Russian energy behemoth Gazprom plans to gobble up all of the shares in its majority-owned Armenian natural gas distribution company and with it, observers fear, whatever little political and economic wiggle-room that Yerevan has in its ties with Moscow.
Giving up its share in the national gas supplies company, ArmRosGazProm, could be the price Armenia needs to pay to keep its gas bills down. The takeover talks (the Armenian government owns the minority 20-percent share) were confirmed on June 19 after Armenia’s energy minister, Armen Movisisian returned from discussions in Moscow. Russia, which wants Yerevan to join its proposed antithesis of the European Union, got Armenia’s attention after Gazprom announced plans for a hike in gas fees that would have resulted in a 60-percent increase in the price that Armenians pay for gas. Armenian regulators eventually agreed to a roughly 18-percent increase, but, though lower, the price still could put Armenia in a bind.
Its friendly, energy-rich neighbors limited to Iran, the country gets 1.7- billion cubic meters of gas it burns annually from Russia. Iran is the only regional alternative, but there is no infrastructure in place yet to pipe in large volumes. The State Oil Company of the Azerbaijani Republic offered to take care of Armenia’s energy woes in exchange for it recognizing Azerbaijan's right to Nagorno-Karabakh and other Armenian-occupied territory.
In the latest sign of the influence of Georgia's virtual civil society, many Georgians have turned to posting on Facebook their photos and the number of their signature on a petition to the government in a bid to bring to justice the participants of a mob-attack on participants in a May 17 anti-homophobia demonstration.
The violence has started a vibrant debate on the minority rights, the rule of law and on drawing a line between state and the church. Which thinking prevails in the long run may largely depend on authorities’ ability to enforce the law, analysts say.
The May 17 events did result in the drafting of a law to protect minorities, but, in terms of prosecutions, the authorities have responded guardedly to the violence in the middle of the capital, Tbilisi. A recent hearing on the matter by parliament's human rights committee was perceived by many as a pro-forma exercise, leaving the anger soon to pour out onto Facebook, where much of Georgia’s civil society and political life takes place.
Human Rights Committee Chairperson Eka Beselia, a member of the ruling Georgian Dream, said at the hearing that the committee’s conclusions essentially agree with what the nation’s most popular man, Georgian Orthodox Church Patriarch Ilia II had to say on May 17 -- that propaganda for homosexuality (what many Georgians consider the May 17 rally to be) is inadmissible. The patriarch termed the behavior of some of the priests, who led the crowd, as rude.
Energy-rich Baku could end up lending a helping hand to next-door enemy, Armenia, via a World Bank program which gives loans to the world’s neediest nations, including Armenia.
Last week, Azerbaijan's Central Bank Governor Elman Rustamov told World Bank Vice President Joachim von Amsberg that the South Caucasus state is interested in contributing as a donor, Azerbaijani news outlets reported.
Azerbaijan this year shed all of its $300 million debt to the International Development Association (IDA), a World Bank mechanism offering the poor a chance to borrow their way to prosperity via low or no-interest loans. Armenia along with fellow Soviet alumni Georgia, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are on the list of IDA aid recipients.
Just yesterday, Azerbaijan, too, was one of that crowd, but it has now gone middle-class with a per-capita GDP of $10,700, an indicator far above it ex-Soviet comrades in the neighborhood, bar Russia.
Among the various signs of its newfound wealth, Azerbaijan has contributed $5 million to a fund-raising project for the Palestinian territories, purchases weapons from Israel, and is witnessing the make-over of Baku into a glittering, skyscraper-studded metropolis.
Sexual abuse and secretly recorded sex videos have been a disturbing component of Georgian politics recently. Last October's flip-flop of power from President Saakashvili to Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili was preceded by the leak of footage of the physical and sexual abuse of prison inmates. Now, a fresh scandal centers around sex videos of various government critics allegedly recorded under the auspices of former officials loyal to President Mikheil Saakashvili.
Law enforcement agencies claim that they have inherited a supply of compromising videos supposedly meant to blackmail political dissidents and potential defectors under previous ministers loyal to Saakashvili. Georgian police on June 17 announced that they had found an addition to this supposed collection -- an underground cache of sexual violence and torture videos, along with explosives and ammunition, in the western part of the country.
Some videos allegedly depict sexual violence in places of detention; others are secret recordings of citizens’ private lives, which includes a subcategory of the homosexual affairs of socially prominent men. In socially conservative Georgia, the public tends to condemn displays of sexual behavior, while homosexuals and supporters of LGBT rights can face violence.
The Georgian-Dream-led government, eager to investigate alleged wrongdoing linked to the pro-Saakashvili camp, has vowed to stomp out this videotaping practice, a holdover from the Soviet past, but the release of teasers from the archive has not quelled misgivings about officials' real intentions.
Alleged terror plots, thwarted by Georgian police, have became a fresh stick with which to bash political rivals in divided Georgia. But any link between the supposed plots and a recent YouTube video threatening retribution against Georgia for its participation in NATO's Afghanistan campaign remains unclear.
Police on June 13 recovered a significant stash of explosives and firearms from a Tbilisi apartment and arrested two men for allegedly plotting an act of terror, the interior ministry said. The two men, Mikail Kadiev and Rizvan Omarov, have Russian passports, and are presumed to hail from Russia's North Caucasus.
Wounded in Afghanistan by both weapons and words, Georgia appears to be busy with damage-control for its participation in the NATO-led mission there.
