Azerbaijan is really moving up the European map. This year, Baku became the song capital of Europe, and, soon, it is going to be the continent’s sports capital, too.
With a vote of 38 to eight (Armenia among the three countries abstaining), the European Olympics Committees last weekend chose the oil-and-gas boomtown to host the debut of the 2015 European Olympic Games, a continental version of the Olympics.
Strangely, Baku was also the only venue-candidate for the Games, but Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, head of the country's Olympics committee, didn't let that dint his joy at the decision.
Terming the Games "truly a historic event," Aliyev underlined to citizens that Azerbaijan's "international authority" had played the largest role in securing the event for Baku.
Perhaps mindful of Azerbaijan's Eurovision experience, event organizers also want to put on a dazzling show for the opening of the games, but don’t all come at once. Azerbaijan hopes to limit the number of participating athletes to a maximum of 4,200 and, also, perhaps with an eye to freeloaders, wants to cap the number of official guests.
After bouts of haggling over the rent, Russia has abandoned a Soviet-era, early-warning radar in Azerbaijan that essentially served as the Kremlin’s security camera for the Caucasus, Middle East and South Asia.
The official cause is cost: Baku had asked for $300 million per year for a renewal on Russia's lease on the station; a hefty hike from the heretofore $7 million per year.
With Moscow planning to build its own radar stations with similar coverage areas (the Armavir radar station north of the Caucasus mountain range, already partly overlaps Gabala's range), the new rent was not worth it for Russia, officials said.
Earlier, Moscow had offered Washington a share on the station as a possible substitute for US plans, opposed by Moscow, to deploy a missile shield system in Poland and the Czech Republic to defend Eastern Europe from potential attacks from Iran and North Korea, but the idea went nowhere.
A Russian military expert, though, told Azerbaijan's APA news agency that quitting Gabala was not a prudent move since the station could always have doubled for Moscow as a backup if Armavir is down for maintenance.
A draft bill from Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition that would limit minors’ access and exposure to sex paraphernalia has brought some adult-themed debates recently to Georgia’s parliamentary floor.
The bill proposes to ban the sale and advertising of items of a sexual nature in stores that sell children’s apparel and toys. It would also prohibit the sale of such goods in schools and other institutions that serve youth under 18 and in stores located near such facilities.
But, divided on just about anything -- from foreign policy to law-and-order matters -- parliament has not yet reached a cross-party consensus on what kinds of goods actually can be considered sexual.
“People get aroused by very different things,” knowingly remarked parliamentarian Zurab Japaridze at a recent committee hearing, Liberali.ge reported. “What kind of props people use during sex games is a very personal thing… and the state should not be regulating this.”
Japaridze and fellow members of President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement have requested the Georgian Dream coalition, which initiated the bill, to provide a hit list of items that would be restricted under the amendment.
And so the work began: sex toys – yes; porn – yes; condoms -- here things get a little tricky. Some parliamentarians proposed to make a distinction between condoms that serve the sole function of preventing sexually transmitted diseases or unwanted pregnancy, and those that also enhance sexual experience.
So, how will US troops come home from Afghanistan? According to Baku officials, by catching a train in Azerbaijan.
To borrow from American journalist H.L. Mencken’s line, war, like love, is easy to begin, but hard to end, and the 2014 NATO pullout from Afghanistan is likely to be a logistical nightmare, with thousands of troops to transport and scads of guns to pack and ship.
But worry not: Azerbaijan, NATO’s Caspian-Sea chum, is offering a cheap ticket home for American and other troops via the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, scheduled for completion in 2014.
If it all goes as planned, troops from Georgia, the largest non-member troop contributor to the NATO campaign, can get off midway.
To date, 35 percent of the “non-lethal” military supplies for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan went through Azerbaijan, Mammadyarov stated.
The Baku-Tbilisi-Kars Railroad, constructed by NATO-friendly Azerbaijan, NATO-aspiring Georgia and NATO member Turkey, was presented to the Alliance last month by envoys of the three countries. The presentation included other existing and upcoming sea, air and land transport infrastructure.
If Armenia ever decided to adapt "A West Side Story," it's conceivable that “I Like to Be in America” might well be changed into “I Like to Be in Russia" to describe the choices faced by thousands of Armenian migrants each year.
But those choices are slightly less tempting now. A controversial Russian state program that grants jobs and citizenship to foreign nationals from former Soviet republics has stopped accepting applications from Armenians, Armenian news sources report.
Grappling with the double whammy of a low birthrate and a population exodus, Yerevan repeatedly has urged Moscow to stop the program, called Compatriots, which Armenian officials say has become a floodgate for emigration.
