Azerbaijan made the trip to the May 20-21 Euro-Atlantic defense pow-wow in Chicago, and Georgia all but rode a rocket there. But Armenia stayed home.
And not because -- to borrow the dating excuse of an earlier generation of Americans -- it needed to wash its hair.
Armenia is Russia’s economic and military protégé in the Caucasus, and some Armenian wonks believe that President Serzh Sargsyan was a no-show in Chicago as a courtesy move to the Kremlin.
But Yerevan says that the real turn-off for Sargsyan was the gathering’s reiteration of the alliance’s commitment to the territorial integrity of nations. In plain words and as far as Armenia is concerned, this means it should let Azerbaijan take back Sargsyan's native land of breakaway Nagorno Karabakh.
“We remain committed in our support of the territorial integrity, independence, and sovereignty of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Republic of Moldova,” the 28-member bloc said. The declaration does not mention the right of self-determination which Armenia advocates in the Karabakh conflict resolution talks. The right to self-determination and the right to territorial integrity -- contradictory though at times they may seem -- are both principles that guide the internationally-mediated discussions.
What happens if European pop music and Islamic fundamentalism -- two equally powerful forces -- come head to head in Baku this week? Signs of a sequins-versus-turbans face-off already are emerging, as Azerbaijan, the host of the Eurovision 2012 Song Contest, does battle with a steady stream of tongue-lashing from neighboring Iran.
Apparently, Tehran has put aside its earlier worries of a possible Western attack on its nuclear facilities to focus on the more pressing matter of a syncopated saturnalia with gay overtones erupting to Iran's north.
The words "Azerbaijan" and "gay pride" are not often seen together, but one senior Azerbaijani presidential administration official nonetheless felt the need to clarify matters for Iran.
“We are hosting a song contest, not a gay parade,” bristled Ali Hasanov, head of the administration's political and public policy department and Azerbaijan's de-facto point-man for all Eurovision PR matters. “I do not know who got this idea into their heads in Iran.”
It was rainbow flags versus black cassocks in Tbilisi yesterday, the May 17 International Day against Homophobia, when a gay rights march came to blows with an extremist group led by several Georgian Orthodox priests.
“Do you realize what a great crime you are committing by urging small kids… to engage in a wrong sexual lifestyle?” exhorted one priest, who dismissed the marchers’ assurances that the rally was about fighting homophobia. The altercations degenerated into a fistfight after several followers of the Orthodox Parents Union, an ultraconservative group, physically assaulted LGBT rights activists.
Police made arrests on both sides, but reportedly the detainees were released quickly.
The police seem to have stayed neutral during the confrontation, but the bigger human rights test for Georgia is whether the prosecutor’s office will act on LGBT activists’ complaints against their attackers. This would mean taking on priests in a country where the Georgian Orthodox Church is the most trusted institution.
Sabina Babayeva is not the only Azerbaijani singer preparing for Eurovision. The government apparently has a song to sing, too, and it's called (with apologies to Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe) "Just You Wait."
Sick of what they term international media and rights groups' "politicization" of Eurovision, officials say that when Europe drops by Azerbaijan on May 22 for three days of pop and glamour, visitors will see for themselves that Azerbaijan is up to snuff on all fronts.
“Tourists and visitors to Azerbaijan will be able to personally make sure that Azerbaijani society is tolerant . . .Political pluralism, human rights have been fully ensured,” declared Ali Hasanov, head of the presidential administration's public and political policy department.
Azerbaijanis are wonderfully hospitable people and Baku is, in fact, looking dazzling these days. With glittering new buildings, fancy illuminations along the Caspian Sea, squeaky clean streets, and London-style taxi cabs, the oil-and-gas wealth is written all over the place.
But while the Eurovision song contest, perhaps the biggest international attention-grabber for Azerbaijan since the Nagorno-Karabakh war, has inspired an impressive overhaul of Baku, it has not led to a "remont" of Azerbaijan's civil rights record.
Report after report in recent months has focused on how, behind the snazzy buildings, the ruling elite has literally beat political dissent and free media into a corner.
Given the Caucasus' long record of ethnic and religious violence, alarm bells are ready to go off any time there is a quarrel over borders or churches in this neck of the woods. Both items made headlines this week in a dispute between Georgia and Azerbaijan, perhaps the friendliest countries in a region where it’s all but de rigueur not to be on speaking terms with at least one neighbor.
Rich with ancient Georgian frescoes and writings, the monastery is a major cultural and spiritual hub for Georgians, but some Azerbaijani officials and historians claim that the monastery was created by ancient Albanians, reputed ancestors of the Azerbaijanis.
Georgian politicos, keen to seize a prime PR opportunity ahead of the October parliamentary elections, hurried to the site to deliver some fiery speeches, while disputes raged online and in the media.
The Georgian government has urged restraint, but it also admitted that the Soviet-era demarcation of the then Soviet republics' borders left some two percent of the complex on Azerbaijan’s territory -- a fact duly noted by some Azerbaijani news outlets.
