Tag Archives: Azerbaijan

When You Call Georgia, Who Picks Up the Phone?

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Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, courtesy of wikicommons

As Europe increasingly began integrating the European Union and becoming more of a bloc than a constellation of self-interested nations, Henry Kissinger once famously retorted, “When you call Europe, who picks up the phone?”

Georgia, which is now going through its first experience with divided government, faces a similar problem with its foreign policy.

Although the Georgian Dream government, which won parliamentary elections last fall, has formed its own cabinet and staffed the Foreign Ministry itself, that hasn’t kept officials from the previous government from representing its own foreign policy vision on trips abroad and in public statements.

After all, the United National Movement party still holds the executive branch and a sizable minority in the parliament. But, after presidential elections this October, a new Constitution will take effect and transition the country into a parliament-centric system where the president is largely a figurehead. Until then, however, the country is still run by a system with a powerful executive president.

So who’s in charge?

Technically both parties are, but they have been unsuccessful thus far in coordinating their new foreign policy together, so each side has been making foreign visits, each espousing very different viewpoints on where the country should be headed. Foreign leaders and outside observers can be forgiven for being confused by the display.

The focal point of the schizophrenic statements is, of course, Russia. Since his initial election in 2004, President Mikheil Saakashvili has styled himself as an anti-Russian, pro-Western crusader. Prime Minister Ivanishvili, who took power in October, meanwhile, campaigned on a pledge to improve ties with Russia. The open disagreement has already made it awkward for a number of Georgia’s partners, who also straddle the balance between Russian and Western interests.

Azerbaijan is a perfect example. Last December, Ivanishvili began his tour of Georgia’s neighbors in Azerbaijan with a delegation from the new government. In late February, President Mikheil Saakashvili did the same, this time taking with him members of the minority. No Foreign Ministry officials accompanied him. Continue reading

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.

Azerbaijan’s “Day of Rage”: police respond with rage of their own

I have been following the March 11 day of rage would-be protest in Azerbaijan all day through twitter, and the periodic updates from Radio Free Europe.

Unfortunately, it unfolded nearly exactly as everyone expected.

by Abbas Atilay, courtesy of Radio Free Europe, rferl.org

Even before the March 11 arrived, Azerbaijani authorities arrested a number of youth activists involved in the posting of a facebook group dedicated to organizing the protests and some it simply suspected of future complicity. A public campaign on national television showed psychologists describing facebook users as mentally damaged, influenced by foreign agents, or simply “mostly Armenians.”

On March 7, the Washington-backed National Democratic Institute in Azerbaijan was told it would be closed. NDI primarily promotes strengthening democratic institutions and transparent, competitive political processes.

By the time March 11 finally rolled around the police clearly had a plan. They placed police around Baku State University, blocked down the May 28 metro station, and began arresting other known activists around town — including two who were sitting at a cafe at the time.

As various small protests began, dozens of protestors were arrested, but were later released, probably because the police wanted to maintain the manpower to break up any other protests to come. The only serious violence that occurred seemed to target journalists. Several journalists were arrested and Abbas Atilay (author of the photo above) was beaten by several policemen in the body and face before a police captain broke up the scuffle and apologized. He apparently then cleaned the blood from his face and continued working.

Although my heart goes out 100 percent to the victims of today’s tsunami in Japan, it is an additional tragedy that their disaster will totally block coverage of these important events in Azerbaijan.

Keep tuned in, I plan to continue to update this as the events progress and we move into Musavat’s planned protest tomorrow.

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.

After Gulf Spill, Georgian environmentalists fear a repeat on land

A BP worker checks the seals in a section of pipe for the BTE pipeline. Courtesy of BP Georgia

So this week, I decided to unveil the second of two stories that were killed by other news organizations and that I have decided to run in The Faster Times. The first died because it was a bit to critical of the venerated Georgian Orthodox Church for some publications, and not fluffy and featury enough for others.

In this second story I take a look at the risks posed by the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, and why no one is talking about it in Georgia despite the long list of damaging BP spills around the world in the last few years. In terms of why no one was talking about it, well, I got my answer in trying to publish the piece. The only Georgian publication willing to take the story changed their mind when I sent in the copy, as it made their pro-business editorial staff uncomfortable. I was then asked to fashion it into an op/ed, to which I responded, it’s not an opinion, its a balanced report based on fact. Nonetheless, I then changed it to a column decrying the lack of discussion on the issue, but not necessarily attacking BP. They still dropped it as it violated their “never attack big business” policy.

And so, here it is, having found a home at last at the Faster Times. You can decide if it is unfair, alarmist, and/or overly hypothetical.

In the wake of the catastrophic oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico that has ravaged the southern coast of the United States earlier this year, Georgian environmentalists say a similar disaster with the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline remains a distinct possibility. Continue reading