Tag Archives: Armenia

Tbilisi Hangout 010

In case you’re not already watching, Georgian journalist, blogger and professor extraordinaire Mirian Jugheli and I have been hosting a weekly show on Google Hangouts that streams live to YouTube every Wednesday at 20:00 Tbilisi time (GMT +4).

If you’re into Georgian and Caucasus news, I strongly recommend you check it out and comment on the page live while we’re going to get involved.

The show is also now broadcast on radio GIPA FM 94.3 in Georgia Thursday nights at the same time. If you miss both times, it’s no big deal, you can watch the show anytime on YouTube. Check it out!

Also, like us on Facebook for reminders when to tune in and for extra links and materials about what we’re talking about each week at this link.

South Caucasus internet vulnerable to shut down — accidental or intentional

My most recent article in The Faster Times was intended for another publication, but the unfortunately changed their freelance policy literally hours after I sent it in and it didn’t run.

Be on the lookout for more Faster Times stuff from me, covering protests across the Caucasus.

In recent years, internet security has become an issue of increasing concern for governments around the globe, but in the turbulent South Caucasus, local experts say the threats against both the physical internet infrastructure and cyberattacks against governments and organizations are a reality.

The fragility of the South Caucasus internet infrastructure was underlined this March when a 75-year-old Georgian woman allegedly shut off the internet for 90 percent of Armenia as well as large parts of Georgia and Azerbaijan, by accidentally cutting a fiber-optic cable while digging for copper wire.

Network monitors in Western Europe alerted Georgian authorities to the source of the disruption, and the internet was restored five hours later.

Currently, most internet coverage in the three South Caucasus countries, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, comes from a single fiber optic line that traverses the Black sea into Georgia. From there, the system is neither properly protected, nor properly backed-up said Thomas Van Dam an internet expert who worked with online marketing firm, MatchCraft, in Georgia until 2010.

“There is zero redundancy in the system,” he said. “This is strange because the concept of ’99 percent uptime’ is only possible when you have fully redundant systems.”

Representatives from Georgian Railway Telecom, which owns Georgia’s fiber optic lines, said the company is currently “undergoing reorganization” and were unable to respond to media queries.

To continue reading, click here.

Sharks in the waters of the Georgian casino industry

For more than a decade, Georgia has been virtually the only place in the region to go for (legal) gambling. Unfortunately for the Georgian casino industry, that’s about to change. But not all change is bad, and although the industry faces new threats, new opportunities are also beginning to emerge.

When I wasn’t running around Abkhazia or teaching English over the last couple of months, I have been looking into this trend for Investor.ge.

Georgia has seen few industries boom in the   years since its independence like the casino industry. While neighboring countries banned or tightly limited gambling throughout the 1990’s, Georgia allowed it to flourish; as a result there are more than 500 slot clubs currently operating in Tbilisi. But the gambling business is now facing new threats. In the last several years, Georgian casinos have increasingly been the target of proposed tax legislation as the government vied for a bigger slice of the industry’s traditionally murky profit pie. Furthermore, although Georgia once occupied the title of the Las Vegas of the region, it is no longer the only game in town.

In Azerbaijan gambling has been illegal since 1998; however, as of January this year state-run gambling houses are now allowed to operate. In the same month Armenia issued licenses to dozens of gambling organizations, which, once relegated to the outskirts of Yerevan, are now working their way into the city.

But Vedran Bajat, General Manager of Casino Adjara, said that he has been closely watching these changes in the market and in his opinion they will not have a significant impact on the Georgian casino business.

Despite the fact that a steady stream of Armenian and Azeri thrill-seekers has traditionally been a boon for the Georgian casinos, Bajat estimated that Casino Adjara, which attracts an average of 1,000 players per day, has a clientele that is 90 percent local. In addition, he pointed out that Azerbaijan has only legalized sports betting and lotteries, so Azeri crapshooters and card-players will still have to make the trip west to Tbilisi or Batumi to get their fill.

