A scandal over alleged contract-rigging by Georgia’s defense ministry has become the country’s main political intrigue, with some observers increasingly worried that prosecutors could begin circling around popular Defense Minister Irakli Alasania. Some question how bona-fide the reasons for this investigation may actually be, however.
Prosecutors allege that the former head of the defense ministry’s procurement department and four current officials fixed the ministry’s call for bids to award a lucrative contract to major communications company Silknet. They maintain that the ministry agreed to an above-market offer for the bid, thereby defrauding the state of 4.1 million lari or $2.34 million.
Deputy Defense Minister Aleksi Batiashvili, named as a “close relative” of Silknet’s financial director, has been called in for questioning as a witness in the case. He has claimed that he had nothing to do with the tender, which Silknet says occurred before his appointment.
The arrests occurred on October 28, while Alasania was in Germany on an official trip. Fresh back, he immediately spoke up for the detainees. “I am confident of the complete innocence of my employees, as, obviously, I was following the procurements and I know that everything was done in full compliance with the law,” Alasania said on November 1.
That knowledge, though, has prompted a few to wonder whether the prosecutors’ interest will next turn to Alasania himself.
In the story, published on May 17, the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia, Galajian listed 60 individuals allegedly engaged in what he termed gay propaganda. He included links to their Facebook profiles and called for their total ostracization. He also urged employers and schools to cut off any contact with these individuals. State employers, he added, “should fire them under any convenient pretext," one English translation of the Armenian text reads.
When Public Information and Need for Knowledge (PINK), an LGBT-rights group, and 16 individuals from the blacklist sued Galajian, his newspaper responded with articles laced with homophobic slurs, which described the plaintiffs as "fag defenders" and grant-guzzlers; the latter an ex-Soviet pejorative for international donor-sponsored civil society groups.
Azerbaijan has chipped in a million dollars to the United Nations' Ebola response effort in what appears to be the latest installment in the ongoing campaign to promote Baku’s credentials as a responsible member of the international community.
As this donation underlines, the time when Azerbaijan was a war-ravaged, post-Soviet country relying on foreign aid is long gone. In recent years, whether schools for Georgia or restoration jobs for France, it has been steadily building up its donor activities.Oil and gas wealth helped changed everything, from the skyline of the capital, Baku, to the country’s military supplies and economic credentials abroad.
But one thing that has not changed, critics claim, are the Soviet, totalitarian ways, and, according to a growing choir of human-rights watchdogs, it is getting worse.
Critics of President Ilham Aliyev's government — at least those who remain at large — believe that Azerbaijan’s handouts for international development and charity serve primarily to blanket over international criticism of its dismal democracy record.
The government, of course, even as it hires one American PR guru, Liz Mair, to make its case in Washington, rejects the notion that it has any such need.
While Russia is on a land-grabbing binge, South Ossetia hopes Moscow will not forget about its aspirations, too. The region’s separatist leadership is drawing up an agreement meant to insert the disputed territory into the Russian Federation.
The agreement is influenced by a recent integration plan that Moscow offered to South Ossetia’s separatist twin, Abkhazia, but reportedly goes far beyond it. Both regions maintain de-facto independence from Georgia and almost existentially rely on backing from Russia. Abkhazia, however, insists on some ground rules in its relationship with Moscow, such as keeping space for sovereignty.
The particulars of the changes made by the Abkhaz remain under wraps, but, reportedly, they took out the clause on bilateral simplification of naturalization of each other’s citizens. Also, reportedly, axed was the most contentious part that proposed to allow Russians to take the command of a joint military force in times of war in Abkhazia.
But if the Abkhaz found the Russian integration plan overbearing, the South Ossetians believe that such a deal would not be going far enough. “The version of the agreement, which is being prepared for signing between Russia and Abkhazia, would not reflect all the yearnings of the South Ossetian people, their aspirations for the Russian Federation,” said the region’s de-facto parliamentary speaker, Anatoly Bibilov.
