A warship carrying a shipload of grinning, hand-shaking US navy officials sailed into the Georgian port of Poti on August 11 and hosted a round of squabbling by the country’s two rivaling leaders, Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili and President Mikheil Saakashvili.
As the US commanders raised glasses of wine to peace and security in Georgia, the two top Georgians on board made anything but peace. President and prime minister fired jabs at each other across their well-wishing hosts and if it were not for the presence of US Ambassador Richard Norland, the two might have gone elbowing one other right over the side of the ship.
Much like two rivaling fashion divas, they began with remarks on apparel choices. “What’s that thing you are wearing?” the prime minister asked the president, as the two exchanged a frosty handshake, in reference to a red poppy brooch on Saakashvili's lapel. “Where did you get this?” Ivanishvili continued.
“I can get one for you,” the president responded. “And it is supposed to mean what?” Ivanishvili pressed on. “It’s a symbol of the memory of our fallen soldiers [killed in the 2008 war with Russia],” Saakashvili responded.
It was then that US Ambassador Norland felt it was a good time to interject with a toast to "the success of US-Georgian security cooperation." But the pair just could not let such a high-profile, face-to-face encounter go to waste without some other tiffs, too.
Georgia on August 8 vowed to start direct talks with the representatives of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but it may need first to deal with that uninvited party to the conversation, Russia.
Speaking on the fifth anniversary of Georgia's 2008 war with Russia over the two territories, Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili called on Georgians to wipe the slate clean and collectively reach out to the regions, now located behind a line of Russian troops. “We need to get the strength to forgive...but also we have to accept our own mistakes and undo what still can be undone,” Ivanishvili said, Georgian news outlets reported.
“We are ready for a direct dialogue with our Abkhaz and Ossetian brothers,” he went on to say. “I am confident that we will find a common language to work toward a shared future.”
One Georgian government minister specified later that Tbilisi does not intend to accept in any way the regions' Russian-backed claims to independence from Georgia. “This means restoring mutual trust between the peoples and by no means between subjects of international law,” said Alex Petriashvili, the state minister for Euro-Atlantic integration, Netgazeti.ge reported.
State Minister for Reintegration Paata Zakareishvili told RFE/RL's Georgian service that the new policy would mark a change from the more maximalist, nationalist sentiments that existed prior to the war and an attempt to be more accommodating to the interests of the breakaway regions.
Apparently taking a cue from Armenia's closest ally, Russia, the Armenian police seem to be thinking that it is time to do something to defend traditional Armenian family values from the onslaught of what they see as growing "gay propaganda."
A draft bill, now scrapped, would have required anyone caught promoting "non-traditional sexual relationships," as RFE/RL reported, to pay a fine equivalent in drams to $4,000. The bill took its line of argument -- and, it appears, its inspiration -- from a recent Russian bill that established a similar ban last month.
In a published statement, police, however, confined their perceived "problem" to “preserving the traditional Armenian family, as traditional values represent the pillar of national survival,” the Russian-language Armenia Today news site reported.
Moscow on August 6 issued a friendly reminder to Georgia that Russia’s got nuclear bombs; just something to keep in mind while weighing the costs and benefits of joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Amidst a refrain (by now, hackneyed to many Georgians) about how politics and wars can’t get between the pair's centuries-old friendship, Medvedev had one key message -- the Kremlin’s unremitting disappointment over Georgia’s NATO fetish.
“We are against -- putting it mildly -- Georgia’s joining NATO,” Medvedev said, in remarks voiced-over into Georgian by Rustavi2. But don’t get us wrong, he continued. “Any country has the right to choose a preferred political and military alliance to join,” yet the Kremlin just can’t sit and watch a neighboring country, be it Georgia or Ukraine, become part of a strategic alliance that still has Russia in the crosshairs.
“May I remind you that Russia is a very big country with a huge nuclear arsenal and that is something not to be ignored . . .” he added. "Yes, we have a partnership with NATO, but a fact remains a fact."
Rustavi2 anchor Nino Shubladze pointed out that the Baltic countries had joined the Euro-Atlantic military club and it did not seem to lead to any doomsday developments.
Yes, and Moscow is not happy about it, Medvedev pointed out. Nothing good will come of Georgia’s following the Baltic example, he reiterated.
Five years after their 2008 war, Georgia and Russia appear to be busy getting nowhere toward any form of reconciliation. Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has said that Moscow will restore diplomatic ties with Georgia if Tbilisi admits to starting the fight. In an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, who launched a charm offensive in Moscow, countered that Tbilisi is doing its darndest to be constructive, but stands firm with its demand that breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia return to Georgian control.
In an August 4 interview with the pro-Kremlin TV broadcaster Russia Today, Medvedev, who was Russia's president in 2008, claimed that military engagement with Georgia was his idea and that he had not been playing second fiddle to then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. He also claimed that toppling the government in Georgia was never Russia’s goal -- but did not explain how that jives with Putin’s reported intention to hang Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili by his private parts.
Commenting on Georgia’s internationally backed calls for Russia to withdraw its recognition of the sovereignty of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia (and with it, its troops), Medvedev passed the buck to the separatist regions' residents. Political choices “lie with the people who live there,” he underlined.
