If they were to bet on which high-ranking Georgian official goes to prison next, many Georgians would put their money on the nation’s erstwhile top cop, Vano Merabishvili.
Image-wise, the 44-year-old Merabishvili has always been a combination of good cop and bad cop. As interior minister from 2004 until this July, he was praised for the overhaul of the country's once notoriously corrupt police force, but criticized for bending the laws to make sure nothing and no one could challenge his boss, President Mikheil Saakashvili. Some accused him of turning Georgia into one big prison cell, while others credited him for cleaning crime off city streets.
Many Georgians predict that now, in a process that would make for a Bertolt Brecht play, he may soon get a taste of prison cells himself.
It's a prediction that Merabishvili, now the target of an investigation into alleged abuse of office at the interior ministry, did not neglect to make in a televised interview on November 25.
Merabishvili, who now acts as general secretary of Saakashvili's United National Movement, has not yet been charged. Terming the affair "political vengeance," he's dismissed the allegations as "not serious."
But the allegations against Merabishvili do not end there.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili once called him "my biggest mistake." With the surprise return of ex-Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili to Tbilisi today, many in Georgia are wondering whether Saakashvili may soon have cause to repeat those words.
After returning early this morning to Tbilisi from years of refuge in Paris, Okruashvili, wanted in Georgia on various criminal charges, went straight to prison. His trial has been scheduled for December 3.
But before settling into his cell room, the onetime-friend-turned-bitter-foe of Saakashvili expressed hopes that he will be cleared of the charges brought against him in 2007, and expressed a keen willingness to assist the Ivanishvili government's prosecutions of former Saakashvili officials.
In a recent streak of arrests and investigations by Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanshvili’s government, several loyalists of Mikheil Saakashvili have been snatched away from the Georgian president’s side.
The decades-long row between Azerbaijan and Armenia about Karabakh has been increasingly playing out in Latin America, with Yerevan seeking supporters for the territory’s independence from Azerbaijan, and Baku working to nip such ideas in the bud.
Uruguay, with one of Latin America's largest Armenian Diasporas and a track record of having already recognized as genocide the Ottoman Empire's slaughter of ethnic Armenians, has now found itself in the middle of this tug-of-war.
After arriving in Yerevan early last week, Uruguayan House of Representatives Speaker Jorge Orrico and other delegates hopped over to Karabakh to meet de-facto leader Bako Sahakian and other local officials.
In comments similar to an earlier statement by Uruguay’s foreign minister, Luis Almagro, Orrico expressed support for Karabakh, but stopped short of making unequivocal promises to recognize the territory.
Episode 1: Take a look at the news, and the Caucasus is all about power struggles. But live there awhile, and it becomes all about its people’s passion for living, and the colorful stories that can get missed from a distance.
Last week, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan said his country would respond with an all-out military attack should Azerbaijan attempt to reclaim by force the predominantly ethnic Armenian breakaway region of Nagorno Karabakh. Sargsyan cited recent war games as proof of Armenia’s capabilities, but the drills did not envision a scenario of invasion by cowherd and cows.
To hear some media tell it, Armenia experienced a wanton breach of its national border on November 12 after an Azerbaijani cowherd and his squadron of cows supposedly stormed across the line of contact for the Karabakh conflict, and into Armenia.
Herdsman Telman Aliyev, who shares a last name with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, is now being questioned by Armenian military officials. As one Armenian news outlet put it, "Azerbaijan now has one fewer Aliyev . . ."
The whereabouts of his charges are unknown; if in captivity, they're no doubt maintaining a stoic silence.
But work is underway to bring back Aliyev the herder, according to Azerbaijan’s State Commission for War Prisoners, Hostages and Missing Citizens Secretary Shahin Sailov, who argues that Armenia has "taken [him] hostage."
Baku quickly alerted international organizations about the incident, and cited a search for greener pastures amidst heavy fog and what they describe as Aliyev's difficulties with speaking and hearing as mitigating circumstances.
Yet, after 23-plus years of conflict, don't expect Armenia to take Azerbaijan's word for it. Armenian military officials said they are testing Aliyev's speech skills and hearing.
The other day, NATO chief Anders fogh Rasmussen posted on his Facebook page a little video in which he soliloquized about the progress made by the allied forces in Afghanistan. The secretary-general, no doubt, was hardly expecting that another bland talk making the usual points would harness over 280 likes and get peppered by an endless litany of comments on the night of November 12.
