Wounded in Afghanistan by both weapons and words, Georgia appears to be busy with damage-control for its participation in the NATO-led mission there.
A June 6 truck-bomb attack that killed seven Georgian soldiers, the deadliest such incident to date for Georgian forces in Afghanistan, has sparked an unprecedented outpouring of domestic criticism of the Afghan campaign. With a presidential election just four months away, that criticism is something the Georgian government is eager to check.
In a TV talk-show interview on June 11, Defense Minister Irakli Alasania emphasized that troop security is first and foremost on the government's mind, and in its discussions with NATO. Among other security measures, he said, at Tbilisi's request, NATO's joint command will change the deployment areas for Georgian troops, currently stationed in the southern Helmand province.
The June 6 attack on the Shir Ghazay base happened just as Georgian forces were about to vacate the site, he added. He underlined that the risk to Georgian soldiers will decrease as the NATO pullout gets underway, and their mission shifts from combat to training.
Repeating previous warnings, he also advised Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili not to announce beforehand his plans to visit Afghanistan (as Saakashvili is wont to do), noting that the information puts soldiers' lives at risk.
Finally, he dismissed calls for bringing the troops home, saying that Georgia will see its Afghan mission through.
To make sure exiles from Syria feel at home in Armenia, the government has commissioned the construction of an entire settlement called New Aleppo.
Located 20 kilometers shy of the capital, Yerevan, the residential project will accommodate some of the thousands of Syrians of Armenian descent, who escaped the war in Syria.
New Aleppo, named in honor of the wartorn northern Syrian city that houses most of Syria's ethnic Armenian population, will sit on 4.8 hectares (some 11 acres) of land in the industrial town of Ashtarak.
Armenia's Ministry of Diaspora Affairs reports that some 600 families have expressed willingness to move into the development's apartments. They will be expected to pay half the cost of the flats; the authorities and charity groups are expected to pick up the rest of the tab.
With some 7,000 Syrian-Armenians now seeking residency in Armenia, the government says that more Syrian quarters will be popping up across the country as well.
The Syrian Diaspora, estimated to be over 100,000-strong, descends from ethnic Armenians who fled World-War-I-era massacres in Ottoman Turkey. Now, a century later, the bloody rebellion in Syria has driven the community back to what is considered their ancestral homeland.
Some commentators say that preserving the Armenian community in Syria should be the main priority for Yerevan. Fears exist that the Diaspora exodus could reduce Armenia’s ability to exert any influence in the Middle East, long seen as an important Diaspora outpost.
A screenwriter taking on an all-powerful, dynastic national leader in a presidential election sounds like a film script that Academy-Award-winner Rustam Ibragimbekov could have written. Except that this one could well be autobiographic for Ibragimbekov.
Elected on June 7 as the chairperson of Azerbaijan's opposition coalition, the National Council for Democratic Forces, screenwriter Ibragimbekov has not yet been nominated as a candidate for office in Azerbaijan's October presidential elections, but local news outlets like the daily newspaper Zerkalo believe that it is only a matter of a few weeks. The coalition plans to nominate a joint candidate at their next convention. Ibragimbekov, 74, told Reuters that, if nominated, “I’ll have to take this on and I am not afraid to."
The rival camp, the ruling Yeni Azerbaijani Party, predictably nominated President Ilham Aliyev to run for a third term in October. Apart from the tightly-run state apparatus, much of the business elite and a largely muzzled media, Aliyev has his family on his side. His wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, was elected the deputy head of the ruling party. The cultivated image of his late father, the celebrated President Heydar Aliyev, also provides support.
The latest and deadliest attack on Georgian troops in Afghanistan is putting to the test Georgia's patience with participation in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization campaign there. Many Georgians now say the price the country is paying for moving up on the defense alliance's membership waiting list is too high.
A truck bomb attack on June 6 in Afghanistan's Helmand province killed seven Georgian soldiers and wounded nine more. Less than a month ago, three Georgian servicemen were killed in a similar attack. The short interval between the attacks and the growing Georgian military death toll (a total of 30 servicemen) has led to the most vocal outpouring of frustration within Georgia about the campaign in Afghanistan, where the South Caucasus country is the largest non-NATO troop contributor.
The June 6 appearance of a questionable YouTube video, in which supposed Taliban fighters declare jihad on Georgia, has added to that debate.
A close inspection of the video, which was posted from Georgia, has raised suspicions of a domestic job or even of Russian intelligence, but the video's timing has contributed to the unease.
If Azerbaijani parents want to know the gender of their baby, they will have to wait for the baby to be born. The government could be about to land a ban on prenatal gender detection as a way to prevent sex-selective abortions.
In Azerbaijan and the rest of the macho, Caucasus vicinity, when parents ask an obstetrician if it's a boy or a girl, the response often determines will there be a child or not. The traditional preference for male children and increased access to medical technology are causing an alarming rate of discriminative abortion of female fetuses.
“Before ultrasounds, parents and grandparents did not know the sex of the baby before birth and were accepting any babies as a gift from the God,” Khady Rajabli, head of the Azerbaijani parliamentary committee for social policies, told the Kavkazsky Uzel news site. “Now that people are better informed, the ultrasound often is the cause of selective abortion practices.”