The posting of a new online video depicting intimate moments from the private life of corruption-busting Azerbaijani reporter Khadija Ismayilova has displayed the depth of the civil-rights challenge Azerbaijan is facing as it heads into this October's presidential vote.
Such videos first surfaced in 2012, after Ismayilova had begun investigating questionable business investments by members of President Ilham Aliyev's family. The footage came with a threat that Ismayilova, then reporting for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, stop her scrutiny of the deals. She did not, and, now, last week, another installment appeared.
While the Azerbaijani government initially pledged an investigation into these Peeping-Tom flics, no official results other than that statement have emerged. Meanwhile, international and domestic media, human rights groups and others continue to rally to Ismayilova's support.* On August 3, a group of mostly female journalists, some holding posters declaring "My home, my bed are not corruption," staged a protest against the renewed video-smear campaign. (And were detained, though later released.)
Perhaps, though, the government has not yet managed to unmask the identities of those behind these videos because it has been too busy with other tasks.
The energy-booming country is sparing no effort or money to assert itself as a lavish host of international cultural, sports and business events, to show itself to be a regional power and a fun place for tourists to be.
Police claimed that that requires a permit from the mayor's office. Several demonstrators were arrested and released later on the same day.
The series of protests began in the wake of a boycott of public transportation in the Armenian capital after the city government raised fares. Mayor Markarian was forced to decrease the prices, after Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian, for one, commented favorably on demonstrators' campaign, but the protesters continue to accuse the municipality of mismanagement of the city transportation system and have demanded the resignation of municipal officials. Mayor Markarian’s offer to overhaul the public conveyance system has been dismissed by protesters.
In what is being touted as proof positive of the independence of Georgia's judicial system, a court in Tbilisi on August 1 cleared Georgia’s most controversial man, former Defense Minister Bacho Akhalaia, of charges of physical abuse and torture. The verdict comes as a blow to Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream Coalition and government prosecutors, who have campaigned rigorously against the 32-year-old onetime minister.
Akhalaia had been rumored among many Georgians to be an allegedly abusive prison warden when he served as chief of the penitentiary system under President Mikheil Saakashvili. Such accusations followed him to the posts of defense and interior ministers; he resigned the latter post when revelations of the heinous abuse of prisoners sparked mass demonstrations last fall. The scandal is believed to have significantly contributed to the loss of President Saakashvili’s United National Movement to Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream Coalition in last October’s parliamentary vote.
In a widely expected move upon coming to power, the Ivanishvili government arrested Akhalaia in the first of what UNM members denounced as high-profile, politically motivated arrests. After five months of hearing evidence, the court today dropped several charges involving the abuse and illegal incarceration of military officers, but Akhalaia remains in prison pending trial on other charges of abuse and torture stemming from his time as prison-system chief and interior minister.
Yep, says Georgia’s Bidzina Ivanishvili, who apparently views the prime minister’s position as a temp job. Before and since coming to power late last year, Ivanishvili has kept saying that his time will be short. Now, in a recent interview with the EUobserver, he has put a specific timeframe to it -- he is going to fix everything he promised to fix and quit before New Year's.
The early exit strategy appears to be Ivanishvili’s way of showing that power does not mean much for him and that he does not intend to hold on to it like certain someones before him. This might set a welcome example for Georgian politicians, but the bigger question is if he can get the job done.
Items on his daunting to-do list include eliminating elite corruption, fixing the economy, patching up things with Russia, and joining NATO, among others.
During last year's parliamentary election campaign, Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream Coalition invited citizens to write down and submit their dreams for the billionaire to review. Perhaps an effective campaign tactic then, now it could be part of the reason the Georgian Dream is losing some of its luster among voters.
Polling data suggests that jobs were and remain the biggest concern for Georgians. And the economy is one area where, according to government data, the Ivanishvili cabinet has not yet delivered on any dreams.
The economy shrank by 0.8 percent in the first six months of 2013, compared with the same period last year, according to GeoStat, while the number of registered businesses declined by 17 percent. Unemployment, meanwhile, remains at 15 percent, officially, but upwards of half of the working-age population, unofficially. Those employed earn the lari-equivalent of just $433.76 per month, on average.
For the Russian military, any reconciliation with Georgia, it seems, will not extend to R&R in Georgia. Once a popular spot for Russian soldiers to go for vacation or for war, Georgia has been blacklisted as a spot for rest-and-recuperation by the Russian Ministry of Defense.
At first glance, that may not seem surprising. The two countries, after all, did fight a five-day war in 2008 that resulted in the rupture of diplomatic ties, and the introduction of Russian troops into breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Georgia claims as its territory.
Yet with the advent of Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili to power last year, Moscow had suggested that the sun might shine, once more, on Russian-Georgian relations.
No more, it seems. The blacklist was preceded by moves by Gennadiy Onishchenko, head of the food-security agency Rospotrebnadzor, to defend Russia's food front against potential incursions by Georgian fruit, vegetables and wine, which he believes may be doctored by a US-run biological laboratory in Georgia to poison Russian consumers.
Whether or not this scenario is Onishchenko's creation alone is not clear. (The vision came to him after Ivanishvili announced expectations for Georgia to receive a Membership Action Plan from NATO next year.) But, now, it seems, the Russian military has a few fears of its own, too.