The posting of a new online video depicting intimate moments from the private life of corruption-busting Azerbaijani reporter Khadija Ismayilova has displayed the depth of the civil-rights challenge Azerbaijan is facing as it heads into this October's presidential vote.
Such videos first surfaced in 2012, after Ismayilova had begun investigating questionable business investments by members of President Ilham Aliyev's family. The footage came with a threat that Ismayilova, then reporting for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, stop her scrutiny of the deals. She did not, and, now, last week, another installment appeared.
While the Azerbaijani government initially pledged an investigation into these Peeping-Tom flics, no official results other than that statement have emerged. Meanwhile, international and domestic media, human rights groups and others continue to rally to Ismayilova's support.* On August 3, a group of mostly female journalists, some holding posters declaring "My home, my bed are not corruption," staged a protest against the renewed video-smear campaign. (And were detained, though later released.)
Perhaps, though, the government has not yet managed to unmask the identities of those behind these videos because it has been too busy with other tasks.
The energy-booming country is sparing no effort or money to assert itself as a lavish host of international cultural, sports and business events, to show itself to be a regional power and a fun place for tourists to be.
Police claimed that that requires a permit from the mayor's office. Several demonstrators were arrested and released later on the same day.
The series of protests began in the wake of a boycott of public transportation in the Armenian capital after the city government raised fares. Mayor Markarian was forced to decrease the prices, after Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian, for one, commented favorably on demonstrators' campaign, but the protesters continue to accuse the municipality of mismanagement of the city transportation system and have demanded the resignation of municipal officials. Mayor Markarian’s offer to overhaul the public conveyance system has been dismissed by protesters.
In what is being touted as proof positive of the independence of Georgia's judicial system, a court in Tbilisi on August 1 cleared Georgia’s most controversial man, former Defense Minister Bacho Akhalaia, of charges of physical abuse and torture. The verdict comes as a blow to Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream Coalition and government prosecutors, who have campaigned rigorously against the 32-year-old onetime minister.
Akhalaia had been rumored among many Georgians to be an allegedly abusive prison warden when he served as chief of the penitentiary system under President Mikheil Saakashvili. Such accusations followed him to the posts of defense and interior ministers; he resigned the latter post when revelations of the heinous abuse of prisoners sparked mass demonstrations last fall. The scandal is believed to have significantly contributed to the loss of President Saakashvili’s United National Movement to Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream Coalition in last October’s parliamentary vote.
In a widely expected move upon coming to power, the Ivanishvili government arrested Akhalaia in the first of what UNM members denounced as high-profile, politically motivated arrests. After five months of hearing evidence, the court today dropped several charges involving the abuse and illegal incarceration of military officers, but Akhalaia remains in prison pending trial on other charges of abuse and torture stemming from his time as prison-system chief and interior minister.
Yep, says Georgia’s Bidzina Ivanishvili, who apparently views the prime minister’s position as a temp job. Before and since coming to power late last year, Ivanishvili has kept saying that his time will be short. Now, in a recent interview with the EUobserver, he has put a specific timeframe to it -- he is going to fix everything he promised to fix and quit before New Year's.
The early exit strategy appears to be Ivanishvili’s way of showing that power does not mean much for him and that he does not intend to hold on to it like certain someones before him. This might set a welcome example for Georgian politicians, but the bigger question is if he can get the job done.
Items on his daunting to-do list include eliminating elite corruption, fixing the economy, patching up things with Russia, and joining NATO, among others.
During last year's parliamentary election campaign, Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream Coalition invited citizens to write down and submit their dreams for the billionaire to review. Perhaps an effective campaign tactic then, now it could be part of the reason the Georgian Dream is losing some of its luster among voters.
Polling data suggests that jobs were and remain the biggest concern for Georgians. And the economy is one area where, according to government data, the Ivanishvili cabinet has not yet delivered on any dreams.
The economy shrank by 0.8 percent in the first six months of 2013, compared with the same period last year, according to GeoStat, while the number of registered businesses declined by 17 percent. Unemployment, meanwhile, remains at 15 percent, officially, but upwards of half of the working-age population, unofficially. Those employed earn the lari-equivalent of just $433.76 per month, on average.
For the Russian military, any reconciliation with Georgia, it seems, will not extend to R&R in Georgia. Once a popular spot for Russian soldiers to go for vacation or for war, Georgia has been blacklisted as a spot for rest-and-recuperation by the Russian Ministry of Defense.
At first glance, that may not seem surprising. The two countries, after all, did fight a five-day war in 2008 that resulted in the rupture of diplomatic ties, and the introduction of Russian troops into breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Georgia claims as its territory.
Yet with the advent of Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili to power last year, Moscow had suggested that the sun might shine, once more, on Russian-Georgian relations.
No more, it seems. The blacklist was preceded by moves by Gennadiy Onishchenko, head of the food-security agency Rospotrebnadzor, to defend Russia's food front against potential incursions by Georgian fruit, vegetables and wine, which he believes may be doctored by a US-run biological laboratory in Georgia to poison Russian consumers.
Whether or not this scenario is Onishchenko's creation alone is not clear. (The vision came to him after Ivanishvili announced expectations for Georgia to receive a Membership Action Plan from NATO next year.) But, now, it seems, the Russian military has a few fears of its own, too.