Still, the increased competition, high taxes and a steep 5 million GEL ($3 million) annual licensing fee for casinos seems to have made it difficult to break into the market. Currently, only two casinos operate in Tbilisi: Casino Adjara and Iveria Casino. A third, Grand Sakartvelo closed recently.

To continue reading, click here.

Armenians head to Kansas to learn about policing

A delegation of Armenian police officers got a stroll around the town of Lawrence in my home state earlier this month to learn about how community initiatives can aid in police strategy and reduce crime.

“In Kansas, we’ve discussed ways in which they are involved in community policing,” Armenian police Col. Karen Mehrabyan said through an interpreter. “And besides being involved in studying community policing, we’ve been involved in studying the entire police system.”

Since March 8, the delegation, which visited the state through the Kansas National Guard’s state partnership program, has met with police departments in Kansas City, Kan., Overland Park, Wichita and Park City and toured the Kansas Law Enforcement Training Center in Hutchinson, a unit of KU’s continuing education program.

The news article spends far less talking about the program itself and more time describing the delegates visits to the pride of Lawrence — the University of Kansas’ artificial turf American football stadium.

Kansas Memorial Stadium, the "Colosseum" courtesy of Wikimedia commons

In fact, it opens:

As five Armenian police leaders followed Brad Nachtigal into Memorial Stadium Friday afternoon, they suddenly stopped to examine the artificial FieldTurf surface.

It was not grass, and was unfamiliar territory for the delegation visiting Lawrence.

“This is rubber, rubber pellets,” said Nachtigal, a Kansas University associate athletics director, as the members of the delegation crowded around him.

Col. Mehrabyan, however, suggested that the tour wasn’t totally irrelevant to the work of police.

To Mehrabyan Memorial Stadium was “impressive.” He said Armenia has an interest in building more sports facilities to keep young people engaged in sports activities and off the streets where they can get into trouble.

The promise and threat of effective missile/air defense

Coming to a breakaway territory near you!

In the February issue of the Washington Diplomat, managing editor Anna Gawel and I, chimed in on what has been and is likely to be one of the defining issues in East-West relations for years to come — missile/air defense.

In the article we talk about how defensive systems have been the source of both tension and rapprochement in recent years from Poland, to Abkhazia, to Azerbaijan and Iran.

Throughout the Cold War, the deployment of offensive missile systems on air, land and sea by NATO and the Soviet Union was a constant point of contention — one that nearly sparked cataclysmic war during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

Now, in the post-Cold War era, the focus has shifted to defensive missile systems, which have had their own contentious, complicated history over the last decade alone. And while their deployment continues to inflame regional politics in many parts of the globe, from Eurasia to the United States, the potential for finding common ground on missile defense may conversely quell tensions between former Cold War adversaries.

At a summit in Lisbon last November, NATO leaders agreed to implement President Barack Obama’s revamped missile defense strategy for Europe that would phase in sea- and land-based components over the next decade. Most notably, however, Russia pledged to cooperate with NATO on the U.S.-planned missile network in Europe in what was seen as a major foreign policy breakthrough for Obama — and a dramatic turnaround from the Bush administration’s previous missile defense plans that sparked angry objections from Moscow that Washington was needlessly ratcheting up Cold War-era tensions.

In stark contrast, the Lisbon accord “symbolized a conclusion by the United States and its main European allies that Russia is not a threat to be protected from but a potential ally in girding the continent against possible ballistic missile attacks from Iran or elsewhere,” wrote Edward Cody in the Washington Post.

Over the next year, the NATO strategy calls for the deployment of sea-based weapons system off Europe, with additional mobile radar and interceptor assets in the Black Sea, as well as integrating the missile defense networks of NATO states. By 2020, the $20 billion program would deploy advanced defenses against medium, intermediate and intercontinental ballistic missiles on both land and air in Europe. To continue reading, click here.

