What does kvevri, the Georgian method of making wine inside large clay vessels buried in the ground, have in common with the traditional Chinese use of the abacus and an Indian style of singing and dancing known as sankirtana? Until recently nothing. But on December 4 all three (plus several other traditions from around the world) were added to UNESCO's list of "Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding."
From UNESCO's description of the kvevri (or "qvevri," as it is sometimes spelled) tradition (which also includes a slideshow worth looking at):
Qvevri wine-making is practised throughout Georgia, particularly in village communities where unique varieties of grapes are grown. The Qvevri is an egg-shaped earthenware vessel used for making, ageing and storing the wine. Knowledge and experience of Qvevri manufacture and wine-making are passed down by families, neighbours, friends and relatives, all of whom join in communal harvesting and wine-making activities....Wine plays a vital role in everyday life and in the celebration of secular and religious events and rituals. Wine cellars are still considered the holiest place in the family home. The tradition of Qvevri wine-making defines the lifestyle of local communities and forms an inseparable part of their cultural identity and inheritance, with wine and vines frequently evoked in Georgian oral traditions and songs.
There was a Cold War-era saying – attributed to various Western leaders, including Margaret Thatcher and Helmut Schmidt – that mocked Russia as being nothing more than “Upper Volta with missiles.” These days, when it comes to corruption, Russia can only wish it compared favorably to Upper Volta.
The recently released Corruption Perception Index for 2013, compiled by the watchdog group Transparency International, ranks Russia 127th out of 177 countries surveyed. Burkina Faso, the name that Upper Volta adopted back in 1984, ranked 83rd, one of the better results among West African states.
As for other formerly Soviet countries, the latest Transparency International index presented a depressingly familiar picture: most states in the Caucasus and Central Asia are cesspools of graft, some more malodorous than others.
Central Asia in general could be described as a rabbit hole of venality. Once again, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan found themselves near the very bottom of the rankings, tied in 168th place with Syria. Tajikistan (154th) and Kyrgyzstan (150th) did not lag far behind. And Kazakhstan took a wrong turn compared with its 2012 ranking, registering 140th this year.
The Caucasus was comparatively cleaner, though still rather rank. Azerbaijan (tied with Russia in the 127th place) and Armenia (94th) both made slight progress this year over 2012’s results. Meanwhile, Georgia was the region’s shining star, making a strong year-on-year improvement to come in at 55.
Elsewhere, Ukraine ranked a disturbingly low 144th, and Moldova came in 102nd.
Georgia’s chain of public-service halls – a fast-food-style dispenser of everything from ID cards to property registrations – broke a mold in the post-Soviet world, where taking care of such tasks usually means taking a long journey though the labyrinths of government bureaucracy. The bold undertaking had been an achievement of ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili that has weathered the country's ongoing storm of revisionism. But it couldn't handle an actual storm.
The company that constructed the Tbilisi House of Justice was not chosen through an open tender, but via direct contracting; a practice that "is likely to result in wasteful spending, as there is no opportunity for another qualified bid for the same contract to bring down the price,”, the Georgia chapter of anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International argued at a December 6 presentation.
In 2012, under former President Saakashvili, the government dished out 1.17 billion lari (about $700 million) to companies under such contracts; an amount equivalent to "4.7 percent of the Georgian economy," according to TI. The deals "accounted for 18 percent of all government spending . . ."
Armenians may have been troubled by Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to their country, as it seemed to be an exhibition of Russia's tightening grip on Yerevan's foreign policy. But in Azerbaijan, the visit occasioned a different sort of fear: that Putin was confirming Russia's military support for Armenia in a potential conflict with Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh.
One military expert in Baku, Uzeyir Cafarov, said that Putin's support for Armenia would increase the risk of conflict. "We must be extra careful regarding the situation on the front line in January and February. It is possible that local clashes will take place on the front line. Russia continues to play double games. We must not give in to this and must bring into Russia's attention that its position on the Karabakh conflict is biased," Cafarov told the newspaper Azadliq, according to a BBC Monitoring report.
And member of parliament Zahid Oruc told sia.az (also via BBC Monitoring), "With this visit and by increasing the number of Russian troops in Armenia, Russia is stimulating the regional arms race and pushes others to this. This is a threat to the lasting peace in the region."
Authorities in Tajikistan are taking a leaf out of Ebenezer Karimov’s book and forbidding Santa Claus – or Father Frost, as he’s known in the Russian-speaking tradition – from appearing on television this holiday season.
Last year arch-rival Uzbekistan, presided over by President Islam Karimov, banned the beloved Father Frost from New Year’s broadcasts in efforts to shield Uzbeks from foreign influences and invent a unique Uzbek “culture.”
New Year’s remains one of the most popular holidays throughout the former Soviet Union, celebrated with family meals and fireworks. The robed Father Frost (“Ded Moroz”) brings children gifts, much as Santa Claus does on Christmas Day in the West. But the New Year’s holiday is entirely secular.
The new ban in Tajikistan applies to Father Frost, his maiden sidekick Snegurochka, and Christmas trees, Radio Ozodi reported on December 5. (The ban applies to state television, but Tajikistan has no independent television stations. Many people watch Russian satellite TV.)
In recent years, some Islamic clergy have complained that the New Year holiday, with its Christian undertones, is not appropriate for a Muslim country like Tajikistan.
But the ban is not a nod to the clergy, Dilafruz Amirkulova, deputy head of Tajikistan’s Committee for Television and Radio Broadcasting, told Radio Ozodi: “Our main holiday, in general, is Navruz. Of course we respect holidays of other people, but our real holiday is Navruz,” the Persian New Year, which is celebrated on the vernal equinox in March.
