Half-stated travel warnings from the US embassy in Azerbaijan are starting to make for a mystery thriller, when a character (in this case, an American) finds himself in a strange town surrounded by people who act as if they are privy to secret knowledge of some imminent danger. Friends lean over and whisper to be careful, others say coming here was not a good idea, the area sheriff maintains that everything is going to be okay, but it is unclear what exactly is wrong.
The US embassy in Baku on February 11 repeated its earlier warning of a potential terrorist attack in Azerbaijan that may target American interests. “The threat remains serious,” the alert reads.
In a move that prompted some speculation that matters are indeed serious, Israel’s embassy closed down on February 14 for alleged “technical reasons." It reopened today. Israel recently advised its citizens to avoid visiting Azerbaijan.
As with alert number one, the US embassy told its citizens to be careful, “particularly in public places associated with the Western community.” The embassy also instructed Americans to maintain “an unpredictable daily schedule” and vary everyday routes of travel.
In a less-than-reassuring statement, Azerbaijan’s Interior Ministry spokesperson Sadig Gezalo observed that no country is insured against terrorism and added that “all diplomatic missions in Azerbaijan and homes of their employees are guarded to ensure safety.”
All the while, an uplifting, happy march plays in the background. “Today we shall sing to the amazing land and blue skies,” a child chorus sings as Georgia's juvenile police force works at their computers, performs lab analyses, exercises in a gym and practices its target shooting.
No, it is not an adaptation of "The Lord of the Flies." It is a video valentine to Georgia's reformed law enforcement organs, sent by the law enforcement organs themselves.
National television channels keep looping the spot to underline the Georgian government's ongoing message that the corrupt, underpaid cops of post-Soviet days have now been transformed into a strong, young (well, not this young) police force with a bright future.
But there is something disturbingly familiar in all the happy faces, optimism and innocence the video displays. Georgia has seen similar footage in its not-too-distant Communist past, which the country today is trying hard to forget or to rethink.
Forget about Russian tanks or that sophisticated French warship that Moscow recently bought. Georgia seems intent on defending itself against a far more powerful and pervasive weapon -- Russian pop music.
Despite the Georgian government's ongoing efforts to explain to audiences at home that nothing good can come out of Russia, Russian pop's deafening beat and kitschy aesthetics have so far managed to overcome all political animosity. Many Georgians hold a grudge against Russia for their years as a Soviet republic and the Kremlin’s role in Georgia's separatist conflicts, but many still hit the dance or karaoke floor when the Russian pop beat starts.
Clearly, something had to be done. And, according to the online chatter, something has been done. The talk about an informal ban on the evil sounds of Russian pop music began online and then crossed over into Georgia's mainstream media.
Reportedly, some Tbilisi restaurateurs were summoned to the financial police, where they were requested to make changes to their musical repertoire.
Culture Minister Nikoloz Rurua dismissed the reports as “stupid" (while acknowledging a personal dislike of the Soviet crowd-rouser "Den' Pobedy"/"Day of Victory"), but some bar and restaurant owners still whisper about the attempts “from above” to improve their taste in music.
The public reaction to the government’s alleged foray into DJ-ing -- whether perceived or real -- is mixed. Some speak about crude interference in culture, while Georgian patriots and music snobs say "Good riddance!"
A tense standoff took place on February 8 between scores of Armenian motorists and policemen in the Armenian city of Gyumri, near the Georgian border. But the issue had nothing to do with civil rights. Rather, it was about being able to get cars imported via Georgia into Armenia without having to pay customs duties and a 32-percent Value Added Tax.
About 70 car owners attempted to block the highway leading to Georgia, a critical transportation artery, to pressure Armenian officials to abolish a requirement that all imported vehicles must clear customs.
Owners of imported cars say they want to keep it that way. Several drivers with their vehicles were arrested by police on Tuesday, but car owners say that they plan to rally on -- next date, February 10.
