As the country heads toward a highly contested parliamentary election, Georgia has become caught up in yet another sex-video scandal. Amidst a public outcry against the trend of using such footage to attack political opponents, Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili came out on March 14 to express solidarity with those threatened by the “dark force” behind the videos and to underline that “sex and a sex life are not shameful.”
“I had, have and will have a rich sex life,” the 46-year-old president underlined in televised comments at an official meeting.
The two recordings, which appeared online on March 11 and March 14, purportedly come from a massive cache of compromising videos, allegedly maintained by the police under a succession of governments. Apparently to prevent the further dissemination of videos, access to YouTube from within Georgia was blocked for a short time on Monday.
Although Georgia is generally regarded a conservative country, public anger is directed not at the two female politicians depicted in the two recordings, but rather at the authorities, politicians and media outlets that failed to protect the identities of the individuals shown.
Civil-rights advocacy groups have called on the authorities to bring to justice those who filmed, stored and leaked these recordings.
The Georgian government’s investigation into the shooting of a prominent opposition figure could prove this election year to be a test-case of both its ability to fight crime and its willingness to divorce politics from justice.
So far, little is known about the investigation into the February 26 shooting of Alexi Petriashvili, who served as state minister for ties with NATO and the European Union from 2012 until 2014. Petriashvili’s colleagues, citing the investigation, have declined to elaborate to media, but have expressed thanks to Interior Minister Giorgi Mghebrishvili for meeting with them and promising to commit “very serious resources” to the investigation.
The attack happened in broad daylight while Petriashvili, 45, one of the leaders of the tiny, pro-Western Free Democrats Party, was visiting the grave of a friend in an outlying section of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. One of the two unidentified male assailants held three friends of Petriashvili at gunpoint, while the second beat the former cabinet minister with a baseball bat and shot him three times with a pistol. The attackers retreated when a woman from a nearby apartment building screamed that she had called the police, Petriashvili’s friends said.
Two bullets hit Petriashvili in his legs. Fearing complications, doctors opted against removing the third bullet stuck near his kidney, but said that Petriashvili was on his way to recovery.
Parliamentary Speaker Davit Usupashvili visited Petriashvili in the hospital, while Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili met the leader of the Free Democrats Party, ex-Defense Minister Irakli Alasania, to promise a swift investigation.
Counter to civil-rights activists’ hopes, it was petroleum rather than press freedom that took the top billing during European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini’s visit to Azerbaijan. In Baku, Mogherini commended Azerbaijan as a reliable source of energy and strategic partnership for Europe. The civil liberties watchdogs argued that, with its displays of intolerance for homegrown critical opinion, Azerbaijan is not worthy of an EU partnership.
But for the EU policymakers, worthy partners in the region are mainly defined by cubic meters; not necessarily democracy rankings. Mogherini said in Baku on February 29 that there is an internal consensus within the bloc that its collective foreign policy should give priority to “partners and initiatives that are crucial for better diversification of the EU energy resources.” A key role is reserved for Azerbaijan is this regard, as it is the starting point of a forthcoming East-West natural-gas pipeline system.
Mogherini attended a big gathering on the Southern Gas Corridor, a 3,500-kilometer road to energy security for Europe. EU, US and British energy officials were all in town to partake in the discussion on what is touted as a fix for the continent’s politically prohibitive dependence on Russian natural gas. On hand also were officials from Azerbaijan’s neighbors Turkey and Georgia, both anticipating eventual shares of tens of billions of cubic meters of gas from the pipeline chain.
Armenia’s busy parliament took a moment this week to address the “problem” of men kissing men – according to one MP, a concern for both the country and its national assembly. Neighboring Georgia was blamed for bringing the smooching whammy upon Armenia.
On the morning of February 23, the world was closing in on 59-year-old Aram Manukian of the opposition Armenian National Congress. To the left, right and center, male deputies filled Armenia’s parliamentary hall, exchanging handshakes and kisses -- a popular form of salutation.
Just to be clear, the Caucasus-style greeting between men involves a peck on the cheek; thankfully, not a Leonid Brezhnev-style, mouth-to-mouth embrace. Displays of affection between men, such as kissed greetings and walking with arms locked, is customary in this otherwise macho neck of the woods, and accounts for more than one awkward moment with Western visitors.
But this time around, Armenian lawmakers apparently got a little carried away, prompting a request from Deputy Speaker Eduard Sharmazanov to be done with giving love and move on to the pressing matters of the day, such as getting a show of hands for candidates for a new ombudsman.
Manukian took the floor. He used the high tribune to call upon Armenia to stop the man-to-man kisses.
“Do not do this! This is not a pretty sight! Children are watching!” he pled with his colleagues. Armenian men kiss everywhere these days, he pointed out -- in parliament, the institutions of higher education, you name it.
Last week, when law-enforcement came to arrest him for reportedly defying police and a judge, Gaspari lay down. He lay down in court when he was put into custody and continued to lie down in his prison cell.
His lawyer, Tigran Yegorian, claimed that Gaspari was forced to go through a psychiatric check on February 24 and, earlier, had been beaten by his cellmates. Armenia’s Ombudsman Arman Tatoian has requested a clarification from the Prosecutor’s Office, Hetq.am reported.
