Azerbaijani athletes competing in the European Games have been allowed to dispense with fasting for Ramadan in a bid to boost predominantly Shi’a Muslim Azerbaijan’s results in the Olympics-style competition.
With 29 medals to its name, Azerbaijan currently ranks second to Russia for medal-results among the 50 countries taking part in the Games. How many of its 285 athletes are observant Muslims is open to speculation, but, apparently, the Caucasus Muslim Authority, a close ally of the secular Azerbaijani government, wants to do its part for the team effort, too.
Victory on the playing field “pleases God,” local clerics ruled in a recent fatwa and blessed athletes who opt to skip the fast, which bans food, drink and sex from dawn to sunset, APA news agency reported on June 19.
The month-long celebration of Ramadan started in Azerbaijan on June 18, less than a week after the Games began.
“To make sure that the valiant Islamic sportsman is stronger than his competitor in the month of Ramadan, he cannot observe oruj [fast],” said the Baku-based Caucasus Muslim Authority. “To defeat a competitor on a sports field, to defend the honor of your country and raise the flag of your homeland is important and pleases God.”
The fact that this is the first time that Azerbaijan has hosted the Games qualifies as a special circumstance, the body held.
Azerbaijan was the only country that bid to host the Games, a pet project for President Ilham Aliyev, who heads up the National Olympic Committee.
First came the biblical flood that swamped the Tbilisi zoo, setting wild animals free to roam the streets of the Georgian capital. Now, three days after the inundation, a fatal tiger attack threatens to set off a political tempest.
Police special forces have "liquidated" the tiger, Georgian news outlets reported.
The morning-attack at the abandoned, downtown Laguna Vera swimming pool complex shocked the already stressed city. Another man had been reported to be in critical condition.
Interior Minister Vakhtang Gomelauri, who later appeared on the scene, told reporters that the man, a middle-aged worker, had died on the scene. Zoo Director Zurab Gurielidze, also present, did not respond to journalists' questions, Interpressnews reported.
The attack happened just next to the zoo where scores of volunteers are still cleaning up the flood debris. The flood killed 19 people.
Just the day before, government officials had assured citizens there was no risk of a predator attack, and that reports of stray animals were baseless. The zoo stated that a tiger, bear and hyena were still missing, but presumed dead.
In a controversial move, heavily armed special forces, fearing for public safety, had killed many escaped predators.
The June 14 arrest and later search of the house of Aiuf Borchashvili led to tensions in Pankisi, a predominantly Muslim area, which has recently seen dozens of its members head off to join jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria.
The arrest and a string of detentions appear to signal that Georgian officials are now trying to push back more actively against the departure of Muslim Georgians for Syria.
Family and friends of Borchashvili, who was also the imam of the village of Jokola, staged a protest against his arrest, however, and some clerics warned that the detention is spelling trouble for the Georgian authorities.
The imam's lawyer, Gela Nikolaishvili, has rejected the charges as "absurd," Civil.ge reported.
As part of a broader swoop, police also detained Merab Batirashvili, the alleged cousin of ISIS commander Omar al-Shishani (Tarkhan Batirashvili), a Pankisi native, who some suspect could coordinate recruitment in Georgia. Batirashvili was later released.
On top of moving against alleged recruitment, police took another unprecedented step and detained in the Tbilisi airport three young men suspected of planning to travel to Syria to join ISIS. They, too, were later released.
But, as with many other things, the Azerbaijani government has its rules about what exactly constitutes the right breakfast.
During their time in Baku, the European sports community and those individuals staying at certain hotels may find it hard to avoid having a kookoo egg, a traditional omelet, every morning.
Before the Games, officials “trademarked” a so-called “Azerbaijan Breakfast” and requested all major hotels to start serving it. Earlier this week, tourism officials presented the rights-protected breakfast to managers of high-end hotels in Baku and said they’ve came up with an unspecified quality-inspection system.
The morning meal includes a cheese platter, jam, honey, tea and, of course, the kookoo eggs. And it is free for visiting athletes and sports officials.
But some foreign visitors, including a sports-reporter for the UK’s Guardian newspaper, are not going to be there to try it.* The authorities denied The Guardian accreditation for the Games after it published a critical piece on preparations for the event.
An American company has taken over a key Armenian hydropower complex, gaining an important slice of Armenia’s energy sector, which is otherwise controlled by Russian entities.