The Georgian government's nocturnal abduction of Gori's Stalin monument last year left a noticeable architectural emptiness in the former Soviet dictator's hometown, a city that bore the brunt of Russia's 2008 invasion of Georgia. Now it's come time to fill the void.
In the place of Stalin, Georgia's Ministry of Culture has hit on a sculptural ensemble of lanky human figures meant to represent both Stalin's victims and the victims of the 2008 war with Russia -- a connection that reflects the Georgian government's position that Stalin’s imperialist ambitions live on in modern-day Russia.
The project, designed by internationally exhibited sculptor Tamar Kvesitadze and Paata Sanaia, will cost some 300,000 lari, or about $165,000. Kvesitadze also designed Batumi's mechanical glass-and-metal sculpture "Love," an ultra-modern curiosity that features two mammoth figures -- one man and one woman -- merging into one.
An expected completion date for the Gori project has not yet been announced.
Energy politics are making strangers of Moscow and Kiev as the Slavic cousins go through another bout in their energy joust; this time, at Davos, where Ukraine upped the ante by reaching a Russia-bypass energy supply deal with Azerbaijan. In the meantime, with both Russia and Ukraine turning to Azerbaijan for energy, Baku is emerging as the victor in the two countries' pipeline wars.
At Davos, Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovich, once a Moscow protégé, challenged Russia's energy suzerainty by signing a deal with Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev on supplying oil and gas by routes that bypass Russia. The two agreed to supply gas and between 1.5-3 million tons of oil by pipelines across Georgia and then by tankers across the Black Sea to Ukrainian terminals. Ukrainian energy officials said that Azerbaijani oil will arrive at Ukrainian shores as early as April this year.
Yanukovich used the opportunity at Davos to criticize Russia’s plans to supply energy to Europe via routes that leave Ukraine out of the game. Aliyev reportedly said he was under pressure from Moscow to stay away from Nabucco, another pipeline meant to challenge Russian monopoly on the Caspian Sea gas supplies to Europe.
Yet even if the Egyptian army and rebels were battling in the background, Georgia's Sharm-el-Sheikh-bound tourists would most likely be snorkeling in the Red Sea, smoking the hookah, shopping till they drop and taking pictures. Just call 'em extreme tourists.
“The relevant agencies of our country…maintain control of the developing situation on the ground,” Babayev was quoted on January 31 by APA news agency as saying.
The Americans and the British, and basically anyone with the clear look of a Western foreigner, are advised to exercise vigilance in expat hangouts, “maintain an unpredictable daily schedule” and vary their daily travel routes.
In other words, all Western oil men in Baku should try a different pub.
Last year, Economic Development Minister Vera Kobalia, who is not averse to some entertainment herself, visited Mumbai and met Bollywood star Aamir Khan. Kobalia and other Georgian officials invited Mumbai moviemakers to Georgia in hopes that the country’s diverse landscape and low prices will attract big-bucks Bollywood projects and, in turn, help along the country's own movie and tourism industries.
What chance? Well, before Bollywood, there was Hollywood. Andy Garcia and Val Kilmer already have made cameo appearances in the country, and Mexican-born movie celebrity Gael Garcia Bernal starred in an upcoming film shot in Georgia’s mountains.
Such projects provided rare job opportunities for many Georgian actors. Now they may as well start honing their Bollywood dance skills.
With Karabakh’s status in abeyance, the airport in the capital, Stepanakert, is unlikely to have an international arrivals section. All flights will be bound for Armenia, the territory's ethnic kin and sovereign best friend.
Karabakh's de facto aviation officials expect the daily Stepanakert-Yerevan flights on Air Artsakh (Artsakh is the name widely used by Armenians for Nagorno Karabakh) to begin in May. A round-trip ticket on the airline's three 50-seat CRJ200 jets is expected to cost from $50 to $60, Regnum reported.
How Karabakh plans to deal with the International Civil Aviation Organization, which assigns the airport codes used in flight plans, is an unknown. Karabakh is recognized officially as part of Azerbaijan; under ICAO rules, therefore, it presumably would be up to Baku to request that the Stepanakert airport gets an international code.