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Two people ‘tortured to death’ in new wave of queer persecutions in Chechnya

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Two people ‘tortured to death’ in new wave of queer persecutions in Chechnya

Grozny, Chechnya (Dominik K. Cagara /OC Media)

At least two people have been tortured to death and 40 detained in a new wave of state persecutions of queer people in the Russian Republic of Chechnya, Russian activists say.

According to a statement issued by rights group the Russian LGBT Network on Monday, police are holding detainees in prisons in the city of Argun.

The new wave of arrests reportedly began in early December and included both men and women suspected of being queer.

RFE/RL-operated news site Nastoyashcheye Vremya (current time) cited Svetlana Zakharova, a spokesperson for the Russian LGBT Network, as saying that the persecutions ‘never stopped, but were happening with different intensity’.

‘Since the beginning of December, the security forces have intensified their activity. We are doing everything to help the victims’, she added.

In an address published on YouTube, Igor Kochetkov, the group’s programmes director, said they now had every reason to believe that the ‘mass detentions, tortures and murders’ had resumed.

According to him, the latest wave of persecutions came after on 29 December, the administrator of a large group on social network Vkontakte for queer people in the North Caucasus was detained by the Chechen authorities.

‘In the hands of Chechen police appeared a large contact database from the phone of the detained’.

Kochetkov said the group knew of around 40 people who had been detained ‘among which are both men and women’. ‘Two of them died as they couldn’t stand the torture’, he added.

‘The police are doing everything they can not to allow those detained to leave the territory of the Chechen republic’.

He said that identity documents were confiscated by force from the detainees, that they were ‘threatened with falsification of criminal cases against them or their relatives’, and forced to sign empty head-lettered papers.

Kochetkov said the detainees were being tortured and that ‘some of them have already been handed over to relatives for punishment’.

He said the persecutions were motivated by Chechen Head Ramzan Kadyrov’s desire to ‘cleanse the Chechen blood from harmful, from their point of view, elements’.

This was possible, he said, because ‘Chechen law enforcement can execute these criminal orders, to torture people, enjoying the full impunity’.

Kochetkov said that the responsibility for what had happened lay with the federal authorities, who he said did not investigate the previous persecutions in 2017.

Official denial

Alvi Karimov, a spokesman for the head of Chechnya, said in told Russian news agency RBC that new reports of persecutions of queer people in Chechnya  were misinforming and not true.

‘In the Chechen Republic there are no prisons and places of deprivation of liberty that are not part of the [Federal Penitentiary System]’, Karimov said.

On Tuesday, liberal opposition party Yabloko released a statement harshly condemning the persecution and detention of queer people in Chechnya.

The party called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to immediately meet with Kadyrov and to ‘publicly and firmly declare the inadmissibility of such actions’.

‘We demand that all instances of persecution against representatives of the LGBT community be investigated immediately, and that the Chechen leadership is investigated for participating in illegal activities. The perpetrators must be punished’, the statement said.

The Russian authorities have not yet commented.

2017 purge

Russian daily Novaya Gazeta first reported in April 2017 that the Chechen authorities had launched a major operation targeting suspected queer men earlier that year, with more than a hundred men detained and at least three killed.

Those believed by activists to have been killed by the authorities included well-known Chechen singer Zelim Bakayev.

The Chechen authorities denied the report at the time, calling it an attempt to ‘tarnish Chechnya’s reputation’.

Chechen Head Ramzan Kadyrov has frequently stated that the reports were impossible as there are no gay men in Chechnya.

Similarly, the Russian authorities including Russia’s Public Defender Tatyana Moskalkova claimed that the reports of persecution could be false, as neither federal nor Chechen institutions, such as the police and the Prosecutor’s Office, had received a single reported case.

[Read more on OC Media: Mass detentions and killing of queer men reported in Chechnya]

In July 2017, the Russian LGBT Network released a report with witness testimonies from a number of queer people caught up in the systematic persecution of queer people in Chechnya.

It stated that three separate waves of persecutions took place, with the first starting in December 2016 going on through February 2017, the second in March through May, and the third one from the end of July 2017 until the end of summer.

In his video address on Monday Kochetkov said that around 200 people were detained in the spring and summer of 2017 by the police and national guard, ‘under the leadership of high-ranking officials in the Chechen republic’.

