The “corrupting influence of the West” is a catchphrase immortalized by the 1969 cult Soviet comedy, The Diamond Arm, in which a busy-body apartment-manager (portrayed by iconic actress Nonna Mordykova) becomes suspicious of the new, supposedly bourgeois ways of a neighbor after he returns from abroad.
You would not expect to hear a post-Soviet government official repeat this line today. Unless, that is, you happen to be in the oil-soaked Caucasus country of Azerbaijan.
In a December 2 speech in Baku, Ali Hasanov, a senior political aide to President Ilham Aliyev and a tireless guardian of public loyalty to his boss, called on all and sundry to fight back against the pernicious effects of Western influence that supposedly are pitting Azerbaijani young people and the media against their own people and the state.
“Each of us has a duty to protect youth from the corrupting influence of the West,” he instructed his audience, the APA news agency reported. “We can’t allow certain young men to engage in an anti-Azerbaijani activity for some 2 or 3,000 manats" via Western donor grants, he argued.
By "anti-Azerbaijani activity," Hasanov presumably means any action seen as presenting a challenge to the Aliyev family, in power for most of the past 44 years. Western grants meant to help democratize Azerbaijan inevitably translate into challenges to that status quo, in Hasanov's mind.
But, never fear, President Aliyev and his youth fund are here. In a bid to preserve Azerbaijan's "integrity," the fund is dishing out grants to match civil-society funding by Western democratization groups.
How and why the music was chosen is not known. But as EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Georgian Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze exchanged kisses and signatures, the melody eventually morphed into the more stately sounds of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, the European Union anthem, and the protocol faux-pas faded away.
Nonetheless, a dangerous hopak dance remains underway in Ukraine, a country especially on many people's minds in Georgia now and for several reasons.
Scores of former drug addicts and rights activists holding symbolic urine test cups gathered in front of the interior ministry in Tbilisi on November 24 to protest Georgia's practice of mass roundups of citizens for drug tests.
Since 2007 as many as 200,000 Georgians have been taken straight from the streets to police stations and requested to urinate in a cup, according to the Harm Reduction Center, a non-profit involved in advocacy for addicts. The NGO alleges that police had little more than probable cause to haul in these individuals. "Two-thirds of these people tested negative for drugs, but all were subjected to that humiliating procedure,” said Paata Sabelashvili, a programs manager at the Harm Reduction Center.
Those who tested positive paid a fine of 500 lari ($297) . The protesters argue that the fines have become a drug tax and an effective revenue source for the state without doing much to solve Georgia's problems with substance-addiction.
To make that point sink in, protest participants emptied test cups, filled with beer, into a giant container that read “The Georgian Budget.”
Armenia’s second-largest city of Gyumri is becoming a Potemkin -- or rather a Putin -- Village for a two-day visit this December by Russian President Vladimir Putin. In the best Soviet tradition, when the South Caucasus would tidy up and put on a show for a Communist big wig visiting from Moscow, Gyumri is having a long-overdue face-lift to look good for Putin, who himself is said to have a soft spot for facials.
Potholed roads are being fixed, facades are being painted, garbage is being carted away on a scale that Gyumri residents have not seen since communism. “If Putin comes to town twice a year, Gyumri will become a great city,” joked municipal council member Levon Barsegian in comments to the Tert.am news service. “It is shameful that it takes a visit of a head of foreign state to renovate the city,” he added.
Gyumri Mayor Samvel Balasanian said he is not even sure what Putin’s itinerary is going to be during the December 2-3 visit. Some expect the Kremlin boss to skip the capital Yerevan and head straight to Gyumri's Russian military base, a major strategic foothold for Russia in the Caucasus.
The city will also be hosting an Armenian-Russian economic forum and its venue, a local drama theatre, is covered in scaffolding after 10 years of neglect. The forum is now more important than ever after Yerevan opted this September to go with the Russian-led Customs Union, a decision that put the kibosh on accelerated integration with the European Union.
Armenia and Turkey's periodic efforts to make peace tend to hit a wall, but the nettlesome neighbors seem to be, once again, having another semi-go at rapprochement. Turkey has been invited to attend a Black Sea summit in Yerevan and Ankara is reportedly trying to resuscitate the failed international mediation campaign to end one of the region’s longest-running disputes.
For reasons that remain open to interpretation, Ankara reportedly recently dusted off its foreign-policy master plan, ambitiously billed as "Zero Problems with Neighbors," to call for normalizing with Armenia whatever can be normalized.
Granted, we've been down this road before. Despite all the cheerleading from the US, a 2009 campaign to reconcile the two flopped. Both sides remain hostages to past and present regional conflicts -- namely, the World-War-I-era slaughter of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Armenians in Ottoman Turkey, and the 1988-1994 conflict over breakaway Nagorno Karabakh between Armenia and close Turkish ally Azerbaijan.
But this time, the cease-fire violations between Armenia and Azerbaijan are more frequent, and the international community, arguably, more concerned about a resumption of war.
So, the thinking may go, maybe it's time to shake things up a bit.
This time round, the US, one of the overseers of the Armenian-Azerbaijani negotiations, is keeping its cards to its chest, however.
Granted, after seeing many of their members jailed or interrogated, nobody expected the opposition United National Movement to give Georgia's 31-year-old nominee prime-minister, Irakli Gharibashvili, a pat on the back at his confirmation hearings. But the two-hour hair-pulling match that occurred on November 19 suggested that, even with the end of "cohabitation," the chances for grown-up political rivalry are as scant as ever.
