Distractions like a full-on rebellion and raging jihad somehow did not prevent Syria from holding an international cartoon festival this month. And from prizes going to artists from Azerbaijan, better known for supplying recruits for Syria’s Islamic insurgency than for providing the war-torn country with pictorial talent.
The contest’s website does not shed great light on its origins; at least, not for the non-Arabic-speaker. According to Azerbaijan's government-friendly website Azernews, it attracted entrants ranging from France and Morocco to Peru and Thailand.
But the background on Azerbaijan’s two medalists is clear.
An Austrian citizen on June 24 won a Constitutional-Court case against Georgia’s parliament for a 2013 ban on the sale of agricultural land to foreigners. The reversal could have broad implications for the tiny South Caucasus country as it prepares to take on closer economic ties with the European Union.
Mathias Huter , a rule-of-law activist formerly employed by the anti- corruption watchdog Transparency International Georgia*, said that he sued because the ban discriminated against foreign nationals and could harm Georgia’s struggling agricultural sector, which he argued, “needs . . . foreign expertise and capital.”
“I felt the ban was… rushed and not thought through, [and came] just a few weeks before the  presidential election,” said Huter, who does not own farmland. TI Georgia filed the suit on Huter’s behalf.
In its ruling, the Court stated that, while the reasons cited for the ban — “national security, environmental protection and development of the agricultural sector” — were “correct,” and represent “important and valuable public interests,” they could have been realized “without violating foreigners’ property rights.”
Introduced by the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, the ban reversed an earlier government policy of encouraging foreign farmers, such as Punjabi from India and Boers from South Africa, to move to Georgia, a heavily agricultural country with relatively cheap land prices.
In this age of separatist referendums, breakaway South Ossetia’s apparent plans to run a show of hands on joining Russia should not hit as a shock. It appears to be quite the thing these days.
The new dominant party in the region’s miniature, 34-seat de-facto parliament ran in a de-facto June-8 parliamentary vote on a ticket of surrendering to Moscow South Ossetia’s declared sovereignty. Now the party, United Ossetia, says it will live up to its name and make sure South Ossetia merges with its Russian cousin, North Ossetia. “We will be staying true to our slogans,” declared Anatoly Bibilov, South Ossetia’s de-facto parliamentary speaker, ITAR-TASS reported. “The question [of acceding to Russia] will be put to a referendum.”
After finishing tidying up committees and whatnot after the de-facto vote, legislators will get right to it, Bibilov added. No date has been announced.
South Ossetia’s Russian cravings are nothing new. At times, Moscow seemed more serious about its protégé’s de-facto independence than South Ossetia itself, which had been putting out feelers to the Kremlin for quite some time. These requests did not jive with the Kremlin’s line that Russia in 2008 had protected two freedom-loving territories – South Ossetia and separatist sibling Abkhazia – from attacks by Tbilisi.
Whether or not Moscow and Tskhinvali are now on the same page on the matter of integration is not clear. The Kremlin is keeping its lips zipped about the referendum.
After toying with the idea of introducing jury trials, the Azerbaijani government now has dropped the initiative altogether, choosing to keep the court system to itself.
For a country that now chairs the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, the continent’s main human-rights body, that might seem a strange move. But government-supporters say they do not trust lay citizens’ judgment in matters of law,. Critics counter that the government just doesn’t want to let go of its grip on the judiciary system.
MP Ali Huseynli, representing the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party, allegedly sees jury systems as a Western thingamajigy that doesn’t work in this former Soviet republic. “Jurors are mainly people who do not have a law education and, therefore, often they cannot make legal judgments,” Huseynli commented as he and his fellow lawmakers axed the jury-amendment from a bill on courts and judges last week.
Prosecutors, he added, had advised against introducing the jury system.
Critics counter that the real issue is that juries and jurors would mean more work for prosecutors and more room for court independence. “The practice [of jury trials] would have ended politically motivated prosecutions of citizens on fabricated charges,” commented lawyer Namizad Safarov, Contact.az reported. The jury-system proposal stemmed from the influence of international organizations, he added, calling the decision to ditch the amendment “another step away from democracy.”
Armenia needs a train to make full use of its upcoming economic integration with Russia's Customs Union, but the only track still accessible to it runs via separatist Abkhazia. Now, after years of firm opposition from Tbilisi, Yerevan appears to sense an opening.
