Disturbing reports of atrocities, and official claims and counterclaims continue to stream from the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict zone as fighting enters its third day. With no international media or conflict-monitoring mission apparently yet on the ground in the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region, it is next to impossible to glean frontline facts from the ongoing information war.
That lack of objective information could become even more critical in the coming days. Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, a Karabakh native, pledged on April 4 that escalation of the fighting, the worst since the signing of a 1994 ceasefire, would prompt Yerevan to recognize Nagorno Karabakh as an independent state.
An Armenian investigative news service, Hetq.am, on April 4 published photos of two elderly residents they claim were killed and maimed by Azerbaijani troops when they overran the village of Talish in northeastern Karabakh on April 2. (Warning: graphic image) The Armenian government and the Karabakhi separatist forces it supports claimed they swiftly recaptured the village and nearby heights. Hetq.am said that their photographer, Hakob Poghosian, had then gained access to the village.
This week’s breakup of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition has turned Georgia’s political scene into a Star Wars bar, with a slew of political forces of every description set to compete in the parliamentary election this fall.
It’s been a surprise that this unlikely alliance of ideologically strange bedfellows made it this far. Billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili’s successful plan to build an opposition army to bring down ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili’s team in 2012 united groups and individuals with wildly incongruous philosophies and IQs. Western integration activists joined hands with Russia-nostalgic traditionalists, liberal erudites like philologist Levan Berdzenishvili sat next to actor Soso Jachvliani, who can’t tell the difference between a development bank's acronym and a Russian vulgarity for sex.
Occasional public bickering, grumblings over distribution of executive government seats and a persistent failure to speak in one voice on national issues long betrayed deep-seeded divisions in this coalition.
The Free Democrats were the first to split away in 2014 after Ivanishvili felt he could not keep in line their ambitious leader, ex-Defense Minister Irakli Alasania. Now, the biggest news is the Republican Party, pro-Western moderates, announcing on March 31 that it will run in the fall election independently from the Georgian Dream coalition.
Azerbaijan was welcomed at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC on March 30 as an international energy security and counterterrorism asset, while the country’s repressive ways gained only a faint mention.
US Secretary of State John Kerry thanked Aliyev for making it to the March 31-April 1 summit and praised Azerbaijan’s role in helping Europe meet its energy needs. “Azerbaijan is located in a complex region right now and I think President Aliyev has been very studious and thoughtful about how to respond to some of those needs, particularly with his leadership on the Southern Gas Corridor,” Kerry said.
In his public remarks, Kerry skipped the controversial matter of Azerbaijan’s political prisoners. Only a post-meeting press release took note of Azerbaijan’s “recent positive steps” and urged “further progress” on the human-rights front.
Sixty-one Armenia-bound monkeys were seized in Tanzania last week in the latest manifestation of the South Caucasus country’s role in the exotic-animals trade.
The monkeys were about to take a flight from the Kilimanjaro International Airport on March 25, when local authorities prevented what they described as a large-scale wildlife theft – despite a ban on such exports, plans existed to whisk out of Tanzania a total of 450 monkeys, according to the country’s Minister for Natural Resources and Tourism Jumanne Maghembe, the local Daily News reported. Maghembe has fired several senior officials over the scandal.
The Yerevan-based Zoo Fauna Art company told News.am that it had ordered the 61 monkeys and did so in full compliance with Tanzanian law, but it did not claim ownership of the other would-be travelers. The company’s director, Artur Khachatrian, claimed that the two Dutch nationals of Armenian origin whom police arrested in connection with the incident were just friends of his who had decided to use the flight to send some “luggage” to Armenia.
Brothers Artyom and Edward Nalbandian were arrested on smuggling charges. In 2013, Artyom Nalbandian, who owns a private zoo in Armenia, was embroiled in another wildlife scandal, when an investigative report by Hetq.am alleged that he had illegally acquired an endangered bonobo primate.
Separatist Abkhazia wants to have a boat link to no less separatist Crimea to ship tourists and trade across the Black Sea.
A Crimea-based ferry company, which suspended commutes to Turkey out of supposed patriotic considerations in the wake of the hostility between Turkey and Russia, now plans to send its ferry shuttling to and from Abkhazia. De-facto officials on the peninsula, which Russia wrested away from Ukraine in 2014, hope that this water link with Abkhazia, another Moscow protégé, can help mitigate the economic impact of the diplomatic chill and severed trade ties between Russia and Turkey.
“[The Crimean capital of] Sevastopol is mainly interested in bringing food products – vegetables and fruits -- from Abkhazia to replace imports from Turkey,” said Kiril Moskalenko, spokesperson for the Sevastopol Governor’s Office, the Russian-government-financed Sputnik news service reported. He said he is not quite sure what products Crimea can offer Abkhazia in return. Some, especially Abkhazia’s de-facto government, hope that one such commodity could be tourists.
Russia-endowed Abkhazia reportedly is now a shell of its former Soviet Riviera self. Russian tourists often complain about the lack of infrastructure and basic services, but many are still drawn by the palm trees and mountain vistas, and Abkhazia’s former reputation as the most desirable seaside resort in the USSR.
For Crimeans, as for many Russians, Abkhazia likely appears as an affordably exotic vacation destination. The peninsula’s tour companies say that the West’s sanctions and refusal to call Crimea part of Russia made it harder for Crimean residents to travel abroad.
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.