“We have a serious demographic problem in Armenia… and the organized outflow of the population is a blow to our national interests,” Armenian Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian said of the program last month.
According to official numbers, some 26,000 Armenians have applied for the program since its start in 2007; 2,500 have actually left for Russia.
Baku has said it before and now it says it again: Azerbaijan will not become a launching pad for an Israeli attack on Iran, so, naysayers, check your sources.
On December 2, the British Sunday Times ran a story on supposed plans by Tel-Aviv to use Azerbaijani bases to send off terminator drones into Iran if there is an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear sites and if Tehran moves to respond to it. The drone fleet would lay to waste Iran’s missile system before the Islamic Republic can pull out its guns, the paper said, citing unnamed sources.
In response, Azerbaijan claimed that The Sunday Times was essentially delirious. “Baku will never let anyone use its territory for an attack on our neighbors,” asserted foreign ministry spokesperson Elman Abdulayev, ANSPress.com reported.
Azerbaijan’s relations with fellow Muslim neighbor may be less than neighborly, but since Iran is home to millions of ethnic Azeris, Baku repeatedly has said it would never get pulled into a conflict with Iran.
The latest and perhaps the most bizarre case are allegations that the once-all-powerful Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili doctored a passport to travel with a Saakashvili-led delegation on November 30 to Armenia.
In testimonies published by the interior ministry, airport passport control officials assert that the ID presented by Merabishvili contained his photo, but somebody else’s ("a certain Levan Maisuradze") name.
Only after the snafu was pointed out to a Merabishvili aide, did the ex-prime minister pull out "his real" passport, they claim.
Merabishvili has denied that he tried to pass a false passport, and charged that the interior ministry, which later questioned him, was being turned into a "repressive machine" for the selective prosecution of critics.
Merabishvili, Georgia's last prime minister, now works as the secretary-general of Saakashvili's United National Movement.
Responding to the fake-passport allegations, the president, in turn, termed them "so absurd . . . that it is hard for me to even make a comment about this."
Meanwhile, online commentators point to various holes in the government's line of argument.
What does a national border mean for a man and his cows on the quest for better grazing land? That's the question that, in the run-up to next week's OSCE meeting in Dublin, illustrates both the absurdities and the dangers of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict for both Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Let’s get this, well, straight. The Georgian parliament's deputy speaker, Manana Kobakhidze, is a heterosexual woman and, in her words, nothing, not even all the bureaucratic institutions of Europe, can change that.
You might wonder why 41-year-old Kobakhidze, a longtime civil-rights activist, feels obliged to share this information. But, in today's Georgia, consumed by feuding between Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition and President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement, politicians' attitudes toward homosexuality are a topic that has come out of the closet and can be used as ammunition by either side.
In Kobakhidze's case, it all began last weekend, when the center-right French daily Le Figaro published a story portraying the ongoing arrests and investigations of some of Saakashvili's political nearest and dearest as a vindictive witch hunt by a government with questionable democratic credentials.
The paper quoted Kobakhidze*, a Georgian Dream member, as noting that the Saakashvili administration had believed that the defense of all minorities, sexual included, was inherent to a democracy, but that the European concept that all citizens are equal is hard for Orthodox Georgia to accept.
Le Figaro claimed that the comment made French nationalist politician Marine Le Pen, an outspoken opponent of gay marriages, look like "a leftist."
Responding to Le Figaro's article, LGBT groups, rights activists and prominent Saakashvili supporters quickly attacked Kobakhidze as a homophobe; particularly on Facebook, where much of Georgia's debates now take place.
If they were to bet on which high-ranking Georgian official goes to prison next, many Georgians would put their money on the nation’s erstwhile top cop, Vano Merabishvili.
Image-wise, the 44-year-old Merabishvili has always been a combination of good cop and bad cop. As interior minister from 2004 until this July, he was praised for the overhaul of the country's once notoriously corrupt police force, but criticized for bending the laws to make sure nothing and no one could challenge his boss, President Mikheil Saakashvili. Some accused him of turning Georgia into one big prison cell, while others credited him for cleaning crime off city streets.
Many Georgians predict that now, in a process that would make for a Bertolt Brecht play, he may soon get a taste of prison cells himself.
It's a prediction that Merabishvili, now the target of an investigation into alleged abuse of office at the interior ministry, did not neglect to make in a televised interview on November 25.
Merabishvili, who now acts as general secretary of Saakashvili's United National Movement, has not yet been charged. Terming the affair "political vengeance," he's dismissed the allegations as "not serious."
But the allegations against Merabishvili do not end there.