The arrest of 26 Azerbaijanis for allegedly joining armed Islamic groups in Syria and the wider region may help Azerbaijan place its strategic importance to the United States above criticism of its growing autocratic reputation.
The September-23 detentions mark this Caspian-Sea country’s largest operation against alleged Islamic extremist fighters since reports began to circulate over the past year about a steady flow of recruits from Azerbaijan for the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Azerbaijan’s Ministry of National Security said that the detainees have joined several paramilitary groups in Pakistan, Iraq and Syria. Some were alleged members of Azeri Jamaaty, a jihad group in Syria made up of Azerbaijani nationals.
In short profiles of the suspects, the ministry claimed that one of the detainees, Taleh Soltanov, allegedly led Taifa al-Mansoura, a jihadist group affiliated with the Pakistani Taliban movement. En route to Syria, Soltanov was detained in Iran and deported to Azerbaijan. His wife and mother-in-law, though, made it to Syria with the help of local fighters, the ministry reported.
Another arrested individual, Vyugar Dursunaliyev, is accused of sending his juvenile son, Elvin, to Syria to join the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the terrorist group commonly known as ISIS.
The arrests were reported on the same day that US President Barack Obama mentioned Azerbaijan among the countries notorious for crackdowns on civil society.
Taxpayer-expensed Botox and hair-removal procedures are among the Georgian government’s latest charges of alleged misappropriation against ex-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, whose property in Georgia was seized by police late last week.
And not only his. His wife and mother’s Tbilisi apartments and his grandmother’s 17-year-old Honda Accord were among the items seized on September 19 as apparent compensation for some $5-million worth of state funds prosecutors claim the ex-president misused for things like facials, spas and fancy clothes.
The case has not yet gone to trial, but prosecutors claim that the refusal of Saakashvili, now based in Brooklyn, to face a court in Georgia justified the seizure of his wider family’s property. “[T]here was a reasonable suspicion… that he would transfer or otherwise conceal his and his associates’ property to obstruct compensating for the damage to the state,” the General Prosecutor’s Office said in a September-19 statement.
But some are raising eyebrows at that reasoning. Saakashvili’s Dutch-born wife, Sandra Roelofs, said on Friday that she had purchased her Tbilisi apartment long before her husband became president in 2004, from funds derived from the sale of another flat which her father had given her as a wedding gift.
Scotland’s dabbling in secessionism has been closely watched in the ex-Soviet Union, the Shangri-La of separatism. From Transnistria to Karabakh to Crimea, all eyes have been on the UK recently, in hopes that the Scottish example would change hearts and minds about claims to independence.
In South Ossetia, approaching, on September 20, the 24th anniversary of declaring itself independent from Georgia, many were inspired by the “peaceful and civilized” conduct of the Brits. Abkhazia produced a video, in which a group of people unfurl a giant Scottish flag to the sound of Mel Gibson bellowing “Freedom!” in Braveheart.
Yet with Scotland’s September-18 vote to stay with the United Kingdom these public expressions of separatist-solidarity with Scotland have suddenly fallen silent. Only Nagorno Karabakh, which itself has seen a referendum proposed as part of the solution to its differences with Baku, issued a statement, observing that “regardless of the result,” the Scottish referendum had shown that letting people decide their own fate is “the norm in a democratic society.”
In an initiative new to Muslim Azerbaijan, its parliament has broached the topic of legalizing civil partnerships. A group of lawmakers believe that recognizing such partnerships as legal unions is needed to protect the often neglected rights of the growing number of children born out of wedlock. Also, the change will help ensure the “genetic health” of the nation, parliamentarians say.
As part of that “genetic health” campaign, Azerbaijan also plans to introduce mandatory premarital health checks. A set of amendments to what is known as the Family Code is meant to toughen requirements that couples inform each other of their medical conditions before their wedding-day.
“Making these amendments to the Family Code does not conflict with human rights, as we are talking about a healthier national genetic pool and healthier children,” Parliamentary Commission on Social Policies Chairperson Hadi Rajabli told the Interfax-Azerbaijan agency.
The Code’s Article 13.3 states that concealing from a spouse a diagnosis of HIV/AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases provides grounds for the annulment of a marriage. Rajabli proposes expanding the list of medical conditions that must be reported before a wedding.
He said that the idea of premarital checkups had been dismissed before on concerns that couples, especially in rural parts of the country, could simply buy a health certificate from a doctor — an understandable concern in what is often rated among the world’s most corrupt countries. Henceforth, though, physicians will face charges if they sell fake certificates, Rajabli said.
What parent would not want to make their child’s first day of school memorable? But few may rival parents in Azerbaijan, where many first-graders arrived on September 15 in cars resplendent with flowers and bows, and cortèges of kith and kin in tow.
Short of tin-cans tied to the rear bumper, many a car was adorned with full-on wedding-style decorations, to hear the cops tell it. The showy processions — purportedly a growing whim in this oil-and-gas-rich Caspian-Sea republic — careened down the streets of the capital, Baku, giving quite a headache to traffic police. “Sometimes a first-grader is conveyed by up to 15 to 20 cars,” complained Baku traffic police spokesperson Vagif Asadov to Trend news agency.
