Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on April 23 made his first-ever visit to Tbilisi, becoming an unusual guest in a country generally seen as headed in a direction diametrically opposite to that of Belarus.
But that did not faze this 60-year-old strong-armed leader. Sounding all the key notes, Lukashenka promised investment, unwavering support for Georgia’s territorial integrity and even to play a role in helping reconcile Georgia and Russia.
“Let’s think of what steps can be taken to make sure… we live in one family, as we used to live once,” he said at a press-conference in reference to the days when Belarus and Georgia shared a home, the Soviet Union.
It is a story of two presidential palaces, three nettlesome leaders and millions of wasted taxpayer money. And it has left many Georgians rolling their eyes at the government’s apparent preoccupation with petty politics rather than on such challenges as creating badly needed jobs and kickstarting the languishing economy.
But, beyond that, the palace-fight once again has focused a spotlight on the ever shadowy role of the billionaire believed to be the real power behind the Georgian government — ex-Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.
A president with newly limited powers (under 2010 constitutional reforms) must be matched by a limited workspace, the thinking goes. Under Ivanishvili, Georgia purchased a 19th century downtown mansion in Tbilisi to serve as a new presidential headquarters.
But the Saakashvili palace seems to have grown on Margvelashvili and he has refused to swap offices
The government thus ended up allegedly spending 28 million lari (about $12 million) on preparing a presidential office that now has no president in it.
Azerbaijan, faced with growing tensions with Armenia over Nagorno Karabakh, has not yet indicated a willingness to buy. But Iran’s offers for military cooperation go in other directions, too.
At a press-conference on April 21, Iranian Ambassador Mohsen Pak Ayeen said the two neighbors will set up a joint mechanism to tackle defense challenges.
“There are developments in the world and in the region that have an impact on our region,” the ambassador said after Dehqan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev agreed that there is room for expanding military cooperation between their countries. “Threats coming from ISIS and al Qaeda have been discussed [by Azerbaijani and Iranian officials]. It was decided to make joint efforts to tackle religious fundamentalism,” APA reported Pak Ayeen as saying.
Giorgi Janelidze, a self-described experienced fighter, was with the Azov Battalion, a pro-Kyiv volunteer grouping, when his position near the southeastern city of Mariupol came under fire from Russian-backed separatist forces, Georgian media report.
Scores of Georgians have been fighting in Ukraine to help quell Russian-aided separatism. Many Georgians take Ukraine’s struggle as their own and view Russian President Vladimir Putin as a common enemy. There is a Georgian Legion, a volunteer platoon made up entirely of Georgian nationals, most of them veterans of Tbilisi’s 1992-1994 war with separatist Abkhazia.
Shortly before his death, the 30-something Janelidze, apparently already suffering from a head-wound, and another Georgian fighter recorded a video-greeting for a Georgian friend being treated for his wounds in Kyiv.
Known for its penchant for curbing civil liberties, the government of Azerbaijan is now moving to limit gastronomic freedom as well. To popularize the Caspian Sea country’s national cuisine, tourism officials have decided to make a traditional breakfast mandatory for all of the country’s hotels to serve. But first, they decided to "patent" an Azerbaijani breakfast.
The prospect of thousands of hungry athletes and spectators descending on Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, this summer for the June 12-28 European Games, no doubt prompted the decision. The former Soviet republic is hosting and financing the event, a Europe-only Olympics, to promote itself, and its culture internationally.
Cuisine, of course, is part of that mission, and breakfast, after all, is the most important meal of the day.
But what exactly goes into a trademarked "Azerbaijan Breakfast"?
Despite its enthusiasm for the idea, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, as yet, has not gotten around to elaborating. Nor has the state patent office.
It might be difficult to make the claim that an Azerbaijani breakfast is so unusual as to be patent-worthy, however. Generally, the meal can include sheep-cheese, honey, yogurt, a variety of fruit, scrambled eggs with tomato, bread, and tea, tea, tea — a combination not too dissimilar from other places in the region.
Azerbaijan’s status in a prominent international transparency organization has been downgraded. Representatives of the group cited Baku’s ongoing crackdown on individual liberties as the reason for the demotion.
Azerbaijan had been a member of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, or EITI, since 2003. The organization comprises companies, governments and civil-society groups and is dedicated to promoting greater transparency about state revenues earned from energy extraction and mining operations. Also inherent in membership is a commitment by member states to uphold basic liberties, in particular freedom of the press and broad access to information.
On April 14, EITI’s board deemed Azerbaijan was falling short in fulfilling the group’s obligations and downgraded the country from full member to candidate. To have its membership restored, Baku needs to “ensure that civil society in Azerbaijan can participate in the EITI in a meaningful way,” the Norway-based group’s chairperson, Clare Short, said.
Azerbaijan’s troubles with the EITI date back to 2013, when some organization representatives expressed concern about a crackdown on government critics, and launched a probe into the country’s commitment to the transparency standard.
The continued departure of young men for jihad in Syria is raising alarm in Georgia’s Pankisi Valley, a Sunni Muslim area that allegedly has seen scores of men leave for the war over the past few years.
