The deadly hostage-taking crisis near Georgia’s border with Russia has been announced as largely over, but the battle between Georgian forces and the unwanted visitors from the North Caucasus may have left Tbilisi with another enemy within the Russian Federation.
It's not always easy to figure out who’s fighting whom in the Caucasus and for what reasons; especially when official reports are inconclusive and leave ample room for speculation.
It is still unclear what drew a purported group of Islamist militants to cross into Georgia from the Russian republic of Daghestan and take several picnickers hostage. The ensuing clash claimed three Georgian military lives and left 11 “armed” and “bearded” attackers dead.
Blaming each other for terrorist activities in the Caucasus may be par for the course for Tbilisi and Moscow, but this time they seem to be up against a common enemy. Tbilisi has thus far refrained from pointing the finger of blame at anyone in particular, but one group of Islamist rebels has threatened retaliation.
“You will acquire another enemy, who will exact a ruthless revenge,” wrote a Daghestani chapter of the Caucasus Emirate, a militant group that seeks to establish Islamic rule throughout the North Caucasus.
Accusing Tbilisi of a provocation with its report of hostage-taking, the group claimed their mujahideen brethren had no intention to attack anyone in Georgia, but “if they wanted to, they could do it easily, Insha’Allah.”
There is clearly a serious armed crisis near Georgia's border with the Russian republic of Daghestan, but it is not fully clear what exactly the crisis is all about. Georgian officials speak cautiously of a hostage-taking situation; 14 are reported dead. Hearsay and conspiracy theories fill in the gaps.
All morning, Georgian TV and online media rolled footage of military trucks carrying troops, an emergency government meeting chaired by Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili (and featuring Defense Minister Dimitri Shashkin, Interior Minister Bacho Akhalaia and Justice Minister Zurab Adeishvili), and shots of scared residents of Lapankuri, the village home of some of the hostages. Security was tightened around military hospitals and officials kept talking about an ongoing pursuit of an unspecified armed group that purportedly had crossed into Georgia from Daghestan.
In short, it all went from a teaser to a thriller, when just enough action is shown not to reveal the plot.
Later in the afternoon, Georgian police posted videos showing two men from villages in the area who said they were taken hostage by about 15 “heavily armed” and “bearded” men; a description that, within the region, suggests a connection to fighters from Russia’s North Caucasus. Later, at about 4pm, the interior ministry said that three members of Georgia's special forces and 11 attackers had died in the standoff. Most of the Georgian hostages have been released, while another six hostage-takers have been surrounded by Georgian troops, the ministry said.
Cantankerous neighbors Iran and Azerbaijan are at a stage when nitpicking is a gratifying exercise and even a song blasting in one neighbor’s house can get the other nettled. Particularly when sung in the language of an enemy.
And so, an online video featuring Middle East pop icon Googoosh performing an Azeri song in Armenian did not escape the watchful eyes of Azerbaijan’s state copyright agency.
The agency could not locate the domicile of Googoosh (not to be confused with GooGoosha, Uzbek President Islam Karimov’s daughter and Central Asia’s Madonna), who left Iran after a ban on female singers. So, instead, the agency alerted YouTube and other video-sharing websites about what it charged was an egregious breach of copyright, Azerbaijani news agency APA reported.
“[I]f you sing a song in another language, you should credit the nation and the author, to which the song belongs,” explained Azerbaijani copyright officials.
Critic of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad though Googoosh may be, an Azeri song sung in Armenian is never music to Azerbaijani ears; especially if performed by an Iranian with Azeri roots.
The Azerbaijanis have long been vexed by Iran’s friendship with their enemy, Armenia, and Azerbaijani and Iranian state-controlled media both have an eye peeled for any misstep that can be associated with the other side -- however remotely. Now, looks like Googoosh's song has provided an unintentional musical score for the spat.
France apparently has written a new chapter in its history textbooks, and in its recent history of confrontation with Turkey. The story of Ottoman Turkey's slaughter of ethnic Armenians, which Ankara claims was collateral damage from World War I, has been included in France's high-school-level world history textbooks, Armenian and Turkish media report.
