A lengthy court case on a controversial police crackdown has ended in a guilty verdict for ex-Georgian Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili, once one of the most powerful figures of former President Mikheil Saakashvili's era.
A Kutaisi court on February 27 gave 45-year-old Merabishvili a prison sentence of just over four and a half years for allegedly having overstepped his power as interior minister during the brutal dispersal of an anti-government rally in Tbilisi on May 26, 2011. The tumult, in which two people were killed, plus scores injured and arrested, sparked a general outcry among Georgian society and served to harden opposition to Saakashvili.
This time, the debate was more localized.
Outside the courthouse in Tbilisi, a fight broke out between supporters and critics of Merabisvhili, who remains the secretary-general of Saakashvili's United National Movement. Police made arrests.
Fellow UNM members claimed that the judge gave in to pressure from the ruling Georgian Dream -- a claim not without its irony, given occasions in the past when the same was said of the UNM.
Ten days earlier, Merabishvili also was sentenced to nine years in prison on separate embezzlement and extortion charges. Even with time subtracted for the nine months he already has spent in jail in pre-trial detention, at this rate, the former power broker will be approaching the age of retirement before he gets out of prison.
The massive Ergenekon and Balyoz trials, which helped send a large number of high-profile Turks (numerous generals among them) to jail on charges of planning a coup, were hailed by many as an important step in finally confronting the troubling history of Turkey's "Deep State" and in finally breaking the military's unhealthy hold on political life.
Those were certainly noble objectives, but from the beginning of those cases there were those who asked if the evidence in the trials really held up. Already in 2009, analyst Gareth Jenkins issued a highly critical report about the Ergenkon case, writing: "Despite its extraordinary length, the indictment produced no evidence that the Ergenekon organization it described even existed, much less that the accused were all members and engaged in a coordinated terrorist campaign to overthrow the government."
Economist and blogger Dani Rodrik (whose father-in-law was one of the generals caught up in the Balyoz (or "Sledgehammer") investigation) was also an early and constant critic of the cases and Istanbul-based journalist Alexander Christie-Miller produced some very good pieces noting the profound problems with the evidence used in the trials (take a look at this article in The Times (London) from 2011).
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili in Washington on February 26. (photo: U.S. State Department)
The U.S. State Department has endorsed granting Georgia its long-coveted status as an aspiring NATO member, the Membership Action Plan, on the heels of Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili'shigh-profile trip to Washington. It's not clear whether this represents a substantive policy shift, but it is the first time in recent memory that the U.S. has explicitly come out in favor of MAP.
In response to a recent letter by 40 members of Congress urging the State Department to "advocate granting MAP to Georgia, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State of Legislative Affairs Julia Frifield wrote:
We believe Georgia deserves credit at the upcoming NATO Summit for the progress it has made and its demonstrated commitment to NATO operations and standards. We stand ready to support Georgia's own efforts to build a consensus within the Alliance for granting it a Membership Action Plan.
Now, that isn't the strongest statement ever, and Secretary of State John Kerry's remarks with Gharibashvili repeated what has been the standard Washington line that "We stand by the Bucharest decision and all subsequent decisions that Georgia will become a member of NATO," adding that: "The United States will work to make sure that Georgia’s progress is acknowledged by all members of this year’s NATO Summit."
(It was the 2008 Bucharest summit, recall, where NATO declined to give Georgia MAP but instead said that Georgia and Ukraine "will become members of NATO." And we see how that worked out in Ukraine...)
Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili has become another Georgian leader to go to Washington in search of US protection from Russia. This time around, Georgia hopes that the US can help make sure Russia does not try to pull a Ukraine in Georgia to prevent it from entering the European Union’s economic space.
“[The Sochi Olympic] Games are over, and we expect Russia to increase pressure on Georgia before signing the association agreement with the European Union,” Gharibashvili said after meeting President Barack Obama and Vice-President Joseph Biden on February 25. “[W]e would highly appreciate the US administration, Congress, think-tanks…. [expressing] support [to] us through constant and proper messaging to Russia, upholding the European choices of Georgia,” Gharibashvili commented at a talk the same day at the Atlantic Council.
Central Asia’s autocrats were no doubt watching askance as Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich fell from power this weekend. But regional media coverage of the dramatic developments in that other volatile former Soviet republic, while generally cautious, has presented a few surprises.
Of course, given the unpleasant parallels between Yanukovich’s governing style and the rule of Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan and Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov in Turkmenistan, those countries’ tightly controlled media have maintained a studied silence on popular protests that overthrew an entrenched leader.
However, one Uzbek website that sometimes takes a maverick stance did broach the topic – pooh-poohing the idea of a Ukraine-style scenario playing out in Uzbekistan.
The circumstances in the two countries do not bear comparison, argued a commentary published February 25 on Uzmetronom, a site believed to have links to the powerful SNB domestic intelligence agency. Karimov is not susceptible to Western pressure, said editor-in-chief Sergey Yezhkov, and it is more in his nature to make a last stand than to give up power.
Officials also know where their bread is buttered, Yezhkov continued, and take the view that “better a bit of bread and butter today (being in power guarantees this) than uncertainty in the future.” Finally, ordinary people have something to lose: “It is paradoxical, but [even] with serious restrictions on political and civil liberties [and] a difficult economic situation… [still] no harbingers or signs of a rebellion are observed in Uzbekistan.”
The release of a recording of what sounds like Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan instructing his son Bilal over the phone on how to hide very large sums of currency has presented the PM with one of the most serious challenges of his twelve-year rule.
