In the space of a week, the leaders of both Armenia and Azerbaijan have visited Georgia amid talk of a far-reaching potential shift in the region’s energy-transit status quo. Hovering over the discussions in Tbilisi are bigger players like Russia and Iran, both looking to increase energy exports via the South Caucasus.
Emerging after a long, November 5 meeting in Tbilisi, Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev reaffirmed the exemplary friendship between their two countries, but, reportedly, did not mention the bear in the room — Russia’s Gazprom, which many Georgians perceive as undermining this friendship by trying to pump more Russian gas into Georgia. It currently mainly runs on Azerbaijani gas.
“Our relations will resist any test,” Margvelashvili said. Also full of praise, Aliyev on November 6 rejoiced that the pair does not have “a difference of opinions [on] any issues . . .” Azerbaijani-Georgian cooperation in energy- transit “boosts the significance of our countries in the world,” he stressed earlier.
Aliyev missed just by a few days his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sargsyan, who came to Tbilisi on October 30. Sargsyan also spoke of friendship with Georgia, but the widespread perception is that he really came to talk about gas. Armenia depends almost entirely on Gazprom’s supplies.
With almost every day bringing a new recording about ex-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and friends’ alleged plans to thwart any takeover of government-bashing broadcaster Rustavi2, online parodies of the conversations have become the thing in Georgia, even as public concerns about violations of privacy are growing.
Borrowing the graphics used in the original online leaks, the send-ups replace the ex-president and his allies with various entertaining exchanges between real and fictional characters.
“Keto, I am going to come over tomorrow at dusk. Let’s try, perhaps it can work out between us,” a man called Khirkhal tells his small-town paramour in a clip ripped from the 1980 Georgian musical comedy, “Everyone Wants Love.” “Come, come through the breach in the fence, but don’t let anyone see you,” Keto whispers passionately.
While the online satires and opinion polls indicate public fatigue with Georgia’s main political forces and their ways, the original leaks paint a far less entertaining picture. “Blood will be spilt there… a hundred percent,” Saakashvili supposedly predicted in reference to the standoff around Rustavi2, a channel long sympathetic to the former president’s political base in Georgia, the United National Movement Party.
Saakashvili, now governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region, added that he is as certain of such a turn of events as the fact that he is not coriander. This herbal metaphor makes only slightly more sense in colloquial Georgian, in which it can also carry crude connotations depending on usage.
But, in any case, the turn of phrase does not appear to be helping either Misha, as he is known, or the current Georgian leader, Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili, cut a particularly dignified figure.
In a controversial ruling,Tbilisi City Court Judge Tamaz Urtmelidze ruled on November 3 to restore the ownership rights of former co-owner Kibar Khalvashi to Rustavi2, Georgia's main broadcasting outlet.
Rustavi2's counsel, Zaza Bibilashvili, told the TV station he plans to appeal the decision.
The lawsuit has been at the center of a months-long struggle that has accerbated a bitter political crisis between the ruling Georgian Dream and former President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement, which claims that the lawsuit serves as a government-takeover. Khalvashi maintains that he only wantes to restore the rights he supposedly illegally lost during Saakashvili's first, 2004-2008 term in office.
Azerbaijan’s November 1 vote was no cliffhanger, with President Ilham Aliyev’s Yeni (New) Azerbaijan Party, or YAP, winning as it has all parliamentary elections since 1996. What was different this year is that the region’s standard election-observation group, from the OSCE/ODIHR, was not there to assess the quality of the vote in an environment some Western human-rights watchdogs argue has gone from bad to worse.
The absence of these observers appeared to clear the stage for a variety of positive assessments — something entirely natural, in the government’s view.
But senior presidential advisor Ali Hasanov, for one, did not miss them.
The requested size of the OSCE/ODIHR mission “is a result of their biased attitude” toward Azerbaijan, local outlets reported him as saying. He also cited supposed "financial problems" caused by their presence, and questions “about their accommodation" -- this last despite Azerbaijan's hosting of the 2015 European Games.
