In the true holiday spirit, Abkhazia's separatist authorities have requested seniors to show up in de-facto government offices after New Year’s and certify that they are alive. Only those with vital signs will receive a pension, the de-facto officials said, reasonably enough.
To get the allowance, pensioners “need to turn up at the social security agencies and prove the fact of being alive,” is the blunt way de-facto Minister of Labor and Social Development Olga Koltukova put it.
Responding to the request, scores of men and women in their 60s and older spent the festive period between New Year’s and Christmas (celebrated on January 7) doing just that.
One elderly man told the Kavkazsky Uzel news service that he was happy with how fast the certification that he's alive was going. “This is good,” he said.
Some even hold three passports - Abkhaz, Russian and Georgian – and, therefore, technically, could be entitled to state benefits from all three places.
But it is not clear just how the de-facto Abkhaz officials are testing that these elderly individuals are, in fact, alive. Perhaps the procedure involves a photo ID and mirror. In any case, by all accounts, the death check will become an annual winter holiday tradition, to be observed right after New Year’s.
A growing company of former Georgian government officials is jingling its way into prison before New Year’s Eve as the gloves come off in the ongoing confrontation between Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili and President Mikheil Saakashvili.
Yesterday, ex-Education/Justice Minister Nika Gvaramia, the current director of pro-Saakashvili TV station Rustavi2; ex-Energy/Finance Minister Aleksandre Khetaguri and ex-Deputy Economic Development Minister Kakha Damenia joined the list of Saakashvili loyalists under arrest.
Their arrests, on charges of corruption, while hailed by many critics of Saakashvili, have further fueled worries about allegedly selective prosecutions.
That sense of unease extended even to one member of the Georgian Dream, who spoke up on Facebook for the 36-year-old Gvaramia, his status update duly broadcast by Rustavi2.
Some reporters went still further and questioned why it is necessary to keep the ex-officials in jail during the holiday season, given the ongoing investigations into their cases. Justice Minister Tea Tsulukuni's response? Ringing in the New Year from prison is "not a big deal."
Saakashvili has strongly defended the incarcerated ex-officials, saying they were arrested by “classroom underachievers.” UNM parliamentarians responded by walking out of parliament. Angry protesters who mobbed the presidential convoy, and had at it with UNM lawmakers, were certainly ready to wish them well on their way. Ivanishvili condemned the incident, but Saakashvili placed the blame on the prime minister, adding that the Georgian Dream also wants to take away his bodyguards.
Russian-language devotees often like to remind listeners that the first words in outer space were said in Russian. But Russian promoters have been struggling to make sure that those words continue to make sense to folks in the South Caucasus, one of the most linguistically diverse regions of the former Soviet Union.
Local cultures here have always put up strong resistance to Russia’s attempts at linguistic and cultural homogenization; now, Russian is challenged by both the ongoing comeback of vernacular languages and, as the area opens up ever further to the outside world, a growing command of English.
But other developments -- such as Moscow's ongoing endeavors to grasp breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia in its embrace -- apparently offer opportunities, too. And, so, where else for the Russian Book Publishers' Association (along with the Pushkin State Russian Language Institute and the Russian cultural-center network, Moscow House) to discuss ways of saving the Russian language in the South Caucasus but in largely Russian-speaking Abkhazia?
On December 18, an array of Russian linguists, writers, researchers and educators gathered in Sukhumi to discuss ways of saving the Russian language in the South Caucasus. “The Russian language is what creates our shared cultured space, ties our nations, regions and peoples together,” Ilya Manevich, head of the Russian Book Publishers’ Association declared at the conference, Ekho Kavkaza reported.
A recent opinion poll shows Georgia's support for President Mikheil Saakashvili at an all-time low, and for Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili at a staggering high, but the question is -- how long will the love for Ivanishvili last?
The ratings, based on fieldwork done between November 14 and 25, differ dramatically from the results of the October 1 parliamentary elections, in which 54.97 percent of voters gave the nod to Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream and 40.34 percent to Saakashvili's UNM.
That means that support for Ivanishvili jumped by a whopping 25 percent in just over a month after the vote. The hike occurred before the Ivanishvili-led cabinet could offer much in terms of new policies; hence, the reason for the jump is not entirely clear.
One analyst notes that the atmosphere of intimidation recorded by international observers during the campaign period may have played a role. “It is quite possible that support for the United National Movement was mile-wide, but inch-deep to start with,” said George Welton, a Tbilisi-based independent analyst.
Georgians’ changing news diet could also be a factor, said Welton, who is married to Georgian Deputy Defense Minister Tamar Karosanidze.
(The claim appears to rest primarily on a documentary by the pro-Kremlin TV station NTV that explored the alleged Givi question. )
And now they want Georgia's new government -- political opponents of Givi and Misha both -- to help them with their investigation.
The request comes on the eve of a face-to-face meeting between Russian diplomats and Zurab Abashidze, a former Georgian ambassador to Moscow who has become Tbilisi's new point man for trying to get Russia to meet Georgia halfway.
