This post was amended on December 21 to correct a currency conversion.
In Azerbaijan, even Santa Claus doesn't get a free ride. Describing their preparations for the New Year, Baku city officials announced that individuals hoping to work as Ded Moroz ("Grandfather Frost"), the ex-Soviet cousin of Santa Claus, will have to fork over 60 manats (about $75) to the city for the honor. The same applies for Ded Moroz's female sidekick Snegurochka, a snow maiden believed to be Ded’s granddaughter.
So far, the city has short-listed eight candidates out of a total pool of 18 to play Ded Moroz, said Allibas Bagirov, spokesperson for the city trade and services agency responsible for licensing metropolitan Ded Morozs.
Bagirov blamed the ongoing absence of Ded Morozs in Baku not on the licensing fee, but on the Azerbaijani capital's weather -- too warm and sunny, he said.
But the license only allows Ded Morozs or Snegurochkas to offer their services outdoors. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism is licensing most indoor Ded Morozs and Snegurochkas, who will be appearing at various festive functions. A separate permit is needed to “ho-ho-ho” on the seafront promenade, Baku Boulevard.
A new season of WikiLeaks disclosures offers a rare glimpse into the world of Caspian Sea energy politics, usually shrouded in a thick veil of corporate and government PR.
Apart from details on a hushed-up blowout in the Caspian Sea, the reports, shared through The Guardian, describe how the Russians, Turks, Georgians, Europeans and the ubiquitous British Petroleum vie to take a slice of Azerbaijan’s hydrocarbon cake.
Azerbaijan’s multi-vector energy export policy was summarized reportedly by an American diplomat as “some gas for Georgia, some gas for Turkey, some for Azerbaijan and some for Greece.”
The alleged US embassy cable was sent in 2006, when neighboring Georgia was struggling to build energy security, faced with cuts in gas supplies from Russia. Turkey did not seem particularly disposed to allow Georgia to siphon off extra volumes of Azerbaijani gas meant for Turkey. In the face of Turkey’s intransigence, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev even considered cutting gas supplies Turkey to help its freezing neighbor and to accommodate both domestic and European needs.
But BP, the biggest private player on Azerbaijan’s energy scene, was allegedly not willing to share the transit gas with Georgia -- and, even, Azerbaijan -- without getting something in return. BP had its eye on the “deep gas” in the giant Azeri-Chirag-Gunashli field in the Caspian Sea and requested extending its agreement with Baku in exchange for letting Azerbaijan keep more of its own gas.
Aliyev described BP’s position as “mild” form of “blackmail” and allegedly instructed the corporation not to get ahead of itself.
The story ends here, but there could well be more oil and money drama to come.
Karen Karapetian, the 47-year-old chief executive of ArmRosGazprom, a company partly owned by Russian energy giant Gazprom, breezed through the vote. Karapetian, a new face in politics, received the votes of 50 members from the 65-seat council, with one vote against. The remaining seats in the pro-government assembly are held by the opposition Armenian National Congress, which is boycotting the council.
The September 17, 2008 leak, some 100 kilometers east of the Azerbaijani capital Baku, prompted the evacuation of all 211 workers from the affected platform, "the largest such emergency evacuation in BP history," the cable reads. The leak was followed by a blowout on a gas re-injection well, "expelling water, mud and gas," the document goes on to say.
The subsequent shutdown of the Central Azeri platform and other structures in the giant Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli cost Azerbaijan up to $50 million per day, as oil output slumped by at least 500,000 barrels per day, according to the cables.
BP later blamed “a bad cement job” for the leak. BP also claimed that a “bad cement job” by contractor Halliburton was to blame for its April 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin may be best known for his harsh comments and policies, but it turns out that -- with apologies to ABBA -- he has a talent for a wonderful thing, 'cause everyone listens when he starts to sing.
The happy entertainer behind Putin's icy shell finally came out on December 10 at a charity fund-raiser in St. Petersburg. First making a ham-handed intro on a grand piano, Putin then performed “Blueberry Hill” in English to a clapping world celebrity audience that included Sharon Stone, Kevin Costner and Goldie Hawn.
