Ever a strategic crossroads, ardently pro-Western Georgia on August 25 became the site where the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, billed as the Chinese counterweight to the World Bank, chose its first president.
China's former deputy finance minister, Jin Liqun, got the pick at the August 24-25 meeting in Tbilisi, but it’s the longer term implications of the bank’s role that could prove more intriguing.
Initially meant as an Asia-only lending club, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) has fast expanded to attract members across Europe and is set to help China build international clout.
The US has tried to discourage allies like the United Kingdom and South Korea from embracing the bank, a financial institution that Washington reportedly fears will lower international banking standards, but did not react publicly when Georgia, its strongest ally in the strategic South Caucasus, also decided to help midwife the AIIB into existence.
Granted, Georgia, which holds a mere .05 percent share in the bank, does not have the banking or economic muscle of the UK or South Korea, but its geo-strategic location means that those with influence here tend to keep a wary eye out for potential rivals.
The highly controversial trial of Azerbaijani investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova adjourned for five days on August 21 after the prosecution demanded a nine-year jail term for the internationally acclaimed freelance reporter on various criminal charges. Media-freedom advocates around the world view the trial as an attempt by Azerbaijan's government to silence yet another prominent critical voice.
Known for her exposés of corruption and nepotism in the tightly run, hydrocarbon-rich Caucasus country, Ismayilova, 39, was initially arrested last year on suspicion of inciting an individual at RFE/RL's now shuttered Baku office to attempt suicide. The alleged victim retracted his accusations, but Ismayilova, RFE/RL's former bureau chief, was kept in pretrial detention with new charges of alleged embezzlement and tax evasion popping up.
RFE/RL's Azerbaijani service reported Ismayilova's mother, Elmira, as saying that her daughter laughed when she learned of the proposed prison term.
With access to the court tightly restricted, details of the proceedings are few. Ismayilova, though, asserted in court that the prosecution had presented inadequate proof for their allegations, and that the judge, supposedly eager to go on vacation, was rushing the case without regard for Ismayilova's rights.
International human rights watchdogs see a bitter irony in that Ismayilova, who reported extensively about abuse of power in Azerbaijan, particularly within the family and administration of President Ilham Aliyev, is now charged with abuse of power herself.
Step aside, CNN, and make room, Al Jazeera: an international news network is coming to break the current "monopoly" on news and promote a Turkic point of view.
Media scholars like John Merrill may welcome a diversity of perspectives in the global news flow as a counterbalance to Western news companies and their takes. The caveat is that the latest new channel is a brainchild of four autocracy-prone governments; primarily of Kazakhstan's president-for-life, Nursultan Nazarbayev.
The idea of a pan-Turkic news has been in the can for a while, but on August 18 information ministers signed a memorandum of understanding about the project in the Kazakh capital of Astana.
Kazakh communication officials said that Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkey have reached a conceptual agreement on the network, which will broadcast "Turkic cultural values" in the four countries' languages and English. It is unclear when the channel goes live.
But, already, Ali Hasanov, a senior aide of Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev and the longtime presidential point-man for media matters, has his ideas.
Looking back to this summer’s European Games, he complained that “the great strides” made by his country “are hardly highlighted by some leading global media resources.” Rather, as the country’s star has risen, the “ media attacks based on preconceived, false accusations” only have increased, he claimed, the pro-government Trend news agency reported.
Two months after horror-movie scenes of zoo animals wandering around Tbilisi made international headlines, the Georgian capital’s zoo has announced plans to reopen in September.
The zoo will return to a section of its old territory that managed to escape destruction when a flash flood hit on June 13-14 and killed most of the facility's animals. In the words of Zoo Director Zurab Gurielidze to PalitraTV, “[W]e still have some interesting animals left.”
The zoo’s population still includes lemurs, deers, peacocks and Begi the hippo, who famously sauntered past a nearby Swatch store after the flood wiped out his enclosure. Begi now urgently needs a new home. “In winter, this animal must have an indoor pool filled with warm water,” Gurielidze said in an earlier interview with Liberali Magazine. No other Georgian zoo can accommodate Begi and the only way out is to build a new pool. Same goes for the crocodiles, which are now crashing at the penguins’ place.
Work has been underway to clear out the mud and debris, but the zoo is still largely a gloomy scene of ruined cages and destroyed carousels. Fortunately, though, an exceptionally hot summer has enfeebled the neighboring Vera creek, which, swollen by torrential rain, ravaged the zoo and its area on the nightmarish night of June 13-14, killing 19 humans and scores of animals.
Looks like someone needs to tell Azerbaijan that The Washington Post is not Pravda. Getting the concept of free media straight might, if nothing else, spare the Azerbaijani government lots of hard feelings about American foreign policy.
