Contains selective news articles I select

Posts tagged ‘South Caucasus’

Georgia’s ruling party announces electoral changes

June 24, 2019

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — The leader of Georgia’s ruling party said Monday that the ex-Soviet nation will hold the next parliamentary election based entirely on a proportionate system, fulfilling a key demand of anti-government protesters.

The statement from Bidzina Ivanishvili, the founder of the Georgian Dream party, followed four days of protests in the capital. Thousands of demonstrators have rallied in front of parliament, demanding changes in the electoral law and the ouster of the interior minister whom they blame for a violent dispersal of a rally Thursday.

Throngs of demonstrators tried to storm parliament that day, angered by a Russian lawmaker taking the speaker’s seat during an international meeting of lawmakers. The protest reflected simmering anger against Russia, which routed Georgia in a 2008 war and maintains a military presence in Georgia’s two breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The protesters consider Ivanishvili, Georgia’s richest man who made his fortune in Russia, a conduit of Moscow’s influence and see the ruling party as overly friendly to Russian interests. Unfazed by Ivanishvili’s announcement, a motorcade of protesters drove across the capital Monday to the Interior Ministry headquarters to push for the minister’s resignation.

Thousands of protesters gathered in front of the parliament building in the evening for the fifth consecutive night of demonstrations, calling for the interior minister to step down and pressing other demands.

The protests have marked the largest outpouring of anger against Georgian Dream since it took power in 2012. Officials said at least 240 people were injured when riot police used tear gas and water cannons and fired rubber bullets to disperse the protesters. More than 300 demonstrators have been arrested.

Demonstrators have returned to parliament for daily rallies, demanding the release of those detained, the ouster of the nation’s interior minister and changes in the electoral law to have legislators chosen fully proportionally rather than the current mix of party-list and single-mandate representatives. The opposition believes that single-mandate races favor the ruling party.

Ivanishvili, in his first public appearance since the crisis erupted, said Georgian Dream has agreed to change the election law earlier than planned and to hold next year’s parliamentary election based on a fully proportional system. He also announced that the ruling party offered to drop the threshold of 5% of the vote for parties to get represented.

“We are seeing today that the society wants changes,” Ivanishvili said. “Our initiative opens the way for large-scale political changes.” Later Monday, some demonstrators said they were unsatisfied by Ivanishvili’s offer to change the electoral code.

Dropping the 5% barrier means “representatives of small parties that receive material aid from Russia can go to parliament. The devil is in the details, and it is very dangerous,” protester Irakli Sikharulidze said.

Moscow has responded to anti-Russian protests by ordering a ban on Russian flights to Georgia starting July 8. Russia’s transportation ministry also banned Georgian airlines from flying to Russia, citing their debts and safety issues.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Monday the flight ban reflected concerns about the safety of Russian travelers amid what he described as “Russophobic hysteria” in Georgia. He told reporters that the ban could be lifted after the tensions abate.

The flight ban deals a serious economic blow to the Caucasus nation, which has annually hosted more than 1 million Russian tourists, attracted by its scenic mountains, lush sea coast and the renowned wine culture.

It echoes bans that Russia imposed in 2006 on flights and imports of Georgian wine and mineral water as tensions rose between the countries. Air connections were restored in 2010 and Russia lifted the wine import ban in 2013.

On Monday, the Russian consumer regulator Rospotrebnadzor hinted at a possible new ban, saying that it has registered a steady decline in the quality of imported Georgian wine. In the past, Russia often cited sanitary reasons for food imports bans widely seen as politically driven.

Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.


Georgians keep protesting despite speaker’s resignation

June 21, 2019

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — The speaker of Georgia’s parliament stepped down Friday in the wake of violent clashes that left at least 240 people injured, but the move failed to assuage protesters, who returned to the streets demanding that the interior minister also step down over a brutal police response.

A night of clashes Thursday was sparked by a Russian lawmaker who took the speaker’s seat as a group of international lawmakers met at the Georgian parliament in Tbilisi. It angered the opposition, which sees the current Georgian government as overly friendly to Russian interests.