Aided by a band and back-up singers, a gesticulating Putin, sporting an accent that makes Borat Sagdiyev sound mild, went full out, rasping into a microphone about love's sweet melody and how " all of those vows we made were never to be."
It comes as little surprise the Putin’s act received perhaps the most critical reviews from Russia’s neighbor, Georgia -- a country with a keen sensitivity to music that already knows something about Russian officials and broken vows.
“Why did nobody stop this?” read one post in a long list of comments in an online forum. “Could not at least Sharon Stone go up to him, smack him in the face and grit through her teeth: ‘Stop this, now!’”
One Georgian blogger pled with Putin's archival, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, to spare his country any similar embarrassment and never do the same. “Please, do not do that, Mr. President,” he begged.
On December 9, a court in the regional town of Kapan handed down a three-year prison sentence for abuse of power to Major Sasun Galstian, a former deputy commander of an Armenian army unit in breakaway Nagorno Karabakh. Galstian pled guilty to the charge.
Meanwhile, a trial is still pending for Private Manvel Azroian, who shot dead four fellow soldiers in another Armenian military unit in Nagorno Karabakh on November 19-20.
Defense officials have promised to stamp out army violence, but some public skepticism persists about how effective any such crackdown will be.
Hundreds of Muslim believers gathered on December 10 outside Azerbaijan's education ministry to protest a ban on hijab -- traditional Muslim head scarves for women -- in the country's public schools. Protestors argue that the ban is an infringement on their beliefs, but Education Minister Misir Mardanov is having none of it.
Islam's popularity may be on the uptick in Azerbaijan, but the minister does not consider it normal in a secular state for female students to wrap the scarf and, hence, the religion around their heads while in school. “What does it mean when a 16-year-old girl sits in a class with her head covered?” asked Mardanov. “Everyone can wear whatever they want outside the school, but there are some rules and laws in the classroom.”
And, Baku police might add, outside of it, too. Sixteen pro-hijab protestors were arrested on Friday; 11 of them are expected to appear in court, Trend reported.
Azerbaijan's school rules require secondary school students to wear uniforms, reminiscent of Soviet-era uniforms. The uniforms were reintroduced in Azerbaijani school this year to banish growing social inequality from classrooms, as authorities put it.
“We all believe in Allah, and the Koran is our desk book… but abiding by the rules of secondary schools does not run counter to the Muslim religion,” Mardanov declared.
The network could have sent Moscow much more information if the Russian special services had not worked "unprofessionally," Merabishvili charged. “Who plants five or six agents in the same helicopter squad?” he mused.
The image of clumsy Russian special services again surfaced in the Georgian media on December 7 with revelations about a series of allegedly Moscow-orchestrated explosions in Tbilisi and western Georgia -- all of which failed.
After taking a short pause, the Russians retaliated in kind.
Commenting on the explosions, the Russian foreign ministry on December 9 termed the blasts "yet another show staged by the Georgian authorities" that " may have warranted a smile in sane people, if not for the news about the death of an elderly woman" during a November 28 explosion in Tbilisi. “This only speaks to the poor professional skills of the Georgian special services.”
The blasts were again an attempt by “Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili . . . to attract attention to himself as the leader of ‘the most democratic and successful state’ in the post-Soviet space, who is up against certain ‘evil forces’ in his reform efforts," the ministry charged. "Comments, as they say, are unnecessary here.”
Will Georgian media finally come ashore? A proposed ban on offshore corporate ownership of broadcast media may shed some light on the identities of the country's mysterious media barons
Parliament on December 7 passed in its first reading a draft law, endorsed by the ruling United National Movement party, that would bar faceless offshore companies from holding a stake in Georgia’s broadcast media. Georgia has developed a curious corporate ownership system much akin to Russian matrioshki, or nested dolls; except, in the Georgian case, the smallest doll in the set -- the ultimate owner -- opts for anonymity. The ownership chains start at the main news networks and go up to parent companies incorporated on exotic islands well beyond Georgia’s jurisdiction.
Reaching the smallest doll in a media matrioshka is impossible since laws on these islands protect the identities of owners of locally registered companies.
But Georgian media may not be out of the woods yet. The off-shore owners may be replaced by straw men, some observers fear.