He said that at least three had been confirmed killed, and that the actual numbers could be much higher.

In their 2018 Nations in Transit report American rights group Freedom House said there was ‘credible evidence of at least 31 deaths of Chechen men who were suspected of being gay’.

Kochetkov said that the Chechen authorities were forced to stop the mass detentions in summer 2017 as the result of international pressure. Nevertheless, he said, the Russian LGBT Network had ‘continued to receive reports of single cases of illegal detentions, torture, and blackmail’.

[Read more on OC Media: Witnesses detail continuing anti-queer purge in Chechnya]

Mass hunger strikes in Azerbaijan against ‘political prosecutions’

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Mass hunger strikes in Azerbaijan against ‘political prosecutions’

Members of the opposition Musavat party on hunger strike (Khadija Ismayilova / Facebook)

At least 20 people both in prison and on the outside are now on hunger strike in Azerbaijan in protest against political prosecutions in the country, local activists say.

Nine people being held in Azerbaijani prisons joined announced they had joined the strike on 14 January, informing their families in a joint letter sent from prison.

They have been joined outside prison by opposition politicians, activists, and journalists, including investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova.

The hunger strikes began when on 26 December, Mehman Huseynov, an anti-corruption blogger and head of local rights group the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS), announced he was no longer eating.

Huseynov announced his decision after new charges of ‘injuring a prison officer’ were brought against him just two months before he was due to be released.

Mehman Huseynov (coe.int)

Huseynov was sentenced to two years in prison in March 2017 for libelling the police after claiming three months earlier that officers had beaten him and demanded he stop his anti-corruption activities.

‘We protest against the darkness of our country’

In the letter sent from prison, the nine prisoners denounced what they said was injustice and repression in Azerbaijan.

‘The process that was being started against political prisoners and dissidents at liberty, that climaxed in bringing new charges against Mehman Huseynov, demonstrate the fact that our country has stepped forward to a point of no return’, says the letter.

In their statement, the prisoners said they had planned to begin their strike sooner but had been slowed by receiving contradictory information from prison staff.

‘We protest against the darkness of our country! We protest against repression and we will not keep silent! We will own our country and will resist that its brightest people are being treated like gangsters in prisons!’, the statement ends.

Shura Amiraslanova, whose son Giyas Ibrahimov was among the letter’s signatories, told OC Media her son had informed her he had joined Huseynov on hunger strike during a visit on 3 January.

Ibrahimov was arrested in May 2016 for writing anti-government slogans on a monument to Heydar Aliyev in Baku. Five months later, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison on drug charges that Amnesty International and others say he was tortured into confessing to.

‘Giyas told me: “Mother, we have to do something. Because we will all face the same injustice that is being done towards Mehman. What’s the difference, anyway, we are dead people here, spending our life in prison because of injustice. Therefore, we are starting a death strike” ’, said Amiraslanova.

In a statement to Azerbaijani news site Qafqazinfo on Tuesday, the Azerbaijani Penitentiary Service outright denied that a prison hunger strike was taking place.

‘No detainee in a detention cell or in prisons [in Azerbaijan] is undergoing a hunger strike. The information about prisoners’ hunger striking does not reflect reality, it is aimed at creating confusion in society and keeping certain people on the agenda’ the statement said.

‘I know no other way of fighting’

Khadija Ismayilova a veteran Investigative journalist and member of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), also announced she was joining the hunger strike from Tuesday.

Ismayilova told OC Media she was joining the strike with three demands: to drop the new charges against political prisoners currently in detention, to release detainees arrested for exercising their freedom of speech and expression, and for the government to adopt a policy of holding no political prisoners.

‘At least 10 journalists in Azerbaijan are political prisoners, and two chief editors have been charged with filthy allegations against them. Their mothers are in danger of being arrested’, she said.

‘Poet Tofig Hasanli was arrested for writing a poem criticising the Aliyevs. Giyas Ibrahimov and Bayram Mammadov were arrested for writing on a statue of Heydar Aliyev. Besides them, Ilkin Rustamzada has been in prison for five years for organising rallies against corruption’, Ismayilova told OC Media.