The most important things I forgot to talk about

Hey everyone, so after a busy week, I’m getting myself back into the blogging biz with a few things you may have missed.

Tans take time.

  • Mr. Saakashvili goes to Washington: Arriving Jan. 15 to participate in a memorial service for the late Richard Holbrooke, the Georgian president met with U.S. President Barack Obama for “more than 25 miutes” according to Saakashvili’s office. He also met with various other American legislators including  House Majority Leader John Boehner, which was quite an honor considering he has turned down multiple meetings with the U.S. President, and most recently declined to meet Chinese Premier Hu Jintao.
  • Russia’s North Caucasus Problems: Our friends at Evolutsia.net had a great piece on the two primary developments in North Caucasus: a tragic reminder of the struggle’s costs, and uncertain potential in the Kremlin’s new strategy. First, an suicide bomber at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport, likely linked to North Caucasus militants, killed at least 35 people Jan. 24 and injured 168, reminding Russia and the world of the seriousness of its problems in the desolate North Caucasus. On the other hand, the Kremlin’s new envoy to the region, Aleksandr Khloponin, is beginning to get settled in. His ambitious plan to 400 billion rubles ($13.4 billion) to develop the devastated and underdeveloped region seems to have Russia headed on the right track, but Evolutsia and other Eurasia analysts worry that parallel — but not conjoined — economic and military efforts will still fail to address the problem. All the same, very few holistic approaches to impoverished regions beset by insurgencies have worked either (see Afghanistan).
  • Armenia and Azerbaijan shake hands again: The region’s two worst neighbors came back to the negotiating table yesterday (hopefully avoiding the Moscow airport) to discuss their ongoing dispute over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Hopefully, at least a symbolic agreement can be made that will cool down tensions that flared last summer, costing several lives and worrying the international community that all-out war might follow.
  • Three Kings and its partners are getting real: Last week we put out a survey to readers of English-language media on Georgia and the South Caucasus in preparation for a new media project of our own. If you haven’t gotten three minutes to fill it out yet, stop reading this and do so now at this link!
  • Even more important stuff: I’ll have more later today on the 13th casualty of Georgia’s participation in America’s wars and on the eviction of another 1500 Georgian IDP’s from the capital, Tbilisi.

The Best and Worst of the Caucasus 2010

The brand new Peace Bridge in Tbilisi. Guess which category this falls under?

After having lots of ideas bouncing my head during my long holiday back in the United States, I finally developed a list of what I thought were the Best and the Worst developments of the Caucasus in 2010 for The Faster Times and finally jotted it all down during a long layover in Washington Dulles airport. Feel free to agree, disagree and lambast me in the comments below.

Like any good journalist  knows, as the new year approaches, tradition dictates a warm look back at the year gone by and remember the good times and the bad that defined this notch on history’s timeline. This is done principally for two reasons: 1.) it’s an opportunity for journalists to take up the mantle of chroniclers of our times and 2.) it’s an easy way to fill space as we all take time off for the holidays.

And so, without further ado, I present the Best and Worst of the Caucasus 2010:

Best step towards peace and stabilityGeorgia’s unilateral non-use of force pledge towards Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Russia. It is unfortunate that the Georgian leadership waited so long to make such a pledge. Critics will say this plays into Russia’s hands, but it’s not like the policy of isolation and occasional attempts at seizure by force have brought Tbilisi any closer to resolution of its internal conflicts over the past 17 years. This agreement, accepted in principle by both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, puts the ball in their court and can begin the long journey of unwinding the deep mistrust between ordinary citizens on both sides.

Worst step towards peace and stabilityBorder skirmishes and blustery statementsbetween Azerbaijan and Armenia undermined peace in Nagorno-Karabakh throughout the summer. Despite peace summits in St. Petersburg, Russia and Almaty, Kazakhstan, bullets continued to fly along the line of contact between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces around the de facto border of Nagorno-Karabakh. Just 24 hours after the Russia-hosted summit, Azerbaijan mounted an incursion into Armenian-held territory that left five soldiers dead and that the OSCE deemed “an attempt to damage the peace process.”

