On election day , most of the accusations of meddling with the electoral process were leveled against President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement, but as the vote tabulation nears the end, tycoon Bidzina Ivanshvili’s Georgian Dream coalition increasingly has become the target of criticism.
Amidst reports of intimidation of regional election officials, Ivanishvili called today on his supporters to refrain from rallying, but a major demonstration is taking place in the key western city of Zugdidi. Former UN envoy Irakli Alasania, a leader of the Georgian Dream and a parliamentary candidate in Zugdidi, has challenged the preliminary vote-count results that placed him some 21-percentage points behind UNM candidate Roland Akhalaia, father of the controversial ex-Interior Minister Bacho Akhalaia.
Although Alasania gained a seat in parliament by also being on the party list (Georgia's election code allows such double-dipping), he told supporters that they should protest the vote for "moral" reasons. Interior Ministry troops reportedly are forming defense lines around the election commission in question.
But maybe it makes sense to them. If Qurbanly was not high on something, then why would he be bashing the government and be involved in the Nida youth opposition movement? Was he not the guy handing out flyers with President Ilham Aliyev’s silhouette captioned “I Will Go in 2013 if You Join Nida”?
But that’s not the full list of the blogger’s heinous offenses, the thinking, no doubt, goes. He had the gall to criticize the government for making the poetry of President Aliyev’s elder daughter, Leyla, about her grandfather (the late President Heydar Aliyev ) a compulsory read in Azerbaijani schools.
Again, must be the drugs, Azerbaijani cops might say . . .
Granted, the police think they know what they're dealing with when it comes to bloggers. Back in 2009, there were those two foreign-educated intellectuals (who just happened to have criticized Aliyev's government online) picking a drunken fight with several men in a restaurant.
Then, this year’s Eurovision Song Contest in Baku was followed by an after-party of arrests of some troubled youth, who, again, had just happened to criticize the government online.
President Mikheil Saakashvili remains at the helm until October 2013, meaning that he and the leader of the victorious Georgian Dream coalition, Bidzina Ivanishvili (who does not have a seat in parliament), are stuck with each other for another year.
The two men's differences are many, but one thing unites them -- a taste for the kind of post-modern, glass buildings that might come to mind after watching too many reruns of Star Trek. Yet even while united, they are divided at heart.
Ivanishvili was never excited about the president's project to move the parliament out of Tbilisi, and into a rotund, glass-fish-tank-style building in Kutaisi, Georgia's second-largest city. This battle, though, goes to Saakashvili. With parliament's October 22 opening just a few weeks away, there's not much the Georgian Dream can do about it now.
Ivanishvili also was never a fan of the glass Bridge of Peace -- a centerpiece of Saakashvili’s personal Grands Travaux campaign -- which connects the banks of Tbilisi's Mtkvari River.
But at a time when compromise is widely seen as the way forward for Georgia, following-up on calls to pull down the bridge -- or even giving it a few whacks with a sledgehammer -- may not send the best signal right now.
It sometimes feels like everyone in Georgia has chosen a side for the country's October 1 parliamentary vote, and, come hell or high water, they'll have no truck with the enemy camp. But often overlooked in the fights between the red-and-whites (pro-Mikheil-Saakashvili) and the blues (pro-Bidzina-Ivanishvili) is the crowd that plans to opt out of the election altogether by not voting or voting against all candidates.
Analysts expect that Georgia's poor economy, hit-and-miss democratic record and recent revelations of prison abuses will translate into a massive voter turnout. By 3pm, the Central Election Committee reported that 45 percent of the country's 3.6-million-plus registered voters had cast votes.
But the nasty, stoop-to-anything election campaign also has produced skeptics, who, worn out by the fevered mudslinging between Saakashvili's United National Movement/government and Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition, are opting to express their views on Facebook rather than at the ballot box.
“If there is anything that I have learned for the past 20 years of our being independent is that our strange version of democracy rests on the unbridled vanity of the politicians and the impulsive naïvete of the voters,” fumed psychologist Salome, who asked not to be identified by her last name. Among Georgian voters, she complained, "there is no follow-up, no widespread critical thinking until they come face to face with horrendous injustice or crime . . ."
Azerbaijan may be among the most secular, Israel and US-friendly Muslim countries, but the "Innocence of Muslims" movie is taking its toll there, too. Islamic believers on September 28 burned Israeli and US flags in the small town of Nardaran, a conservative hamlet northeast of the capital, Baku.
The protests are unlikely to sway the official position of Baku, which works hard to contain the influence of Islam, is mistrustful of neighboring Iran and looks for closer ties with Washington and Jerusalem. Two days ago, courts in Baku convicted three men in an allegedly Iranian-sponsored plot to assassinate Israeli citizens.
