Armenia’s second-largest city of Gyumri is becoming a Potemkin -- or rather a Putin -- Village for a two-day visit this December by Russian President Vladimir Putin. In the best Soviet tradition, when the South Caucasus would tidy up and put on a show for a Communist big wig visiting from Moscow, Gyumri is having a long-overdue face-lift to look good for Putin, who himself is said to have a soft spot for facials.
Potholed roads are being fixed, facades are being painted, garbage is being carted away on a scale that Gyumri residents have not seen since communism. “If Putin comes to town twice a year, Gyumri will become a great city,” joked municipal council member Levon Barsegian in comments to the Tert.am news service. “It is shameful that it takes a visit of a head of foreign state to renovate the city,” he added.
Gyumri Mayor Samvel Balasanian said he is not even sure what Putin’s itinerary is going to be during the December 2-3 visit. Some expect the Kremlin boss to skip the capital Yerevan and head straight to Gyumri's Russian military base, a major strategic foothold for Russia in the Caucasus.
The city will also be hosting an Armenian-Russian economic forum and its venue, a local drama theatre, is covered in scaffolding after 10 years of neglect. The forum is now more important than ever after Yerevan opted this September to go with the Russian-led Customs Union, a decision that put the kibosh on accelerated integration with the European Union.
Armenia and Turkey's periodic efforts to make peace tend to hit a wall, but the nettlesome neighbors seem to be, once again, having another semi-go at rapprochement. Turkey has been invited to attend a Black Sea summit in Yerevan and Ankara is reportedly trying to resuscitate the failed international mediation campaign to end one of the region’s longest-running disputes.
For reasons that remain open to interpretation, Ankara reportedly recently dusted off its foreign-policy master plan, ambitiously billed as "Zero Problems with Neighbors," to call for normalizing with Armenia whatever can be normalized.
Granted, we've been down this road before. Despite all the cheerleading from the US, a 2009 campaign to reconcile the two flopped. Both sides remain hostages to past and present regional conflicts -- namely, the World-War-I-era slaughter of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Armenians in Ottoman Turkey, and the 1988-1994 conflict over breakaway Nagorno Karabakh between Armenia and close Turkish ally Azerbaijan.
But this time, the cease-fire violations between Armenia and Azerbaijan are more frequent, and the international community, arguably, more concerned about a resumption of war.
So, the thinking may go, maybe it's time to shake things up a bit.
This time round, the US, one of the overseers of the Armenian-Azerbaijani negotiations, is keeping its cards to its chest, however.
Granted, after seeing many of their members jailed or interrogated, nobody expected the opposition United National Movement to give Georgia's 31-year-old nominee prime-minister, Irakli Gharibashvili, a pat on the back at his confirmation hearings. But the two-hour hair-pulling match that occurred on November 19 suggested that, even with the end of "cohabitation," the chances for grown-up political rivalry are as scant as ever.
In an exchange that rarely subsided below shouting and provided few answers about future policy plans, Gharibashvili, the outgoing interior minister, described the UNM as “neo-fascist” and “liars,” while his opponents described him as “irresponsible” and requested that he “watch his mouth.”
“Where do you think you are?” simmered the UNM's Giorgi Baramidze, a former State Minister for European Integration, news services reported. “This is parliament, not a circus!”
But, in fact, it looked more like a frat-house brawl.
Claiming that the UNM never stood up to its leader, ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili. Gharibashvili charged, in reference to the 2012 prison-abuse scandal, that “You were afraid because you knew people were raped in prisons with brooms and truncheons."
By comparison, President Mikheil Saakashvili’s first inauguration in 2004 was more akin to the set for a Hollywood epic, complete with an all-out military parade and an oath delivered kneeling on an ancient king’s grave.
Yet for all the fresh emphasis on ceremonial modesty, the points made by Margvelashvili may not sound far different from those of his predecessor.
As his paladin, Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili listened from the bleachers, the onetime education minister vowed to press for integration with the West and reconciliation with the North. He promised to guard the special status of the Georgian Orthodox Church and to defend the rights of religious and other minorities. And he invited the separatist Abkhaz and South Ossetians back home, to Tbilisi's embrace.
"European-style" democracy has arrived, he underlined, and, henceforth, the “post-Soviet” adjective can be dropped from Georgia. As proof, he cited the country's allegedly pluralized media and the largely clean transition of power in the 2012 parliamentary and 2013 presidential elections.
It’s not new that Facebook can be a dangerous thing. And not just for social faux pas.