It is vital, indeed. For landlocked Armenia, the land route to Russia – a prime market for Armenia exports and migrant workers – bottlenecks through the Georgian mountains. This route is susceptible to political and natural disasters, such as the 2008 war with Russia or a recent deadly landslide, and has limited cargo transit capacity.
Georgia did not leap at Sargsyan’s overture, but indicated that there is room for discussion. Georgian officials said that Moscow and Tbilisi may discuss the Abkhazia railway at their next round of talks, and that the National Security Council will also mull over the matter. Retired Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, who is widely seen as the real ruler of Georgia, has indicated in the past that he looks favorably on the railway both as a way to bridge Abkhaz and Georgian differences and as an economic boon for everyone involved.
In a perceived nod to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Azerbaijan on June 18 shut down a school network associated with the influential Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, Erdoğan's bête noire.
Erdoğan has accused the US-based religious leader and his followers of conspiring against his government — a charge viewed by outsiders as largely entangled with the ruling Justice and Development Party’s own domestic political struggles — and earlier urged ally Azerbaijan to help him in this fight. Looks like he didn't have to ask twice.
Azerbaijan's energy giant, the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijani Republic, already had taken over 11 high schools, 13 university-exam preparation centers and a private university believed to be linked to the Gülen movement.
As in Turkey, the facilities enjoyed a good academic reputation, and had a nationwide presence. Experts earlier interviewed by EurasiaNet.org about the takeover generally saw political motivations for the takeover.
But the schools’ parent company, the Azerbaijan International Education Company, in which SOCAR holds shares, claims its eye is just on the bottom line. The schools, the company claimed, were not financially viable.
Nobody much listened after separatists in Ukraine asked the world to recognize their newly declared People’s Republic of Luhansk. But the call was heard loud and clear in separatist South Ossetia.
Call it bonding between the self-proclaimed types. South Ossetia’s breakaway leadership announced on June 16 that they cannot stay indifferent to the will of the people of the so-called “People’s Republic.”
“Respecting the expression of the will of the people of the People’s Republic of Luhansk, the Republic of South Ossetia recognized the results of the [May 11] referendum [on secession from Ukraine] and is ready to make a constructive decision,” said Leonid Tibilov, the de-facto president of South Ossetia, the region’s Ossinfo agency reported.
Tibilov’s separatist counterpart in Luhansk, Valeriy Bolotov, promptly relayed the news to the Luhansk people. “Tomorrow, we will appoint an ambassador of the People’s Republic of Luhansk to the Republic of South Ossetia,” Bolotov proclaimed, reported Interfax.
But the so-called leader of the Luhansk people might want to hit the brakes here. South Ossetia’s de-facto foreign ministry told the Russian Dozhd’ (Rain) television channel that Tibilov’s statement does not mean official recognition.
South Ossetia, which relies on Russia for everything from arms to aid, is unlikely to make its decision final without consulting the big boss, Moscow.
Sluggish turnout for Georgia’s June-15 local elections suggests that, nearly two years after the country’s first change of power by election, most voters don’t care enough about politics to make it to the polls.
The post of mayor of Tbilisi, the Georgian capital of about 1.2 million, was the biggest prize in the election, which included 12 mayoral and a potpouri of city-council races. But interest ran at a mere 43.31 percent of over 3.4-million registered voters — a lower turnout than in any recent election.
Many voters crossed out all candidates and parties on the ballots, instead leaving messages like “Screw this,” Netgazeti.ge reported.
In the Tbilisi mayor race, early returns placed the ruling Georgian Dream’s mayoral candidate, 35-year-old Minister of Regional Development and Infrastructure Davit Narmania, in the lead, though some three percentage points short of the 50-percent cut required for victory. In a second round, Narmania would face the opposition United National Movement candidate Nika Melia, who garnered just under 27 percent of the vote. Whoever gets a simple majority of votes in the runoff will move into the mayor’s office, which is now controlled by the United National Movement.
Tbilisi’s traditional snobbery toward ambitious politicians from the regions (who don't have the moneyed patina of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvilli, that is) may have prevented the Georgian Dream from winning the race in the first go. As an extract from rural Georgia, Narmania has been the target of arrogant attacks by many Tbilisi personalities, including members of the ruling party.
Georgia plans to finalize a pact with the European Union on June 27 that would bring Tbilisi closer to Brussels. Even so, the campaign environment ahead of Georgia’s local elections suggests that the country has quite a bit of distance to cover before it reaches the standards of a European democracy.