The protests mark the largest outpouring of anger against the ruling Georgian Dream since it took power in 2012. Officials said at least 240 people were injured when riot police fired rubber bullets and tear gas and unleashed water cannon on protesters outside Georgia’s parliament building during the clashes that lasted into early Friday. More than 100 people are still in the hospital, and two people lost eyes because of the rubber bullets, according to Giorgi Kordzakhiya, director of Tbilisi’s New Hospital.

Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze blamed opposition leaders for the violence, saying they hijacked a “genuine” public outpouring but then “violated the law and the Constitution.” Speaker Irakli Kobakhidze, who was out of the country on an official visit, handed in his resignation but several thousand protesters returned to the parliament building Friday, demanding the interior minister also resign. Many wore eyepatches in solidarity with those who lost their eyes.

President Salome Zurabishvili also cut short a foreign trip to return to the capital. Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday ordered that the country’s airlines stop transporting Russian citizens to Georgia beginning July 8, citing national security concerns. The reason for delaying the implementation wasn’t immediately clear. He also ordered officials to assist in bringing Russians home from Georgia.

The move carries echoes of Russia’s full ban on transport links with Georgia in 2006 amid rising tensions between Moscow and Tbilisi. Air connections were restored in 2010, two years after a short war between Russia and Georgia.

Anti-Russian sentiments run deep in Georgia, which made a botched attempt to regain control over breakaway province of South Ossetia during the presidency of Mikheil Saakashvili, sparking the 2008 war that routed the Georgian military in five days of fighting. Moscow then recognized the independence of South Ossetia and another breakaway Georgian province of Abkhazia and set up military bases there.

Georgian Dream, which is led and funded by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia, has controlled parliament and dominated the nation’s political scene since in 2012. “We will do everything to oust this government that serves Russia,” said 32-year-old lawyer Demetre Saladze, who was among the protesters Friday.

Engineer Vakhtang Kiriya, 28, vowed that the protesters will make the government answer for the brutal police crackdown. “We will fight until Ivanishvili and his team flee Georgia,” he said. “They should get ready to board their jets.”

Sergei Gavrilov, the Russian lawmaker who sparked the conflict by taking the Georgian speaker’s seat, on Friday blamed the clashes on “radical groups” who he said were trying to stage a “coup.” Speaking on Russian state TV, he rejected reports that he was fighting on the side of separatists in Abkhazia, saying he had only been there on “humanitarian missions.”

Russia and Georgia broke off diplomatic relations after the 2008 war, but steps have been made in recent years to restore ties, including Georgia scrapping visitor visas for Russians and Russia lifting a ban on Georgian wine and fruit imports. Still, animosity toward Russia remains strong due to the Kremlin’s support of the two separatist regions.

Other Russian officials blamed Georgian politicians for trying to undermine the slow thaw in relations. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov noted that thousands of Russian tourists vacationing were in Georgia, as a reason of Moscow’s concern about what he described as an anti-Russian “provocation.”

Nataliya Vasilyeva, Vladimir Isachenkov and Jim Heintz in Moscow and Sophiko Megrelidze in Tbilisi contributed to this report.

Georgia’s president to fly home to deal with clashes

June 21, 2019

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Georgia’s president has cut short a foreign visit to return to the capital Tbilisi after dozens of people were injured in clashes between protesters and police. Salome Zurabishvili, who took office as Georgia’s first female president in December, said in televised remarks in Minsk, Belarus, on Friday that she is returning to Tbilisi to handle the crisis.

Nearly 70 people were treated in hospitals for injuries in the night of clashes on Thursday after riot police fired rubber bullets and tear gas and unleashed water cannons on protesters outside Georgia’s parliament building.

The unrest was sparked by the appearance of Russian lawmaker Sergei Gavrilov, a Communist Party member, in the building as part of an assembly of legislators from Orthodox Christian countries.

Rabbi leads US evangelicals in visit to Muslim Azerbaijan

March 07, 2019

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — A group of evangelical pastors from the U.S. visited the predominantly Muslim Shiite nation of Azerbaijan to promote interfaith dialogue and highlight cooperation with Israel, with pastors saying Thursday the visit has already challenged their views about the potential for coexistence in America’s polarized landscape.

