Georgia's Father Frost pours acid on a dead Santa Claus in New Studio's controversial online video.
Murdered in an online video and framed for an armed robbery, Santa Claus had a tough holiday season in Georgia this year.
His troubles began with what seemed at first like just another one of those cuddly Christmas commercials.
As a jingle plays, a bespectacled Santa, fresh from the chimney, checks out the room, helps himself to candy and starts placing presents under a glittering Christmas tree. Suddenly, a menacing voice rasps: “Real men come in through the door.” Santa turns around to see his Georgian counterpart, Tovlis Papa (Father Frost), sporting his traditional gear and an unusual bad mood. While grudgingly watching his Western rival, Tovlis Papa has been using his dagger to whittle a piece of wood into the Georgian version of a Christmas tree, a chichilaki.
The next scene shows a trail of blood, leading to the bathroom. Santa’s leg is sticking out of the bathtub. Tovlis Papa, changed into protective coveralls and glasses, is getting ready to pour acid into the tub when a little boy walks in. After a suspenseful moment, the kid, with an approving nod from Tovlis Papa, drags off the dead Santa’s bag of gifts.
For many Georgians, the art-video, produced by a Tbilisi studio known for its edgy TV ads, hit a raw nerve with its allusion to friction between nationalism and Westernization.
Interpretations vary widely about whether the intention was to support or mock the tendency of being jealously protective of traditional Georgian ways against “corrupting” Western influences.
Picture of the recently inaugurated Ashgabat international airport. (Picture of the recently inaugurated Ashgabat international airport.
With characteristic pomp, Turkmenistan unveiled an idiosyncratic new airport terminal in the capital shaped like a falcon thrusting through desert air, to acclaim last year.
And now, if a report in RFE/RL’s Turkmen service Radio Azatlyk is to believed, the $2.3 billion building in Ashgabat is slowly sinking into the sand.
Azatlyk reported on January 13 that representatives from Turkish construction company Polimeks, which built the terminal, have been summoned to President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov to answer for themselves. And, perhaps more importantly, to explain how this news got into the media in the first place.
Azatlyk cited its source as saying that a special commission has been set up to study the subsidence and come up with ways of resolving the issue. French construction giant Bouygues, which was also involved in building the terminal, has been drafted to effect repairs.
Problems apparently began to appear in December, when sheets of glass fell out of place and communication cables began to fail.
The airport was built in preparation for the 2nd edition of the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games — a 10-day event due to take place in September. A website dedicated to the games is up and going and counting down the seconds to the event kicking off.
These multiple transgressions might ordinarily lead to firing galore, but with the presidential elections due on February 12, it is more likely that Berdymukhamedov will keep his powder dry until then and then reshuffle the Cabinet. Either way, somebody will have to pay.
President-elect Donald Trump's nominees for his top foreign policy, defense, and intelligence posts testified before Congress this week, and expressed hardline positions on Russia that contrast markedly with their boss's more ambiguous opinions.
Trump's views on Russia, NATO, and associated issues have received substantial scrutiny, given that they are fairly far from the mainstream in Washington. But other than a personal admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, and a skepticism -- supposedly rooted in his busisnessman's dealmaking instincts -- of the U.S.'s alliances, Trump hasn't been very detailed about what he will actually do when in power.
So the Senate confirmation hearings for Rex Tillerson, James Mattis, and Mike Pompeo -- to head the State Department, Pentagon, and CIA, respectively -- were highly anticipated events, as senators can grill Trump's lieutenants in detail about the administration's foreign policy direction.
And what emerged was that their opinions on Russia and its neighborhood are far more conventional than their boss's. All described Russia as a threat rather than as a partner (as Trump has), expressed trust in the U.S.'s allies (Trump has suggested they weigh the U.S. down), and said they took seriously allegations that Russia meddled in the presidential elections (Trump has repeatedly played down the accusations).
Of particular interest was Tillerson's testimony: as CEO of Exxon/Mobil he had done substantial business in Russia, worked personally with Putin, and got the Order of Friendship award from Russia. All that made many in the U.S. and Russia suspect that he may be a pro-Russia voice in the administration.