She said that recent trends showed that they may not be released after serving their sentences. This tactic, she said, had recently been used against five other prisoners.

‘After other political prisoners joined the hunger strike, I thought there was no excuse not to show solidarity. I know no other way of fighting’, she added.

Khadija Ismayilova has investigated the business dealings of members of President Ilham Aliyev’s family (Aziz Karimov /RFE/RL)

Tofig Yagublu, an opposition politician from the Musavat Party who was detained on charges of organising riots in Ismayilli in 2013, said he had been drinking only water for 12 days.

Yagublu, who was released in a presidential amnesty in 2016, announced he would begin a dry hunger strike as of Tuesday. Five other party members are on hunger strike along with him.

Ogtay Gulaliyev, chair of local rights group the Centre for the Protection of Political Prisoners (CPPP), told OC Media there were currently around 20 people involved in the hunger strike.

‘After Mehman Huseynov started his hunger strike, 10 people who joined the strike to support him were subjected to administrative detention. There are journalists and activists and party members among them. At present, nine people are in prison, and 11 joined the hunger strike at liberty’, said Gulaliyev.

‘We are not successful enough’

Elman Fattah, political commentator and member of the Musavat party, told OC Media that the recent events showed that there were no legal instruments left in Azerbaijan to challenge politically motivated convictions.

‘Unfortunately, the institution of jurisprudence has been completely destroyed’

According to him, political prisoners were previously released periodically in amnesties due to international pressure, ‘but now the number of repressions has increased’.

‘In the current situation, those imprisoned on political motivations are charged with more serious crimes, their names no longer appear on the amnesty list’, Fattah said.

In their letter from prison announcing the hunger strike, the prisoners said that they no longer had confidence in the West, especially in international organisations, to help them.

According to Journalist Khadija Ismayilova, ‘unfortunately, Azerbaijan is still not a region that the world is concerned about, and our problems are still not important’.

‘I thought if my joining the strike would also somehow help to attract the world’s attention to the problem, to help to solve it, I should do it’, she added.

Ismayilova spent three and a half years in prison convicted of tax evasion. Her imprisonment gained widespread coverage outside Azerbaijan, with the charges against her widely condemned by international rights groups as well as the EU, US State Department, OSCE, and others.

Marc Behrendt, Director for the Europe and Eurasia programmes at American rights group Freedom House, told OC Media that he could not say their efforts to protect political prisoners in Azerbaijan had been successful.

‘We don’t deny that it’s difficult to protect the rights of political prisoners. In general, the government takes responsibility for the rights of its citizens, and if it does not do so, it has a limited capacity to prosecute them.’

‘Taking into account the current situation with political prisoners in Azerbaijan, we can say that we are not successful enough’.

Behrendt added that the international community must continue to put pressure on governments to fulfil their commitments on human rights.

International response

International rights groups including Amnesty International, Human Right House, and Reporters Without Borders have accused the Azerbaijani government of falsely imprisoning Huseynov and have demanded his immediate release.

On 7 January, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, called on the Azerbaijani authorities to drop new charges against Huseynov as they ‘lack credibility’.

In a tweet on 4 January, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a member of the US Senate’s Foreign Relations committee, called charges against Huseynov ‘trumped up’ and also called for him to be released.

The French Foreign Ministry has also called for his release.

‘Political prisoners’ in Azerbaijan

International rights groups like Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, and Amnesty International have frequently condemned Azerbaijan’s human rights record.

In July 2018, the European Parliament voted against ratifying any comprehensive agreement with Azerbaijan as long as the country ‘does not respect fundamental EU values and rights’.

The resolution listed Mehman Huseynov, who first began the hunger strike, alongside Ilgar Mammadov, Afgan Mukhtarli, Ilkin Rustamzada, Seymur Haziyev, Rashad Ramazanov, Elchin Ismayilli, Giyas Ibrahimov, Bayram Mammadov, Asif Yusifli, Fuad Gahramanli, Khadija Ismayilova and Intigam Aliyev as ‘emblematic cases’ of restricting political freedoms.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini (RFE/RL)

In its 2018 report, Human Rights Watch said that during a continuing crackdown on independent voices, Azerbaijani authorities convicted at least 25 journalists and political activists last year, while dozens more were detained or are under criminal investigation, face harassment and travel bans, or have fled.