New York-based Rabbi Marc Schneier, who led the evangelical delegation, told The Associated Press from the capital of Baku that this was the first ever Christian evangelical delegation to visit Azerbaijan.

Most of Azerbaijan’s population of 10 million are Shiite but it’s also home to Sunnis, Christians and around 30,000 Jews, said the rabbi. The country shares borders with both Iran and Russia. The group, which included 12 U.S. pastors, met President Ilham Aliyev, the foreign minister, Muslim sheikhs, local church leaders, and Israel’s ambassador.

Schneier said Aliyev announced during the delegation’s visit that the country’s first-ever Jewish cultural center would be built in Baku with Kosher dining options and a hotel to accommodate Jewish guests.

The delegation also visited a Jewish school where children sang Hebrew songs for Israel. “I literally had to pinch— I had to pinch myself,” Schneier said. “Here I am in a Muslim majority country being welcomed into a Jewish school with all these Jewish children singing Israeli songs. It’s just a phenomenon that one would be able to experience anything like that.”

Schneier heads the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding based in New York and founded The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, New York. He is at the forefront of building ties between Jews and Muslims in the U.S. and the Middle East. Through greater interreligious dialogue, he’s pushed for closer relations between Muslim leaders and the state of Israel.

Last year, there were visits by U.S. evangelicals to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates— two countries seeking to strengthen ties with the Trump administration through his evangelical base of supporters. The outreach is happening as Gulf Arab states simultaneously take their once-private outreach to Israel more public and work to isolate Iran.

Unlike Arab Gulf states, Azerbaijan already has diplomatic relations with Israel, its national carrier flies direct to Tel Aviv and its president hosted Israel’s prime minister in 2016. Pastor Adam Mesa, who leads the Abundant Living Family Church in Rancho Cucamonga, California, said it was his first time in a Muslim majority country. He was encouraged to take part in the trip because of Azerbaijan’s supportive Israeli stance and interreligious efforts.

For many U.S. evangelicals, support for Israel is at the very core of their faith. Most believe that before Jesus can return, Jews have to go back to the Holy Land. They also believe the return of the Messiah will follow the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, also the site of Islam’s sacred Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.

“There’s been this polarization in our country that we’re supposed to be separatists from one another and we’re supposed to not interact with one another,” Mesa said. “It’s incredible that a Muslim majority country is the one that has to actually lead the charge on religious dialogue and community and solidarity.”

He said his talks in Azerbaijan with Catholics, Jews and Muslim sheikhs held no friction, resentment or prejudging. “I think we really need to bring that attitude back to America,” he said. “I really want to emphasize that to my church and other political leaders.”

Pastor Calvin Battle, who leads Destiny Christian Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, described the visit as “absolutely incredible.” It was also his first time visiting a Muslim country and his first time in a dialogue with sheikhs and learning “how similar” the Abrahamic faiths are.

“I have to admit it’s kind of impaired my ignorances concerning the area and the region and what I came in with, presuppositions concerning the people,” he said. More than just promoting inter-religious tolerance, Azerbaijan too sees political currency in its outreach with Christians and Jews.

“From a political point of view, listen there is no question you know that Azerbaijan is looking to strengthen its relationship with the U.S. administration, with the United States Congress. Israel is very much a conduit to that,” Schneier said.

Azerbaijan’s president has maintained close ties with the West, helping protect its energy and security interests and to counterbalance Russia’s influence in the strategic Caspian region. At the same time, Aliyev’s government has long faced criticism in the West for alleged human rights abuses and suppression of dissent.

Associated Press writer Vladimir Isachenkov contributed from Moscow.

Armenian trans woman gets threats after parliament speech

April 27, 2019

YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — A transgender woman who broke boundaries with a speech in Armenia’s parliament says she has received death threats and is avoiding leaving her home in the backlash to her three-minute address.

Lilit Martirosian told members of parliament’s human rights committee on April 5 that the group she founded, Right Side, had recorded 283 cases of transgender rights violations. “For me, that means that there are 283 criminals in Armenia living next to me and you,” Martirosian said during her speech. “And who knows, maybe a 284th will commit a crime tomorrow.”

