It’s grape-harvesting season in the region of Kakheti, the sun-dappled epicenter of Georgian winemaking, and 57-year-old village potter Remi Kbilashvili is busy working with the latest hope for Georgia’s success in international wine markets -- a giant, terra-cotta amphora or kvevri.
The phrase “I was in Ukraine” often brings lascivious and knowing smiles among male company in Georgia, where a visit to Ukraine is seen as all but synonymous with a sex holiday. Now, a group of Ukrainian feminist activists has made it its mission to convince Georgian -- and other -- men that "Ukraine Is Not a Brothel!"
Hoisting posters marked “Not for Sale!," a visiting delegation of Ukraine’s feminist group FEMEN, famed for its topless protests, marched last week on downtown Tbilisi, where a giant outdoor video screen and leaflets distributed to passers-by often promote a Ukrainian striptease show.
Such shows might seem an anomaly, at first glance. Tbilisi is not exactly Bangkok, after all, and the Georgian Orthodox Church holds increasing sway. But, to FEMEN, their staging is part of a bigger problem than any local problem of male machoism.
Ukraine, they say, is increasingly seen as "Europe's biggest brothel."
In Georgia, oddly enough, diplomatic tensions may have played a role in promoting that image. Russia used to suffer locally from the same reputation, but, as ties between Tbilisi and Moscow soured, the stereotype passed to Ukraine.
In a story more reminiscent of "The Set-Up" than "Million Dollar Baby," the BBC, citing anonymous insiders, has reported that oil-rich Azerbaijan may be relying on more than just its boxers’ muscles to pack a punch at the 2012 Olympics in London. Azerbaijan, the insiders' story goes, allegedly oiled the palm of a boxing organizer with $9 million to secure two gold medals for Azerbaijani boxers at the games. An angry Azerbaijan has countered that the allegations are a pack of lies, the work of unnamed enemies and provocateurs.
The Amateur International Boxing Association (AIBA), the group in the eye of the furor, first claimed that it received an innocuous “investment” from a private Swiss investor, but later admitted that the cash came from Azerbaijan. The group says the transaction had nothing to do with fixing medals and claims that the money came from a private Azerbaijani investor, not the Azerbaijani government.
But the line between private and government realms often can be blurry in corruption-plagued Azerbaijan. The fact that Azerbaijan’s Minister of Emergency Situations Kamaladdin Heydarov, of all people, acted as a mediator between AIBA and the mystery investor only reinforces the point.
The International Olympic Committee is considering launching a probe into the allegations.
Just days after reportedly recognizing the independence of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- news that still awaits official confirmation -- the South Pacific island of Tuvalu has struck up diplomatic relations with Russia. Given that Moscow has made it its job to chaperone the two runaway regions on their quest for international recognition, it is all too tempting to connect the dots.
On September 25, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sat down with Tuvalu's prime minister, Willy Telavi, to bond over their shared interests in fishing and trade, and talk diplomatic ties. The meeting took place on the sidelines of the opening of the United Nations General Assembly, traditionally a venue for the consummation of new alliances.
Russian officials did not say much about the Tuvalu tête-à-tête, but Georgian wonks have already started surmising how much the new friendship will cost Moscow.
Tuvalu could definitely use some help in one realm -- rising sea levels in the Pacific, which threaten to wash the 26-square-kilometer island clean away, Prime Minister Telavi told the UN.
The island probably wouldn’t be missed much in Tbilisi, which earlier had made a gift of medicine to tiny Tuvalu in a bid to discourage it from following the wayward behavior of nearby Nauru, which recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia's independence in 2009.
Size clearly does not matter for breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia in their quest for international acceptance of their de-facto independence from Georgia. Tuvalu, the world’s second-smallest island nation, reportedly has become the latest convert to join the Abkhazia and South Ossetia fan club by recognizing the two disputed territories as separate states, the de facto Abkhaz and South Ossetian governments announced today.
Tuvalu government officials could not be reached for confirmation of the reports, which have been disseminated primarily by Russian media.
In case you forgot, the world’s smallest island country, Nauru, which shares an ocean and (apparently) views on Abkhazia and South Ossetia with Tuvalu, recognized the two breakaway Caucasus regions back in 2009. Geographically speaking, the islands combined are many mega-times smaller than the controversial combo of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but as UN members, they bring votes into the equation.
Speaking of the UN, if the reports are confirmed, officials in Tbilisi may well feel like they were just slapped in the face. Last year, Georgia, not a regular international aid donor, gave Tuvalu $12,000-worth of medicine after Tuvalu backed a UN resolution that called for the return of displaced ethnic Georgians to Abkhazia.
Some observers within Georgia, though, were quick to ascribe Tuvalu’s apparent change of mind to Russia, the main and deep-pocketed champion of Abkhazia and South Ossetia’s recognition as independent states.
If you're looking for proof that the economic bottom-line can outweigh political troubles, has the Tamada got a story for you.
The Armenian investigative news service Hetq reports that at a September 20 celebration of the 20th anniversary of Armenia's independence from the Soviet Union some Armenians sported commemorative t-shirts made in Turkey, a country deemed -- at least, traditionally -- to rank second only to Azerbaijan as a threat to Armenia's security.