Accusing domestic political opponents of being in cahoots with an enemy state is a classic device in the former Soviet Union's political playbook. Georgia and Russia are especially keen on pulling out that card.
Azerbaijan is really moving up the European map. This year, Baku became the song capital of Europe, and, soon, it is going to be the continent’s sports capital, too.
With a vote of 38 to eight (Armenia among the three countries abstaining), the European Olympics Committees last weekend chose the oil-and-gas boomtown to host the debut of the 2015 European Olympic Games, a continental version of the Olympics.
Strangely, Baku was also the only venue-candidate for the Games, but Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, head of the country's Olympics committee, didn't let that dint his joy at the decision.
Terming the Games "truly a historic event," Aliyev underlined to citizens that Azerbaijan's "international authority" had played the largest role in securing the event for Baku.
Perhaps mindful of Azerbaijan's Eurovision experience, event organizers also want to put on a dazzling show for the opening of the games, but don’t all come at once. Azerbaijan hopes to limit the number of participating athletes to a maximum of 4,200 and, also, perhaps with an eye to freeloaders, wants to cap the number of official guests.
After bouts of haggling over the rent, Russia has abandoned a Soviet-era, early-warning radar in Azerbaijan that essentially served as the Kremlin’s security camera for the Caucasus, Middle East and South Asia.
The official cause is cost: Baku had asked for $300 million per year for a renewal on Russia's lease on the station; a hefty hike from the heretofore $7 million per year.
With Moscow planning to build its own radar stations with similar coverage areas (the Armavir radar station north of the Caucasus mountain range, already partly overlaps Gabala's range), the new rent was not worth it for Russia, officials said.
Earlier, Moscow had offered Washington a share on the station as a possible substitute for US plans, opposed by Moscow, to deploy a missile shield system in Poland and the Czech Republic to defend Eastern Europe from potential attacks from Iran and North Korea, but the idea went nowhere.
A Russian military expert, though, told Azerbaijan's APA news agency that quitting Gabala was not a prudent move since the station could always have doubled for Moscow as a backup if Armavir is down for maintenance.
A draft bill from Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition that would limit minors’ access and exposure to sex paraphernalia has brought some adult-themed debates recently to Georgia’s parliamentary floor.
The bill proposes to ban the sale and advertising of items of a sexual nature in stores that sell children’s apparel and toys. It would also prohibit the sale of such goods in schools and other institutions that serve youth under 18 and in stores located near such facilities.
But, divided on just about anything -- from foreign policy to law-and-order matters -- parliament has not yet reached a cross-party consensus on what kinds of goods actually can be considered sexual.
“People get aroused by very different things,” knowingly remarked parliamentarian Zurab Japaridze at a recent committee hearing, Liberali.ge reported. “What kind of props people use during sex games is a very personal thing… and the state should not be regulating this.”
Japaridze and fellow members of President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement have requested the Georgian Dream coalition, which initiated the bill, to provide a hit list of items that would be restricted under the amendment.
And so the work began: sex toys – yes; porn – yes; condoms -- here things get a little tricky. Some parliamentarians proposed to make a distinction between condoms that serve the sole function of preventing sexually transmitted diseases or unwanted pregnancy, and those that also enhance sexual experience.
So, how will US troops come home from Afghanistan? According to Baku officials, by catching a train in Azerbaijan.
To borrow from American journalist H.L. Mencken’s line, war, like love, is easy to begin, but hard to end, and the 2014 NATO pullout from Afghanistan is likely to be a logistical nightmare, with thousands of troops to transport and scads of guns to pack and ship.
But worry not: Azerbaijan, NATO’s Caspian-Sea chum, is offering a cheap ticket home for American and other troops via the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, scheduled for completion in 2014.
If it all goes as planned, troops from Georgia, the largest non-member troop contributor to the NATO campaign, can get off midway.
To date, 35 percent of the “non-lethal” military supplies for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan went through Azerbaijan, Mammadyarov stated.
The Baku-Tbilisi-Kars Railroad, constructed by NATO-friendly Azerbaijan, NATO-aspiring Georgia and NATO member Turkey, was presented to the Alliance last month by envoys of the three countries. The presentation included other existing and upcoming sea, air and land transport infrastructure.
If Armenia ever decided to adapt "A West Side Story," it's conceivable that “I Like to Be in America” might well be changed into “I Like to Be in Russia" to describe the choices faced by thousands of Armenian migrants each year.
But those choices are slightly less tempting now. A controversial Russian state program that grants jobs and citizenship to foreign nationals from former Soviet republics has stopped accepting applications from Armenians, Armenian news sources report.
Grappling with the double whammy of a low birthrate and a population exodus, Yerevan repeatedly has urged Moscow to stop the program, called Compatriots, which Armenian officials say has become a floodgate for emigration.
“We have a serious demographic problem in Armenia… and the organized outflow of the population is a blow to our national interests,” Armenian Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian said of the program last month.
According to official numbers, some 26,000 Armenians have applied for the program since its start in 2007; 2,500 have actually left for Russia.