In an exchange that rarely subsided below shouting and provided few answers about future policy plans, Gharibashvili, the outgoing interior minister, described the UNM as “neo-fascist” and “liars,” while his opponents described him as “irresponsible” and requested that he “watch his mouth.”
“Where do you think you are?” simmered the UNM's Giorgi Baramidze, a former State Minister for European Integration, news services reported. “This is parliament, not a circus!”
But, in fact, it looked more like a frat-house brawl.
Claiming that the UNM never stood up to its leader, ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili. Gharibashvili charged, in reference to the 2012 prison-abuse scandal, that “You were afraid because you knew people were raped in prisons with brooms and truncheons."
By comparison, President Mikheil Saakashvili’s first inauguration in 2004 was more akin to the set for a Hollywood epic, complete with an all-out military parade and an oath delivered kneeling on an ancient king’s grave.
Yet for all the fresh emphasis on ceremonial modesty, the points made by Margvelashvili may not sound far different from those of his predecessor.
As his paladin, Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili listened from the bleachers, the onetime education minister vowed to press for integration with the West and reconciliation with the North. He promised to guard the special status of the Georgian Orthodox Church and to defend the rights of religious and other minorities. And he invited the separatist Abkhaz and South Ossetians back home, to Tbilisi's embrace.
"European-style" democracy has arrived, he underlined, and, henceforth, the “post-Soviet” adjective can be dropped from Georgia. As proof, he cited the country's allegedly pluralized media and the largely clean transition of power in the 2012 parliamentary and 2013 presidential elections.
It’s not new that Facebook can be a dangerous thing. And not just for social faux pas.
Users who do not mince their posts can lose their jobs.Including in Azerbaijan, where a well-respected Baku State University historian, Altay Goyusov, claims that he had been asked to resign after expressing criticism of the university’s administration and the Azerbaijani authorities on his Facebook profile.
Goyusov’s cover photo shows police arresting Ilgar Mammadov*, an outspoken government critic and civil-society activist accused of helping stoke riots this January in the town of Ismayili. A photo caption calls for Mammadov's freedom.
The rector of Baku State University, Abel Megaramov, however, has denied the accusation, telling RadioAzadlig that he thought Goyusov was using the story as a means to "acquire political asylum in America."
After a long business trip to the US, he claimed, Goyusov "started to forget his national feelings" and, supposedly, began shirking work. He denied that he had been dismissed.
In response to the report, some of Goyusov’s students staged a protest and threatened to boycott classes. Goyusov thanked his students for their support, but requested them to go back to their classes. Several faculty members also spoke up for their colleague.
In what appears to be the latest sign of an ongoing informal campaign in Russia against minorities from the Caucasus and Central Asia, a prominent member of the Azerbaijani Diaspora in Russia has been shot and wounded.
Mais Kurbanov, deputy president of the Russian Federation of Migrants, was attacked by an unidentified group near his Moscow apartment in the early hours of November 12, APA reported. Russian news outlets report that a nearby CCTV camera caught a “young blonde woman” firing a gun at Kurbanov. Wounded, Kurbanov reportedly ran to a nearby café, while his attackers swiftly left the scene. He survived and remains in the hospital.
The motives of the attack are not yet known, but some Azerbaijanis will see a connection to the outpouring of Russian nationalism in the wake of last month's killing of 25-year-old Russian Yegor Shcherbakov, a crime blamed on an Azerbaijani labor migrant, Orhan Zeynalov.
Crime may not be a rare occurrence in Moscow, but South-Caucasus residents often get the impression that, for many Russians these days, crimes committed by a dark-haired person from the Caucasus are worse than others. The violence against migrant workers that followed Schcherbakov's death, the police manhandling of Zeynalov and the arrests and deportations of Azerbaijanis that followed Shcherbakov's murder have fueled anger in Azerbaijan.
Meanwhile, the violence against ethnic Azeris in Moscow continues. On November 13, APA reported about the death of an Azerbaijani flower seller, apparently knifed to death. Possible reasons for the attack have not been released.
Staying true to its foreign policy principle that if you love me, you must love my late leader’s monument, Azerbaijan has halted billions of dollars’ worth of planned investments in Mexico.
At a November 8 lecture to Universidad Iberoamericana students, Azerbaijan’s ambassador to Mexico, Ilgar Mukhtarov, claimed that Mexico City’s January decision to remove the statue of the late Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev from its downtown cost the country $3.8 billion in supposedly planned Azerbaijani investments in the oil-refinery business and other sectors. “All these funds have been put on hold,” Mukhtarov was quoted by the Voice of America as saying.
Reactions from Mexican officials have not surfaced in the non-Spanish-language press. The statue, part of a global network of statues to Heydar-Aliyev, was disassembled after reporters and activists looked up who that bronze man was sitting near the Paseo de la Reforma, and decided that you can take a country out of the USSR, but you can't take the USSR out of a country.
Mukhtarov, however, defended Aliyev, saying that the late leader was “not a dictator,” and pointing to his abolition of the death sentence as proof that the president, who died in 2003, cared as much about human rights as the next guy. He also again blamed the apparently omnipresent Armenian Diaspora for causing trouble over the monument.