A curious advertisement popped up on Facebook a few days, appealing to women in Kazakhstan in search of a prospective husband: “An elite group of bachelors is coming to Astana from Beijing to make new friends and to get married. A number of special events are scheduled. The men are monied, have European educations and speak English, and many of them speak Russian. To learn more about these bachelors apply at our agency.”
News website Nur.kz looked into the matter and learned that an Astana company was indeed organizing a four-day trip in February for 15 Chinese unmarried men in search of a bride.
The business model is reminiscent of the kind of bride-hunting expeditions embarked upon by lonesome Western men in parts of the former Soviet bloc.
There is not much parity in the proposed arrangement. While the women, who have to pay 15,000 tenge ($45) to be placed on the agency’s books ($75 for first-time registration), get no say as to who they pair up with, the men may pick and choose. If the women are not picked, they lose their fee.
According to the program outlined by the Astana company, dates are organized for the couples at venues like karaoke bars and bowling alleys, and once a pair is set, they attend a gala dinner. Women then have the option of going to China at the man’s expense from a week to three months so as to acclimatize to the conditions and culture, and to see if they will be able to settle down.
All this has got some armchair patriots up in arms and sent them charging at their keyboards to vent their fury on social media.
Georgia’s largest opposition group, the avidly pro-Western United National Movement, has broken apart amid infighting over the role of the party’s chief, ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili, and the party’s loss in the 2016 parliamentary vote. The divorce could further weaken the country’s already fragmented political opposition.
The split was essentially between the brain and the body of the party, which ruled and reformed Georgia for over a decade until it was ejected by the Georgian Dream coalition in 2012. Top figures in Saakashvili’s presidential brain trust, including ex-National Security Council Secretary Giga Bokeria, ex-Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava and ex-Parliamentary Chairperson/Foreign Minister Davit Bokeria are among the score or so who opted for a political life after Misha.
Citing irreconcilable differences with the party and their former boss, the group announced a new party, as yet unnamed.
Fresh from prison, where he served a year and nine months for allegedly misspending public funds, Ugulava went straight for the jugular, blaming Saakashvili for the split.
“Saakasvhili was the party’s founder, but he has become its undoing,” he thundered, excoriating his former mentor for refusing to let go of the party and for engaging in divisive “ravings” from afar.
“This man does not radiate leadership anymore. It pains me to say this, but he is not the Mikheil Saakashvili who united the people in 2002 [ahead of the 2003 Rose Revolution] . . .” Ugulava said. “We need to look forward. If you turn back, you turn into a pillar of salt.”
The 29-year old son of Tajikistan’s president continued his speedy ascendancy through high office on January 12 with his appointment as mayor of the capital city.
Rustam Emomali will take over from the long-serving Mahmadsaid Ubaidulloev, an ultimate insider who has run Dushanbe for 19 years.
A statement on the president’s website notes that Ubaidulloev’s three deputies also resigned their “of their own will,” ensuring that Emomali will be able to smoothly move in his own team.
Nothing in Emomali’s professional background gives any indication he has the requisite skill-set to manage a city that is home to hundreds of thousands of people.
He graduated from the Tajik National University in 2008 with a degree in international economic relations and also did some courses at the foreign ministry’s diplomatic academy. In 2011, he completed legal studies at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration in Moscow.
He has served as head of the anti-corruption agency since 2015, prior to which he led the state customs service.
Despite his youth, Emomali already holds the rank of general. This is a particularly remarkable achievement considering he has not served a single day in the armed forces, as countless young Tajiks are required to do by law. None of the normal get-out exemptions from military service appear to apply to Emomali. He is not the only son in his family and is not known to suffer of any debilitating conditions. A real mystery.
The pieces are all falling into place.
It now only remains to be seen what happens with the Senate, which is currently chaired by Ubaidulloev. If the now ex-mayor decides to quit that job “of his own will” as well, Emomali may claim the post, in effect making him the formal successor to his father.
As of January 20, mobile phone operators in Tajikistan will have to increase the cost of outgoing calls to Russia by 20 percent, up to 1.20 somoni ($0.15) per minute. Only four months ago, the cost of a call to Russia per minute was only 0.69 somoni.
The price increase comes by order of the antimonopoly service and at the suggestion of the state communications agency and stands to adversely affect both mobile phone companies and people wishing to keep in touch with their relatives working abroad.