Freedom House’s Nation in Transit 2018 report named Azerbaijan as one of ‘Eurasia’s entrenched autocracies — [where] personalised regimes keep a tight grip on power, suppressing political competition and targeting independent activists and journalists who dare to speak out’.

Georgian Government and Church remain tight-lipped over Ukraine Church independence

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Georgian Government and Church remain tight-lipped over Ukraine Church independence

Patriarch Ilia II, head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, addressing parishioners at Tbilisi’s Holy Trinity Cathedral (Mari Nikuradze/OC Media)

The Georgian government and Georgian Orthodox Church have declined to oppose or support the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s independence from their Russian counterpart. The Ukrainian Church’s independence was officially recognised by Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople on 6 January, Orthodox Christmas Eve.

Both the government and Georgian Church have faced criticism from some quarters for not supporting their Ukrainian counterparts.

In his Sunday sermon, Metropolitan Grigol (Berbichashvili) of Poti and Khobi Eparchy, called the decision of ‘Georgian political leaders’ to ‘refrain from congratulating’ Ukraine ‘unfortunate’.

‘A new centre is being formed in the Orthodox [Christian] world […] If the Georgian Church becomes a part of the orbit of this “new” centre, consider the Georgian state to be in trouble!’, Grigol warned, referring to the Russian Church.

Metropolitan Grigol is among 47 members of the Holy Synod, the decision-making body of the Georgian Church.

While not directly criticising the Synod’s protracted position on the issue, with Sunday’s sermon he made his position clear.

So did a handful of activists who gathered on Sunday in front of the Patriarchate in Tbilisi, calling on the Synod to recognise the autocephaly  — independence — of the Ukrainian Church.

On Sunday, another member of the Holy Synod, Metropolitan Ioseb of Shemokmedi Eparchy, openly congratulated the Ukrainian Church on being granted the tomos, a document, of autocephaly.

Tomos of discord

Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople recognised as the first among 15 ‘equal’ Orthodox Christian leaders worldwide, made the Patriarchate of Constantinople’s decision official on 6 January.

After holding a Christmas Eve service at Saint George’s Cathedral in Istanbul, Bartholomew handed over a signed ‘tomos of autocephaly’, a decree granting canonical independence to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (Kyiv Patriarchate), to its new head Metropolitan Epiphanius.

Bartholomew called on other Orthodox Christian churches to endorse the decision.

None of the other Autocephalous Orthodox churches has endorsed the 6 January tomos so far, while the Serbian, Polish, and Russian churches have openly denounced the move.

The Ukrainian Church asked for the autocephaly in April last year, an initiative which was actively supported by Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko.

The Ukrainian leader promised that those wishing to continue to adhere to the local church under the Moscow Patriarchate would be free to do so.

Nevertheless, the Moscow Patriarchate vehemently condemned the event, preemptively ending ‘Eucharistic unity’ with the Constantinople Patriarchate in October.

The 6 January event effectively ended the Ukrainian Church’s position under the Moscow Patriarchate’s jurisdiction, which has been the case since 1686.

The Abkhazian Church

Immediately after the 6 January announcement in Istanbul, Georgian Archpriest Shio Mujiri, the incumbent to the patriarch’s throne, told the media that the Georgian Church’s synod would make their position public after they ‘read the text of the tomos’ and convened a Holy Synod meeting.

In their early reactions, the Georgian Church vowed they would decide on the issue only after Moscow and Constantinople’s patriarchates ‘confirm their final official decisions’.

So far, the Georgian Church has not elaborated further.

Nino Burjanadze, former Parliamentary Speaker and leader of the non-parliamentary Democratic Movement — United Georgia Party, warned Georgian ‘politicians and experts’ against supporting the independence of the Ukrainian Church.

‘In that case, I’m sure the Russian Patriarchate will automatically recognise the independence of the Abkhazian Church’, Burjanadze warned during a press conference on 9 January.

The Abkhazian Orthodox Church is currently split into two competing groups — one seeking recognition as a jurisdiction under the Russian Orthodox Church, headed by Vissarion Apliaa, and another, pushing for full autocephaly, headed by Dorotheos Dbar.