Some lawmakers immediately expressed their offense. The head of the human rights committee complained Martirosian disturbed a hearing agenda and disrespected parliament. The next day, hundreds of people protesting outside the parliament building demanded to have the podium Martirosian used fumigated.

One protester brandished a knife at cameras and said he would use it against transgender people. A priest from the dominant Armenian Apostolic Church said gay sex should be considered a crime punishable by prison.

Armenia decriminalized homosexuality in 2003, but many in the country resist recognizing LGBT rights. “I received many calls with threats directed against me personally. People would say I needed to be murdered, butchered,” Martirosian told The Associated Press on Friday.

Martirosian says she reported the threats to police. Some people in Armenia see her experience as a test of the government that came to power last year following widespread demonstrations calling for an end to corruption and respect for human rights.

“LGBT people face problems in every sphere of life — they can be violated physically, sexually, psychologically,” Mamikon Hovsepian, executive director of the LGBT rights group PINK Armenia, said. “They can be refused in police stations or they can face double discrimination, refused health care services.”

Since taking office, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian has tried to keep a distance from the issue of LGBT rights, calling it “an unnecessary headache to deal with in 10, 20, 30 years.” But Pashinian has criticized the Republican Party that dominated Armenian politics before he came to power over Martirosian’s treatment. He noted that the previous government issued her a passport in 2015 with the first name Martirosian took as a woman but had the sex marked as male.

“The moment the (Republicans) gave this person a passport of an Armenian citizen, they included this person in the electoral lists and bestowed the person with all rights of an Armenian citizen,” he said.

Georgia ‘will join NATO’: Stoltenberg

Tbilisi (AFP)

March 25, 2019

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Monday reiterated the bloc’s commitment to grant former Soviet republic Georgia eventual membership despite Moscow’s fierce opposition.

Stoltenberg was in the Georgian capital Tbilisi to attend 12-day joint NATO-Georgia military exercises that kicked off last week.

“The 29 allies have clearly stated that Georgia will become a member of NATO,” Stoltenberg told a news conference alongside the country’s Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze.

“We will continue working together to prepare for Georgia’s NATO membership.”

In an apparent reference to Russia, he said that no country had the right to influence NATO’s open-door policy.

“We are not accepting that Russia — or any other power — can decide what (NATO) members can do,” he said.

At a 2008 summit in Romania, NATO leaders said Georgia would join the bloc at an unspecified future date but have so far refused to put the country on a formal path to membership.

The prospect of Georgia joining NATO is seen by the Kremlin as a Western incursion into its traditional sphere of influence.

Bakhtadze said for his part that Moscow had no right to prevent a sovereign country from choosing “its security arrangements”.

“NATO membership is the choice of the Georgian people and is enshrined in our constitution,” he said.

Held at the Krtsanisi Georgia-NATO Joint Training and Evaluation Center outside Tbilisi, the joint drills involve 350 servicemen from the US, Britain, France, Germany and 17 other allied nations as well as Azerbaijan, Finland, and Sweden.

Tensions between Tbilisi and Moscow over Georgia’s pro-Western trajectory and control of the Black Sea nation’s breakaway regions led to a brief but bloody war in 2008.

During the conflict over Moscow-backed separatist regions South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russia routed Georgia’s small military in just five days and recognized the independence of the breakaway territories.

Moscow then stationed military bases there in what the West and Tbilisi have denounced as an “illegal military occupation.”

Last year, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said Georgia’s eventual NATO entry “could provoke a terrible conflict”.

Source: Space War.


Georgia’s 1st woman president is inaugurated amid protests

December 16, 2018

VELISTSIKHE, Georgia (AP) — The first woman president of Georgia has been sworn into office amid continued protests from opposition figures who allege her election was tainted. President Salome Zurabishvili said during her inauguration speech on Sunday that she would work “to promote our country’s integration process into NATO and the EU.”

Opposition activists clashed with police after authorities blocked access to the inauguration’s venue in the city of Telavi. Zurabishvili, a French-born former foreign minister, won a November 28 runoff against opposition candidate Grigol Vashadze. The government favored her in the race.

The opposition alleges gross electoral violations occurred during the presidential election that make the outcome illegitimate. Observers for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have said the government was overly involved in the election campaign.

Tag Cloud