Georgia's political crisis moved into high gear on October 30 after ex-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was caught advising the embattled Georgian television station, Rustavi2, to barricade itself against the government’s alleged seizure plans and adopt a “revolutionary scenario.” Based on the wiretapped conversation, posted online, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili accused Saakashvili of fomenting an upheaval and vowed to “neutralize everything and everyone” threatening the country’s constitutional order.
The State Security Service early this afternoon began questioning Saakashvili’s two interlocutors, Rustavi2 General Director Nika Gvaramia and former National Security Council head Giga Bokeria, a senior member of Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM). Neither of the two men is being held. The Service already is investigating another supposed conversation between Saakashvili and Bokeria.
Driving the drama is the shortly expected verdict in a lawsuit for ownership of the Saakashvili-sympathetic television station Rustavi2, the country’s most frequently viewed national broadcaster. Station staff and supporters claim the suit fronts as a takeover attempt by the government, and that they will not recognize a court-decision that changes Rustavi2’s ownership.
With tensions escalating, the hearing on Friday was postponed until November 2.
Georgian television is now awash with the taped conversations, the authenticity of which both Gvaramia and Bokeria have confirmed. Dates mentioned in the conversation indicate it occurred some 10 days ago.
A couple of election cycles ago, former president Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration engendered widespread public anger over what were deemed anti-democratic actions to muzzle critics and preserve its authority.
With its November 1 parliament vote just days away, Azerbaijan today continued a string of detentions of senior government officials from the national security ministry and communications ministry that has left observers struggling to explain.
On October 29, Vidadi Zeynolav, the chief of staff of the communications ministry, a high-profile body handling such nationally sensitive projects as Azerbaijan's first satellite launch, was detained for unclear reasons.
To date, 22 arrests of officials related to government-run security or communications bodies have been reported.The first seven cases occurred after Mahmudov’s dismissal on October 17. An additional 15 followed on October 28.
Prosecutors say that the individuals were abusing their official powers or damaging "the rights and legitimate interests" of individuals or organizations, yet details of the cases remain under wraps. The hit list includes the deputy directors of Azerbaijan's counter-terrorism center and transnational organized crime center.
Georgian officials on October 26 launched an investigation into an obscure website’s claims of a supposed coup attempt by former President Mikhail Saakashvili and former National Security Council Secretary Giga Bokeria. The investigation comes amidst stepped-up surveillance of a leading opposition TV channel sympathetic to the former president.
Georgia’s political fights generally escalate overnight, with plot accusations, allegedly leaked conversations and gruesome, incriminating videos everywhere. The country is now having one of those moments — the government speaks of a coup conspiracy and the opposition of a deliberate campaign to be pushed out of the political arena ahead of a national election. Some see the developments an early start of Georgian-style campaigning for next year’s parliamentary vote.
With US talk show host Conan O’Brien in town after an earlier visit by Kim Kardashian, it seems that swinging by Armenia to shoot episodes for US-based TV shows may be becoming a bit of a thing for American celebrities. But whether or not the country can boost their ratings is open to debate.
Regardless, Armenian comedians Narek Margaryan and Sergey Sargsyan were thrilled to have O’Brien on their ArmComedy show on October 14. The pair said the experience would be just perfect if only their celebrity guest agreed to let them make him an Armenian.
“The national sport of Armenia is starting rumor [sic] that this or that celebrity is Armenian,” explained Margaryan, before asking O’Brien to sign a release form that would allow the comedians to claim that he is, in fact, an ethnic Armenian with the last name of O’Briyan.
Despite his new Armenian credentials, O’Brien, unlike the Kardashians, did not get to meet the country’s prime minister, Hovik Abrahamian. But he did get a crash course in the Armenian experience for his November 17 broadcast. He put meat on skewers for grilling, played backgammon, and vowed to export to the US the Armenian (and the rest of the Caucasus’) custom of men walking together, arm-in-arm.
O’Brien said he went to Armenia at the suggestion of his American-Armenian assistant Sona Movsesian, who accompanied him. “It was either that or give her a raise,” he tweeted.