In a departure from its usual fascination with President Mikheil Saakashvili's administration, Georgia plans to take a fresh look at the 1993 killing of CIA station chief Freddie Woodruff during the murky, riotous epoch of President Eduard Shevardnadze.
"We have some serious doubts about what really happened, " Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani told The New York Times in reference to the shooting.
Investigators at the time said that Woodruff was killed by a pot shot fired by a drunken ex-soldier, a frequent occurrence in Georgia those days. But the circumstances and the timing led to many theories -- some straight from a film noir plot -- that linked the death to Washington-Moscow turf wars over the newly independent South Caucasus.
The man blamed for Woodruff's murder, Anzor Sharmaidze, spent 12 years in prison before being released in 2008 after witnesses claimed police had tortured them into implicating Sharmaidze. Tsulukiani commented to the Times that she suspects that Sharmaidze was jailed just because Tbilisi was under pressure to present Washington with a killer.
Aside from its profession of "serious doubts," it is unclear what has motivated the Georgian government to take a second look into the Woodruff case just now. Prosecutors already are facing a series of high-profile investigations into senior officials under the nearly nine-year rule of President Saakashvili’s United National Movement -- including a potential questioning of Saakashvili himself about the 2008 war with Russia -- that alone could prove a hefty burden.
As many as 145 Syrians have collectively moved to breakaway Abkhazia this week as part of the region’s latest social engineering experiment.
Entire peoples have for centuries been moved in, out and around in the Caucasus at imperial whims. The Abkhaz were among the nations banished from the Caucasus in the 19th century as Russia tried to consolidate its conquest of the region.
After the war with Tbilisi two decades ago resulted in the ousting of most of Abkhazia’s ethnic Georgian population -- again, not without Russia playing a role – the territory's separatist authorities tried to reconnect with Abkhaz Diasporas scattered around the Middle East in hopes they could help repopulate the area. No significant number of these groups took up the invite until war broke out in Syria.
The latest arrivals bring the total number of Syrian-Abkhaz migrants up to over 300 and Abkhazia’s de-facto government hopes to bring in thousands more. The breakaway authorities are paying for transportation, residences and the assimilation of the transplants, who are invariably described as “returnees” even if they have never been to Abkhazia and do not speak the Abkhaz language.
But, as elsewhere in the South Caucasus, in Abkhazia it is common to discuss century-old events as if they happened yesterday.
The Boston Marathon bombings seem to have provided one Kremlin-friendly Russian media outlet with an opportunity to take a jab at a prominent American critic of Russian policies in the South Caucasus and at Georgia, a key regional US partner and longtime Russian foe.
Russia’s major newspaper Izvestia alleged on April 24 that Tamerlan Tsarnayev, the assumed Boston bombing mastermind, had "cooperated" with Tbilisi's Caucasus Foundation, a non-governmental organization, prior to a series of seminars for young people supposedly co-staged in Tbilisi last summer with the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington, DC-based think-tank.
The Caucasus Foundation, which has held events covering the mistreatment of North Caucasus ethnic groups under Tsarist Russian and Soviet rule, describes its mission as promoting peace and cooperation among Caucasus peoples via cultural and sports events.
But to hear Izvestia tell it, its seminars were, in fact, meant to foster instability in Russia’s restive North Caucasus.
Such allegations fit with the Kremlin’s old line of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili making trouble in the North Caucasus for Russia -- a charge not always dismissed in Tbilisi.
The paper reported that its claims are based on supposed Georgian interior ministry documents, which reporter Anastasia Koshevarova told Ekho Kavkaza were obtained via "my longtime acquaintances connected to the intelligence services of Abkhazia, Abashidze [?], South Ossetia, and to the Russian intelligence service."
It's not often that a prime minister of one country announces his citizenship in another country to justify addressing an international body in a language other than his own.
But when the prime minister is Georgia's Bidzina Ivanishvili and the venue is in Europe, what matters is showing you can fit in.
And so, at his April 23 début before the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Ivanishvili, "as a citizen of France . . . ," spoke to the European parliamentarians in French before switching into his native Georgian.
If the PACE deputies, who politely applauded his French intro, found his citizenship odd, it did not register.
After a long and bitter fight to regain his Georgian citizenship, Ivanishvili announced in February that he still is not a Georgian citizen. For that reason, he says, he has not, as previously expected, renounced his French citizenship, which, he claims, under Georgian law, allows him to remain prime minister.
Now it could, conceivably, also provide him with a useful PR tool.
Throwing in a little French, heavily accented as it was, may well have been meant to help make a good first impression at the gathering, and add, along with his profession of French citizenship, a slight punch to the pledges that he will keep Georgia on the track to European and trans-Atlantic integration.
Once again, Azerbaijan, the region's energy giant, led the pack with diagnoses of chronic cases of intolerance for freedom of expression, corruption in the judiciary system and abuse of detainees by police.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s senior political advisor, Ali Hasanov, did temper his response with elaborations about the importance of Baku's strategic partnership with the US, but he could not help noticing an alleged double-standard in the American criticism.
A country that, as he sees it, had no qualms about folding the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York City is in no position to lecture a country that does not want to allow similarly impromptu demonstrations in the heart of its capital, he implied.
