They lay a kilometer-long, underground pipeline to leach into the British Petroleum-operated, more than 800-kilometer-long Western Route Export Pipeline, which carries 100,000 barrels of oil daily from Azerbaijan’s Caspian Sea coast to Georgia’s Black Sea coast. Known as the Baku-Supsa pipeline for the terminals at both ends, the conduit was the first link in the country’s energy-export network.
The suspects built their own terminal in Ruisi, about a 20-minute drive west of Joseph Stalin’s birthplace, Gori, and created a parallel world of shipping, processing and retailing the Caspian Sea oil. A police video showed rows of large tanks used to collect the stolen oil. A makeshift tap was installed on the body of the Baku-Supsa pipeline to turn off and on the flow into its new, mini- branch.
From Ruisi, the oil was loaded onto trucks and camouflaged as vegetables – cabbage, to be exact, police said – and driven about 90 minutes east to the capital, Tbilisi. A makeshift refinery there then turned the cabbage-concealed crude into petroleum products.
Georgia is one sad post-Soviet place, according to the World Happiness Report, which for the second year running rated the Caucasus nation as the most downbeat country in the former Soviet Union. Out of this bunch, the Central Asian autocracy of Uzbekistan, ranked 49th out of 157 countries, is apparently having the most fun.
Judging by the report, Georgia has gone a long way from being the fun-in-the-sun spot of the USSR. American writer John Steinbeck once recalled that the Russians and Ukrainians he had met during his late 1940s travels to the Soviet Union all yearned for “magical” Georgia. “People who had never been there, and who possibly could never go there, spoke of Georgia with a kind of longing and admiration,” Steinbeck observed in his 1948 Russian Journal. “They spoke of Georgians as superman, as great drinkers, great dancers, great musicians, great workers and lovers. And they spoke of the country in the Caucasus and around the Black Sea as a kind of second heaven.”
Soviet media propaganda helped cultivate Georgia’s role as the place for happiness and abundance. In movies, female collective farmers in straw-hats picked tea leaves and warbled cheerful songs in piercing sopranos. News presenters on national TV were prone to smile when sharing news from what they persistently referred to as cолнечная Грузия, “sunny Georgia. “
Were Georgians faking it, then? Or have the economic struggles, civil turmoil and loss of territories of the post-Soviet era just ruined their mood?
In a sudden display of lenience, Azerbaijan’s strong-armed leader, President Ilham Aliyev, pardoned 137 inmates, including his critics, in one fell swoop on March 17.
Lawyer and rights defender Rasul Jafarov, prominent democracy advocate Anar Mammadli, several members of the youth movement NIDA and opposition party Musavat are among the prisoners to be freed under the amnesty. International civil liberty watchdogs have long insisted these individuals were persecuted in retribution for their criticism of the government and had pressed for their release.
Earlier on the same day, an Appeals Courts in Baku ordered the release of a controversially arrested journalist, Rauf Mirkadirov. The Appeals Court overturned Mirkadirov’s six-year sentence on charges for spying for Armenia, Azerbaijan neighbor and enemy. Amidst protests from international human-rights advocates, Mirkadirov spent two years in prison.
Late last year, a well-known peace and democracy activist, Leyla Yunus, who, like Mirkadirov, was engaged in civil diplomacy activism with Armenia, was freed from prison because of poor health. Her husband was also freed, but she was not cleared of charges that included spying for Armenia, an accusation seen as preposterous by civil-rights watchdogs.
Dubbed moral terror, the latest installment of Georgia’s “sex Wikileaks,” online sex-videos that target prominent public figures, has created a sense among many Georgians of living in an Orwellian reality, where ubiquitous secret cameras record the most intimate moments of citizens’ private lives.
“Everything you do in your bedroom can be used against you,” some Georgians joked in online debates after the latest recordings appeared on YouTube on March 11 and 14. “You could be next!” warned a headline in the daily Rezonansi.
Who runs the control room in this perceived dystopia is open to debate. It is believed the security police possess a vast collection of sex-tapes, but the two videos posted since March 11 have targeted members of both the government and opposition.
The public consensus, though, clearly is that this latest video campaign was coordinated at a higher level. That puts extra pressure on the government, particularly in a parliamentary election year, to show its investigation is unbiased and thorough. It has asked for the FBI’s assistance in tracing the origin of the videos.
So far, five individuals have been arrested for alleged involvement in the scandal; one, Nikoloz Khachapuridze, is a Saakashvili-era employee of the interior ministry’s secret-police branch, the Constitutional Security Department. Another, Zurab Jamalashvili, is the father of a former employee of that same service, Vitali Jamalashvili, who came to prominence after supposedly hacking into Ivanishvili’s personal computer during the 2012 parliamentary campaign.
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.