The ghost of sectarian violence appears to be stalking authoritarian but boastfully secular Azerbaijan, with local clashes and the resurgence of jihadism in Iraq and Syria casting a long shadow.
Several Shi’a Muslims, adherents to this Caucasus country’s dominant religion, recently forcibly shaved the beard of a Sunni man from an alleged Wahhabi group in the town of Sabirabad, 170 kilometers southwest of the Azerbaijani capital, Baku. A mobile video of the attack was posted on YouTube on July 4, but promptly removed.
The police launched a probe into the incident and religious officials have condemned it, but, apparently, not fast enough for some people. Local news reports claim that, in an apparent retaliatory attack on July 5, Wahhabi men beat several Shi’a believers in a village on the outskirts of Baku during an iftar, the evening meal at the end of the daily Ramadan fast.
“This is the tragedy of a man, who, after the Soviet period, is not allowed to live his faith and to proselytize,” Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, a prominent religious-rights scholar and imam, commented to SalamNews.org about the beard-shaving incident. “This is the tragedy of an Azerbaijani man who goes from one extreme to another.”
Ibragimoglu blamed the confrontations on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a jihadist group that allegedly has recruited many followers in Azerbaijan. “But this gives absolutely no right to anyone to shave the beard of every bearded man who comes along,” he underlined.
A man of controversy as much as change, former Georgian President and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze has died at the age of 86, according to a spokesperson, Reuters reported. The exact cause of death has not yet been disclosed.
Georgia filed a complaint against Russia in Europe’s senior human-rights court in 2007, but it took nearly seven years for the EHCR to pass a verdict . “The Russian authorities had implemented a coordinated policy of arresting, detaining and expelling Georgians nationals” violating international law that bars the “collective expulsion of aliens” and “inhuman and degrading treatment,” the ECHR said in a press release on the July 3 verdict.
The long-awaited verdict put Tbilisi in a celebratory mood. “I would like to congratulate with this victory all those Georgians, who were subjected to degrading treatment, and to tell them that the European Court has stood up for their rights,” Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani, a former ECHR employee, said in a statement.
"We Are Happy from Karabakh" /Arsen Beglaryan and Areg Balayan
Busy being happy -- even without recognition of statehood, notes a caption -- for the YouTube video "We Are Happy from Karabakh."
Disputed and destitute Nagorno Karabakh has become the latest place to produce a version of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” video, the fad which has gotten much of the world “clapping along.”
With funky dance moves and a vivacious collection of characters, “We Are Happy from Karabakh,” sponsored by the Los-Angeles-based Armenia Fund, does its best to make separatism look hip. British Baroness Caroline Cox, one of the breakaway territory's most prominent supporters, is featured rocking together with staff and patients at a clinic in the capital, Stepanakert.
For the territory, emmeshed in the South Caucasus' most bitter conflict for more than 20 years, the propaganda value of that message is clear.
Before Karabakh joined the “Happy” craze, the two countries warring over the territory – Armenia and Azerbaijan – had made their own versions of Williams’ hit, too. In “Happy Yerevan,” produced by the US Alumni Association of Armenia, US Ambassador John Heffern makes a swaying cameo. Another popular version, by Lumen Cinematography, dispenses with the Mickey-Mouse ears, however.
Energy-rich Azerbaijan, which claims ownership of Karabakh, has come out with several versions, staged in the capital, Baku, and the industrial town of Sumgayit, which produces aluminium and Islamic fighters.
Distractions like a full-on rebellion and raging jihad somehow did not prevent Syria from holding an international cartoon festival this month. And from prizes going to artists from Azerbaijan, better known for supplying recruits for Syria’s Islamic insurgency than for providing the war-torn country with pictorial talent.
The contest’s website does not shed great light on its origins; at least, not for the non-Arabic-speaker. According to Azerbaijan's government-friendly website Azernews, it attracted entrants ranging from France and Morocco to Peru and Thailand.
But the background on Azerbaijan’s two medalists is clear.
An Austrian citizen on June 24 won a Constitutional-Court case against Georgia’s parliament for a 2013 ban on the sale of agricultural land to foreigners. The reversal could have broad implications for the tiny South Caucasus country as it prepares to take on closer economic ties with the European Union.
Mathias Huter , a rule-of-law activist formerly employed by the anti- corruption watchdog Transparency International Georgia*, said that he sued because the ban discriminated against foreign nationals and could harm Georgia’s struggling agricultural sector, which he argued, “needs . . . foreign expertise and capital.”
“I felt the ban was… rushed and not thought through, [and came] just a few weeks before the  presidential election,” said Huter, who does not own farmland. TI Georgia filed the suit on Huter’s behalf.
In its ruling, the Court stated that, while the reasons cited for the ban — “national security, environmental protection and development of the agricultural sector” — were “correct,” and represent “important and valuable public interests,” they could have been realized “without violating foreigners’ property rights.”
Introduced by the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, the ban reversed an earlier government policy of encouraging foreign farmers, such as Punjabi from India and Boers from South Africa, to move to Georgia, a heavily agricultural country with relatively cheap land prices.
In this age of separatist referendums, breakaway South Ossetia’s apparent plans to run a show of hands on joining Russia should not hit as a shock. It appears to be quite the thing these days.
The new dominant party in the region’s miniature, 34-seat de-facto parliament ran in a de-facto June-8 parliamentary vote on a ticket of surrendering to Moscow South Ossetia’s declared sovereignty. Now the party, United Ossetia, says it will live up to its name and make sure South Ossetia merges with its Russian cousin, North Ossetia. “We will be staying true to our slogans,” declared Anatoly Bibilov, South Ossetia’s de-facto parliamentary speaker, ITAR-TASS reported. “The question [of acceding to Russia] will be put to a referendum.”
After finishing tidying up committees and whatnot after the de-facto vote, legislators will get right to it, Bibilov added. No date has been announced.
South Ossetia’s Russian cravings are nothing new. At times, Moscow seemed more serious about its protégé’s de-facto independence than South Ossetia itself, which had been putting out feelers to the Kremlin for quite some time. These requests did not jive with the Kremlin’s line that Russia in 2008 had protected two freedom-loving territories – South Ossetia and separatist sibling Abkhazia – from attacks by Tbilisi.
Whether or not Moscow and Tskhinvali are now on the same page on the matter of integration is not clear. The Kremlin is keeping its lips zipped about the referendum.
After toying with the idea of introducing jury trials, the Azerbaijani government now has dropped the initiative altogether, choosing to keep the court system to itself.
For a country that now chairs the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, the continent’s main human-rights body, that might seem a strange move. But government-supporters say they do not trust lay citizens’ judgment in matters of law,. Critics counter that the government just doesn’t want to let go of its grip on the judiciary system.
MP Ali Huseynli, representing the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party, allegedly sees jury systems as a Western thingamajigy that doesn’t work in this former Soviet republic. “Jurors are mainly people who do not have a law education and, therefore, often they cannot make legal judgments,” Huseynli commented as he and his fellow lawmakers axed the jury-amendment from a bill on courts and judges last week.
Prosecutors, he added, had advised against introducing the jury system.
Critics counter that the real issue is that juries and jurors would mean more work for prosecutors and more room for court independence. “The practice [of jury trials] would have ended politically motivated prosecutions of citizens on fabricated charges,” commented lawyer Namizad Safarov, Contact.az reported. The jury-system proposal stemmed from the influence of international organizations, he added, calling the decision to ditch the amendment “another step away from democracy.”