Mobile phone companies have noted on their official websites that the additional cost has been incurred by the fact that calls are now rerouted through the Unified Electronic Communications Switching Center, a network gateway run by state-owned telecommunications company Tojiktelecom, which is in turn owned by the state communications agency.
The aim behind creating the gateway, which is known by its Russian abbreviation EKTs, was said last year to be that of “ensuring national and information security.” In cruder terms, the system theoretically gives authorities complete monitoring powers over internet and mobile phone traffic.
The state communications agency is run by the notorious Beg Zukhurov, a relative of President Emomali Rahmon by marriage.
The lawyer for a prominent journalist arrested last year on charges of fraud said on January 11 that his client had admitted his guilt and returned funds he is accused of earning through intimidation.
Bigeldi Gabdullin, the 61-year old chief editor of the Central Asia Monitor newspaper and the executive director of Radiotochka.kz news website, was detained in mid-November on what authorities said was suspicion of using media under his control to intimidate officials into paying him money to avoid negative coverage.
The officials targeted in this scheme allegedly lobbied for Gabdullin to receive government contracts through a system of media subsidies known as the state order. The objects of the claimed blackmail operation later had positive articles about them appear in the media, investigators claimed at the time of Gabdullin’s arrest.
Gabdullin’s lawyer, Amanzhol Muhadmedyarov, said at a pre-trial court hearing on January 11 that his client was cooperating with the investigation and helping to clarify the circumstances of his alleged crime. The journalist has compensated the injured parties to tune of 20.6 million tenge ($62,000) and pleaded to be spared prosecution in exchange for repenting for his offense, Muhadmedyarov said.
One of the people allegedly targeted for extortion by Gabdullin spoke in court to confirm that he had received the compensation and said he wished to drop charges.
Travel-blogger Alexander Lapshin’s irreverent reviews have left him in the doghouse before, but it was an alleged trip to separatist Nagorno Karabakh that really landed him in hot water. The Israeli-Russian blogger was detained in Belarus almost a month ago, and now, reportedly, is about to get extradited to Azerbaijan for supposedly trespassing on what Baku sees as Azerbaijani territory and supporting Karabakhi independence.
The case appears to mark the first time that a foreign national has been detained outside of Azerbaijan on such grounds.
A bout of camaraderie between two mustachioed strongmen, Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, appears to have entrapped the blogger. Cooperation has been tightening recently between the two, who share a propensity for never-ending presidential terms and a dislike of critical, independent media.
To be sure, Lapshin is no freedom-fighter, like many of those who have been jailed in Belarus and Azerbaijan. Catering to Russian-speaking audiences, his Livejournal blog Puerrtto details his travels to 122 countries and territories. He has been doing mostly what travel writers do: posting photographs of landmarks and dishes, complaining about bureaucracy and bad driving, but also throwing in an occasional coarse word.
One rubric, billed as the author’s quarrels and lawsuits “with just about everyone in the world,” features Lapshin’s jeremiads about impediments to international travel. There are entries that blast Uzbekistan for requiring its citizens to get exit visas to leave the country, criticize Israel for supposedly over-zealous border guards and offer tips on how to conceal visits to Israel from select Arab countries.
Changes to the law in Kazakhstan requiring citizens traveling within the country to register with local authorities if they remain in one locality for more than one month has, as if on cue, blown up in the government’s face.
The new rules led in the past few days to long lines appearing at understaffed government service centers as people desperately tried to get their papers in order to avoid incurring official warnings and fines of up to 30,000 tenge ($90).
On January 11, Information Minister Dauren Abayev used his Facebook account to issue an apology over the fiasco.
“The public outcry and criticism of the authorities is understandable and justifiable. Unfortunately, not all the mechanisms [of this new rule] have been worked out in a timely and effective manner,” Abayev wrote.
Despite the furore, officials are sticking to their guns on the policy.
“The law has been adopted and should be implemented. Our task is to create the maximum convenience for citizens going through the registration process,” Abayev said.
Some government service centers have had to switch to 12-hour days and work through the weekend to cope with the crowds. Over the past weekend, more than 16,000 people managed to get registered as required.
Meanwhile, grumbling has been silenced forcibly through technical measures.
An online petition calling for the law, which came into force on January 7, to be scrapped was signed by 6,000 people before the petition site avaaz.org was mysteriously blocked.