Georgia is clearly the closest US ally in the South Caucasus, moving in lockstep with American interests on just about every foreign policy issue – except one: Iran. Not wanting to become embroiled in a potential regional conflict, officials in Tbilisi are trying to finesse relations with Tehran, while staying in Washington’s good graces.
Armenia's May 6 parliamentary election may have left less space for political checks and balances than desired, but it could lead to more financial cheques. While opposition parties cry fraud and observers frown at irregularities, the triumph of Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan’s ruling Republican Party of Armenia at the polls is a “credit positive” event for Armenia, according to Moody's Investor Service.
That the Sargsyan-loyal parliamentary majority has become even a larger majority will have a stabilizing effect on Armenia’s national creditworthiness, Bloomberg reported, citing Moody’s Investor Service.
The election outcome “will ensure a degree of political stability and policy continuity,” Moody’s analysts are quoted by Bloomberg as saying. And that policy has been to reduce government deficit and improve tax collection.
Yet Armenia's creditworthiness still carries a junk rating. The Ba2 grade on Moody’s list of naughty-and-nice countries (ranked by their ability to repay loans) means that lenders to Armenia run “significant” risk. Armenia has little external shock-absorption capacity thanks to its high dependence on the volatile Russian and EU markets, Moody’s wrote in November last year. Though Armenia has convalesced from its 2009 slump, Moody’s assessment for Armenia’s credit outlook has remained “negative” ever since.
The magic dust was stolen (oh, horror!) by the dark lord Mrakovlast. Who will bring the dust -- and the hope -- back to the people? This sounds like a job for the brave little superhero Cosmoboy, and his goofy, hulking robot friend, but, first, they must do battle with Mrakovlast, a monster from hell and a car junkyard.
You guessed it right. This is an opening scene from "August 8," the latest in the apparently never-ending Georgian-Russian face-off of films inspired by the 2008 Russia-Georgia War.
The Russian-made "August 8" does not boast big names like Andy Garcia and Val Kilmer, as was the case in the Georgian-sponsored, Hollywood-made "Five Days of August," but it does come with shape-shifting evil machines and explosions.
It may not seem easy to work robot transformers into a story about a war with critical geo-strategic consequences that forced thousands of ethnic Georgians out of their homes in the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but not when Russian film director Dzhanik Faziyev gets his creative juices flowing. The fantasy robot world is a figment of imagination of the film’s little protagonist, Artyem (Cosmoboy), who is caught in the Georgian-Russian crossfire.
Watching the movie leaves the impression that Faziyev really wanted to do a Russian version of the Transformers series, but chose to throw South Ossetia into it to get Russian state funding.
Much like previous August war opuses, whether Georgia or Russian-made, "August 8" is ridiculously propagandistic and cynically out-of-touch. But it is so wonderfully bizarre, so laden with cinematic platitudes and tacky moments that it almost provides for silly entertainment.
If you are a European Union citizen with a voice in your head telling you to quit your daily European cares and run for parliament in EU-aspiring Georgia, this is a good time to do it. There is a time-limited offer from the Georgian government to allow EU citizens with the right qualifications to participate in this fall's parliamentary elections.
And the story gets better: If you become popular with the parliamentary majority, you may even become prime minister, a posting, which, as of this year, will be determined by parliament.
They've even planning to amend the constitution to make it all totally legit.
But don't think that these changes mean just any Portuguese, Belgian or Austrian will be fiercely debating the future of Georgia in the country's new assembly. Interested EU citizens must have lived in Georgia for the past ten years and must have been born in Georgia.
For now, that means that, if elected, Georgian-born billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, an EU citizen, most likely will be as European as the Georgian parliament is going to get.
The parliamentary doors, though, will be open to Ivanishvili and his EU ilk for only three years. If Ivanishvili wants to run again (the next vote would be in 2016), he will need another amendment.
Within almost one day, France elected a new president, Russia installed its old one and Armenia essentially kept its old parliament. All three events have significant implications for Armenia’s future.
Back in Yerevan, Armenia’s political opposition is finding it hard to digest the news that it will remain an opposition and one with a modest presence in the new parliament, according to early election results. Whether or not the election's top-two finalists -- President Serzh Sargsyan's Republican Party of Armenia and the Prosperous Armenia Party -- will revive their governing coalition remains open to speculation, but is not a question likely to keep anyone up late.
But while Armenia faces a prospect of more of the same in its political kitchen, there has been a change on the foreign policy front.
On May 6, France laid off President Nicolas Sarkozy, a self-styled friend of the Armenians and a longtime Turkey-skeptic. President Sargsyan enjoyed good vibes with Sarkozy, and the latter played the Armenian card heavily in the final year of his presidency.
In France, Sarkozy backed a law that criminalized denying that the Ottoman Empire's World-War-I-era slaughter of ethnic Armenians in Turkey was genocide. He went barn-storming across the Caucasus, where he struck the pose of a supporter of the Armenian cause and the savior of Georgia during its 2008 war with Russia. But wagging a finger at Turkey and wooing the Diaspora Armenian vote did not help Sarkzoy secure a second term.