With a satellite launch coming up, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev wants you to get it straight: Azerbaijan is not an ex-Soviet country; it is a cosmic country.
Following the launch, slotted for February 7, Azerbaijan will officially become “a space country,” Aliyev declared.
Azerbaijan, like some of its, well, ex-Soviet peers, is sick and tired of being put in the post-Soviet context as if it is the nation’s sole achievement. After all, the country has come a long way. Did it not feed many barrels of oil and many cubic meters of natural gas to Europe, fabulously redecorate its capital, Baku, and host the Eurovision Song Contest, for crying out loud? Will it not also host the first all-European Olympics?
Still, international media, foreign diplomats and scholars just can't kick the post-Soviet refrain.
“When sometimes in the meetings with foreign partners they say, ‘post-Soviet countries,' I go, ‘[W]ait. Azerbaijan is not a post-Soviet country. Perhaps some are post-Soviet countries, but we are not,’” News.az reported Aliyev as saying.
The entire world will stand corrected then, the thinking goes, when the region’s first independent satellite soon goes orbiting around the planet (including over Azerbaijan's much-hated neighbor, the non-cosmic country of Armenia), as airborne testimony of Azerbaijan’s progress away from the post-Soviet era.
Russia’s criminal world has been bereaved of its top gangster, 75-year-old Tbilisi-born Aslan Usoyan, known to friends and enemies alike as Grandpa Hassan. First among equals in the Soviet-born and ex-Soviet-wide system of criminals, Grandpa Hassan died a soldier’s death, shot by a sniper bullet in central Moscow, on January 16.
The Russian news agency Interfax reported symbolically that the killer fired from the roof of the apartment of the late Soviet poet Sergei Mikhalkov, who penned the lyrics of the Soviet Union's anthem.
A career criminal, Usoyan was born to a Yezidi Kurdish family in Georgia's capital, Tbilisi, once the main exporter of mafia bosses. In his teen years, he began his ascent through the Soviet mafia hierarchy known as the thieves-in-law.
His authority soon outgrew Georgia, but Grandpa Hassan kept on climbing the career ladder.
As perhaps no other institution did in Soviet times, thieves-in-law embraced the spirit of multiculturalism with Georgians, Russians, Armenians and others all participating, coexisting and fighting one another.
That code held true for Grandpa Hassan well into old age. Russian media reported that in 2008 he clashed with the competing clan of Tarieli Oniani (also Georgian) at a mafia summit, where plans for appropriating the funds for Sochi's 2014 Winter Olympics were supposedly discussed.
Proud of his ethnic roots, Grandpa Hassan was also known for affirmative action policies to promote the Kurdish minority through the criminal ranks.
He is survived by many fellow mafia bosses in Russia and outside its borders. His criminal remains may be buried near the Moscow grave of another assassinated criminal mafia boss, Yaponchik ("Little Japanese man").
The US military may have explored gay defense strategies, but Georgian prosecutors allege that Georgia's military police once made ample use of a disturbing strategy of its own -- gay honey traps to seduce socially prominent men and then blackmail them into "cooperation" with President Mikheil Saakashvili's government.
The Prosecutor’s Office claims that the military police, under their former chief, Megis Kardava, secretly filmed the private lives of homosexual men to coerce them into becoming secret agents. The recruited hommes fatales would then ensnare male targets into having sex with them and record it on camera, the allegation goes. The military police even supposedly took the trouble to hire apartments to make many reels of such rendez-vous, which would mean that Georgian taxpayers would have paid for the trysts.
Politicians, showbiz celebrities and other public figures were among the victims, according to General Prosecutor Archil Kbilashvili, who said that his office started looking into the matter after one victim complained to the police.
Prosecutors said that they are looking at a very large stash of, well, gay porn, and are pressing charges against top military police officials.
“To make sure these videos don’t become public, the blackmailed victims of the conspiracy were agreeing to publicly voice their support for the political regime and take part in the publicity events of the previous authorities,” the Prosecutor's Office said.
President Mikheil Saakashvili and Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili vie in pleasing the patriarch.
Georgia’s two squabbling rulers, the prime minister and the president, both need love . . . the love of the country’s spiritual leader, the guardian of national unity, the primus inter pares, Georgian Orthodox Church Patriarch Ilia II.
“You love him more,” Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, apparently in a sudden grip of jealousy, told the patriarch at a January 14 gathering, pointing at President Mikheil Saakashvili, who stood towering over both men with a happy smile.
“Now, why would you say he loves me more?” responded the president, tapping his diminutive rival on the shoulder.
The aging prelate, caught in the middle of the awkward exchange, maintained a diplomatic silence.
The footage of the meeting cuts there, so we don’t know the outcome of this telling conversation, but the party at the patriarch’s showed rather clearly that Georgia’s political system is not a diarchy, but a triumvirate, and that secular leaders need to vie for the holy graces of the chief of the Georgian Orthodox Church.
Georgians’ infatuation with their political leaders is pretty much a one-night stand and they tend to lose interest the moment leaders take office. But the patriarch always tops the national love charts.
And, so, well aware of the patriarch’s star power, Saakashvili and Ivanishvili turned up at the celebrations that marked Orthodox New Year, plus Ilia II's 80th birthday and the anniversary of his 1977 enthronement ; “a celebration of love,” as the church leader himself put it.
Georgia’s new political era may have begun, according to some, with political arrests, but it's now switching to political releases.