The news comes just as Paris and Ankara were hesitantly trying to make up after a bitter diplomatic row over a law (eventually scrapped by France's Constitutional Court) that criminalized assertions that the massacre was not genocide.
In July, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu traveled to Paris to talk trade and ways of crafting "a new understanding" in Franco-Turkish ties.
In August, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius returned the courtesy with a trip to Turkey to discuss the Syria crisis and to visit a Syrian refugee camp.
Nonetheless, the law's influence lingers on. Before his election this year, President François Hollande told voters (and, in particular, Armenian Diaspora voters) that "a new law" would address assertions that the massacres were not genocide.
Investigators of a brutal Yerevan murder that sparked a popular outcry against Armenia's oligarchs have reduced the incident to merely an argument over fashion sense gone badly wrong.
As Armenian police tell it, the June 29 death of military doctor Vahe Avetian was all about a restaurant taking its dress code very seriously . . . unlike the lives of its customers, apparently. The police alleged that a waiter, David Adamian, bickered with Avetian over his clothes until the two took it outside, where restaurant security beat the doctor and his friends up; in Avetian’s case, the beating led to his death, 12 days later. End of story.
The police account makes no mention of the restaurant owner, multi-millionaire businessman Ruben Hayrapetian, who claims he's in as much shock over what happened as anybody. The prosecutor’s office refused a request by the Avetian family to consider Hayrapetian, a onetime parliamentarian for President Serzh Sargysan's Republican Party of Armenia, as a suspect. Hayrapetian surrendered his seat in parliament after Avetian's death.
But what’s mainly missing in the police account is the big picture. For rights activists and many ordinary Armenians, the incident was not just about one man’s death, but a wakeup call about the ways things are done in the country.
After Avetian's death, many Armenians rallied against what they described as a tradition of allowing thuggish businessmen and their glazed-eyed bodyguards to run rampant.
European democracy watchers have secured a temporary cease-fire in the increasingly nasty battle between the Georgian government and billionaire opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili over campaign finance. This begs the question of what role Tbilisi's concerns about its international image will play in keeping the country's October 1 parliamentary elections on a democratic track.
Since Ivanishvili declared war on President Mikheil Saakashvili last year and formed his six-party Georgian Dream coalition, state auditors have been pounding the billionaire and his political allies with one fine after another for alleged violations of campaign finance laws. Local rights groups repeatedly have challenged the legality of the penalties, but the government has maintained adamantly that "Bidzina," as he is known, is a compulsive vote-buyer.
And then the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe came to town. Call it a coincidence, but the moment the PACE envoys, on hand to size up democracy during Georgia's campaign season, questioned the legitimacy of the fines, the auditors put the collection of one set of fees on hold.
They may be divided by a war and an almost epic feud, but in a trend worthy of a classic Russian novel, Russians are by far Georgians' favorite foreigners to marry.
Of some 2,000 cross-border marriages in Georgia so far in 2012, almost 900 were between Georgians and Russians, according to Georgian Civil Registry data shared with EurasiaNet.org.
In most cases (roughly 500), a Georgian is the groom and a Russian is the bride.
Surprised? You might well be.
Georgia’s 2008 diplomatic break-up with Russia went like a nasty, dish-throwing divorce that left emotional (and physical) scars, plus unresolved property disputes. To hear Tbilisi tell it, the Kremlin has since turned into a creepy stalker that just can’t let go.
In particular, of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia, some 20 percent of Georgia's internationally recognized territory, where thousands of Russian troops are still stationed.
A recent poll indicated that some 73 percent of Georgians think that Russia poses a danger to their country.
But, apparently, those considerations take a backseat when love comes a-calling.
Granted, a running joke in Georgia holds that many men miss the days when they could fly to Moscow on the cheap in pursuit of Russian women, and, no doubt, that line will be trotted out again to explain this marriage trend.
