The Armenian foreign ministry building -- 14,000 square meters of Stalin-era, colonnaded grandeur -- will soon be charging foreign guests for visits. The building, perched on Yerevan’s central Republic Square, has been sold to Argentine-Armenian millionaire Eduardo Eurnekian, who reportedly plans to set up a luxury hotel in the structure.
Many Armenians opposed the sale, arguing that the cultural value of the building and its location make it better fit for a cultural purpose. What does it say "about the image of our country, our capital city, its center, if half or even most of the buildings at its heart . . . are to be hotels, not centers of culture?” asked Samvel Karapetian, head of the non-profit group Research on Armenian Architecture .
As in other ex-Soviet cities where commercialization is changing the faces of downtown areas, many consider the privatization of state buildings that used to house government offices (and hosted historic events) to be improper and distasteful.
In neighboring Georgia, there has been a lot of carping about earlier plans for the privatization of Tbilisi's old parliament building, a structure with a prime role in the country's recent history.
(The privatization plans, reportedly, are now frozen.) In Azerbaijan, the destruction of buildings from Baku's 19th-century oil-boom era also has raised alarm.
Georgia just got itself a new prime minister and a new TV series. The prime minister is billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili (by a vote of 88 to 54) and the show is the televised sessions of parliament, featuring President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement as the outspoken, hopping-mad opposition.
Crossing the genres between sitcom and drama, the series is set in a 133.7-million-lari ($80.7 million) spaceship of a parliament building -- complete with leaking glass roof.
The first episode aired yesterday as the minority National Movement grilled Ivanishvili on his suitability for the prime minister's job.
But if the launch prompted some viewers to suggest that television stations should add laugh tracks, today, in episode two, the show became more substantial and serious, with both the ministerial candidates and the lawmakers getting down to the brass tacks of the new Georgian government’s program.
Mexico may be far away from the Caucasus' territorial conflicts, but it is offering a venue for another staring-down match between gun-slinging neighbors Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The Armenian-Azerbaijani diplomatic face-off over the breakaway territory of Nagorno Karabakh mostly plays out in the US, Russia and Europe, but (as with Georgia and its fight with Russia over separatist Abkhazia and South Ossetia) lately has expanded to the Latino world, with each side on the prowl for supporters.
On October 22, Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian arrived in Mexico City to convey his nation’s“bewilderment” at Mexico allegedly taking sides in the 24-year Armenian-Azerbaijani feud. He reproached Mexico's senadores and deputados for passing supposedly anti-Armenian resolutions in the past, and proposed an Armenian embassy in Mexico City as the way to help set things right.
In fact, a stroll through the streets and parks of Mexico City would leave any dutiful Armenian official bewildered.
Once again, the Azerbaijani government has made it clear that political dissent is not a downtown kind of thing. But if the discontented don't like the suburban life -- watch out.
Baku officials allowed opposition protesters on October 20 to rally in the city outskirts against corruption in parliament, which most definitely is not located in the suburbs. But the protesters, who organized the rally via Facebook, then took a ride downtown.
The scene that followed has become old hat for Baku: policemen chasing fleeing demonstrators with a hunter’s zeal, and scores of protesters hustled into police vehicles. Video and photo reports showed a woman who apparently had fainted, and four cops dragging a struggling man by his feet and hands.
Some protesters were released after paying penalties, other were reportedly driven 60 kilometers out of town and dropped off in the middle of nowhere; probably on hopes that it will take a while before the protesters find their way back to downtown Baku.
Roast beef has not been on the Armenian soldier’s menu for some time. Reportedly, until last month, the man responsible for military food supplies had been deviously serving frozen buffalo meat, imported from India, instead. Now from his prison cell, Albert Oganjanian, director of a local meat company, is threatening to tell the whole truth about this alleged swindle, possibly implicating some big guns.
Granted, you want to get for dinner what you ordered, but what’s the big fuss over buffalo meat?
With Baku flogging British Petroleum for the drowsy pace of its oil production, Iran has come along offering Azerbaijan to pick up the slack.
In case that dilly-dallying British corporation fails to put its act together, I want you to know that I am always there for you, Tehran told Baku on October 17. “Iran is ready to help Azerbaijan compensate the energy deficit if BP stops production of crude in the countries of . . . Central Asia,” the Iranian foreign ministry said, Azerbaijan's APA reported. “We have repeatedly demonstrated that we help our neighbors in . . times of trouble.”