Some 190 prisoners marched out of Georgia’s notoriously overcrowded prisons on January 13 after the parliament signed an amnesty bill into law over objections from President Mikheil Saakashvili and his legislative minority. Among those amnestied under the bill were prisoners convicted of spying for Russia, participating in illegal anti-government demonstrations and army mutinies.
With reporters and relatives massed at prison gates yesterday, some prisoners started celebrating their freedom right away, setting up food and drinks on car hoods.
The joyous mood was not shared by the president, whose amnesty veto was overturned by parliament, dominated by Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s supporters. “Today the new government freed Russian spies,” the president charged. “This is a problem for the state, for the security.” He claimed that the mass release of convicts may bring to naught his administration’s attempts to build a safe, crime-free state.
But the constant Russian spy conspiracies of the past, sometimes dramatized on Saakashvili-friendly TV channels, complete with secret messages encoded in a song or sent via flashlights, have come to be taken with a large grain of salt by Georgian society.
The stage is set for another protester-police confrontation in the Azerbaijani capital. Activists plan to gather in downtown Baku on January 12 to condemn the recent death of an army conscript, Private Ceyhun Qubadov, and to raise awareness about non-combat deaths in the Azerbaijani military.
As of January 11, over 13,600 Facebook users had indicated that they would go to the event, but it is unclear if the offline rally will be a wide as the online one.
Azerbaijan’s state machinery and pro-government media have been put in motion in response to the Facebook-organized event. The Interior Ministry said that any unsanctioned rally would be prevented, which in Azerbaijani police parlance usually translates into “Demonstrators will be beaten, arrested and fined.”
To keep Baku's glamorized downtown protest-free, municipal officials do not allow rallies in the heart of the city, but the demonstrators nonetheless plan to gather in the central Fountain Square.
On January 11, pro-government media also released a statement from the deceased soldier’s mother, who requested that her son’s death not be used for political reasons and spoke against the rally. “I trust in the Azerbaijani state, its President Ilham Aliyev and hope that . . . all the culprits will be punished,” said Samira Qubadova.
Finally, the BBC has devoted a story to the pressing international issue of what the Armenians think about Kim Kardashian, and what Kardashian thinks about the Armenians.
Thanks to her Armenian last name and roots, the American celebrity is big in Armenia.
As the BBC wrote: “Photos of Kim Kardashian are splashed across the front pages of magazine and adorn billboards, the walls of car washes and car parks in Yerevan, the country’s capital.”
But Kardashian’s relationship with Armenia, just like any of her relationships, is a complicated one.
Armenians, like other peoples in the Caucasus, tend to celebrate and embrace anyone or anything that emphasizes their importance for world culture or history.
(Some Georgians, for instance, are still proud that Joseph Stalin was their man; no matter if the dictator was known for misbehavior far worse than that imputed to Kardashian.)
Armenia is not short of famous people of Armenian descent (singer Cher, French bard Charles Aznavour, billionaire Kirk Kerkorian), but the nation is divided over Kardashian.
Some ordinary Armenians, though, find it hard to identify with Kardashian. Her flamboyant ways could not be more different from the customs of this traditional Caucasus country, where, as elsewhere in the region, restraint and demureness are expected of women, and females having sex before marriage (much less recording home sex videos) is frowned upon.
In the true holiday spirit, Abkhazia's separatist authorities have requested seniors to show up in de-facto government offices after New Year’s and certify that they are alive. Only those with vital signs will receive a pension, the de-facto officials said, reasonably enough.
To get the allowance, pensioners “need to turn up at the social security agencies and prove the fact of being alive,” is the blunt way de-facto Minister of Labor and Social Development Olga Koltukova put it.
Responding to the request, scores of men and women in their 60s and older spent the festive period between New Year’s and Christmas (celebrated on January 7) doing just that.
One elderly man told the Kavkazsky Uzel news service that he was happy with how fast the certification that he's alive was going. “This is good,” he said.
Some even hold three passports - Abkhaz, Russian and Georgian – and, therefore, technically, could be entitled to state benefits from all three places.
But it is not clear just how the de-facto Abkhaz officials are testing that these elderly individuals are, in fact, alive. Perhaps the procedure involves a photo ID and mirror. In any case, by all accounts, the death check will become an annual winter holiday tradition, to be observed right after New Year’s.
A growing company of former Georgian government officials is jingling its way into prison before New Year’s Eve as the gloves come off in the ongoing confrontation between Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili and President Mikheil Saakashvili.
Yesterday, ex-Education/Justice Minister Nika Gvaramia, the current director of pro-Saakashvili TV station Rustavi2; ex-Energy/Finance Minister Aleksandre Khetaguri and ex-Deputy Economic Development Minister Kakha Damenia joined the list of Saakashvili loyalists under arrest.
Their arrests, on charges of corruption, while hailed by many critics of Saakashvili, have further fueled worries about allegedly selective prosecutions.
That sense of unease extended even to one member of the Georgian Dream, who spoke up on Facebook for the 36-year-old Gvaramia, his status update duly broadcast by Rustavi2.
Some reporters went still further and questioned why it is necessary to keep the ex-officials in jail during the holiday season, given the ongoing investigations into their cases. Justice Minister Tea Tsulukuni's response? Ringing in the New Year from prison is "not a big deal."
Saakashvili has strongly defended the incarcerated ex-officials, saying they were arrested by “classroom underachievers.” UNM parliamentarians responded by walking out of parliament. Angry protesters who mobbed the presidential convoy, and had at it with UNM lawmakers, were certainly ready to wish them well on their way. Ivanishvili condemned the incident, but Saakashvili placed the blame on the prime minister, adding that the Georgian Dream also wants to take away his bodyguards.
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.