The practice is reflected in the demography of the country. The sex ratio at birth is 112 boys to 100 girls. Along with neighboring Armenia and Georgia, Azerbaijan is among the world’s most gender imbalanced countries, according to international data.
Apart from the moral argument against what is often called gendricide, specialists warn that, at this rate, Azerbaijani men may find it harder and harder to find female partners within Azerbaijani itself. The draft law, broadly supported and scheduled for parliamentary review in the fall, is expected to help change that situation by making responding to the question "Is it a boy or a girl?" illegal.
When Tea Tsulukiani became Georgia’s justice minister her task seemed tough, but straightforward: Take former corrupt officials to task and build an apolitical, widely trusted institution.
She worked hard, and, finally, made a chilling discovery: Many of Georgia's government-issued personal IDs contain the number 666, which is, of course, the mark of the Beast; a phenomenon of the end times, according to the Bible's Book of Revelation.
Tsulukiani hurried to share her find with the public. “I don’t mean to frighten believers, but tens of thousands of old IDs contain the number six three times in a row,” she said on June 4, Interpress reported. But fear not, she went on. Tsulukiani has vowed to make sure that Georgia's new, electronic ID cards will be free of the Beast and his number.
Many Georgians refused to accept the new, smart ID cards after some Georgian Orthodox groups affirmed that the card could bear the stamp of the Antichrist. (The Georgian Orthodox Church itself, however, denied it.) Of particular concern were personal details, which, the thinking went, might come in handy for the Antichrist whenever he might choose to strike.
Tsulukiani has said that including information beyond name and date of birth would be optional.
President Mikheil Saakashvili’s government had no patience to entertain such -- or, critics might charge, any -- public concerns about the cards. But the new, Georgian-Dream-led cabinet is eager to show that they're listening to voters -- particularly in a presidential election year.
Armenia may be Moscow’s best bet for a sovereign friend south of the Caucasus mountains, but careful political maneuvering by Yerevan suggests that Armenia is committed to maintaining personal space in this relationship and to keeping its options open.
New Russian ballistic missiles were reportedly moved to the Gyumri base, the only remaining military outpost for Russia in the undisputed part of the South Caucasus. Armenia also lets the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) -- Russia’s response to NATO -- hold war games, move troops and set up training facilities on its territory. Plans are reportedly also underway to set up the CSTO’s joint air force headquarters in Armenia.
All of this prompts internal complaints that Armenia is becoming little more than a Russian garrison, with national security, economy and culture all tied to Moscow.
Anxious for peace with Russia, Georgian officials and businessmen recently have been taking turns bowing and refilling 62-year-old Russian food security tsar Gennadiy Onishchenko's glass with the finest beverages Georgia’s got to offer. But nothing seems to suit the delicate palate of Gennady Grigoryevich.
His complaints range from the quality-related to the political and downright philosophical. But the Onishchenkoisms, delivered with a stern face, always tend to hit whenever Tbilisi-Moscow ties are going south.
In 2006, with the Kremlin increasingly uneasy about Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili as a potential exporter of revolution, Onishchenko struck, slapping an embargo on Georgian wines, mineral waters and fruits and vegetables as unsafe.
But after Georgia’s new government began an active campaign of reconciliation with Russia, Onishchenko allowed long-banned Georgian wine and prized mineral water Borjomi back north of the Caucasus mountain range.
After several near-break-ups, Azerbaijan and the National Democratic Institute may get back together again. US Ambassador Richard Morningstar has announced that Baku is willing to let the US non-profit continue its democracy-building in Azerbaijan, local news services report.
Azerbaijani authorities had accused the local chapter of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) of illegal financial operations, but many in Azerbaijan think that the real problem was in public expressions of government criticism by the group and its chief of party Alex Grigoriev’s role.
Soon after, Azerbaijani authorities discovered alleged glitches in the financial practices of NDI, local press began implying that the group was a US intelligence operation. Washington and Baku tried to avoid public exchanges on the topic, but negotiations reportedly were going on behind closed doors.
With Baku busy courting Washington these days, both with flowers and conventions, the US government is in a position to exact some influence on Azerbaijani authorities.
“The Government of Azerbaijan has informed us that the issues relating to the National Democratic Institute have been resolved,” Morningstar was quoted by APA news agency as saying. “NDI will continue working in Azerbaijan to help develop civil society.”
It is unclear, however, if the authorities have drawn a line in the sand for the group, and if it can continue cooperating with any organization of its choice.
He may have retired from the American airwaves, but within the ex-USSR, former CNN star Larry King remains a hot commodity. King's decision to sign on with Russia Today, the Kremlin’s English-language TV mouthpiece, has caused jaws to drop, but the coverage mostly misses one side to the story that adds to the irony.
Russia Today is not Larry's first post-CNN gig in the post-Soviet world -- there also was a short stint on the advisory board of a TV station in Georgia, Russia's longtime foe.
King could not be reached for comment, but, according to one TV9 statement, his passion about freedom of media motivated his Georgia move. “I hope to lend my voice to the cause of media freedom in Georgia,” King was quoted as saying.