But compulsively posting passionate comments under the video were not tax-paying citizens of NATO countries or the Afghans. Rather, these were NATO-aspiring Georgians, who hijacked the secretary-general’s page, turning it into a battleground of their own political differences that has very little to do with the Afghanistan campaign.
The Georgians, who tend to be the most ardent followers of Rasmussen's Facebook status reports, debated his November 12 comment that he is “extremely concerned” about the Georgian government's recent arrests of ex-Defense/Interior/Prisons Minister Bacho Akhalaia, Army Chief of Staff Giorgi Kalandadze and Fourth Brigade Commander Zurab Shamatava.
Rasmussen said this just as Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili made his debut foreign visit to Brussels.
In his home country, Ivanishvili is often seen as a messiah who defeated President Mikheil Saakashvili's powerful political machinery and arrested an ex-minister (Bacho Akhalaia) reputed to have abusive ways.
Georgia may maintain that its army is all grown-up now and ready to join NATO, but how criminal charges brought against ex-Defense Minister Bacho Akhalaia and two senior military figures will play in Brussels is grabbing attention within Tbilisi.
NATO's Military Committee, the Alliance's senior military-policy body, has postponed a visit to Georgia scheduled for late November -- the Georgian government claims it is because the post of joint chief of staff is vacant, but critics lay the blame on the recent arrests of Akhalaia, Joint Chief of Staff Giorgi Kalandadze and Zurab Shamatava, the commander of the Georgian army's elite 4th brigade.
The Alliance did not respond to a EurasiaNet.org request for comment.
Akhalaia, Kalandadze and Shamatava have been charged with abuse of office (literally, the physical abuse of subordinates), a crime that carries a maximum eight-year prison sentence.
Akhalaia also has been charged with the "illegal imprisonment" of an unnamed individual, a crime that carries a maximum 10-year prison sentence. In a November 9 statement, General Prosecutor Archil Kbilashvili claimed that both men had attacked the supposed victim in a restaurant, then summoned special forces to tie him up and hold him in a Tbilisi apartment. The motivation for these alleged actions was not clear.
Maintaining military discipline may require some fairly tough tactics, but hitting a subordinate over his head with the handle of a knife may be taking things a bit too far. Yet that's the accusation leveled by Georgian prosecutors against ex-Defense Minister Bacho Akhalaia, whose arrest last night has caused a major political stir in the country.
Thirty-two-year-old Akhalaia, who has served as defense minister (2009-2012), interior minister (July-September 2012) and penitentiary system boss (2005-2009), is the first key ally of President Mikheil Saakashvili to be arrested since the victory of the rival Georgian Dream coalition, led by Bidzina Ivanishvili, in Georgia's October 1 parliamentary vote. The army's ex-Chief of Joint Staffs Giorgi Kalandadze and 4th Brigade Commander Zurab Shamatava were also pulled in early this morning.
The three men are accused of violence against several military officers. General Prosecutor Archil Kbilashvili claimed that last year the former defense minister and the two commanders beat and verbally abused several servicemen in Akhalaia’s office and, later, at a military base.
In an affidavit provided by prosecutors, one anonymous serviceman recounted how Akhalaia allegedly had shown him a secret video recording of him cursing the minister, and then taken a knife with which he was "slicing and eating fruit" and banged the subordinate over the head with the handle.
When his United National Movement lost control over Georgia’s parliament in early October, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili also lost the remote control for the country’s national television broadcasters. In a country that watches TV round-the-clock, that means drastic changes in news coverage.
The Armenian foreign ministry building -- 14,000 square meters of Stalin-era, colonnaded grandeur -- will soon be charging foreign guests for visits. The building, perched on Yerevan’s central Republic Square, has been sold to Argentine-Armenian millionaire Eduardo Eurnekian, who reportedly plans to set up a luxury hotel in the structure.
Many Armenians opposed the sale, arguing that the cultural value of the building and its location make it better fit for a cultural purpose. What does it say "about the image of our country, our capital city, its center, if half or even most of the buildings at its heart . . . are to be hotels, not centers of culture?” asked Samvel Karapetian, head of the non-profit group Research on Armenian Architecture .
As in other ex-Soviet cities where commercialization is changing the faces of downtown areas, many consider the privatization of state buildings that used to house government offices (and hosted historic events) to be improper and distasteful.
In neighboring Georgia, there has been a lot of carping about earlier plans for the privatization of Tbilisi's old parliament building, a structure with a prime role in the country's recent history.
(The privatization plans, reportedly, are now frozen.) In Azerbaijan, the destruction of buildings from Baku's 19th-century oil-boom era also has raised alarm.