But don't think altruism here. A recent report from the International Energy Agency noted that sanctions have badly damaged Iran's oil industry, a critical source of income. So, time to take a stab at drumming up new business, perhaps?
Azerbaijan's Parliamentary Speaker Ogtai Asadov said on October 16 that BP has received the final warning to deliver on its oil production commitments. Last week, President Ilham Aliyev lashed out at the company for failing to pump out the volumes it had promised for several years on end.
But Tehran may be getting ahead of itself. Thrusting itself between BP and an oilfield is no easy task and Baku may not be particularly eager to sooth its anger in an Iranian embrace. BP is making moves to allay Azerbaijani officials, and the business stakes in the Caspian energy game are too high for a large Western corporation to pack up and leave.
Kakha Kaladze, charged with keeping Georgia's lights on
Retired soccer stars have taken up all kinds of unlikely jobs, but AC Milan onetime defender Kakha Kaladze takes the prize for the most unpredictable career change. The former captain of Georgia's national soccer team, and a little bit of a national sex symbol, Kaladze has been nominated to become the Georgian minister of energy and natural resources.
After last week’s squabble with British Petroleum, Azerbaijan has requested the oil giant, its largest foreign investor, to quit procrastinating and make more holes in the Caspian Sea shelf to fill up the country's glass of oil.
Baku’s earlier tantrum over an insufficient supply of its favorite energy drink sparked questions about the future of BP’s leading role in Azerbaijani oil production. The country’s Energy Minister Natiq Aliyev now has suggested a way forward, saying that the oil is there, in the Caspian's immense Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli hydrocarbon bathtub, with an estimated recoverable petroleum reserve of 6 billion barrels. British Petroleum just needs to get its act together and drill more wells.
Azerbaijan's oil production levels are expected to peak soon -- both Baku and BP predict by 2012, according to the US Energy Information Administration's country report -- and President Ilham Aliyev's irritation with BP for failing to meet its promised output levels shows he knows it. “The unexpected drop can only be a result of gross mistakes by BP,” he asserted on October 11 in an unusual public slap in the face for the energy company.
He added that Azerbaijan and BP have had a good working relationship for many years, and that Baku saw the energy titan through some tough times. But enough is enough. For several years, BP has kept making annual output promises and kept failing to deliver on them; the latest alleged miscalculation cost state coffers $8.1 billion, Aliyev complained.
The wiry, white-haired Dumbadze is known for letting it rip, let the consequences be what they may.
He once exploded on television that a rival was not fit to serve Georgia because he was not ethnically Georgian. He also fiercely resisted the construction of a new mosque in his Batumi constituency, and acquired a reputation for robust Turkophobia. (He later apologized for the remarks in question.)
"If you only knew how many stupid things I’ve done in my life . . .If you think I am smart, you're wrong,” he told a gaggle of voters during the campaign.. “We see that,” one man responded with a cautious smile.
“For 20 years, I went around begging people to vote for me,” Dumbadze continued. “But . . .there was nothing, not a single vote for me. Even my mother wouldn't vote for me . . ."
“Once, just once, let me near the government,” he implored.
We checked everywhere -- at the ministry, at the nightclubs, under the bed. The man just vanished into thin air.
Since Georgia's ruling United National Movement lost the October 1 parliamentary elections, speculations have been raging about key officials supposedly burning work documents and hightailing it out of the country. Most of these reports have proven apocryphal, except that 40-year-old Justice Minister Zurab Adeishvili, indeed, seems to have gone missing.
With billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition preparing to take over most government offices from the United National Movement, Georgian ministers are now busy clearing their desks, and putting away piles of papers, framed quotes of libertarian thinkers, photos of wives and cats.
In a surprisingly cooperative move, the outgoing ministers also are reportedly giving office tours to the incoming ministers to fill them in on ongoing projects, introduce them to the staff and perhaps share a few hints about nearby lunch spots.
Some of the Georgian Dream’s ministerial candidates praised their soon-to-be predecessors for being forthcoming and willing to put partisan struggles aside to make sure the country's governmental institutions continue functioning smoothly during the transition.
But, then, there is the justice minister and his alleged game of hide-and-seek with his proposed successor.