The Russian Orthodox Church still formally recognises the Georgian Church’s jurisdiction over Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In late October, the pro-Russian Council of the Abkhazian Orthodox Church preemptively condemned Bartholomew’s decision on Ukraine, calling it another ‘schismatic’ attempt to ‘extend his influence’ over other Orthodox Christian churches in detriment to the canonical rights of the Moscow Patriarchate.

During tours to Middle Eastern and East European Orthodox churches in 2018, the chief of the Russian Church’s external relations, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, visited the Georgian Patriarchate in Tbilisi twice, in April and December.

According to the Georgian Church, during his 10 December visit, Alfeyev ‘expressed concerns over problems in Ukraine’ and shared with them documents ‘expressing’ the position of the Russian Church on this issue.

Hilarion Alfeyev, front, second from right, during his visit to Tbilisi. (patriarchate.ge)

Waiting for the Church

On 7 January, Parliamentary Speaker and the executive secretary of the ruling Georgian Dream party Irakli Kobakhidze told journalists that the government’s position ‘will be voiced’ after ‘communicating’ with their ‘Ukrainian friends and, naturally, with the [Georgian Orthodox] Patriarch’.

After attending an Orthodox Christmas church service on 6/7 January, Georgian Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze also refused to clarify the government’s position.

Bakhtadze told journalists that the question fell within the realm of ‘canonical relations’ and that the Georgian Orthodox Church ‘had already commented’ on the issue.

On 11 January, President Salome Zurabishvili shared the same sentiment.

‘It’s not possible for me, as president of Georgia, to be less responsible than the Patriarchate is today’, Zurabishvili told journalists during her press conference on Friday, the first since her inauguration.

Leaders of the opposition European Georgian party were quick to congratulate Ukrainians on Christmas Eve and lambasted the government for their undecided position.

Gigi Ugulava, one of the party’s leaders, called the silence ‘political myopia and a shame’.

Several other religious communities in Georgia, including the Evangelical–Baptist Church of Georgia and the Georgian Muslims’ Union, also congratulated Ukraine on the occasion.

For ease of reading, we choose not to use qualifiers such as ‘de facto’, ‘unrecognised’, or ‘partially recognised’ when discussing institutions or political positions within Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and South Ossetia. This does not imply a position on their status.

Analysis | Institutions need to replace personality in Georgian politics

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Analysis | Institutions need to replace personality in Georgian politics

CRRC-Georgia examines the trust in political institutions in Georgia, and what that might mean for Georgian democracy.

A fair amount of scholarship indicates that (dis)trust in political institutions provides an indication of how well those institutions work. Hence, trust in political institutions is an important indicator of the functioning of a democratic government.

Following this line of logic, one would expect that trust in institutions reflects the public’s trust in who runs them. Data from CRRC’s Caucasus Barometer from 2011 to 2017 supports this argument.

Overall, the data indicate that trust in political institutions has declined in Georgia since 2011. None of the political institutions asked about on the Caucasus Barometer (the president, local government, executive government, parliament, and political parties) received as high a level of trust on the 2017 Caucasus Barometer as on the 2011 or 2012 versions of the survey.

While trust has declined overall, relative levels of trust have largely been in sync with the changes of power in the country.

After the Georgian Dream party came to power in 2012, there was an increase in trust towards the executive government (from 39% to 48%) and parliament (from 37% to 44%), the two institutions that changed political leadership.

Trust in the president continued to decline from 58% in 2011 to 28% in 2012, and 23% in 2013. All of these surveys were done while Mikheil Saakashvili was still president.

Trust in the president grew in 2015, the first Caucasus Barometer after the 2013 presidential elections, which ended Mikheil Saakashvili’s presidency and brought Giorgi Margvelashvili to office.

Public trust in local government did not follow the same logic as the executive government, parliament, and the presidency. Even though Georgian Dream won the 2014 local elections, trust in local government did not change between 2013 and 2015.

This could be due to the relatively weak public expectations of local government. Indeed, in 2013, only 4% of the public reported they had attended a local government meeting in the last year on a CRRC/TI survey. Besides low expectations, many local government officials had defected from the UNM to GD in the years since the change of power. Hence, it is not clear that the elections truly marked a change of power.