As a telephone transcript posted by Hetq indicates, Independence Day celebration organizers initially appeared at a loss to explain the fashion faux pas, leveling blame on the sponsor, scrap metal exporter Metexim, Ltd. Representatives of the exporter, in turn, confirmed that they were responsible for the t-shirts, but dodged questions about the specifics.
This isn't the first time that economic ties -- be it t-shirts, jobs or tourism -- have been shown to exist between the two countries, but, coming on such an occasion, chances are many Armenians may well wish that it could prove among the last.
Georgia this weekend found itself on a fine line between its commitment to promoting a business-friendly environment and its civil rights obligations. Low taxes and few government regulations? You got it here. Easy labor policy? Hire and fire away! Collective bargaining? Apparently, nothing a few arrests can’t solve, critics say.
Georgian police on September 15 arrested over a dozen striking steel workers in the central city of Kutaisi . Some 100 employees of the Dubai-registered steel manufacturer Hercules had been camped outside the plant to protest what they claim are suboptimal work conditions.
At a time when the government's entire focus appears to be on cozying up to employers and keeping tax revenues coming in, a strike was not an event likely to be viewed warmly by Tbilisi.
But the police maintain that they only intervened when Hercules complained about the strikers causing trouble with the workers hired as their replacements.
The detained workers were released overnight after they promised in writing not to participate in strikes anymore, union officials claimed. The police say, however, that the detainees were only requested to sign a routine police warning paper.
Azerbaijan next year will face an invasion of raging fans -- many gays among them -- of Eurovision, an annual celebration of pop, glitz and camp. But how polite will conservative Azerbaijan's welcoming smile actually be for its gay visitors?
Ever since Azerbaijan won the right to host the 2012 Eurovision , questions have been raised about whether it has what it takes to host Europe’s most celebrated music contest. Question areas range from human rights to hotels. Some news stories, including this BBC report, have focused on the gay dimension of the festival, something that many Azerbaijanis may find hard to digest.
As in the rest of the South Caucasus, homosexuality is a big cultural taboo in Azerbaijan. By contrast, the Eurovision contest is so popular among gay music fans that one observer even described it as “a gay world cup.”
With preparations in full throttle, visitors may be surprised to see what oil money can do in terms of upgrading concert and hospitality facilities. But the mentality is unlikely to change overnight, some fear.
On paper, Azerbaijan’s law has protected sexual minorities since 2001, but a man featured in the BBC story describes the gloomy reality of discriminatory attitudes, especially in rural areas. Others argue that the concerns are exaggerated; homosexuality, they say, may not be encouraged, but still is accepted in Baku.
Eating a tie acquired a whole new significance in Georgia after President Mikheil Saakashvili was caught on camera nervously chewing on his tie during the 2008 war with Russia. And, now, if you ever hear a Georgian say “I'll eat my tie,” he (or she) may actually mean it. Some 500 "Reformist, Edible Ties," made from apple jam, were unveiled today at a presentation in Tbilisi.
“This could be a new Georgian brand,” declared Oleg Panfilov, a dissident Russian journalist who is one of the tie's creators and lives in Tbilisi.
Neatly packaged in plastic bags for five lari ($3.00) each, the ties carry a distinct political flavor. The image of Saakashvili gnawing on his tie became fodder for Russia’s propaganda machine, which tries to portray the Georgian president as mentally unstable. The September 14 presentation was meant to parry those attacks.
The ties come in a sweet flavor for "good people," according to event organizers, and in a sour flavor for, specifically, Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Panfilov invited the Russian power pair to try the product so they could, in his words, also get a taste of the sweeping reforms enacted under Saakashvili. “Through this, we meant to deride the [Russian] propaganda,” Panfilov said.
It is unclear if commercial production of the candy ties is in the pipeline, but, at least for one day, Georgia can both have its tie and eat it, too.
Having a Latin American friend is apparently the latest thing for the separatist territories of the Caucasus. Just after Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega was playing host to a de facto ambassador from breakaway South Ossetia, which Nicaragua thinks is a country, conflicting news reports hit that Uruguay may recognize the independence of Nagorno Karabakh, the cause of over two decades of hostility between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Granted, it may depend on whose news service you read. To hear Armenian news sites tell the tale, it almost sounds as if Uruguayan Foreign Minister Luis Almagro, who supposedly made the declaration at a September 9 seminar in Montevideo on bilateral ties with Armenia, has spent many sleepless nights tormented by questions of faraway Karabakh's status.
An angry Azerbaijan, which wants Karabakh back at any cost, isn't buying it. Baku claims that it has been assured that Montevideo respects Azerbaijan's territorial integrity. Still, Azerbaijan's Argentina embassy is checking up on the story.
The Spanish news agency EFE, meanwhile, has posted a version that suggests something less than a full assertion of Karabakh's independence, but enough to raise Azerbaijani eyebrows.
For your Tamada's part, during a recent trip to Latin America he had a hard time explaining what the conflicts in the Caucasus are all about, so was almost surprised to hear that anyone in Uruguay has heard of Nagorno Karabakh, much less feels strongly on the issue.