Tempers over a hike in transportation fares in Yerevan cooled on July 24, but a carpooling protest to support residents boycotting city buses continues.
Meanwhile, as some observers scramble to make sense of it all, the time-honored Caucasian pastime of conspiracy theories has begun.
The website www.FreeCar.am, however, remains very much in the here and now. It allows car owners to provide boycotters with the routes and schedules for shared rides, along with the models of their automobiles and contact information. Several Armenian celebrities have been among those car owners who are picking up and dropping off many residents around Yerevan for free.
Meanwhile, Facebook users are joining the page “We Won’t Pay 150 Drams” [the new fare for city buses, over 35 cents] and Twitter users are tweeting updates with the #OccBusYrvn hashtag, a non-sequitur reference to the worldwide "Occupy" protests.
The movement also comes in the form of street rallies. Separate groups of protesters clashed with police on July 23 near the mayor’s office and accused municipal officials of corruption.
The protest is yet another challenge for newly reelected President Serzh Sargsyan, whose victory rival Raffi Hovannisian challenged earlier this year with a streak of demonstrations. And it stems from a similar cause -- many Armenians' inability to make ends meet. Over a third of the country's population of 2.94 million people is estimated to live beneath the poverty line.
A bus boycott entered its third day in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, on July 23, with hundreds protesting against an increase in public and private transportation fees in the wake of a hike in the price of imported Russian natural gas.
Fares have doubled or, at best, increased by 50 percent, depending on the type of transportation. A bus ride now costs 150 drams, which is just 35 cents, but is pinching wallets in this cash-strapped country. And sapping patience among an urban population which has already shown this year how economic hard-knocks can translate into protest power.
One crowd, gathered on July 23 in front of the office of Mayor Taron Margarian, accused the Yerevan mayor of having business interests in private bus companies. Six people were detained by police, but later released. Scuffles with police persisted throughout the day.
Ironically, not a few bus drivers back the boycott, RFE/RL reported. Many Armenian celebrities do, too, taking to the streets and offering ordinary Armenians rides in their cars. The tactic, billed Free Car, is meant to dissuade people from using public transportation and keep the pressure up on the authorities.
Try as he might, Russia's Dr. Strangelove, otherwise known as food security tsar Dr. Gennadiy Onishchenko, has not yet stopped worrying and learned to love a Georgian tomato. Or a peach. Or a bottle of wine.
Onishchenko, who apparently has a nose like no other for potential alimentary attacks, now has deduced that a US-sponsored biological lab in Georgia supposedly could be used to poison fruit, vegetables and wine bound for Russia.
To hear him describe it, the lab, named after former US Senator Richard Lugar, sounds like a military-guarded facility hemmed with barbed wire, and with a dark storm cloud constantly hovering overhead. It is a “powerful offensive” weapon and “is out of the control of the Georgian authorities,” Onishchenko said in a statement. The presence of such a force in the proximity of the Russian border is “a direct violation of the Biological Weapons Convention,” he asserted.
The upshot: If Georgia wants to keep selling its agricultural produce to Russia, it has to shut down the Lugar Lab.
They may be 8,000 miles apart, but Uruguay and Armenia have a history together. And, so, perhaps it should come as no surprise that the Latin American country is slotted to become the first state apart from Armenia to build a museum dedicated to Ottoman Turkey's World-War-I-era slaughter of ethnic Armenians.
Armenia's tensions with Turkey over the massacre play out in various venues around the world, and national takes on the subject tend to be commensurate with the size and influence of Armenian Diasporas.
Uruguay is home to one of the oldest Armenian communities in South America and many of its members are descendants of victims of the killings. Several Armenian churches, and non-profit groups exist, along with Armenian-language radio stations and a newspaper.
In 1965, Uruguay became the first country – even ahead of Armenia itself, which was under Soviet rule at the time – to recognize the massacre as genocide. It once even mulled recognition of Nagorno Karabakh, an ethnic-Armenian disputed territory that most of the world places under Azerbaijan’s jurisdiction.
Turkey views the massacre as a casualty of war and resists Armenian’s struggle to secure international recognition of the slaughter as genocide. It has not yet responded to the Uruguayan museum's construction.
In what seems like a drastic reversal of policy, Georgia on July 19 placed a ban on selling agricultural land to foreign nationals. The move puts to an end to earlier grand foreign investment plans such as bringing thousands of South African farmers to settle in the Georgian countryside.
The so-called invasion by South Africa’s Boers never really happened, but scores of Indians settling in Georgia’s wine country, Kakheti, prompted some local farmers to complain that they had been slighted by the government for foreigners. The foreign privatization of formally nobody’s lands that locals often use for pasture and growing crops led to tensions with the newcomers.
Catering to these sentiments, nationalist politicians pushed for the ban. Some members of Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s ruling Georgian Dream coalition said that the move should be temporary until all Georgia's farming land gets categorized in a way that would grant villagers priority access to adjacent farm lands.The ban will be in effect through 2014.
Libertarian economists lambasted the move. “We might as well put a lock on Georgia,” commented Paata Sheshelize, president of the New Economic School, to Netgazeti.ge. He argued that the bulk of Georgia’s agricultural lands remain unused and that investments from foreign farmers are a boon for the Georgian economy, which can use all the boons it can get these days.