An airline out of the rambunctious Russian republic of Chechnya was planning to launch flights from Crimea to Armenia next month, but Yerevan, ever image-conscious, now seems hesitant to be the only direct, regular international destination for trips from the Russian-annexed peninsula.
Armenia’s aviation regulators late last week refused to authorize flights run by Grozny Avia between the Crimean capital of Simferopol to Yerevan.
International airlines are avoiding Russian-occupied skies over Crimea. Russia’s Aeroflot operates direct flights to Crimea from Moscow, with most flights for this month largely sold out.
Armenia’s Civil Aviation Agency cited unspecified errors in Grozny Avia’s application as the reason for its refusal to allow the flights, RFE/RL reported. The refusal is not conclusive and Grozny Avia can technically reapply, but some believe that Armenia is trying to avoid further miffing Ukraine, already upset over Yerevan’s backing the right to self-determination of the Crimean people.
The former head of the Civil Aviation Agency, Shagen Petrosian, said that allowing such flights would also significantly damage Armenia’s reputation and could possibly lead to international sanctions, epress.am reported.
Armenia's parliament is something of a millionaire-hangout, according to local media reports. Nineteen members of the 131-seat assembly have incomes of over $1 million, the reports say, citing the most recent official income declarations.
Tamada Tales could not immediately double-check the reports since the English-language version of the income-disclosure website is not fully functional. But if the reports are true, then one influential opposition party, Prosperous Armenia, certainly lives up to its name.
The populist party and its boss, tycoon Gagik Tsarukian , rank as the richest party and lawmaker, respectively. For good measure, Prosperous Armenia allegedly boasts another eight millionaires as well, with the grand total of the MPs’ net worth coming to $163.6 million, reported the newspaper 168 Zham (168 Hours), which came up with the original report on the millionaire-lawmakers.
Another nine millionaires in the legislature belong to the ruling Republican Party of Armenia, while one independent MP, Araik Grigorian, who doubles as president of the board of a wine-factory, ranks as the legislature’s millionaire-maverick.
In grand total, Armenian lawmakers are worth $235 million, 168 Zham said. By comparison, average monthly salaries in Armenia rank the dram-equivalent of just $424.
Local critics long have argued that the country’s legislature largely functions as a good ol’ boys’ club, with business and political interests mingling seamlessly, and members essentially seeking seats only to further their business interests.
Georgians’ fascination with cars is only surpassed by their ardor for vanity car plates. The South-Caucasus country may be strapped for cash, but it turns its pockets inside out to get the right car and personalized plates to go with it. As of early this month, Georgian car owners had paid a good 8,9 million lari ($5.6 million) over the past month and a half for some 30,000 car plates, Peradi.info reported, citing police records.
And all this in a country where the average monthly salary amounts to just over 773 laris, or $442, according to official data.
But, apparently, those low incomes didn’t stop these drivers. The most hardcore paid 10,000 laris ($5,718.53) to adorn their vehicles with their full names or some slogan. Less fancy plates that have repeated numbers and letters — such as 111 - AA - 111 — cost about 1,000 laris or $570, BHN reported. If you are a Georgian girl called Rusa, for about 250 laris ( $142), you can get a RU - 000 - SA plate.
By comparison, ordinary license plates cost 35 laris ($20). But, of course, who notices those?
After the government recently changed the format of the plates, drivers now have all kinds of messages to tell the rest of the traffic, too: Amen, Drunkard, Kisses. Several years back, one Georgian government-minister got himself MCCAIN plates in honour of his favorite US senator, Republican John McCain of Arizona, wrote Foreign Affairs.
Azerbaijan’s government had been pushed hard to free several jailed young activists, but their release last week left a bitter aftertaste in the repressive Caucasus republic. The European Union welcomed the October-17 amnesty, but government critics say Azerbaijani officials made an unsavory show out of it.
