Not me, declared Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava on March 28, thereby making even smaller the potential cast of characters for this October's Georgian presidential election.
Thirty-seven-year-old Ugulava has long been rumored as likely to take the torch from his mentor, President Mikheil Saakashvili, who is now using his lame-duck year to keep his United National Movement afloat in its revived role as opposition force.
“I don’t plan to run. Nor is the party considering my candidacy,” said Ugulava, whose mayoral term expires in 2014. “It is a privilege and a challenge to hold this position and, therefore, I have no intention of leaving [the office of mayor], tempting as the other opportunities out there may be.”
The highfalutin' aside, Mr. Mayor may be making a pragmatic move here. Ugulava is currently awaiting trial on criminal charges of alleged embezzlement/misappropriation of budgetary funds and money laundering -- a tricky detail to explain to voters, despite his denials of guilt.
Even without that, though, the chances for a UNM candidate’s success are not a given these days. Though the coalition may have lost some of its initial, crowd-pleasing luster, Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream juggernaut is still seen as sitting in the catbird seat.
Plus, as Georgia slowly metamorphoses into a parliamentary republic, the presidential position is just not as enticing as it used to be.
A new mosque will be a bridge between Turkey and Georgia, according to Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoğlu, but, depending on how the matter is handled, the sanctuary could also become a wall between the two countries.
Armenia’s post-election standoff has moved into the direction of an epistolary novel as President Serzh Sargsyan and his challenger, Raffi Hovhannisian, work their way to a truce through correspondence that is cc'd to the rest of the nation.
In his latest letter, President Sargsyan kindly asked his hunger-striking rival to have a bite of something, cut the dramatics and sit down to talk. “Please stop the hunger strike, take a day or two to recover and then we will do some serious work, without the theatrics,” the president wrote to Hovhannisian, who claims that Sargsyan stole the presidency from him in Armenia's February 18 election.
Both sides, though, combine the careful courtesy with pointed barbs. Sargsyan, for instance, agreed to entertain Hovhannisian’s ideas for crisis resolution -- “half-baked” and “anti-constitutional” though they may be.
The ideas, laid out in an earlier missive from Hovhannisian, center on a request to hold a repeat presidential election or a parliamentary election preceded by an overhaul of the electoral system. And the prerogative to appoint some key officials such as the general prosecutor and the foreign minister, among others.
Hovhannisian, in turn, has agreed to consider Sargsyan's proposal to meet, thanked his political pen pal for his concern about his health, but assured him that there is no reason to be worried.
In a move that emphasizes the South Caucasus country's emerging ties with the Middle East, Georgia’s largest carrier, Airzena Georgian Airways, has launched direct flights to Erbil, capital of the autonomous northern region of Kurdistan in Iraq.
Georgia and Iraq have visa-free travel and a growing number of Iraqis of late have been trekking out to Georgia by land or by connecting flights. After the number hit 7,000 last year, Airzena started negotiations with the government of Kurdistan over a direct air link.
The region's relative safety and the new money produced by the development of its energy resources seem to have motivated the pick of Erbil, but the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, and the Kurdish cultural hub of Sulaymaniah are next on the list.
“To our surprise the plane was almost 90 percent full, which does not usually happen on the first flights to new destinations,” Airzena spokesperson Keti Mgeladze said of the debut, March 24 Erbil-Tbilisi flight. “Some passengers knew very little about Georgia and we were giving them details on board about the hotels and places to go.”
The Kurdistan region and Erbil may be, as TIME Magazine reported, Iraq’s best bet for tourism, but it looks unlikely to get flooded anytime soon with camera-snapping Georgians. While 70 passengers from Erbil ventured to Tbilisi, no Georgian passengers opted for Airzena's first flight to the Kurdish city.
Georgia's political culture may have just hit puberty. After ferocious debating over constitutional amendment meant to cut presidential powers, the measure passed on March 21 in a unanimous first-run vote.
The final vote is scheduled for Monday, but the drama-filled initial hearing promises to be the true grand finale of the constitutional epic. The second-stage vote occurred on Friday without incident.
The amendment will divest President Mikheil Saakashvili of the right to dismiss Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s cabinet and appoint a new government without parliamentary approval.
Saakashvili has maintained repeatedly that he has no interest in using the amendment, but the fact that the power will not vanish at the whim of a single political party or person, but by the will of two opposing political forces, is almost as momentous to many Georgians as the planned constitutional change itself.
Still a novel concept in Georgia's polarized politics, the compromise came after hours of debate in parliament and many calls to the president’s and the prime minister’s houses. The voting was preceded by a long and trying ping-pong of petty exchanges between the president and prime minister.
President Saakashvili insisted that he had no intention to sabotage the prime minister, to whom he conceded the choice of cabinet members after last year’s parliamentary vote, but Ivanishvili needed more than just the president's word for peace of mind. The variety of requests Saakashvili put forth in exchange for his United National Movement Party’s consent to the amendment included immunity from prosecution for former mid-level government officials.
Azerbaijan may now be busy celebrating the arrival of spring with the traditional holiday of Novruz, but local police tempers do not appear to be growing any sunnier.
On March 19, an outspoken former Azerbaijani defense minister, Rahim Gaziyev, claims he was on his way to the Azeri-language service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Baku to broadcast his criticism of President Ilham Aliyev’s government, when unknown men allegedly hooded him with a bag and hustled him into a car. Gaziyev, who served as defense minister from 1992 to 1993, soon found himself in the captivating company of anti-organized crime police officials.