At the same time, that trust in local government did not increase, trust towards executive authorities and the parliament declined as the popular glow surrounding Georgian Dream wore away. Trust towards the executive fell from 48% in 2012 to 26% in 2017. While 44% trusted parliament in 2012, trust fell to 22% in 2017.

Meanwhile, trust in President Margvelashvili continued to grow, which might be attributable to his de facto opposition to the ruling party, without defection to the opposition United National Movement Party (UNM).

Trust in political parties has remained low and showed little change from year to year. It declined between 2011 and 2015, yet trust in political parties does not appear to follow the electoral cycle as trust in institutions controlled by specific parties appears to.

Growing public mistrust toward political institutions in Georgia is a sign of weak state institutions in the country. Renewed optimism and trust in institutions appear to follow changes in political leadership, but without strong institution-building processes, optimism turns into disappointment.

While Georgian democracy has made consistent progress for the last three decades, transitioning from personality to policy-driven politics remains a challenge for Georgia’s democratic consolidation.

This article was written by Kristina Vacharadze, Programmes Director at CRRC-Georgia. The opinions expressed in the article do not represent the views of CRRC-Georgia or any related entity.

To explore the data further, visit CRRC’s Online Data Analysis tool.

In pictures | Ghost apartments and hyperbuilding in Batumi

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In pictures | Ghost apartments and hyperbuilding in Batumi

A banner on the pavement displays an artist’s interpretation of a forthcoming block of flats. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)

Since 2008, the port city of Batumi on Georgia’s Black Sea coast has attracted visitors with the bright lights of tourism, trade, and gambling. Soaring tourism statistics in the popular casino town has brought with it a construction boom — one that seemingly has no end in sight.

Rampant construction on vacant patches of land punctuates the city of 160,000. The echoes of jackhammering and grinding ricochet off the multi-story high-rise buildings that continue to sprout into Batumi’s skyline.

At the ground floors of these buildings, lie gridlocked streets where traffic must negotiate its ways amidst construction sites that spill over into Batumi’s pavements and roads.

‘The construction boom underway in Batumi mirrors a global trend in real estate speculation that relies on luxury development and entertainment to attract investment’, says Suzanne Harris-Brandts, an architect and PhD Candidate in Urban Studies at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

A digger scrapes earth away on a construction site in a residential district in Batumi. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)

Smoke from diesel engines fills the air above a building site behind the Black Sea Mall. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)

Cranes and skyscrapers punctuate a typical Batumi skyline around a stadium under construction, viewed from an abandoned building site. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)

Building materials are stored on rare vacant spots of land. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)

The construction industry has been a source of income for many residents of Batumi. Unfortunately, it’s tentative work at best, as many projects are not completed due to developers not fulfilling their construction obligations or pulling out of projects prematurely. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)

A discarded pair of builders’ gloves lies on the pavement. The remnants of projects of this construction boom litter the city. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)

Nobody’s home

Between 2008 and 2013, Batumi was targeted for urban development and re-branding under the orders of former president Mikheil Saakashvili’s UNM government, explains Harris-Brandts. The government undertook many new construction projects and incentivised additional development by private-sector actors.’

The storeys of eerily empty flats throughout the city suggest the demand for real estate is far from the plentiful supply.

These vacancies result from both local and global forces, explains Suzanne Harris-Brandts. ‘From developers not fulfilling their construction obligations or pulling out of projects prematurely — perhaps due to market volatility — to so-called ‘ghost apartments’ that are not abandoned or unsold, but have chronically-absent homeowners, typically from overseas.’

‘To some degree, empty buildings also reflect a lack of government regulation and planning foresight’, explains Harris-Brandts, adding that poor architectural design has contributed to the emergence of a new landscape of mass building vacancies in Batumi.

There tend to be three types of building vacancies in Batumi, she elaborates:

‘There are buildings frozen with partially-completed construction; buildings whose exteriors have been completed but whose developers are unable to finish or sell their interior spaces; and buildings that have reached full construction completion and have sold many units, but to absentee homeowners. The latter are the so-called “ghost apartments” ’.