New York-based ContourGlobal agreed in 2014 to purchase Vorotan Hydro for $250 million, but the deal took over a year to complete, reportedly due to heavy Russian resistance. The facility currently supplies up to 40 percent of Armenia’s electricity; ContourGlobal intends to increase generating capacity, according to Armenian officials.
The news came roughly a week after Gazprom, via its Armenian subsidiary, purchased the Armenian portion of an Iranian natural gas export pipeline. The acquisition effectively gave Gazprom full control of the natural gas supply and distribution network in Armenia.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev triumphantly joined the torch-relay for the European Games on June 7 in Baku.
Two days after his government booted out the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a smiling Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev ran through the streets of Baku with an Olympic torch. The flame was for the European Games, a presidential pet-project that kicks off on June 12. But its intended symbolism was much broader – Azerbaijan, once again, is playing the big time, and international criticism should be checked at the door.
“Long live President Ilham Aliyev!” cheered a crowd of onlookers in a scene reminiscent of Soviet-era staging as the 53-year-old leader jogged along. “Success for the first European Games!” Beaming broadly, First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, son, Heydar, and daughters Leyla and Arzu later also joined the torch-relay.
Within Azerbaijan these days, state-spread adulation for the Games and panegyrics to Aliyev dominate traditional media. With some of the government’s most outspoken critics, whether journalists or activists, now in jail, critical scrutiny of the “landmark event” from within Azerbaijan is expressed with caution.
On the eve of Baku’s mini-Olympics for Europe, Germany’s body for Olympic sports seems to have become the first major European sports authority to heed calls to take Azerbaijan’s government to task for human-rights abuses.
With a week to go before the European Games kick off, the German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB) on June 4 said it shares international concerns over Azerbaijan’s crackdown against government-critics.
“We support human rights and freedom of the press, and we are going to talk about this in Baku, too,” the confederation’s chairperson, Michael Vasper, said, Frankfurter Allgemeine reported.
Giving away perhaps the last opportunity for energy independence, Armenia plans to sell its 41-kilometer-long section of an Iranian natural-gas export pipeline to Russian energy leviathan, Gazprom. The decision leaves Moscow in full control of natural-gas supply routes to Armenia.
Armenia Energy Minister Ara Simonian assured Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, however, that the terms of a state license will not allow Gazprom Armenia to mess with imports from Iran.
Those imports, though, are just a quarter of the annual 2 billion cubic meters Armenia receives from Russia, its economic and security patron.
Moscow is believed to use its position as Armenia’s economic, energy and security patron to ensure the country’s fealty – a situation that does not necessarily make it tolerant toward market-competitors.
Moscow first tried to set a limit to the Iranian-Armenian pipeline’s diameter and, hence, its supply capacity. Then, Gazprom muscled its way into taking over domestic distribution and, now, all import infrastructure.
Commenting on the takeover of the Iranian pipeline, Gazprom Armenia, Gazprom’s local distribution monopoly, said that it only made business sense to let one company operate the country’s supply-and-distribution infrastructure.
He may have lost his Georgian citizenship, but even as a regional governor in Ukraine, ex-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili appears to be planning a comeback in Georgia.
In an hour-long interview with the ever-Misha-friendly Georgian TV channel, Rustavi2, broadcast on June 2, the former Georgian leader shared grand plans for Georgia’s future and shook his fist at back-home foes.
Yes, he said, I shall return, and “we will” bring jobs, education and dignity to Georgia, which, he claims, has "become uncool" (gabandzda) under a government of amateurs and sycophants to billionaire ex-Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Yes, the seaside metropolis of Lazika, which so far exists only in Misha’s head, will be built for all the separatists to see and to be dazzled by its skyscrapers.
And, yes, he said, drawing on “very good experience in Ukraine with how to make oligarchs return their money,” he will wreak vengeance upon Ivanishvili, whom, he alleged, without offering detailed proof, supposedly has run off with billions at taxpayers' expense.
But when directly asked if he plans to lead his homeland again, Saakashvili, wearing a Georgian-flag lapel-pin, demurred. “People will vote for the man or the group who best fits their vision of what kind of country they want to live in,” he said.
Voters may have gone for Ivanishvili and the Georgian Dream back in 2012 “because they were given a hope for a better life,” he conceded, but not because, “as [Ivanishvili] thinks . . . he is so handsome and magnificent, so eloquent and educated . . . .”
The pull of sakartvelo (Georgia), though, does not come as a surprise to some regional observers.