Some sellers at the October 10-11 Caucasus Cheese Festival in Tbilisi saw cheesemaking as a true art.
Cheese brought together dairy makers from assorted regions of the South Caucasus at a lactose-rich gathering in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, over the past weekend. Creamy, dry, pungent and stringy, cheeses of every description were up for grabs at the latest installment of the Caucasus Cheese Festival, an attempt to enhance Georgia’s reputation as the region’s gastronomic capital.
Georgia’s Ministry of Agriculture, which co-organized the October 10-11 event with a cheesemaker guild, could provide no specifics about makers of the “peace cheese.”
Yet Georgian cheese cognoscenti were not short on details about their homeland’s own 60-some makes. As with wine, Tbilisi’s sights are on Europe, and what Agriculture Minister Otar Danelia called a “worthy place” for Georgian cheese on the world market.
To meet that goal, part of the idea was to look beyond the usual business of Georgia’s stretchy, mozzarella-like sulguni and supple, crumbly imeruli, to less popular varieties and locally made versions of European cheeses. And there they lay – cured in honey, herbs or olive oil, aged and fresh, some molded into animal figurines or drinking vessels.
Cheese historians — even in this food-obsessed land, not a common calling — were on hand to note that the Georgian expression “Smile like a cheese seller” comes from medieval times, when vendors were eager to outshine the competition.
"We Are Happy from Karabakh" /Arsen Beglaryan and Areg Balayan
Busy being happy -- even without recognition of statehood, notes a caption -- for the YouTube video "We Are Happy from Karabakh."
Disputed and destitute Nagorno Karabakh has become the latest place to produce a version of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” video, the fad which has gotten much of the world “clapping along.”
With funky dance moves and a vivacious collection of characters, “We Are Happy from Karabakh,” sponsored by the Los-Angeles-based Armenia Fund, does its best to make separatism look hip. British Baroness Caroline Cox, one of the breakaway territory's most prominent supporters, is featured rocking together with staff and patients at a clinic in the capital, Stepanakert.
For the territory, emmeshed in the South Caucasus' most bitter conflict for more than 20 years, the propaganda value of that message is clear.
Before Karabakh joined the “Happy” craze, the two countries warring over the territory – Armenia and Azerbaijan – had made their own versions of Williams’ hit, too. In “Happy Yerevan,” produced by the US Alumni Association of Armenia, US Ambassador John Heffern makes a swaying cameo. Another popular version, by Lumen Cinematography, dispenses with the Mickey-Mouse ears, however.
Energy-rich Azerbaijan, which claims ownership of Karabakh, has come out with several versions, staged in the capital, Baku, and the industrial town of Sumgayit, which produces aluminium and Islamic fighters.
Russian-language devotees often like to remind listeners that the first words in outer space were said in Russian. But Russian promoters have been struggling to make sure that those words continue to make sense to folks in the South Caucasus, one of the most linguistically diverse regions of the former Soviet Union.
Local cultures here have always put up strong resistance to Russia’s attempts at linguistic and cultural homogenization; now, Russian is challenged by both the ongoing comeback of vernacular languages and, as the area opens up ever further to the outside world, a growing command of English.
But other developments -- such as Moscow's ongoing endeavors to grasp breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia in its embrace -- apparently offer opportunities, too. And, so, where else for the Russian Book Publishers' Association (along with the Pushkin State Russian Language Institute and the Russian cultural-center network, Moscow House) to discuss ways of saving the Russian language in the South Caucasus but in largely Russian-speaking Abkhazia?
On December 18, an array of Russian linguists, writers, researchers and educators gathered in Sukhumi to discuss ways of saving the Russian language in the South Caucasus. “The Russian language is what creates our shared cultured space, ties our nations, regions and peoples together,” Ilya Manevich, head of the Russian Book Publishers’ Association declared at the conference, Ekho Kavkaza reported.
So much for the Russian Spring: “skewed” campaigning, an alleged drop of Botox and a reported bit of voting magic, and Vladimir Putin is back as Kremlin boss. Putin owes much of his victory to the Caucasus, and, already, the congratulations are coming in from territories and countries in the Russian-owned, Russian-occupied or otherwise Russian-preoccupied region.
South of the Caucasus ridge, separatist Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both safely tucked inside a wall of Russian arms, reported 90 percent support for Putin among registered Russian voters. The separatist chiefs of these territories, both existentially dependent on Moscow, did not opt for an interpretive dance, but did cast their votes for Putin and encouraged their electorates to follow suit.
It's big, it's rich and it's near, so why isn't it more here? No, not Russia, the leading lady of many a former South Caucasus drama, but what some describe as a promising actor waiting in the wings -- Turkey.
At a March 2 conference in Tbilisi on "Turkey's South Caucasus Agenda: Roles of State and Non-State Actors," sponsored by the Eurasia Partnership Foundation and the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV)*, academics, analysts, NGO-niks and retired diplomats debated the likelihood of Turkey acquiring a more active role in the region as a force for peace.
But don't expect Ankara to rush at the opportunity. As one Georgian participant noted, there are more questions than answers about what Turkey's role in the South Caucasus should be.
Right now, even while "looming large" over the region, "Turkey is indeed pushing below its weight . . . politically," commented Peter Semneby, the European Union's former special representative to the South Caucasus.
The reasons are many -- the foreign-policy distractions of the Middle East and Iran, coupled with the rise of nationalist tendencies in Turkish domestic politics (and accompanying wariness about any further outreach to Armenia), plus Ankara's desire not to irritate Russia, which still sees the South Caucasus as its own backyard.
More mundane explanations also play a role; more than 20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, expertise in the South Caucasus still runs relatively thin among Turks, noted TESEV Assistant Foreign Policy Programme Officer Aybars Görgülü.