Window frames — imported from neighbouring Turkey, the border of which is 17 kilometres away — lie ready for installation. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)

Safety guidelines are displayed outside a construction site. Batumi has recorded the most accidents on construction sites in Georgia for 2018 so far. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)

A worker without safety gear is lifted up a building set to become a medical centre. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)

A digger lies on the promenade of the Batumi Beachfront. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)

Children skate on the beachfront skatepark at dusk. The majority of flats in the buildings behind them are vacant. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)

A vast, unmanned hole at a busy intersection bottlenecks the traffic. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)

A woman walks down the once-busy Javakhishvili Street, now rendered closed by several stagnant construction sites. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)

A building lies unfinished in the centre of Batumi. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)

Grass grows in the waterlogged ground-level storey of an unfinished block of flats. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)

Workers carry materials on a site designated to become the Adjara Multi-Profile Medical Centre. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)

A man walks past one of many posters displaying forthcoming buildings throughout Batumi. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)

Life under construction

Harris-Brandts describes how the arrival of new construction sites may be linked to optimism and the promise of an alternative future for residents of Batumi. ‘On a less positive front, new-construction building vacancies can detract from the social lives of cities by diluting resident interactions and erasing existing communities.’

‘Still, the residents of Batumi have been innovative and resilient in adapting to chronically-vacant buildings; second-hand goods or fresh produce are sometimes informally sold out of unfinished ground floors and vacant Old City shop-fronts have at times been used as short-term fashion showrooms or exhibition spaces.’

Unregulated construction and poorly enforced safety restrictions can be hazardous to those working on construction sites. Batumi recorded the most accidents on construction sites in Georgia in 2018. The Georgian Trade Unions Confederation has reported that the majority of the 14 deaths and 16 severe injuries sustained during the year were in Batumi.

The official tourism portal of Adjara reported a 23% increase in the number of tourists coming to the region in 2018. The construction boom — spearheaded by tourism — shows no signs of busting.

A makeshift barrier surrounds a building site in central Batumi. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)

During the winter months, beach bars are disassembled or destroyed and then rebuilt in time for the tourist season. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)

Traffic in Batumi is at the mercy of roadworks. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)

Heavy rains have filled building sites with water, disrupting further construction. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)

Cranes have become an integral part in the ever-evolving skyline of Batumi. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)

A carwash business in Javakhishvili Street has closed, as incomplete roadworks have diverted traffic away. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)

A fire extinguisher lies within reach of a construction site. Batumi’s construction safety history is dubious. Most of the deaths and accidents on building sites in Georgia happen here. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)

An advertisement for Eclipse Casino plays on a screen alongside two skyscrapers still under construction. Gambling is a drawcard for many tourists to Batumi, especially those from neighbouring Turkey, where gambling is illegal. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)

A small office for the Orbi Group — Georgia’s largest construction and development holding company — lies on the famous pebble beach of Batumi for beachgoers to drop by and browse properties. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)

Although Batumi’s Alphabet Tower has become an iconic building and a notable spot for sightseers, it remains incomplete. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)

The sun sets on Batumi’s seaside skyline, perennially under construction. (Ian McNaught Davis/ OC Media)

 

This article was prepared with support from the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) Regional Office in the South Caucasus. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of FES.

Georgia’s TBC Bank investigated for money laundering

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Georgia’s TBC Bank investigated for money laundering

A TBC branch in Tbilisi (Robin Fabbro/ OC Media)

Georgia’s Chief Prosecutor’s Office has announced that they are investigating TBC Bank over possible money laundering and ‘other illicit acts’.

The authorities announced on 9 January that they had launched a probe in May 2018 concerning $17 million worth of loans that were fast-track to LLC Samgori M and LLC Samgori Trade in 2008.

The Prosecutor’s Office said that after TBC issued the loans to the companies, the bank’s Chair, Mamuka Khazaradze, and Deputy Chair, Badri Japaridze, took loans of the same amount from the two companies.

The authorities said TBC then wrote off the debts ‘without any grounds and earlier than stipulated by banking regulations’.

The National Bank of Georgia separately investigated the matter, fining the bank ₾1 million ($380,000) for violating regulations related to conflicts of interest.

TBC said the transactions in question had already been looked into by the National Bank in 2008, and that no regulatory action followed. The bank is challenging the recent sanctions in court.

