The cell phone dings in the middle of a meeting. Expecting an important message, you carefully reach for the phone, trying to keep eye contact with your interlocutor. Out of the corner of your eye, you read: “Phenomenal news: buy four Japanese tires and get two brake pads for free!”
In two minutes, the phone beeps again: “A refrigerator and laundry machine for just 888 lari . . .” Just as you apologize and switch the phone to silent, another SMS buzzes in: “We know you are doing repairs and we know just what you need . . .”
To stop the barrage, you turn off the phone and miss the single SMS you need.
Carpet bombing cell-phone users with unsolicited SMS ads has become the thing in Georgia and the wider region. Anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International Georgia* recently published a list of 29 of Georgia's top SMS-spammers.
According to the organization, the spam is not just a nuisance, but is against the law. Georgia’s privacy laws do require companies to obtain customers' consent for such advertising and to provide a mechanism for opting out of it, but that usually does not happen.
It is not fully clear how companies get hold of the numbers. Most cell-phone operators claim they do not give out the data, but customers are not convinced. Companies which offer SMS-advertising services refuse to disclose the origin of their large databases of phone numbers.
How to stop the spam-flow remains an open question. Georgia recently introduced the office of a personal-data ombudsperson, but, for now, the office can only send warnings to companies that use SMS spam.
Still, in this highly image-conscious culture, bad PR can play a role. Sort of.
Sticks, stones and homemade smoke-bombs flew in downtown Yerevan on November 5 as police brawled with a few dozen anti-establishment protesters, some wearing Guy-Fawkes masks.
Flamboyant activist Shant Harutyunian’s call for a revolution ended with police breaking up his small, but ambitiously billed "March of a Million Masks" rally, and making 37 arrests. Few in number, protesters nonetheless put up a tough fight battling police officers. Footage carried by several news outlets showed groups of policemen failing to hold down even individual protesters. The activists were eventually overpowered after riot-police reinforcements arrived.
An outspoken nationalist who claims the government is undemocratic, corrupt and controlled by Moscow, Harutiunian began his movement with “occupying” the city's central Liberty Square for about a week. He vowed to bring down the president and lead the people to take over main government offices. The clash broke out when police tried to prevent the protesters from marching through the city.
Video from the scene show riot police dragging activists and stacking them in vehicles as onlookers booed. Several protesters and policemen were hospitalized.
Harutiunian, who spent a year in jail after Yerevan's deadly 2008 protests, blames police for the violence, and was among those detained. Charging that the protesters were anarchists, the ruling Republican Party of Armenia defended the police's actions.
Georgia's interior ministry is taking the lead in fighting blasphemy, an offense category not usually a pressing concern for "European-style" governments these days. The motion has given the country’s free-speech activists pause.
The measure, an amendment to Georgia's civil code, addresses anything from desecrating religious institutions and symbols to publicly offending the feelings of the faithful. The punishment proposed ranges from a fine (for first-time offenders, between 300 and 500 laris, or about $179 to $299, and up to 1,500 laris, or roughly $897, for repeat offenders) and/or 15 days in prison.
How offenses would be defined was not immediately clear. Nor are the origins of the amendment clear. Civil-rights activists say that they noticed the proposal on the interior ministry's website during a first reading in parliament of changes to the civil code before the October 28 presidential elections. EurasiaNet.org could not immediately locate the original proposal.
As part of an overhaul of reproductive-health policies, Azerbaijanis facing the double whammy of low incomes and infertility may soon be entitled to state-sponsored in-vitro fertilization.
With a population of just under 9.6 million, the largest in the South Caucasus, Azerbaijan already boasts the region's highest birth rate (an estimated 17.7 births per 1,000 people), but, apparently, more needs to be done.
If the law is adopted, "we want to conduct artificial insemination with public funds . . . for those who are in need of social support," said Musa Guliyev, deputy chairperson of parliament’s social policy committee and the bill's main sponsor, Azernews.az reported. Others may be eligible via mandatory health-insurance, he added.
Under a draft law on reproductive health, an Azerbaijani citizen will be considered legally infertile after a year of solid attempts to conceive prove futile, Biznesinfo.az reported.
The bill is being fine-tuned before it hits parliament for debate later this fall, added Guliyev, who represents the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party.
Artificial insemination has been practiced in Azerbaijan since 2004 with a 40-45-percent success rate, higher than the European average, Azernews reported. Azerbaijani Muslim groups opposed the draft law earlier this year.
But artificial insemination is not the only reproductive area Guliyev, a neurologist by background, intends to target.
Georgians long have claimed that their calls were monitored for political-control assurance, but turns out they have Swedish telecommunications-technology giant Ericsson partly to thank.