Asadov claimed that these cars end up parked everywhere, turning the traffic situation in this city of over 2 million from bad to worse. “This has practically paralyzed traffic on the streets,” fretted Asadov. “Should a policeman stand at every meter [of roadway] ? Why can’t these people understand that they are causing an inconvenience to themselves and to others, and that this is not normal and looks ridiculous?“ he went on to ask.
But the inconveniences to others may not be the upmost thing on the minds of these parents. As in neighboring Georgia or Armenia, where students often come bearing flowers for their teachers, they want to make sure their children’s education starts with due pomp and circumstance.
Asadov is having none of it. “Parents must understand that their kids are going not into the army, but to school, and actually will be back home in a few hours," he advised.
Times and governments may change in Georgia, but angst over supposedly imminent coups lingers on. Once again, Georgian officials, shading their eyes with their hands, have looked into the distance, and reported back to voters about a vague menace that only they can see.
This time, 29-year-old Georgian Interior Minister Aleksandre Chikaidze claims he has it on good authority that ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili and his legislative minority, the United National Movement (UNM), are plotting to destabilize the country, provoke the police, manipulate sensitive topics such as the bad economy or the Russian threat, and then seize power as Georgia descends into “chaos and anarchy.”
In a September 10 interview with a local tabloid, Chikaidze asserted that Saakashvili has recruited 500 agent-provacatuers — and some non-profit groups, as well — to bring the plan to life.
Chikaidze claimed that, as less than an on-camera natural, he, of course, will be targeted first. Apparently, that explains the recent criticism of his alleged failure to deal with a spate of murders and burglaries.
But this isn’t just the one-off of a minister known for his verbal gaffes. Now, Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili has gotten into the act, too, claiming that the threat is for real and the government won’t stand for it. The police have even launched an investigation.
The protesters, members of a Georgian Orthodox Church congregation in the Black-Sea resort town of Kobuleti, said they resorted to this gruesome form of protest to prevent the spread of Islam in their neighborhood. Earlier on, they had planted a large cross before the madrasa as well.
Many Georgians see the growing Turkish investment and presence in Kobuleti’s Turkey-adjacent region, Achara, as an existential threat.
The Kobuleti incident, though, was made even more disturbing by outlandish comments from one middle-aged female protester. “We did not desecrate it; we decorated it,” said the woman, radiant with joy, in reference to the madrasa, in a YouTube video. “When they brought the piglet, it was squealing so much, but I told him ‘Don’t be afraid, you will be slaughtered soon’ . . . “ she continued, beaming with pride, as if discussing the charms of a favored household pet. “ They have hung […] the pig’s head so handsomely, with its ears pulled to the sides, that it will be a pleasure for them to see when they show up,” she said of those connected with the medresa.
The video went viral, with some sharing it for laughs, others out of revulsion. Some protesters tried to strike more a respectful note, describing Muslims, ironically, as their brothers despite the hardly fraternal form of protest against the madrasa they had chosen.
Armenia on September 9 got a gift from Greece — a law making it a crime to deny that the World-War-I slaughter of ethnic Armenians in Ottoman Turkey amounts to genocide. Needless to say, thanks already have been expressed.
The measure comes as part of a new anti-hate-crime law that applies similar penalties for rebuttals of the Holocaust and other war-crimes. The law also toughens punishments for racially and sexually motivated hate-crimes.
Greece ranks as the third country after Switzerland and Slovakia to criminalize claims that the slaughter, which Turkey downplays as one of many atrocities of World War I, ranks as a genocide. In 2012, France, home to a large Armenian Diaspora, adopted a similar bill, which strained relations with Turkey before being overturned by the French Constitutional Court.
Ankara, which is playing its cards warily with Armenia in the run-up to the 2015 centennial anniversary of the massacre, does not appear yet to have responded to Athens’ criminalization vote.
Nor, as yet, has Turkic strategic ally Azerbaijan, Armenia’s enemy-number-one.
The two “brothers” are not generally quiet on such matters; the Azerbaijani government, for instance, stepped up to the plate for Turkey on France’s genocide-denial decision.
Georgian diplomats are growing tired of a traveling political act in which the country’s top two executive branch officials try to upstage each other and grab the international spotlight.
At recent international gatherings and events, including NATO and UN meetings, Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili and President Giorgi Margvelashvili have sometimes engaged in very public protocol spats over who gets to represent Georgia. The peculiar rivalry has been building since Georgia introduced constitutional changes in 2013 that significantly diluted presidential powers. The changes were introduced ostensibly to create an additional layer of checks-and-balances in the executive branch in the aftermath of what many saw as the “imperial” presidency of Mikhail Saakashvili.
A low point in the executive rivalry occurred in July, when the president almost had to jam his foot in the door of Georgia’s parliament building in Tbilisi to attend the signing of a landmark Association Agreement with the European Union. Earlier on, when the EU extended Georgia a preliminary agreement, both the president and the prime minister reached for the pen to sign it. Margvelashvili eventually conceded singing privileges to Gharibashvili, who showed little appreciation for the gesture.