The policemen did not charge Gaziyev; just reportedly gave him a piece of avuncular advice -- to bag it. “’You’ve been writing quite a bit of letters here and there, we notice. You should try lying low,’ they told me,” Gaziyev recounted to the Kavkazsky Uzel news site. He was released the next morning, on March 20.
One letter which apparently particularly disappointed the police recently appeared in the pro-opposition Azadliq (Freedom) newspaper. In his letter, the ex-minister slammed President Aliyev for having corrupt officials under his wing, cracking down on political dissent, turning a blind eye to abuse and violence in the army, and what have you.
With its territory torn apart by separatism and with Russian troops hanging around within a stone/missile-throw away from its capital, you might think Georgia already has too much on its plate as far as security threats go. But Tbilisi, as always, likes to think several moves ahead.
During her visit to Georgia last November, the EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton invited Georgia to chip in some manpower for the bloc’s security projects, the Georgian Ministry of Defense has announced.
“We have received a proposal from [the] EU to consider Georgia’s cooperation with European security and defense institutions and contribution to its missions,” a March 18 ministry statement reads. Georgia said yes and is now working out the kinks, according to the ministry.
The details about the scope and nature of Georgia’s participation in the EU’s 500-men-strong Mali mission are not yet known. The mission will be training Mali's armed forces to deal with Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic militants who took over part of the West African country earlier this year before being repulsed mostly by French and Chadian forces, with help from Canada and the US.
The likely reasons for Georgia's decision to get involved are straightforward: Tbilisi owes a security favor to the EU for negotiating and monitoring the peace between Georgia and Russia, but, more importantly, the Mali job will help Georgia earn some points for its ultimate goal of joining the EU.
Vanuatu, a diplomatically schizophrenic island in the South Pacific, just had another of its many mood swings vis-à-vis the South Caucasus' territorial disputes. The island nation, which has been twitching between recognizing and not recognizing breakaway Abkhazia’s independence from Georgia, now says it is picking Tbilisi over Sokhumi, Radio New Zealand International reports.
The 12,000-square-kilometer archipelago with the self-conscious national motto of “Yumi, yumi, yumi” ("We, we, we") has asked Georgia to forget about the misunderstandings of the past and come into its diplomatic embrace.
Vanuatu threw itself into the middle of the international controversy over Abkhazia’s status in 2011 after the breakaway region's de-facto government reported that the country had become the sixth to recognize Abkhazia's Russia-backed independence from Georgia. Journalists and diplomats went chasing Vanuatu officials for confirmation, but they just could not get a definitive response.
Foreign Minister Alfred Carlot was first to confirm that his nation had recognized Abkhazia's recognition, then Vanuatu’s UN envoy Donald Kalpokas said it had not. Carlot responded by saying it had. Abkhazia's de-facto foreign ministry, for its part, waving a signed document establishing diplomatic relations "on the level of ambassadors," said it had the proof.
Azerbaijan is considering changing the mandate of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Baku and has threatened to expel the US-run National Democratic Institute.
It was not immediately clear which aspect of the work by the OSCE, Europe's key peace and democracy-promoting body, had caused Baku's disgruntlement, but an organization representative, speaking from the OSCE's headquarters in Vienna, confirmed to EurasiaNet.org that the organization's mandate in Azerbaijan was under discussion.
In Baku on March 15, OSCE Secretary General Lamberto Zannier declared in a released statement that ". . .I am confident that the OSCE will continue its co-operation with Azerbaijan.” He denied reports of government inspections of the OSCE office or other worries.
The OSCE representative in Vienna said that Azerbaijani officials in the past have complained about the OSCE’s record in a range of areas, but that any change in the mandate will not affect the peace negotiations over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which are handled by the Minsk Group.
Activities touching on this October's presidential election, in which President Ilham Aliyev will seek a third term, might come to mind as one of the most likely bones of contention. The OSCE in the past has criticized Azerbaijan for poor handling of the electoral process and crackdowns on political dissent. All OSCE-monitored elections in Azerbaijan have fallen short of the organization’s standards.
Now that the Roman Catholic Church has smoked out a new pope, everyone is looking for a local angle in the news from the Vatican. Armenia seems to have found one.
The Armenian Apostolic Church may be an introverted, exclusive club, much smaller than the Catholic Church, but, conceivably, backing from the Vatican could help the Armenian cause worldwide. The global, well-organized Armenian Diaspora has pointed out that Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, the newly crowned Pope Francis, has been a friend of the Armenian community in Argentina. The community hopes that the pontiff will take this friendship to his new home in the Vatican.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported that Bergoglio often attended liturgies dedicated to the ethnic Armenians massacred in Ottoman Turkey in the early 20th century. As an archbishop, he reportedly called on Turkey to own up to the atrocities against Armenians, which Turkey insists was collateral damage of World War I.
Along with building support for its refusal to recognize breakaway Nagorno Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan, achieving recognition of the 1915 massacre as genocide is an end that Armenia is pushing worldwide.
The Vatican is not immune to lobbying, and many ethnic Armenians, especially those in Argentina, hope that Bergoglio will stick to his alleged position on the massacre.
But Yerevan is not just leaving it to the Diaspora to advocate Armenian causes in the Holy See. Earlier this month, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan appointed his son-in-law Mikael Minasian as the country’s first-ever ambassador to the Vatican.