of oil infrastructure, and potential environmental impact regionally; not just Azerbaijan,” commented principal research scientist Robert Reillinger to MITnews.
The good news is that the MIT people are not sure about it. Similar observations did little to predict the 2011 Japan earthquake and fickle mother earth is still largely beyond predictions.
If it is any reassurance, Azerbaijani scientists rejected the forecasts of their colleagues in Massachusetts and noted that Baku's Soviet-era buildings can withstand six or seven-magnitude tremors -- a finding that didn't hold during the city's 2000 earthquake (7 on the Richter scale).