Looks like it's time that Georgia introduces an Emmy-style award for the Best Secret Incriminating Video of the Year. As the country zooms toward October 1 and the parliamentary vote, its dirty laundry is being gleefully aired on television and online, and more, no doubt, is still to come.
The latest installment of secret recordings shows something to which the public is rarely exposed -- how the rich and the powerful decide the fate of a country over a glass of wine and meat dumplings.
A video that popped up today depicts President Mikheil Saakashvili, the late Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania, the late billionaire Badri Patarkatsishvili, millionaire Vano Chkhartishvili and media mogul Erosi Kitsmarishvili trying to draw turf lines in post-Rose Revolution Georgia. Two of the men -- the prime minister and the billionaire -- are now dead; the rest openly hate each other.
Another video shows how things can go sour among the ruling establishment, represented by Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava, and Patarkatshvili, whose television channel the government charged had helped spur mass protests in Tbilisi in 2007. The two men’s conversation essentially ends in a declaration of war.
The world’s top chess-playing country, Armenia, faces a tough gambit. Two upcoming big games will be held right next door in, arguably, the world's most anti-Armenian country, Azerbaijan. Armenian sports officials have threatened to boycott the tournaments.
Azerbaijan’s glittery capital, Baku, was chosen as the venue for the 2015 World Cup and 2016 World Olympiad by the World Chess Federation (FIDE). Armenia, dubbed "the cleverest nation" in the world by the BBC after winning two chess Olympiads in a row (it won this year as well), is not ready to move its players to the enemy’s board.
The animosity has grown stronger still since Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev last month pardoned and honored an army officer convicted of decapitating an Armenian man in Budapest.
It may indeed be a little hard for the Armenian grandmasters to travel to Baku and fix their eyes on the chessboard when there is a convicted axe-murderer walking the streets freely.
Azerbaijani sports officials, for their part, have vowed to ensure the safety of the Armenian players. Sports Minister Azad Ragimov noted that Armenia has participated in boxing competitions in Baku before, with no untoward incidents.
Last week, The New York Times' travel section offered a tip to other explorers about how to visit Karabakh and still be able to hop over to Azerbaijani-controlled territory later -- namely, just “ask for the visa to be put on a separate piece of paper that can be removed from your passport.”
The trick is hardly a secret. And one that prudent visitors quickly learn, with or without a how-to in the American "newspaper of record."
The covert footage released by the Georgian Interior Ministry implicates the Georgian Dream and its billionaire leader, Bidzina Ivanishvili, in attempts to bribe police officers to stage the beatings of a youth activist and army recruits, among other scenarios; events that, when made public, would help tarnish the ruling United National Movement's public standing.
One video shows a purported Georgian Dream representative offering $50,000 to a police official and requesting him to record the beating on camera. “We will give you a man… from the youth wing of the party… just make sure not to beat him to death,” the man says.
The Georgian Dream described the videos as fabricated. “The government is busy putting together a false TV series,” with a script long familiar to viewers, the coalition said in a statement.
The videos were met with a dose of public skepticism. Whether or not they question the authenticity of the police recordings, many commentators say that the alleged evidence will neither diminish nor redirect public anger at the government over the earlier exposure of torture in Georgia's Prison .
After this past week's revelations of the torture and sexual abuse of prisoners, everyone agrees that something is rotten in the country of Georgia. But the question is: what's really going to be done about it?
For now, there're a lot of promises, and a lot of show -- be it the televised updates about the government's investigation into the abuse for Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili or the opposition Georgian Dream coalition's frenzied cries for President Mikheil Saakashvili's resignation.
The media is part of it, too. During a September 21 tour of prison #8, the facility outside of Tbilisi where the abuse was filmed, broadcast outlets eagerly scampered up to prison-cell windows to ask prisoners if the abuse continues. It was as if the videos showing the sadistic humiliation of inmates were the first these reporters had heard of it.
Sadly, for many of them, it may well have been. The reports from prison activists and Georgia's ombudsman detailing physical abuse in the country's overstuffed jails have been coming for years. In 2011, Georgia’s public defender, Giorgi Tugushi, now its newly appointed prison minister, reported that 40 of the 140 people who died in Georgian jails in 2011 showed signs of physical injury.
But the government-friendly national broadcasters were preoccupied with promoting the government's achievements, while opposition-minded press often discredited their coverage of Georgia's human rights woes by frosting it with sensationalism and political bias.
The government, for its part, often appeared to prefer to focus on the bright and the beautiful -- the opening of medical clinics, the Disney-Land makeover of Batumi or the comforts of safer, crime-free streets.