A group of Georgian Orthodox priests has threatened to curse those lawmakers who sign off on an anti-discrimination bill meant to introduce legal protections for minorities as part of Georgia's integration with the European Union. Confronted by influential clerics who claim the law will turn Georgia into a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah, many lawmakers face a tough choice between principle and populism.
“Behave wisely,” warned one of the bearded men in cassocks and skufias who formed a black, nay-saying corner at a parliamentary human-rights committee hearing on April 29. From the other corner, a group of rights activists fired back, saying that there should be no place for discrimination and sectarian interference with political processes in a modern state.
Most lawmakers responded to the priests patiently. But in this Orthodox country, where many fast and cross themselves at any sight of a church steeple, a priest's warning is nothing to brush off.
Last year, a mob led by priests overpowered police at an anti-homophobia rally. Now, priests have warned that support for the anti-discrimination bill, slotted for a second parliamentary hearing on April 30, would spell trouble for the government.
Azerbaijan's arrest of a respected human-rights activist is fuelling fears that the country is pulling out all the stops on crushing dissent before it takes over the Council of Europe's Commission of Ministers next month.
Fifty-eight-year-old Leyla Yunus, who chairs the Baku-based Institute for Peace and Democracy, and her husband, Arif Yunus, were detained in the Baku airport late on April 28 as they were about to depart for Doha, Qatar.
The reasons for their detention were not made known, but, after an interrogation on April 29, investigators reversed course and released Leyla Yunus, Trend news agency reported. (Yunus' spouse earlier had been hospitalized with heart problems.) The similarly pro-government APA agency added, however, that her office would be searched anyway. The information has not yet been confirmed, but any memory of prosecutors' actions is not likely to fade away fast . In a video published by RFE/RL's Azeri-language service and widely distributed on Facebook, Yunus, who has 30 years of rights and peace advocacy behind her, was shown defying police officers after they searched her apartment. She claimed the police did not present her with a warrant, nor explain the reasons for her arrest.
Yunus said they would not let her use the bathroom after her detention and, when finally so permitted, a male police officer went in with her. “He followed me into the toilet and stood there watching me… get him on camera!” Yunus yelled, taking the individual's police hat and throwing it to the ground.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decree to return ethnic minorities deported from Crimea under Joseph Stalin has revived homecoming-hopes among the peninsula's ethnic Armenian community.
“We hope that, based on the decree and a subsequent federal program, we can bring back at least 20,000 Crimean Armenians,” Vagarshak Melkonian, the leader of the Crimean Armenian Society, told RIA Novosti.
Running his empire as a strategy game, Stalin used to copy and paste entire ethnic groups from one place to another for tactical considerations; a process that is believed to have left millions uprooted or dead. Melkonian estimates that anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 ethnic Armenians were forced out of Crimea in the 1940s, when their and other minorities’ loyalty to the Soviet state was questioned.
Yet, rather than correcting past injustices, Putin’s move on this matter is largely seen as an attempt to consolidate his de-facto control of Crimea against opposition from Ukraine and the West.
The April 21 measure is primarily meant to court the Tatar minority, which bore the brunt of the Soviet-era deportations and is now wary of Moscow's takeover of the region.
The Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Jemilev has blasted the decree as Putin’s attempt to “ingratiate” himself with the Tatar population.
But Putin said that other minorities, such as “Armenian population, Germans, Greeks,” would also be rehabilitated.
Few people might be tempted to move to Crimea now, with Ukraine and Russia on the brink of war, but Melkonian believes Armenians will return gradually.
Nice try, but, no, your condolences were not accepted, said Yerevan after Ankara expressed commiseration on the April 24 anniversary of Ottoman Turkey's 1915 slaughter of thousands of ethnic Armenians.
In what Washington praised as an “historic” move, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan offered words of consolation to the “grandchildren” of the victims of the World-War I-era massacre, describing the events of that period as “a shared pain” for both Turks and Armenians. He added, however, that other peoples, including Turks, also endured brutalities during that time.
The comment was the closest Ankara has come to recognising the slaughter.
But Yerevan was having none of it. The statement was merely “another, perhaps a little more sophisticated way, of concealing and denying the genocide of the Armenians,” said Vigen Sarkisian, spokesperson for Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan.
Ethnic Armenians in Turkey seem to have displayed some appreciation for Erdoğan’s words, but Yerevan described them as putting “killers and victims” on the same footing. It repeated that Turkey needs to own up to its Ottoman predecessors having committed genocide against ethnic Armenians.
Erdoğan called on Armenia to leave the past behind it and move on, but Yerevan believes that recognizing that past is the best way for Turkey to do the same.
Imprisoned Azerbaijani youth activists and their mothers on April 24 entered the fifth day of a hunger strike intended to protest the activists' detention in prison, pending trial, for over a year.
“Our hunger strike is first of all an act of solidarity with our children, who are facing prison sentences,” Kavkazsky Uzel news site quoted Sakina Qurbanova, whose son, Zaur Qurbanli and seven fellow young government critics, have been awaiting trial since last year. “This is a desperate move. Perhaps at least now the authorities hear our voice and they will put a stop to this injustice,” Qurbanova went on saying.
The activists, most of them members of the NIDA (exclamation mark) civil rights movement, were arrested in 2013 on hooliganism, drug abuse and procession of firearms charges. Human-rights groups have dismissed the accusations, which are often levied against young dissenters in Azerbaijan. The prosecutors also accused the group of plotting an armed uprising -- another standard claim -- but the activists' supporters and lawyers maintain that the youths only planned a peaceful rally.