A June 6 truck-bomb attack that killed seven Georgian soldiers, the deadliest such incident to date for Georgian forces in Afghanistan, has sparked an unprecedented outpouring of domestic criticism of the Afghan campaign. With a presidential election just four months away, that criticism is something the Georgian government is eager to check.
In a TV talk-show interview on June 11, Defense Minister Irakli Alasania emphasized that troop security is first and foremost on the government's mind, and in its discussions with NATO. Among other security measures, he said, at Tbilisi's request, NATO's joint command will change the deployment areas for Georgian troops, currently stationed in the southern Helmand province.
The June 6 attack on the Shir Ghazay base happened just as Georgian forces were about to vacate the site, he added. He underlined that the risk to Georgian soldiers will decrease as the NATO pullout gets underway, and their mission shifts from combat to training.
Repeating previous warnings, he also advised Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili not to announce beforehand his plans to visit Afghanistan (as Saakashvili is wont to do), noting that the information puts soldiers' lives at risk.
Finally, he dismissed calls for bringing the troops home, saying that Georgia will see its Afghan mission through.
To make sure exiles from Syria feel at home in Armenia, the government has commissioned the construction of an entire settlement called New Aleppo.
Located 20 kilometers shy of the capital, Yerevan, the residential project will accommodate some of the thousands of Syrians of Armenian descent, who escaped the war in Syria.
New Aleppo, named in honor of the wartorn northern Syrian city that houses most of Syria's ethnic Armenian population, will sit on 4.8 hectares (some 11 acres) of land in the industrial town of Ashtarak.
Armenia's Ministry of Diaspora Affairs reports that some 600 families have expressed willingness to move into the development's apartments. They will be expected to pay half the cost of the flats; the authorities and charity groups are expected to pick up the rest of the tab.
With some 7,000 Syrian-Armenians now seeking residency in Armenia, the government says that more Syrian quarters will be popping up across the country as well.
The Syrian Diaspora, estimated to be over 100,000-strong, descends from ethnic Armenians who fled World-War-I-era massacres in Ottoman Turkey. Now, a century later, the bloody rebellion in Syria has driven the community back to what is considered their ancestral homeland.
Some commentators say that preserving the Armenian community in Syria should be the main priority for Yerevan. Fears exist that the Diaspora exodus could reduce Armenia’s ability to exert any influence in the Middle East, long seen as an important Diaspora outpost.
A screenwriter taking on an all-powerful, dynastic national leader in a presidential election sounds like a film script that Academy-Award-winner Rustam Ibragimbekov could have written. Except that this one could well be autobiographic for Ibragimbekov.
Elected on June 7 as the chairperson of Azerbaijan's opposition coalition, the National Council for Democratic Forces, screenwriter Ibragimbekov has not yet been nominated as a candidate for office in Azerbaijan's October presidential elections, but local news outlets like the daily newspaper Zerkalo believe that it is only a matter of a few weeks. The coalition plans to nominate a joint candidate at their next convention. Ibragimbekov, 74, told Reuters that, if nominated, “I’ll have to take this on and I am not afraid to."
The rival camp, the ruling Yeni Azerbaijani Party, predictably nominated President Ilham Aliyev to run for a third term in October. Apart from the tightly-run state apparatus, much of the business elite and a largely muzzled media, Aliyev has his family on his side. His wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, was elected the deputy head of the ruling party. The cultivated image of his late father, the celebrated President Heydar Aliyev, also provides support.
The latest and deadliest attack on Georgian troops in Afghanistan is putting to the test Georgia's patience with participation in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization campaign there. Many Georgians now say the price the country is paying for moving up on the defense alliance's membership waiting list is too high.
A truck bomb attack on June 6 in Afghanistan's Helmand province killed seven Georgian soldiers and wounded nine more. Less than a month ago, three Georgian servicemen were killed in a similar attack. The short interval between the attacks and the growing Georgian military death toll (a total of 30 servicemen) has led to the most vocal outpouring of frustration within Georgia about the campaign in Afghanistan, where the South Caucasus country is the largest non-NATO troop contributor.
The June 6 appearance of a questionable YouTube video, in which supposed Taliban fighters declare jihad on Georgia, has added to that debate.
A close inspection of the video, which was posted from Georgia, has raised suspicions of a domestic job or even of Russian intelligence, but the video's timing has contributed to the unease.
If Azerbaijani parents want to know the gender of their baby, they will have to wait for the baby to be born. The government could be about to land a ban on prenatal gender detection as a way to prevent sex-selective abortions.
In Azerbaijan and the rest of the macho, Caucasus vicinity, when parents ask an obstetrician if it's a boy or a girl, the response often determines will there be a child or not. The traditional preference for male children and increased access to medical technology are causing an alarming rate of discriminative abortion of female fetuses.
“Before ultrasounds, parents and grandparents did not know the sex of the baby before birth and were accepting any babies as a gift from the God,” Khady Rajabli, head of the Azerbaijani parliamentary committee for social policies, told the Kavkazsky Uzel news site. “Now that people are better informed, the ultrasound often is the cause of selective abortion practices.”
The practice is reflected in the demography of the country. The sex ratio at birth is 112 boys to 100 girls. Along with neighboring Armenia and Georgia, Azerbaijan is among the world’s most gender imbalanced countries, according to international data.
Apart from the moral argument against what is often called gendricide, specialists warn that, at this rate, Azerbaijani men may find it harder and harder to find female partners within Azerbaijani itself. The draft law, broadly supported and scheduled for parliamentary review in the fall, is expected to help change that situation by making responding to the question "Is it a boy or a girl?" illegal.