Users who do not mince their posts can lose their jobs.Including in Azerbaijan, where a well-respected Baku State University historian, Altay Goyusov, claims that he had been asked to resign after expressing criticism of the university’s administration and the Azerbaijani authorities on his Facebook profile.
Goyusov’s cover photo shows police arresting Ilgar Mammadov*, an outspoken government critic and civil-society activist accused of helping stoke riots this January in the town of Ismayili. A photo caption calls for Mammadov's freedom.
The rector of Baku State University, Abel Megaramov, however, has denied the accusation, telling RadioAzadlig that he thought Goyusov was using the story as a means to "acquire political asylum in America."
After a long business trip to the US, he claimed, Goyusov "started to forget his national feelings" and, supposedly, began shirking work. He denied that he had been dismissed.
In response to the report, some of Goyusov’s students staged a protest and threatened to boycott classes. Goyusov thanked his students for their support, but requested them to go back to their classes. Several faculty members also spoke up for their colleague.
In what appears to be the latest sign of an ongoing informal campaign in Russia against minorities from the Caucasus and Central Asia, a prominent member of the Azerbaijani Diaspora in Russia has been shot and wounded.
Mais Kurbanov, deputy president of the Russian Federation of Migrants, was attacked by an unidentified group near his Moscow apartment in the early hours of November 12, APA reported. Russian news outlets report that a nearby CCTV camera caught a “young blonde woman” firing a gun at Kurbanov. Wounded, Kurbanov reportedly ran to a nearby café, while his attackers swiftly left the scene. He survived and remains in the hospital.
The motives of the attack are not yet known, but some Azerbaijanis will see a connection to the outpouring of Russian nationalism in the wake of last month's killing of 25-year-old Russian Yegor Shcherbakov, a crime blamed on an Azerbaijani labor migrant, Orhan Zeynalov.
Crime may not be a rare occurrence in Moscow, but South-Caucasus residents often get the impression that, for many Russians these days, crimes committed by a dark-haired person from the Caucasus are worse than others. The violence against migrant workers that followed Schcherbakov's death, the police manhandling of Zeynalov and the arrests and deportations of Azerbaijanis that followed Shcherbakov's murder have fueled anger in Azerbaijan.
Meanwhile, the violence against ethnic Azeris in Moscow continues. On November 13, APA reported about the death of an Azerbaijani flower seller, apparently knifed to death. Possible reasons for the attack have not been released.
Staying true to its foreign policy principle that if you love me, you must love my late leader’s monument, Azerbaijan has halted billions of dollars’ worth of planned investments in Mexico.
At a November 8 lecture to Universidad Iberoamericana students, Azerbaijan’s ambassador to Mexico, Ilgar Mukhtarov, claimed that Mexico City’s January decision to remove the statue of the late Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev from its downtown cost the country $3.8 billion in supposedly planned Azerbaijani investments in the oil-refinery business and other sectors. “All these funds have been put on hold,” Mukhtarov was quoted by the Voice of America as saying.
Reactions from Mexican officials have not surfaced in the non-Spanish-language press. The statue, part of a global network of statues to Heydar-Aliyev, was disassembled after reporters and activists looked up who that bronze man was sitting near the Paseo de la Reforma, and decided that you can take a country out of the USSR, but you can't take the USSR out of a country.
Mukhtarov, however, defended Aliyev, saying that the late leader was “not a dictator,” and pointing to his abolition of the death sentence as proof that the president, who died in 2003, cared as much about human rights as the next guy. He also again blamed the apparently omnipresent Armenian Diaspora for causing trouble over the monument.
If the Abkhaz want to visit the Winter Olympics next February in the Russian city of Sochi, about 25 kilometers to the north, they might need to walk. And even then there is no guaranteed access through a gateway that Russia plans to keep ajar.
In a recent decree laying out the do's and don'ts during the Olympics, Russian President Vladimir Putin called for strictly limiting access to Sochi from the de-facto border crossing with breakaway Abkhazia, recognized by Moscow as a sovereign state.
Residents living in the border area will have some freedom of movement, though they might find interior ministry troops hanging out in their backyards. The troops also will be policing the coastline south of Tuapse, a seaside city north of Sochi.
The Sochi area itself will be broken up into restricted zones, entrance into which will be subjected to search. All demonstrations, unless part of the Olympics, will be prohibited. The sale of poisonous or potentially poisonous substances, save for prescription drugs, will also be banned.
Such restrictions are not exactly what Abkhazia, which largely depends on Russia for its economic survival and, itself, cannot participate in the Games, had in mind.
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.