Parents from Pankisi have asked for the government’s help to stop the trend. A photo that shows two Pankisi high-schoolers armed and posing before the Islamic State flag in a jihadist training camp has added to the sense of urgency. Police had been searching for the duo since April 2, when they vanished after being seen entering the public school they attended.
Now, attention has begun to focus on Georgian border officers as well. One of the two, 16-year-old Muslim Kushtanashvili, allegedly used his father’s passport to slip through the Georgian-Turkish border. (Georgian citizens can enter Turkey visa-free.)
Angry members of Pankisi’s council of elders have demanded that the government take greater responsibility for blocking such departures at the border. The interior ministry has started an investigation.
“It is a tragedy for an entire nation, when kids are taken to war straight from their school desks,” said Meka Khangoshvili, a Pankisi activist and adviser for the Georgian Ministry for Reconciliation and Civic Equality, in an interview with the Kakheti Information Center. She called on the government to step up efforts to integrate the secluded area into Georgian society.
At the same time, according to local media, parents blame individuals they term Wahhabis, who reportedly deny involvement, for the boys’ departure to Syria, and also Abu Omar al-Shishani (born Tarkhan Batirashvili), a Pankisi-born commander with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Exasperation also appears targeted at the young jihadists themselves.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva at the sacred Black Stone inside the Haram Mosque's Kaaba, the most revered site in Islam.
Yes, you read that right. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev on April 7 swapped his usual suit-and-tie look for the white robes of a Muslim pilgrim to Mecca. His wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, and daughters Leyla and Arzu, the country’s glamor-icons, and teenage-son, Heydar, came along, too.
Azerbaijan may be a predominantly Shi’a Muslim country, but this is the first time that its all-powerful ruling family has been known to circumambulate the Haram Mosque’s Kaaba, the high holy point for Islam.
Religious piety, in fact, has never been seen as the strongest of suits for the 53-year-old Aliyev, who was born to a Soviet nomenklatura family and essentially inherited the presidency from his father, Heydar Aliyev, a Soviet-era leader of Azerbaijan.
Indeed, in keeping with that Soviet past, the Azerbaijani government and much of Azerbaijani society itself also remain resolutely secular. Azerbaijan has arms and energy deals with Israel, and did not flinch at hosting what clerics in neighboring Iran termed the “gay,” “Zionist” Eurovision Song Contest in 2012.
Yet with popular devotion to Islam on the rise within Azerbaijan, Aliyev most likely feels the need to show he’s in tune with the times; as the extensive photo-spread on the president’s official site suggests.
The fact that Aliyev and his family made it inside the Kaaba, solemnly observed the state-run Azertag, is "a manifestation of the importance the Islamic world attaches to the personality and activity of President Ilham Aliyev.”
That said, the surprising tableau could also have been seen as good for business. Energy-rich Azerbaijan, it appears, has its eye on Arab investment.
A series of brazen homicides, including of a police officer this weekend, are sowing worries about a resurgence of crime in Georgia. So far, the Georgian government has played down the problem and accuses the opposition of alarmism. But the fact that the murders occurred in broad daylight, and that police, so far, have failed to bring the killers to justice are prompting concerns that Georgia’s much-praised police is losing its grip.
Although his identity is well known, the man accused of killing two police officers since January remains on the loose. The suspect, Shalva Abuladze, is a convicted criminal released amidst the amnesties initiated by the ruling Georgian Dream coalition.
The latest shooting of which he is accused took place on April 5 in a Tbilisi suburb during a document-check. One policeman was killed and the other badly wounded. Abuladze was tracked down by police the next day, but again allegedly opened fire and managed to escape.
Relatives of the two killed policemen have laid blame on the amnesties, which released hundreds of prisoners allegedly convicted and incarcerated on insufficient evidence. The releases have been proving as controversial as the mass incarcerations by the previous Georgian government, under ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili.
Kim Kardashian, the US celebrity who conquered the Internet, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who conquered Crimea, will be among the VIPs to visit Armenia this month for the 100th anniversary of the mass slaughter of ethnic Armenians in Ottoman Turkey.
TV star Kardashian, her rapper husband Kanye West and much of her Armenian-American clan are headed this week to the tiny South Caucasus country that is the Kardashians’ paternal homeland, celebrity-news site X17 reported on April 4. The trip will be filmed for E!’s “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” television show.
Already, she has begun her preparations.
Concerned about her roots, Kardashian changed her look from platinum blonde back to brunette for the pilgrimage, US Magazine noted; a shade perhaps also seen as better suited for the occasion.
Putin may have made no similar adjustments, but, unlike Kardashian, he confirmed plans to attend the official commemoration ceremony itself on April 24.
Nonetheless, Kardashian’s presence in the country will help Armenia in what is proving to be fierce competition with Turkey over April 24, a date Ankara has selected to remember the landmark 1915 Battle of Gallipoli.
Yerevan and Ankara have accused one another of deliberately timing their respective commemorations to leave the world’s leaders and celebrities with an uncomfortable choice. The two countries are closely comparing RSVPs.