With Georgia's politicians long accustomed to describing each other as devils, demons and all things beside, it is, perhaps, only fitting that the election for the country's next president will take place on Halloween.
Georgians are not likely to hit the polls in costumes, however. The Halloween tradition is still only just beginning to emerge here -- primarily in Tbilisi -- over the objections of the Georgian Orthodox Church. But the timing will add to the suspense.
By law, President Mikhail Saakashvili was required to set the day for the vote sometime in October. And, obliged to step down after two terms in office, he has chosen to hold on to power until the last constitutionally allowed day, October 31.
But, the Halloween backdrop aside, some local commentators believe that the election is going to be the least eventful presidential vote since Georgia regained its independence in 1991.
Thanks to constitutional reforms, whoever becomes the new inhabitant of Tbilisi's glass-domed, cliff-top presidential palace will be much weaker than his or her predecessors. The key powers will be concentrated in no less glassy a palace on the opposite hill, the dwelling place of Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.
A Russian rocket has exploded and crashed shortly after taking off from the Baikonur space-launch site in central Kazakhstan. The incident is likely to make further waves in Russo-Kazakh relations, which are already strained over cosmic cooperation.
Dramatic live video broadcast by the Rossiya 24 channel showed the Proton-M rocket taking off from Baikonur then veering off course before bursting into flames, breaking up and crashing to the ground.
The rocket engines cut out 17 seconds after takeoff and it crashed 2.5 kilometers from the launch pad, Russian space agency Roskosmos said. It added that there were no reported casualties or damage at the scene of the crash. Video of the incident showed the burning rocket, which was carrying three satellites into space, setting fire to the ground where it landed.
A Russian space industry source told RIA Novosti that problems with the flight control system were the likely cause of the crash, but Kazakh Emergencies Situations Minister Vladimir Boyko preliminarily put it down to engine failure, as a result of which there was “combustion of fuel, some of which fell to the ground and continued to burn,” he said in remarks quoted by Tengri News.
Villagers in a valley in eastern Kazakhstan knew what to blame when they kept being hit by misfortune: the restless spirits of one of their illustrious ancestors, unearthed from his elaborate grave a decade ago by archeologists.
Now, to the chagrin of historians from Kazakhstan and Russia who have spent 10 years studying the body for clues about the ancient Scythians who inhabited the steppes of Eurasia, the body has been returned to the grave to appease those spirits, KTK TV reports.
The villagers had lobbied heavily to have the body returned from Almaty, where it was being studied, and buried because “since the burial mound was dug up, utter misfortune has befallen the region: hurricanes keep raging over and over, cattle is dying in the villages, and children are being born sick. All this, the villagers said, was because historians disturbed the spirits of the ancestors.”
The Scythian nobleman, originally buried decked out in gold as a mark of respect for his rank, was returned to his original grave near the settlement of Shilikty at a ceremonial burial, and the villagers now plan to erect a memorial in his honor. The hapless historians have managed to secure agreement that they can reenter the grave for more studies if the need arises.
Kazakhstan is a treasure trove of amazing archeological finds. The jewel in the crown is the Golden Man, found in the Issyk burial mound just outside Kazakhstan’s commercial capital, Almaty, in 1969. Believed to have been a young Scythian prince who lived in the 4th or 5th century BC, he was interred wearing some 4,000 gold ornaments.
Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov, who is more known for jailing journalists than praising them, has warned that his country will end up on the "fringes of global progress" unless it wholeheartedly embraces the media.
Congratulating journalists on a Soviet-era holiday in their honor that is celebrated in Uzbekistan on June 27, Karimov hailed his country’s media as a "mirror of deep socio-political reforms and democratic renewal" and a "powerful force capable of changing the thinking and outlook of our people," the state-run UzA news agency quoted him as saying.
Though he didn’t go so far as to say that Uzbekistan needs a “free media,” the ideas are a bit out of character for the strongman who brooks no decent and jails journalists.
For the past several years Uzbekistan has been continuously ranked one of Reporters Without Borders’ “Enemies of the Internet” for censorship and online snooping. Freedom House ranked Uzbekistan 195 of 197 countries (just ahead of Turkmenistan and North Korea) in its most recent "Freedom of the Press" index because "independent media are either nonexistent or barely able to operate, the press acts as a mouthpiece for the regime, citizens’ access to unbiased information is severely limited, and dissent is crushed through imprisonment, torture, and other forms of repression."
The exodus of Syria’s ethnic Armenian community to Armenia was seen, at least in part, as a temporary phenomenon. But it appears that the thousands of Syrian war migrants have come to Armenia to stay, Armenian officials say.
“If . . . last year, some 80-90 percent of Syrian Armenians were saying that they planned on going back to Syria, now they are thinking of making their home here,” Firdus Zakaryan, a representative of the Diaspora ministry told the Panorama news site.
Extending a helping hand to ethnic Armenian communities in trouble is a matter of national honor for the Armenian state, which maintains close ties with the far-flung Armenian Diaspora. Over the past few years, Yerevan has been carrying in and making room for thousands of ethnic Armenians caught in the crossfire between the Syrian government and rebels.