Following an October 30 report by Swedish public radio, Ericsson told Agence France Presse (AFP) that it had sold phone-surveillance technology to Georgia’s Geocell, a privately owned cellular operator, back in 2005. The company maintained, however, that the equipment was meant as an anti-crime tool, though acknowledged that the Georgian government "allegedly use it" for illegal wiretapping.
Publicizing tapped private conversations has been a tried political weapon in Georgia. In the heyday of outgoing President Mikheil Saakashvili's era, everytime the political temperature went up, secretly recorded conversation were dumped online or aired on TV. In 2007, when police clashed with protesters in Tbilisi, tapped phone calls became a soundtrack to the authorities’ claims about a Kremlin-orchestrated conspiracy to bring down Georgia's pro-Western government.
Incoming Georgian President-Elect Giorgi Margvelashvili will move into the same office building where outgoing President Mikheil Saakashvili started out before migrating to a perky clifftop palace. But unlike Saakashvili, Margvelashvili will not find a cat there.
In a rhapsodic farewell address on October 28, Saakashvili reminisced about finding a stray cat luxuriating in Georgia’s rundown, mice-infested presidential quarters when he first moved in as president in 2004.
“We looked at each other and for a split second we regretted entering these offices,” Saakashvili said of his colleagues. Nearly ten years later, though, he continued, “the new ministers and the new president are moving into totally different buildings and offices, rule a totally different country and are responsible for totally different institutions.”
President-Elect Margvelashvili, however, does not plan to take up residence in the “totally different” presidential palace that Saakashvili built; a structure with a see-through dome and plenty of room to swing a cat.
While still a government opposition leader, Mikheil Saakashvili addresses supporters after storming the Georgian parliament building on Nov. 22, 2003, to demand the resignation of then President Eduard Shevardnadze.
Nearly ten years ago, Mikheil Saakashvili, with crowds of supporters in tow, forced his way into the Georgian parliament in Tbilisi, brandishing a red rose and screaming “Resign!” at his former benefactor, President Eduard Shevardnadze, who, ignoring the revolution happening outside, was busy welcoming in a questionably elected parliament. Since then, Saakashvili, known to friends and foes alike as Misha, has kept storming into places.
An indefatigable modernizer, Misha ran around the country, busting corrupt and loafing officials, driving race cars and tractors, opening and closing enterprises, and bulldozing over everything that stood in his way, be it enemies or buildings. And he went about it with his trademark goofy giggles and out-of-control forelock. His outsized personality dominated Georgian politics for a decade, making for what might be called the Age of Misha.
To remember this era, we have, with contributions from readers, compiled a list of what might be termed the top-five styles of Misha. Even with a new president to be elected in Georgia's October 27 elections, he will not easily be forgotten.
Armenia and Kazakhstan do not have much in common other than their Soviet Union past and Eurasian-Union future. So, if Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev accepts a recent invite to visit Armenia, the two countries are likely to talk about their new, Moscow-led customs club.
Granted, when Armenia’s new ambassador to Kazakhstan, Ara Saakian, conveyed Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan’s invitation, he put it in terms of relying on Kazakhstan, as a member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), to take a balanced position in the OSCE-led attempts to resolve the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Yet Kazakhstan, like anyone else in the post-Soviet world, is unlikely to take any dramatic step on the dispute, lest it angers one of its across-the-Caspian Sea neighbors. Nazarbayev’s visit, therefore, is not expected to mark any changes in the Karabakh status quo.
But what needs some discussion is the membership rules in the Eurasian Union that Moscow hopes will be a new and better USSR. Nazarbayev has long been a Eurasian Union enthusiast and is pushing for his views about formation of a supranational body to govern the alliance. The current bureaucracy of the Eurasian Union is led by Russian officials, which some Kazakh experts believe shows who will be calling the shots in the Union.
It's difficult to know sometimes what gift to get for a close friend. But Azerbaijan -- or, to be specific, President Ilham Aliyev's elder daughter, Leyla Aliyeva -- has hit on an answer for Georgia. Ten gazelles.
Azerbaijan may be better known for oil and gas wealth and for being a family-run country than for its green activism, but the nation’s First Daughter styles herself as an environmental enthusiast.
She launched her IDEA (International Dialogue for Environmental Action) initiative through the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, a less-than-transparently financed organization named after her much-revered grandfather, the late President Heydar Aliyev. Her mother, First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, is the president of the foundation, which also has doled out many a gift to France and Pakistan in recent years, in what often appear to be soft-power drives.
But back to the gazelles. Competition from sheep and cows, as the World Wildlife Fund puts it, and human meddling allegedly drove the animals away from the Caucasus. And now, we are told, under the 28-year-old Aliyeva’s initiative, gazelles are being returned to their historic habitat. The first homecoming occurred in 2010 on Azerbaijan’s Absheron Peninsula; now it's the turn of Georgia, Baku's only South-Caucasus chum.