Four young democracy activists had to address a letter of repentance to their President Ilham Aliyev to be included in the list of 80 prisoners pardoned by the president. Upon release, two of the young men, Bahtiyar Guliyev and Elsevyar Mursalli, brought flowers to the grave of President Aliyev’s father and predecessor, Heydar Aliyev.
The civil-rights group NIDA said its members were pressured to write the apology-letter since the authorities are trying to exonerate themselves for arresting “young people, political activists, rights defenders, bloggers for their civil activism.”
There is hardly an international democracy watchdog left that has not accused the Azerbaijani government of rounding up critics on trumped-up charges. Its chairmanship of the Council of Europe’s committee of ministers notwithstanding.
The European Union chose to focus on the positive, however. “We greet this amnesty as a positive first step in reversing the trend of recent months. We urge the authorities to build upon this step by extending the amnesty to other individuals belonging to civil society organization who currently face imprisonment,” the EU said in an October 20 statement.
Protesters on October 21 held a protest-performance in front of the country's government headquarters in Tbilisi to demand a response to a recent series of murders of women by their ex- or current husbands...
English teacher Maka Tsivtsivadze was instructing a class in downtown Ilia State University on October 17, when her ex-husband, Lasha Maghradze, peeped in and asked her to step out into the hall. He shot her with a gun he had concealed, and then killed himself. Tsivtsivadze died of her wounds in the hospital.
It was the most brazen in a wave of femicides that has shocked Georgia this year, but it was not the last one. Just two days later, a 60-year-old man killed his wife in a remote village. Earlier, an ex-husband shot dead his former wife on a street in Tbilisi and also killed her brother who tried to rescue her.
The number of women killed this year is believed now to stand at 23, based on an earlier assessment by human rights defender Ucha Nanuashvili .
Amidst the search for an explanation -- and a solution -- to the series of wife-murders, a group of activists on October 21 held a protest-performance in front of the country's government headquarters in Tbilisi to pressure officials to come up with a response. The demonstrators, mostly women, blindfolded themselves, taped their mouths shut, and clanked spoons on saucepans. "The government has not even taken in the problem, much less is doing anything about it,” one of the participants, art critic and feminist activist Teo Khatiashvili, said.
President Giorgi Margvelashvili called for making 2015 a year of women, and Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili promised to prioritize tackling domestic violence, but nothing concrete has been offered. A comment from female Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani that Georgia’s crime level has not increased, "it's just husbands are killing their wives,” has hardly helped to reassure critics.
Georgia’s jailed, former Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili was sentenced to three years in prison on October 20 for his alleged role in a haunting 2006 murder case. Once the all-powerful muscle of ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration, Merabishvili was found guilty of obstructing justice in the high-profile death of a 28-year-old banker, Sandro Girgvliani.
The court ruled that Merabishvili used his office to cover up evidence against his employees who abducted and beat Girgvliani, and left him to die. Grigvliani’s death, which followed an altercation in a Tbilisi cafe that involved Merabishvili’s wife, grew into a national scandal that would haunt the Saakashvili administration for years to come.
Merabishvili’s wife, Tako Salakia, and many interior ministry officials were present at the fateful birthday gathering, when Girgvliani showed up with a friend and got into an argument with the group. Several interior ministry officials allegedly later abducted Girgvliani and his friend, Levan Bukhaidze, and took them to the city’s outskirts to beat them. Girgvliani is believed to have died of his injuries or have frozen to death; Bukhaidze escaped.
Girgviliani’s mother, Irina Enukidze, engaged in a long and daring battle with the authorities, accusing them of covering up the murder. Her claims mushroomed into what became, essentially, the first large-scale public pushback against Saakashvili’s administration. With opposition parties and opposition-minded media by her side, she called for the resignation of Merabishvili and the arrest of his wife; both of whom she was convinced had given the order to teach Girgvliani a lesson.