Yerevan says it is happy to have Armenia's Syrian relatives over for as long as they want. But the extended hospitality is a major humanitarian burden. The Armenian government needs to find housing, jobs and schools for the endless stream of arrivals, who have spent generations apart from Armenia, and speak Arabic and/or Western Armenian, not the official Eastern Armenian of the motherland.
But with the country still struggling to cope with massive labor migration -- disputed government data claims 49,660 citizens emigrated for good in 2012, EurasiaNet.org's Marianna Grigoryan has reported -- dealing with an influx of newcomers is a task Armenia is more than willing to take on, however.
A Russian vessel takes part in 2011 exercises on the Caspian Sea. (photo: mil.ru)
Russia and Iran will conduct joint naval exercises on the Caspian Sea some time this year, Russian and Iranian military officials have announced. Iran sent a small naval flotilla last week to Astrakhan, the base of Russia's Caspian fleet, and on Saturday Nikolay Yabukovsky, deputy commander of Russia's Caspian Fleet, said that "Port calls and joint exercises with the forces of the Caspian Fleet are planned for the second half of this year."
Particularly interesting was the statement of Iran's military attache to Moscow, Colonel Soleiman Adeli, who told the Fars News Agency: "Iran and Russia want the Caspian Sea littoral states to protect the security of the Sea without the foreign powers' interference and they consider the presence of the aliens as a cause of tension and strife."
Uzbeks may finally be able to trade their wheelbarrows for wallets.
Currently, Uzbekistan’s most valuable banknote is worth about $0.37. But on July 1 the Central Bank will release a 5,000-sum note, worth about $1.85 on the black market. Many hope the new bills will make life easier for shoppers who now carry around sacks of Uzbek cash to perform the simplest transactions.
The Central Bank announced its decision on June 27, after earlier denying reports of the new bills. Last time Uzbekistan introduced a new bill was in 2001, with the 1,000-sum note – the one that’s now worth about $0.37. (The official exchange rate stands at 2,093 sums to the dollar. Cash dollars are currently changing hands for slightly over 2,700 sums on the black market.)
Observers believe Uzbek authorities have been reluctant to put higher-denominated banknotes into circulation, fearing forgers would target the sum. Larger notes would also highlight decades of failure of Tashkent’s monetary policy. (In February, the BBC reported that Uzbekistan is home to the world’s most worthless coin, the tiyin, which is worth about 1/2000 of a US cent (at the official exchange rate)).
So now that Kyrgyzstan President Almazbek Atambayev has signed the law annulling the agreement with the U.S. to host the Manas air base, what's the future of the base? It's still not clear that the law will have any legal impact, as the date it specifies for the U.S. departure was the date that the current agreement was supposed to expire anyway. While the law seems an obvious political signal, what is the government trying to say?
In a must-read analysis for the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, Erica Marat notes that until recently, Kyrgyzstan's parliament was poised to defeat the bill calling for the annulment of the base agreement. But then a number of events changed their calculation. From the U.S. side, the Department of Justice dropped charges against former first-son Maxim Bakiyev, to the dismay of many in the new government. Meanwhile, Russia -- which has long opposed the base's existence -- agreed to fund a strategic hydropower plant and to forgive $500 million of Kyrgyzstan's debt. Thus, the 91-5 vote in parliament in favor of annulment.
UPDATE: The publicist for J.Lo (or J-Low, as she's being called on Twitter) has effectively admitted not knowing how to use Google: "Had there been knowledge of human rights issues [of] any kind, Jennifer would not have attended," the Associated Press quoted her representative as saying.
Pop star Jennifer Lopez performed at a glitzy birthday bash for the dictator of totalitarian, gas-rich Turkmenistan on Saturday, AFP reported, prompting fury from human rights activists.
Held at President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s multi-billion-dollar Avaza resort on the Caspian Sea, the party was a gift from the China National Petroleum Corporation, a company representative told AFP. In 2009 CNPC opened a pipeline carrying Turkmen natural gas to China.
Dressed in a clingy outfit, the singer danced with half-naked backing dancers and shook her famous behind in a rare performance for the Muslim country, watched by ministers, ambassadors and chief executives of state-owned companies, all of whom applauded enthusiastically.
She later appeared in a traditional Turkmen dress to sing "Happy birthday, Mr President" along with stars from Russia, Ukraine, Turkey and China.
Berdymukhamedov's 56th birthday bash at the glitzy resort in Avaza, which means "land of singing waves", is officially tied to Turkmen cultural week, which culminated on Saturday with the opening of a yacht club at the resort and a firework display which lasted 20 minutes.
Visitors to Prometheus Cave near Kutaisi follow an underground trail flanked by multi-colored strobes to highlight the underworld. The cave, open to visitors since 2011, is one of a few sites designed to promote tourism in western Georgia.
Temo Bardzimashvili is a freelance photojournalist based in Tbilisi.