Everyone can sigh with relief. Georgia’s justice officials say they are not in league with the devil and have no plans to assist the Antichrist to take over the world.
In a bizarre public-service announcement, Georgia’s Justice Ministry on April 20 announced that new, biometric ID cards for Georgian citizens are not a satanic creation. “The assumption that the new ID card is the seal of the Antichrist and that it contains the sign of the beast is not correct,” explained an earnest young man in a video produced by the ministry.
“Georgia’s Public Registry took upon itself a commitment not to place the number six three times in a row on any of the IDs,” the man elaborated, in reference to the mark, which, according to the Bible's Book of Revelation, will be the mark of a beast which will force worship of another beast. "Nor will it be in the future."
But the assurances have not assuaged widespread suspicions. This January, Georgian Orthodox Church faithful gathered in front of the justice ministry to protest against the cards, which, they claim, will help the devil control Georgia and bring on the Antichrist.
It's not many politicians who can manage to be a doting family man, a gallant cavalier and a busy head of state all at the same time. But, according to declassified government expense records released on April 17, Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili, long touted as an anti-corruption crusader, has spared no public expense for parental, party and pretty-lady needs.
Frequently expatiating on the importance of education, the Georgian president stands accused of putting taxpayers' money where his mouth is by allegedly taking cash from state coffers to pay for his two sons' studies at prestigious private schools in Tbilisi.
While forking out for family needs, Saakashvili also supposedly catered to the interests of young women, too. The released records suggest that he gave an iPhone 4 and a gold bracelet to two young female members of his United National Movement party, and also gifted an expensive necklace to a visiting Russian media diva, all courtesy of the Georgian taxpayer.
Speaking of the latter, he did not forget voters, and allegedly used the presidential security budget to purchase 40 sheep for farmers.
Busy as the president may have been dispensing gifts from the state budget, he did purportedly find time for himself and a close circle of friends. The records state that he spent about $140,000 on a New Year's party in Dubai and some $70,000 on weight-loss procedures for himself and the loyally plump mayor of Tbilisi, Gigi Ugulava.
Most of these expenses supposedly came from the president’s security budget.
Once you try Azerbaijani food, you know that Azerbaijan is a smart country. Take it from French cinema legend and gastronome Gérard Depardieu, who’s got a growing hankering for ex-Soviet countries that like their policies on the tough side.
A recent commercial, brought to you by the Azerbaijani Ministry of Culture and Tourism, features the movie star digging into Azerbaijani food as a local scriptwriter tries to sell him on a movie idea. “I am overwhelmed,” exclaims the rotund Depardieu as the dishes keep coming, and the scriptwriter chatters on.
Not by the script. But by the cooking. “The country who [sic] has that kind of food is obviously a smart country,” he concludes, gesturing with his fork.
Perhaps food quality can indeed testify to IQ (and Azerbaijani cuisine does have its tasty items), but how the Depardieu video will testify to Azerbaijan’s international image remains to be seen. Increasingly, the 64-year-old actor appears to be available for the asking.
In a controversial undertaking by Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia plans to go down the slippery slope of re-investigating its 2008 war with Russia. But it is unclear if the new investigation is going to leave Georgia with a picture any clearer or more objective.
The proposal caused a stir among Georgian society, heretofore steadily treated to a black-and-white, big-bad-Russia narrative.
Georgia conducted its first probe of the war when President Mikheil Saakashvili and his United National Movement Party still held political court. The parliamentary investigation, predictably, put the then Georgian authorities in the right all around. One attempt to place part of the blame on Tbilisi resulted in an angry outburst by the parliamentary commission, complete with tossing a pen at the lone critic.
But, coming on the heels of dozens of other investigations into past doings under the United National Movement, the repeat investigation is unlikely to avoid the label of bias. It is already seen as part of the ongoing Ivanishvili-Saakashvili war.
The president, who was questioned during the first probe, declared that he will not obey any interrogation requests by the new commission, led by Ivanishvili’s Georgian-Dream coalition. Repeating previous allegations, the president accused the prime minister of being an apologist for Russia, and a new shouting match between the two camps began.
The prime minister’s team claims they do not intend to justify the Russian invasion and the uprooting of thousands of Georgians, but, rather, need to establish the facts. Why that need has moved to the forefront right now is less clear.
In a move laden with unfortunate symbolism, the government this week in Azerbaijan, a country with already very little room for free thinking, according to international rights groups, closed down Free Thought University, an alternative education project for young people. The authorities claim that the closure of the Western-funded center is temporary, but, coming amidst a crackdown on the young organizers of recent unsanctioned anti-government rallies, many are taking that assurance with a grain of salt.
Established by young civil-rights activists, the Baku-based facility provides a forum for the free exchange of ideas via "interactive lectures, workshops and presentations" on human rights, governance and economy. Prosecutors claim that its criminal investigation of the youth group NIDA led them to Free Thought University, founded by another youth group, Ol.
Charges have not yet been filed against the Free Thinkers. Nonetheless, documents have been seized, the office door sealed shut, and a tax audit begun to "investigate the legality of the activities of this organization and its establishment, purpose of the money spent and received from foreign organizations as well as determine other details," Trend reported.