Yet this looks like more than a passing infatuation -- last year, Georgian-Russian unions accounted for almost 50 percent of the 1,362 marriages between Georgians and foreign nationals.
After Russians, Georgian men give priority to Armenian and Ukrainian women, while Georgian women go for Turkish and Greek men.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili used a speech commemorating Georgia’s disastrous 2008 war with Russia to toss a few verbal brickbats at some present-day enemies.
Saakashvili’s nationally televised address August 7 was ostensibly a remembrance of the sacrifices and suffering that occurred during the five-day clash that began on August 8, 2008. But, with an eye toward Georgia’s parliamentary elections in October, the president also did a little politicking on behalf of his United National Movement party.
At one point in his speech, Saakashvili insinuated that Georgia’s leading opposition figure, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, was acting as an unwitting accomplice of Georgia’s long-time bête noire, Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
“Now they [the Russians] have a new plan for Georgia, which is about breaking Georgia from within … with the hands of Georgians themselves,” Saakashvili said. He went on to deride “mummified figures” who were ready to sell out Georgia.
Saakashvili also baited Putin, saying that Russia couldn’t achieve its goal back in 2008 of installing a pro-Kremlin regime in Tbilisi. "They have failed,’ the president said. “Georgia has the same government, so it [Russia] is not a winner.”
Since Ivanishvili’s emergence as an opposition force to be reckoned with, Saakashvili and his allies have sought to portray the billionaire as a Kremlin hireling. Ivanishvili has tried to counter such allegations by accusing Saakashvili of engaging in reckless behavior that caused Georgian and Russian forces to start shooting back in 2008.
There’s a whiff of something rotten in the air, and it’s trailing the Azerbaijani boxing team at the London Olympics.
Forget about the badminton scandal that featured Chinese, South Korean, and Indonesian players throwing matches. Perhaps the most egregious behavior so far at these Olympic Games has been the boxing officiating - and Azerbaijani boxers have just happened to be the beneficiaries of two of the most controversial decisions.
The latest result to prompt howls of disbelief was Azerbaijan heavyweight Teymur Mammadov’s decision August 5 over Siarhei Karneyu of Belarus. Boxing commentators who watched the fight said Mammadov should have been disqualified in the third round for a clear rule violation.
But it turned out that if the bout’s referee had one more eye, he’d be a Cyclops.
“This was as big a travesty as we've seen so far,” boxing commentator Scott Christ wrote on the Bad Left Hook blog, referring to the scoring in the Mammadov fight.
NBC boxing analyst Teddy Atlas offered perhaps the most memorable comment on the officiating, when, after the Mammadov bout, he said: “I’m going to start keeping a bucket here near ringside, because I want to throw up.”
The Mammadov decision followed on the heels of a bantamweight bout, in which Azerbaijani fighter Muhammed Abdulahmidov got pummeled, and yet was declared the winner. That decision, however, was overturned on appeal.
These days, no newscast is complete on Georgia's government-friendly national news channels without a little plug for President Mikheil Saakashvili that usually features Misha embracing an overjoyed old lady or "bebia."
One day, village women thank the president for fixing their water supplies; the next, he is personally pulling a more middle-aged woman through a flash flood.
(A photo depicting the latter scene was posted on Facebook by the Russian journal Snob.ru next to a still of Russian President Vladimir Putin thoughtfully observing flood damage from the safety of his plane. The two pictures have been madly debated, with some crediting Misha for getting his feet wet for the people, and others defending Putin's drier ways. )
Whether or not the old ladies are truly happy to see their president, the encounters are a syrupy standard for Georgia's national broadcasters, and one that no government would want to see go awry in an election year.
But when they do, leave it to the president to turn them around into another bebia-hugging success.
Case in point: At a July 24 event in western Georgia, Roza Tskabelia, a poverty-stricken local, tried to approach Saakashvili to tell him about her plight. Opposition-minded TV cameras filmed two plainclothesmen crudely dragging the struggling woman away. The video was aired on TV and went viral online, with Internet users demanding the men's punishment.