The leaking and the contents of the conversation, which appears to have taken place some two months ago, may have shocked some Turks, but Erdogan himself should not have been too surprised that his phone might have been tapped. After all, in a 2009 interview with the NTV television network, Erdogan expressed concern that his phone conversations were being listened to. "What do you think? Of course I am worried about it. Therefore I watch what I say over the phone. I'm not comfortable speaking over the phone," Erdogan told his interviewer.
"I tell people who want to speak on the phone to come visit me."
Erdogan's concern at the time was not unreasonable. Over the last seven years or so, wiretapping -- both legal and illegal -- has been booming in Turkey, with the release of secretly recorded audio and video now an integral feature of Turkish political life. Wiretaps were a major feature of the Ergenekon case and the online release of secretly recorded video of Deniz Baykal, former leader of the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), having a liaison with a female colleague was responsible for the veteran politician's exit from public life in 2010.
Sahlep, a hot, milky drink made from the powdered root of a type of orchid, may be a sweet wintertime treat in Istanbul, but for the roving vendors who sell the beverage from rolling carts, life is anything but sweet. Faced with growing pressure from municipal authorities, who are working to crack down on unlicensed street vendors, Istanbul's sahlep sellers are struggling to survive, with their carts sometimes confiscated.
Tagging along with one seller named Huseyin Kozak as he cruises the snowy streets of Istanbul's Beyoglu neighborhood, Culinary Backstreets in a new article offers a look into the life of the city's sahlep sellers -- most of whom come from the same village in Turkey's Isparta region -- and the history behind their work. From the article:
By the name of the place, you’d expect the Sütçüler (“Milkmen” in English) district near Isparta in southern Turkey to be a dairyland paradise, thick on the ground with men carrying buckets sloshing fresh milk, cheese wheels stacked in cool dark sheds, verdant hills freckled with cows. But there are no milkmen in Sütçüler, at least not in the wintertime. The area’s name actually has nothing to do with anything going on in Sütçüler itself.
The mayor of Sütçüler, Hüseyin Müftüoğlu confirmed this over the phone. “In 1938, the decision was made to name this area Sütçüler. For more than 100 years, in Istanbul, in every neighborhood there’s a milkman and almost surely, that man is from here, one of our Sütçüler brothers,” Müftüoğlu told us.
From a distance, it might seem like these Ispartans are dairymen, providing an important link between city folk and the farms back in the village, but spending some time among those from Sütçüler, we found their most common feature to be their willingness to grind out a living by dragging a push cart through the streets of Istanbul, winter after winter.
With Ukraine now a lost cause for the Customs Union, Russia’s Vladimir Putin has checked in with Armenian Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian to see how Armenia's plans to join the Customs Union are coming along.
For Russia, Armenia is a poor substitute for Ukraine, but still a victory in Moscow's efforts to assert its broader economic clout through the trade bloc.
Prime Minister Sarkisian seems to have seized on that status to lodge a request with Moscow to keep the investments coming and to underwrite some of the legal and institutional changes that Armenia needs to meet the upcoming trade club’s membership rules by 2015. Yerevan also needs resources to keep selling Armenians on the idea of pushing the country into what many claim will be an economic throwback to the USSR.
How far Kocharian could go with this is unclear. Memories of the 2008 bloodshed under his administration do not endear him uniformly to Armenian voters. But his choice of topic could add at least some fuel to the fire.
A court in Dushanbe has ordered a local journalist to pay over $6,200 in moral damages for insulting a group of state-appointed intellectuals, local media reported on February 25. The average monthly salary in Tajikistan is about $200.
The suit was in response to a commentary Asia-Plus editor Olga Tutubalina wrote last May, where she condemned the cozy relationships many writers and artists enjoy with the administration of President Imomali Rakhmon. Quoting a letter that Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin supposedly wrote, she asserted that the official creative class – which receives extensive state perks for supporting the state – is “not [the nation’s] brains but its shit.”
The Firdavsi District court ruled that Tutubalina must apologize and that Asia-Plus must publish a retraction, in addition to the crippling 30,000 somoni in damages, according to Asia-Plus’s account.
Last summer, Tutubalina told EurasiaNet.org that she did not mean to insult anyone and insisted she had nothing to apologize for. “One particular segment of the intelligentsia does not deserve respect. I meant those who speak only when they get permission from above,” she said. Asia-Plus's lawyers plan to appeal.
Controversial as he is back home, former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili seems to have found a receptive audience in Ukraine. There now have been two Misha sightings in Kyiv; the latest on February 23 when he popped up to congratulate Ukraine on giving the boot to President Viktor Yanukovich and his plans to keep Ukraine aligned with Russia.
“The Russian Empire has ended its existence right here, in this very place,” Saakashvili thundered in Ukrainian to a street gathering, outlets reported. That line might sound like old hat for Misha. But the revolution in Ukraine is a bit personal.
For one, it has offered him an opportunity to become relevant again. Tbilisi's measured response to the Ukrainian crisis has disappointed many Georgians, who strongly believe the struggle mirrors Georgia's own tug-of-war with Russia. (Particularly after the death of two Georgians -- for reasons under investigation -- during the protests.) Consequently, even some Misha critics have wished of late for "a Misha moment" of impassioned oratory in support of the Ukrainian protesters.
Leave it to Georgia's ex-president, a public speaker to the bone, to step up to the plate.
And in writing, too. In a recent piece for Politico, he shared his recipe for a successful revolution, and called on the US and Europe to help Ukraine create a working government and keep Moscow in check.