Amnesty International, a frequent critic of Azerbaijan, accused the Azerbaijani authorities of torturing the prisoners, inventing charges against them, and demanded the group's immediate release. On April 22, police dispersed a rally in support of the arrested activists.
Despite mounting concerns over their health, both the activists and their mothers pledged to continue their strike until the authorities drop their charges.
Russia's April 21 offer to turn into Russians anyone who has lived on the territory of the former Soviet Union or Russian Empire and speaks Russian fluently has got the South Caucasus on edge.
The law on simplifying access to citizenship for Russian-speakers across the former Soviet Union is ostensibly meant to replenish the thinning numbers of Russians, who, even at over 142.47 million people ( the world's tenth largest country), apparently just don’t reproduce like they used to. Azerbaijan, and especially Armenia and Georgia, which do not exactly boast high birth rates, are worried that Russia could annex many of their citizens to make up the difference.
Knowledge of Russian may have weakened of late in the South Caucasus, but widespread poverty still makes the region a prime place for creating born-again Russians. Armenia, which lacks Azerbaijan's natural resources and Georgia's status as a regional trade conduit, is particularly vulnerable to a citizenship drain. Russia also tightened its migrant- worker laws, which may prompt many Armenians, who travel to Russia for work, to opt for citizenship.
Amid mounting accusations of gluttony, the Georgian Finance Ministry has decided to run official dinner menus by taxpayers, who are increasingly averse to groaning under the weight of the government’s dinner table.
A Georgian dinner party, or supra, is known for its gastronomic excesses. No square centimeter is usually left vacant on the table, when Georgians start piling up the dishes. Yet they don't want to let their government do the same at official receptions.
The dining habits of Finance Minister Nodar Khaduri have become the talk of the town, with copies of the ministry’s restaurant invoices bandied about online and broadcast on national TV. When he takes an official delegation out for dinner, Minister Khaduri tends to go the whole hog . . .or rather the whole lamb.
Many Georgians found the 4,000-lari ($2,282) dinner, complete with an entire roast lamb, that Khaduri shared with an official delegation from France a bit hard to digest. That bill is roughly five times the size of a Georgian household's average monthly income, according to Geostat.
The 43-year-old minister’s rotund physique only encouraged the criticism.
Armenia may now sign on to the Moscow-led Eurasian Union by the end of April, roughly a month before neighboring Georgia is slated to enter a free-trade and political pact with the European Union. The signings of both agreements have been expedited as the competition for the South Caucasus picks up speed between Russia and Europe.
Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan is scheduled to travel to Belarus on April 29 for a meeting of the council of the Eurasian Union, an economic bloc roughly modeled by Moscow after (and against) the European Union. Armenian officials say that Sargsyan will sign an agreement in Minsk on Armenia’s joining the Customs Union, the flagship project of the Eurasian Union meant to create a shared economic space for Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and, Moscow hopes, more ex-Soviet states.
The new sign-on date is not a huge difference from the earlier deadline of May, but, apparently, as East-West ties deteriorate over Ukraine, someone feels the need to pick up the pace.
Wary of Ukraine-style pressure from Russia, the EU chiefs have been trying to fast-forward their plans with Georgia and Moldova. José Manuel Borroso, the president of the European Commission, the executive body of the EU, is expected in Tbilisi in June to sign an association agreement, which includes a free trade deal, with Georgia.
The Syrian war is giving a headache to both Azerbaijan and Armenia, with jihadists heading into Syria from Azerbaijan and refugees heading out of Syria into Armenia. Most recently, Azerbaijani news outlets have reported that the leader of an Azerbaijani militant group has been captured by the rebel Al-Nusra Front, which recently took control of the ethnic Armenian town of Kessab, and allegedly sentenced to death.
As often happens, though, details are sparse. The individual in question, Agil Gajiyev, supposedly headed an Azerbaijani Islamist group called Sumgait Jamaat, but some news services say he was embedded with the Syrian rebel group Jund Al-Sham.
Most Azerbaijani Islamist militants travel to Syria to support the rebel forces and it is unclear why Gajiyev was sentenced to death. Facing crackdowns at home, Azerbaijan’s radical Islamists, not believed to be a particularly numerous group, long have heeded the call for jihad in places like Chechnya, Afghanistan and Iraq.
We know what you’re thinking, but Georgia’s planned association with the European Union is not about some geopolitical war between Moscow and Brussels, the EU argues in its newly released Myth-Buster, a guide to reassure those Georgians not entirely sold on the idea of integration with the EU.
Yes, commercial farmers will have to meet new safety standards, says the guidebook, but, no, the “size and looks of tomatoes” will not be regulated -- in this tomato-obsessed society, no trivial matter. For now, Georgians also are free to decide in what kind of cages they put their chickens.
At first glance, the need for such pointers may not be obvious. Georgia is, after all, the country that started flying EU flags outside all public buildings before serious talk of an association agreement had even begun. Opposition to the deal has been marginal.
But the Ukraine crisis and Moscow's fancy footwork in Crimea apparently has encouraged Brussels to dip its pen in the ink and spell out the advantages of a free trade deal with Europe over certain customs unions . . . say, like, oh, the one proposed by Moscow.