To continue reading, click here.

Georgia hearts logistics

New roads and rail means faster cargo. Image courtesy of Investor.ge

Okay, so logistics isn’t exactly the sexiest industry to talk about. Georgian officials and local market-watchers like to talk about tourism, wine and Caucasus gold, because, well, they’re a lot more exciting.

But, one of the major areas of development in the Georgian economy is logistics services, and if the region can continue to move in the right direction, this could become one of the most profitable — and exciting — sectors of the economy.

For more, I took a look at all of this in a piece for the December-January issue of Investor.ge.

Georgian Finance Minister Kakha Baindurashvili signed a new customs and trade agreement with Turkey in October, in a sign of growing ties between the two countries and progress in developing Georgia as a transit and logistics hub.

The new agreement should streamline the customs procedures at the nations’ borders, consolidating it to a single-form process, with customs declarations only needing to be made at the country of exit. Baindurashvili said that the new process, which is similar to the arrangement on the French-Swiss border, should halve the crossing time and could boost transit by as much as 60 percent.

Mean and lean transit

Baindurashvili said the government is looking to emulate countries such as Denmark, whose small size and key location have allowed it to make logistical services one of the most developed sectors of its economy. The agreement with Turkey also finalizes the opening of a third border crossing at the town of Kartsakhi, which, unlike the border post near Akhaltsikhe, could be open year-round and would connect to the Kars highway allowing for more direct trade with Syria and Iraq.

Negotiations over this agreement began in 2008, and are a part Georgia’s efforts to develop logistics services in the country and establish Georgia as a hub in the region – efforts that include the development of the Poti free trade zone, tax incentives for warehousing construction and the renovation of Georgia’s road, rail and air transit infrastructure.

To continue reading, click here.

Iran says hello to our little friend

Understanding that its relations with Russia are unlikely to improve anytime soon,  Georgia has been slowly building on its relationship with another regional power, Iran, and improved ties seems to be a part of both nations’ long-term goals.

On May 21, the Georgian Foreign Ministry announced a “new stage” in Georgian-Iranian relations, signing a memorandum of understanding “on cooperation in the media sphere.”

“Relations between Iran and Georgia are excellent,” [Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin] Mehmanparast said [at the time]. “In political affairs we have very good relationship, but we think that we should increase our cooperation in economic affairs… especially in energy sector, agriculture.”

The two sides also agreed in to enact visa-free travel between their countries and Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili said on May 25 that such a move was common sense.

“Of course we will intensify trade relations,” Saakashvili continued. “As far as political relations are concerned, it depends on many international factors. In general we do not want to have bad relations with anyone; we are not self-murderers. We’ll do everything that is rational.”

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Seatbelts, an invisible cross and mothers on the march: Three Kings news roundup


I must say that my favorite news of the week is that, according to the Caucasus Environmental NGO Network, a bill has made it to the floor in the Georgian parliament that would make wearing seatbelts obligatory (finally!). Drivers and front row passengers will be answerable to a 40 lari ($22) fine if they are pulled over and aren’t wearing them.

According to a 2009 study by the World Health Foundation, Georgia has 16.8 traffic-related fatalities per year per 100,000 people; by contrast the Netherlands has 4.1 road deaths per 100,000 per year according to the same study. Anyone living here can attest that far from the safety risks of war, crime or natural disasters — everyone in Georgia should be most afraid of cars, whether in them or near them. Imagine rally racing on an urban track.

If this bill passes and is actually enforced it will likely cause angst among the population, however. I would be willing to bet that less than half of the cars on the road in Georgia — and probably 30 percent of the taxis have working seatbelts. Although it may cause temporary economic hardship to some, it is definitely a good thing as the chaos on the roads is the most pressing public safety issue in Georgia.

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