After a forced separation from the mosque it calls home, a minaret in Georgia has taken on a life of its own. Claiming that the ready-to-go-style structure was essentially smuggled in from Turkey, officials in the small, southern town of Chela pulled the minaret down this week and carted it away, leaving local Muslims sizzling with anger.
Police sealed off the town on August 26 when the authorities ran off with the mosque's call-to-prayer tower. Protests against the measure resulted in clashes with police and several arrests. The residents were quickly released, but protests among Georgia's Muslims, who make up the largest religious minority in this predominantly Christian country, continued to swell, spreading concerns of religious confrontation.
Faced with criticism by rights activists, as well as the rallies, central government officials issued assurances that nobody intended to limit Georgian Muslims' right to practice their religion. The minaret, they said, was removed because it had not been properly cleared through customs and was put up without the proper permit.
Members of Chela’s Muslim community, however, alleged that several Georgian Orthodox Church priests and members of a nearby Church parish had pushed officials to take the measure so as to stop the mosque from broadcasting its daily calls to prayer.
Anna Chapman, the Russian-spy-turned-sex-icon, has been sighted in breakaway Nagorno Karabakh, causing a bit of furor in the region.
Chapman, who since her scandalous arrest and deportation from the US in 2010 became a reporter with Russia's REN-TV news channel, arrived in Karabakh on August 26 with a gaggle of Russian journalists to discuss separatist officials' take on the chances for resolving their Armenia-backed conflict with Baku over the territory. She is also reportedly there to work on her TV show series “Mysteries of the World.”
It is unclear what a Russian femme fatale can do to enlighten the world about the decades-long dispute, but now Azerbaijan is likely to become another country where she won’t be welcome anymore.
Azerbaijan, which routinely blacklists those who visit Karabakh without its permission, is unhappy to see any celebrity visitors there, including celebrity spies. Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry said that Chapman and other Russian journalists, who visited Karabakh and met with separatist officials, will be regarded as personae-non-gratae, a status to which Chapman must be growing accustomed by now.
Anyone out there interested in buying a troubled television station for a third of its market value? Well, the family of Georgia’s Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili has one to sell. The channel comes with state-of-the-art equipment and has a successful record as a political campaign tool. The prime minister may be willing to throw in a news agency, too, as a lagniappe.
The signal for Tbilisi-based TV9 went static on August 19 after barely a year and a half on the air. Ivanishvili went through fire and water last year to create the national channel, owned by his wife, Ekaterine Kvedelidze, and Kakha Kobiashvili, a relative of Ivanishvili.
The station was intended to insert a dose of criticism into the airwaves then dominated by broadcasts friendly toward President Mikheil Saakashvili. The news channel may have helped bring Ivanishvili and his Georgian Dream coalition to power, but has since become a money pit and source of awkwardness for the prime minister.
“I have always believed and I still believe today that national leaders should not own television stations,” Ivanishvili said, Netgazeti.ge reported. “As I said many times before, it puts me personally and my family in an awkward situation."
After the 2012 parliamentary elections brought the Georgian Dream to power, the prime minister's family "wanted to sell TV9 and Info9 news agency, but out of responsibility and respect for journalists and other employees we extended its operations for 10 more months.”
But enough is enough. Ivanishvili, who has pledged to leave his post by the end of the year, said he can’t continue spending a million dollars a month to keep the station alive.
But Ibragimbekov, the country's most prominent prospective opposition candidate, may not get the chance to duel with the powerful President Aliyev. According to local media reports, Ibragimbekov failed to secure cancelation of his second, Russian citizenship.
Azerbaijani law bars double citizens from running for president. Ibragimbekov appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin to expedite his denaturalization, a process that may last up to a year.
Putin, who recently visited Baku to achieve less than phenomenal progress on gas and oil talks, has not publicly commented on Ibragimbekov’s appeal. Russia’s Federal Migration Service told the Haqqin.az civil-rights-news portal that Ibragimbekov’s case is most likely to be reviewed in the beginning of 2014 at the earliest.
Citing the Federal Migration Service, Haqqin reported that Ibragimbekov, who has a house in Los Angeles, holds a US Green Card, which farther complicates his case.
These hurdles, however, did not prevent the National Council of Democratic Forces, an alliance of Azerbaijani opposition parties, from turning in Ibragimbekov’s application to Azerbaijan's Central Election Commission.
To many, it may come as no surprise. Politics is a man’s world in the South Caucasus, where women remain a legislative minority, according to recent data from the World Bank.
The study showed that, regionally, Armenia has the lowest share of female parliamentarians, at 11 percent of its 131-seat National Assembly. Georgia comes next on the list with 12 percent, though the 2012 election marked a slight improvement. Azerbaijan is doing the best, though the female presence in its 125-seat Milli Majlis still stands at a modest 16 percent.
Azerbaijan is also doing better than Russia (14 percent), and, like its Caucasian neighbors, far better than Ukraine, which, with women accounting for nine percent of its 450-seat legislature, boasts the most testosterone-heavy parliament among the former Soviet republics.
Many Azerbaijanis might say that their country comes naturally by this regional first . While often socially conservative toward the roles of women (public criticism of President Ilham Aliyev's wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, as an MP tends to be studiously avoided), Azerbaijan, under its short-lived Azerbaijani Democratic Republic (1918-1921), became the first predominantly Muslim country to give women the vote.(The country has enjoyed less success in other areas of women's rights; according to the United Nations Population Fund, violence against women has reached "epidemic proportions.")
With elections around the corner, incumbent Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s candidacy has gotten a surprise endorsement from the enemy's leader, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan.
Aliyev may have spent the better part of his two terms as Azerbaijan's president making public threats toward Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh, but his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sargsyan, still thinks that it is "perhaps best" to see Aliyev win a third term in October.