Human rights groups and opposition politicians have condemned Gaspari’s arrest as politically motivated. “He was arrested for his political views, civil position and criticism of government bodies, in particular, law enforcement agencies,” said a dozen Armenian human rights organizations in a collective statement.
Armenia routinely denies that it contains any political prisoners.
Azerbaijan is not letting the global oil-price crisis interfere with its penchant for military and sports- spending. The nation’s 2016 defense budget is now set at $1.2 billion, a 21-percent increase from 2015. Despite sagging petroleum revenues and a severely weakened currency, Baku also is moving ahead with $1.2 million in financing for a European soccer championship.
The amount set aside by Azerbaijan for defense spending is hardly modest, but once again it comes up short of the über goal of spending more on defense than enemy Armenia does on its entire government budget. Before the oil-price slump, Baku had met that goal. Some analysts, however, suspected that Azerbaijan was gerrymandering figures and budget lines to puff up its military outlays and alarm Armenia.
But with the drying-up of oil revenues, Azerbaijan failed to keep the pace. Azerbaijan’s latest 2.2- billion-manat ($1.2 billion) military budget plan does dwarf Armenia’s projected defense spending (208 billion drams or $430 million), but the amount does not exceed Armenia’s total planned government spending (just under 1.4 trillion drams or $2.8 billion), like it reportedly did a few years back.
While Azerbaijan relied on energy sales for defense purchases, Armenia relied on help from Russia. The hike in Baku’s spending came just as Russia approved $200-million worth of credit for Yerevan to do some military shopping of its own.
Off-limits for Georgians, the separatist side of breakaway South Ossetia’s boundary with Georgian-controlled territory will now become partly restricted for South Ossetians, too, leaving little opportunity for civilian contact across the Russian-policed line of conflict.
South Ossetians will need a permit from the KGB, as the separatist region’s security services are still called, to visit villages along the boundary, the de-facto body announced on February 15. South Ossetians living in these villages reportedly are worried that they will eventually face eviction. Their ethnic Georgian population was evicted en masse during the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia over the territory.
The South Ossetian KGB and Russia’s FSB, which handles keeping a watch on the contact line with Georgian-controlled territory, assured local villagers, however, that no evictions plans are in the can and that the travel restrictions will not extend to residents themselves
“Before visiting you, your guests, be it friends or relatives, will need to go to the KGB’s border service, which will be issuing the permits,” said South Ossetian KGB official Soslan Tigiyev, reported a local outlet of the Russian-government-owned Sputnik news network. Locals objected to the travel restrictions.
Separatist officials also said that South Ossetian and Russian border guards must be notified of weddings or funerals – usually large-scale events in the South Caucasus -- to lift the restrictions temporarily. Friends and relatives residing on the Georgian-controlled side of the conflict line are altogether barred from attending social functions in the breakaway region.
Georgia has dropped a proposed anti-blasphemy bill ardently opposed by freedom-of-speech activists. With a stated goal of protecting the feelings of Christian believers, the bill pitted civil liberties against faith in this passionately Christian nation.
The draft appeared to be causing a split in the ruling Georgian Dream coalition – never desirable in a parliamentary election year. Saying that the bill needs more work, parliamentarian Soso Jachvliani on February 15 withdrew his own proposal, which already had been conditionally approved by parliament’s human rights committee. Parliamentary Speaker Davit Usupashvili announced that the legislature has stopped discussion of the legislation.
The proposal to set fines for religiously insulting words and behavior was criticized for its potential to make the Georgian Orthodox Church, seen by many as the embodiment of Georgia’s national identity, all but immune to criticism. The Church earlier had asked for legal defenses against insults, but now distanced itself from the bill. The Patriarchy, the holy see of the Georgian Orthodox Church, is known for thin-skinned reactions to criticism and to any sort of irreverent take on Christian beliefs.
Some liberal clerics, however, spoke against the bill. One Georgian Orthodox priest in Germany described it as absurd. “Who can define religious feelings? What judge can rule on whether a certain action is insulting to someone’s religion?” Deacon Tamaz Lomidze asked in a recent sermon, PalitraTV reported.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva wave to the crowds during the 2015 European Games at Baku's Olympic Stadium, now available for wedding rentals.
If anyone’s looking for an extravagant venue for upcoming nuptials, Azerbaijan is now renting a new, $640.5-million stadium in its capital, Baku, for weddings. Built specifically for the 2015 European Games, a quasi-Olympic contest, the arena now stands as an empty, 68,195-seat testimony to the hydrocarbon-blessed country’s runaway spending on international-attention-grabbing, mega-undertakings.
That the stadium is open for wedding parties may be an exciting opportunity for well-heeled Azerbaijanis to score the event of their lifetime, but many Bakuvians criticize what they deem an embarrassing waste of taxpayer money by President Ilham Aliyev’s government on glitzy, one-off vanity projects.
“This stadium is the apotheosis of a mindless waste of money and corruption,” Ali Kerimli, chairperson of the opposition National Front of Azerbaijan Party, told the Kavkazsky Uzel news site. The millions could instead have been invested in creating jobs, he added.
Some Facebook users joked that soccer stars like Barcelona’s Lionel Messi and Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo should be invited as tamadas, Caucasus-style party emcees, for the stadium’s weddings.