No such formal “ceasefire” exists, of course. The issue is that Baku believes recent meetings with US officials — in particular, visits by Special Energy Envoy Amos Hochstein — signal that Washington is willing to drop the criticism of Azerbaijan’s civil right record and focus on the hydrocarbons that bind the two countries together.
But then the Post, apparently seen in Baku as one of the US government’s “main mouthpieces,” comes along and slams the trial of prominent Azerbaijani human rights defender Leyla Yunus and her husband, conflict analyst Arif Yunus, as a “travesty of justice.” And the newspaper Azerbaijan, which is, indeed, an official mouthpiece, claims it can't make head or tail of the criticism.
The cultural fault line that seems to divide the West and many formerly Soviet states is perhaps most visible when it comes to differing attitudes on LGBT issues. But a culture clash is also flaring in the sartorial sphere. In Azerbaijan, for example, a public debate is brewing over whether it is appropriate for men to wear shorts.
So far, Moscow’s embargo plans seem to extend only to state purchases of health supplies; retailers can still carry imported brands. The reasoning for the measure was variously put down to hopes to bolster domestic production or retaliate against the West for its sanctions against Russia’s campaign in Ukraine.
Some believe that, thanks to the restrictions, Russians will be making more condoms and/or more babies. Government aide Gennady Onishchenko, a former chief sanitation inspector best known in the Caucasus for bans on imported Georgian food products, expressed the hope that Russians will become more selective in picking sex partners and that the country's "demographic problems" will be resolved.
Geopolitics rather than terroir may be affecting the quality of Georgian wine, at least as far as Russia, the world’s largest Georgian alcohol tippler, is concerned. After the Kremlin said it would retaliate against countries that support Western sanctions against Moscow, Russia tried Georgia’s wine and found it wanting.
Rospotrebnadzor, the Russian federal food safety agency as formidable as its name, declared on August 4 that both Georgian winemakers and government services for food quality oversight consistently fail to assure the quality of alcoholic beverages exported to Russia. Almost 7 million liters of booze imported from Georgia in 2015 did not meet Russia’s high standard for alcohol safety, in Rospotrebnadzor’s telling.
The agency, long a Russian foreign-policy tool toward post-Soviet countries with Western aims, took issue with Georgia’s staple dry red Saperavi, produced by the company Agora, and two types of brandy, Old Kakheti and Kolkhida, produced by Telavi Wine Cellar. A number of batches of these beverages lacked the required quality-assurance documentation, Rospotrebnadzor claimed.
Georgia’s agriculture ministry responded that it carefully controls the quality of alcohol exported to Russia, but added that it will look into the allegations. At the same time, Georgia’s point man for talks with Russia, Zurab Abashidze, went explaining to Russian media that Tbilisi had not signed on to any of the European Union’s new sanctions against Moscow.
It may not have been a civil-rights campaign, but it was a push for tolerance.
Though practices vary country to country, traditional views in the South Caucasus, regardless of religion, hold that real men do not wear shorts and show their legs like skirt-wearing women. At least, not off the beach.
“If you walk in them on the beach, that is considered normal, but if you show up in the city, then you can’t help but notice the curious glances of passers-by….” read an editorial in Day.az. “Curiously, if a girl wears shorts, and very short ones, it does not cause a similar reaction.”
At best, shorts are considered by many as something a teenage boy could wear, woefully observed the news service.
But in seaside Baku, the setting for Eurovision, the European Games, and fraternization with all sorts of shorts-wearing countries, many young people are ready for change. Summer temperatures are hitting 40 degrees Celsius (103 F), after all.
The shorts pride event was organized via Facebook by the youth group Flashmob Azerbaijan, which has been at the forefront of turning Baku into a regional flashmob hub. They specified that participants should wear “Not breeches or short slacks or shorts longer than the knee.”
When the American company ContourGlobal, purchased a hydropower complex in Armenia earlier this summer, it probably did not know it would end up helping avert a major crisis in that country. Or providing the money to fix a mess allegedly caused, at least in part, by a Russian-owned firm with close ties to the Kremlin.
Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian announced this weekend that the government plans to use the money from the sale to subsidize a controversial, 16-percent increase in electricity fees, which went into effect on August 1.
He did not specify exactly how much the government would use from the $180-million nest egg.
Yerevan had agreed to cover the increase (pending an audit) after massive street demonstrations erupted in June in the capital, Yerevan, over the hike. Tagged by jittery Russian media as a revolution, the protests expressed longstanding frustration with perceived government collusion with its corporate pals' financial abuses.