An obscure offshore oil and gas company is reportedly under investigation for stealing oil in Uzbekistan. The news will come as no surprise to the few brave Western investors still operating in the business-unfriendly Central Asian state, where a major redivision of spoils appears underway as President Islam Karimov’s once-powerful daughter comes under unprecedented attack.
Authorities have launched an investigation into an alleged theft of government-owned oil by Tethys Petroleum, Russia's RIA Novosti news agency reported on December 4, quoting an anonymous source. The firm, which denies wrongdoing, announced the launch of new oil and gas prospecting projects in the country only six months ago.
RIA Novosti said the company had been accused of stealing oil worth between $30 million and $40 million. Bakhrom Salakhitdinov, identified as the head of Tethys's operations in Uzbekistan, has been arrested, the news agency added.
Tethys calls the allegations “entirely without foundation.”
“We are in contact with the relevant authorities in order to reach an understanding of the reasons for the allegations and a satisfactory resolution of the situation as soon as possible. We are exploring all appropriate means to protect the company’s interests and ensure the safety of our employees in Uzbekistan. Oil production continues as normal,” the company told EurasiaNet.org via email.
The oral epic Manas so beloved in Kyrgyzstan has been included on the United Nations cultural heritage list.
The poem, which many Kyrgyz boast is the longest in the world, “expresses the historical memory of the Kyrgyz people and survives thanks to a community of epic tellers, both women and men, of all ages,” UNESCO, the UN’s cultural affairs body, said, announcing the decision to include Manas on the List of the Intangible Heritage of Humanity on December 4. “Narrators accept their calling after experiencing a prophetic dream, understood to be a sign from the heroes of the epic.”
Manas, which describes the unification of disparate tribes into a single nation and can take up to 13 hours to recite, is viewed in Kyrgyzstan as a bedrock of the Kyrgyz nation’s cultural heritage. Its inclusion on the UNESCO list is a diplomatic triumph for the government, which was outraged when China beat Kyrgyzstan to have Manas included on the UNESCO list in 2009 on behalf of its Kyrgyz minority population.
Manas is so central to Kyrgyz culture that streets in many towns in the country are named after it, as are public facilities – including the airport where the US airbase is hosted.
The bill on local self-governance aims to give regional towns and communities more decision-making power via the election of local mayors and municipal officials. Today, only the mayor of Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, is elected, while regional heads are appointed by the central government.
The proponents of the bill argue that the change will help regional governments, including in highland communities, address local needs more efficiently.
But, in December 4 remarks, the patriarch cautioned that a devolution of authority could encourage more separatism, a phenomenon that already haunts Georgia with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
“If this happens, it will lead us to disintegration of Georgia,” Ilia II said. “We will never tolerate this and will do our best to make sure this does not happen.”
"We should remember that when the [central] government was strong . . .
Georgia was strong as well," he continued, underlining that "the people
should consider whether or not [the draft law] is acceptable and good for Georgia."
The debate over decentralizing power, however, soon spun out into the realm of secularism vs. theocracy, another ongoing bugbear for Georgian society.
The rabble-rousing mayor of Kyrgyzstan’s second-largest city has been abruptly dismissed after he appeared to stoke anti-government protests this week.
Prime Minister Jantoro Satybaldiyev fired Osh Mayor Melis Myrzakmatov on December 5 without explanation. Satybaldiyev appointed Alimjan Baygazakov, Myrzakmatov’s deputy, acting mayor.
The dismissal came three days after some 3,000 demonstrators rallied in Osh to call for the release of opposition politician and Myrzakmatov ally Akhmatbek Keldibekov, who was arrested November 20 on corruption charges. The mayor joined the protest, denouncing the charges against Keldibekov as “nonsense” and a “political order.” Protesters gave the authorities three days, until today, to release Keldibekov.
The news of the dismissal apparently came as a surprise to Myrzakmatov himself, who described it as a “political decision of the authorities.” Speaking in Bishkek, where he had been summoned to meet Satybaldiyev, the former mayor told the 24.kg news agency that Satybaldiyev “hinted to me about my dismissal, but I do not possess any official information that the corresponding order has been signed.”
Myrzakmatov declined to reveal details of his meeting with the prime minister, but said it concerned the rally in support of Keldibekov.
Georgian Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze meets with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen (photo: NATO)
At this week's NATO foreign ministerial meetings in Brussels, the alliance's secretary general had effusive praise for aspiring member Georgia. Praising recent "free, fair and inclusive" elections, Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that "Georgia serves as a model for the wider region." And in his mostly widely quoted comments, he said that "In the five years since we created the NATO-Georgia Commission, Georgia has moved closer to NATO."
As one wag on twitter put it, Rasmussen's statement could as easily have been made in 2005 or 2007 as today. And indeed there is a bit of the Zeno's paradox to Georgia's NATO progress, continually getting "closer" while seemingly having to way to actually arrive.
And trying to play the spoiler, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was in Brussels as well. And in a press conference there he described NATO expansion as a continuation of the Cold War. Via Civil.ge:
Lavrov said that NATO enlargement, not only in the context of Georgia but in general, represents “continuation of Soviet-old inertial logic of the ‘cold war’.”
“It implies not only preserving the dividing lines, which we have all committed to remove, but it’s also implies moving them [these lines] further to the East, which fundamentally contravenes commitments that we have undertaken at the highest level on indivisibility of security,” Lavrov said. “No one should take steps creating risks to the security of partners.”