Better the devil you know than the devil you don't? Maybe so, yet, despite the endless fatal exchanges of sniper fire and threats between the two countries, the Armenian president’s words, uttered at a youth-group meeting, suggest that he does not expect Azerbaijan under Aliyev actually to go to war with Armenia to reclaim Karabakh.
The comment carries even further interest since Sargsyan himself is a native of Karabakh and once served as the separatist territory's chief of military operations against Azerbaijani forces.
But despite more than 20 years of talks with Baku with scant results, Sargsyan appears to believe that the two heads of state together have come a long way toward negotiating a settlement for the conflict.
“The road map to a solution has almost been drafted,” Sargsyan stressed, while conceding that the talks now are not "going actively."
If a deal is reached, and Aliyev "finds in himself the willpower to rise above his mania for Armenia-phobia," the 51-year-old Azerbaijani leader "would be the most acceptable and preferable option for us."
Armenia of late has gotten involved helping Diaspora Armenian communities caught in the crossfire of civil war in Syria. Now, some Armenian citizens want Yerevan to offer the same kind of help to their kin in another regional hot spot, Iraq.
The Yezidis, a Kurdish-speaking people who are Armenia’s largest minority, hope that Yerevan will raise the awareness of the plight of Iraq’s Yezidis around the world. Iraqi Yezidis now face violent attacks for selling alcohol. Iraqi laws only allow non-Muslims to sell alcoholic beverages and the country has witnessed a series of deadly militia attacks on liquor stores run by Christians and Yezidis.
Sasha Sultanian, head of Armenia's Yezidi National Committee, has announced that the group plans to ask the Armenian foreign affairs and Diaspora ministries to promote awareness of the Iraqi Yezidis' situation "in international organizations and [help] prevent the massacres," Armradio reported.
“Our brothers are being killed in Iraq,” Armenpress reported Sultanian as saying on August 14 “The governments of Kurdistan and Iraq aim to destroy the Yezidis living in Iraq and take over their lands."
Several hundred thousand Yezidis are estimated to live around the world; the largest number in Iraq. Their religion is a blend of Zoroastrian, Muslim, Christian and other religious traditions. The central figure in the faith is a peacock angel Malek Taus, who dispenses both blessings and misfortunes as he finds fit.
The South Caucasus country of Georgia has taken the concept of a welfare state to a whole new level by extending government aid to a millionaire. A nationwide inspection of government aid recipients revealed that quite a few of the country’s rich were somehow included in the poverty list and were happily getting some of their tax money back through a subsistence allowance.
The Ministry of Health and Labor's Social Services Agency, responsible for verifying welfare recipients' eligibility, recently reviewed its list of beneficiaries and found that 1,402 people on the list had incomes well above the levels required for government aid. “One businessman’s annual income was over a million lari [$625,000],” agency head Noe Kinkladze told reporters.
There were others, he said, with lower annual incomes, but still close to a million lari.
The agency did not specify how these well-to-do citizens ended up on the list, nor identify them by name.
Rich and successful as these people were, looks like they could still use a little extra cash from the government; perhaps to tip drivers or cleaning ladies. Georgia pays individual welfare recipients between 70 to 150 laris ($42.31-$90.66) per month.
The “poor millionaire” and other affluent beneficiaries were revealed after the agency cross-checked its lists with data from the National Revenue Service, the Georgian equivalent of the IRS. Kinkladze said that the government in 2012 -- under the control of President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement for most of the year -- gave under 1.2 million laris ($730,000) to sustain the rich.
Almost 80 percent of young Armenians surveyed in a recent poll say they’d leave their country if they get the chance, with 36 percent saying they’d leave for good. Their desire, uncovered by the Armenian chapter of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), jives with other recent research, and further stokes long-standing survival fears within Armenia.
“It is clear that the migration process poses risks for our country… by taking away young people, who are full of energy and are in their reproductive age,” said Gagik Hayrapetian, UNFPA’s assistant representative in Armenia, speaking at an August 12 news conference dedicated to International Youth Day.
In 2012, 49,600 Armenian citizens left the country of 2.97 million people for good, according to official data, but many locals speculate that the real number could be still higher. Coupled with one of the world's lower birth rates, high numbers of young people longing to seek greener pastures abroad may not augur well for the future, many Armenians fear.
The poll questioned 1,200 Armenian citizens between the ages of 18 and 30.
Many young Armenians are pessimistic about their education or career options at home, according to the findings of a report by the Armenian UN Association. Their strong desire to study abroad creates fertile soil for an eventually permanent emigration, the report found.
While Armenia's struggling economy is often considered the main cause of migration, the report argues that many other factors come into play, too, including marriage.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin came to Baku on August 13 to negotiate energy matters with oil and gas-rich Azerbaijan, which competes with Moscow as an energy supplier to Europe. Among the selling points that Putin brings to the negotiations table is his unique ability to influence Azerbaijan's upcoming presidential campaign.
Internationally acclaimed screenwriter Rustam Ibraghimbekov, the proposed candidate of the National Council, a coalition of Azerbaijan's main opposition members, remains a Putin-signature away from being allowed to run against longtime President Ilham Aliyev in the October 9 vote. To be eligible to run, though, Ibraghimbekov, a dual Azerbaijani-Russian citizen, first needs Putin to sign off on his request to renounce his Russian citizenship.
And the clock already has started ticking. Azerbaijan’s Central Election Commission will be accepting registration documents from proposed presidential candidates from August 20 through September 9.
Last week, Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, said that the process of de-naturalization may take up to a year. “The procedure of renouncing citizenship is considered completed after the applicant receives a note through a diplomatic or consular office,” Peskov told Azerbaijan's APA news service.