On 9 January, TBC Bank Group slammed ‘media portals‘, without specifying which ones, for conducting a ‘black PR campaign’ against the bank.

A day before the Prosecutor’s Office and the National Bank confirmed their separate probes, Georgian news site Kvira alleged that TBC Bank Chair Mamuka Khazaradze may face money laundering charges.

Similar unsourced reports surfaced in several Georgian news sites as early as July.

Two banks have ‘eaten up the whole country’

According to Gigi Ugulava, one of the leaders of the opposition European Georgia Party, the latest revelations came after Khazaradze failed to ‘sort out relations with Bidzina Ivanishvili informally’.

‘It is a fact that the business does not breath freely anymore’, Ugulava wrote on his Facebook page.

Several months after his comeback to formal politics, Ivanishvili, the former Prime Minister and current chairperson of the ruling Georgian Dream party, lambasted TBC and Bank of Georgia for having ‘eaten up the whole country’.

Ivanishvili accused former Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili, who resigned in June after a fallout with Ivanishvili, of lobbying for the banks instead of addressing ‘over-indebtedness’ and predatory lending.

[Read Tato Khundadze’s opinion on OC Media: Bank reforms touted by Georgia’s Prime Minister–to-be could spell the end of predatory lending]

Bank of Georgia and TBC are Georgia’s largest banks.

JSC TBC Bank is a subsidiary of TBC Bank Group PLC which is listed on the London Stock Exchange.

Another of its subsidiaries, TBC Holding, owns the Anaklia Development Consortium, set to develop the Anaklia Deep Sea Port complex in the western Georgian seaside resort.

The Anaklia Development Consortium, together with the US-based Conti Group LLC, won a bid to develop Anaklia City in 2015 while Kvirikashvili was the Minister for Economy.

Several local media outlets have speculated that Anaklia Development Consortium winning the bid was the primary reason for Kvirikashvili’s falling out with Ivanishvili, something Georgian Dream leaders have not denied.

Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act Signed Into Law

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Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act Signed Into Law

WASHINGTON, D.C.—President Donald Trump has signed the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act, a ground-breaking genocide prevention law, overwhelmingly adopted by the Senate and House, which codifies earlier measures, including those implemented by the Obama Administration, and puts in place a set of clear policies and processes to prevent new atrocities.

“The ANCA welcomes the President’s signature on the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act, and thanks all the legislators who spearheaded and supported this landmark bipartisan genocide prevention measure,” said Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) Executive Director Aram Hamparian. “As Armenian Americans – descendants of the survivors of the Armenian Genocide – we are particularly gratified to see a measure signed into law that speaks to transitional justice, criminal accountability, and the moral imperative to apply the lessons of past genocides in seeking to prevent new atrocities.”

The genocide prevention measure was spearheaded by Senators Ben Cardin (D-MD), Todd Young (R-IN) and Thom Tillis (R-NC) in the Senate and by Representatives Ann Wagner (R-MO) and Joe Crowley (D-NY) in the House during the previous Congress and received broad bipartisan support. It enjoyed broad-based support from genocide and atrocities prevention organizations with the Friends Committee on National Legislation at the forefront along with over 70 grassroots groups, including the ANCA and In Defense of Christians.

The law states that the US must regard the prevention of genocide and other atrocity crimes as a core national security interest and moral responsibility. To that end, it calls for the creation of a task force to strengthen State Department efforts and assist other agency efforts at atrocity prevention and response. The law also calls for the training of Foreign Service Officers “on recognizing patterns of escalation and early warning signs of potential atrocities, and methods of preventing and responding to atrocities, including conflict assessment methods, peacebuilding, mediation for prevention, early action and response, and appropriate transitional justice measures to address atrocities.”

As part of the new provision, the President is required to transmit a report to Senate and House Committees on Foreign Affairs and Appropriations, offering a review of countries and regions at risk of atrocity crimes, the most likely pathways to violence, specific risk factors, potential perpetrators and at-risk target groups.

The law also calls on the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development to support programs and activities to prevent or respond to emerging or unforeseen foreign challenges and complex crises overseas, including potential atrocity crimes.

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ANCA

The Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) is the largest and most influential Armenian-American grassroots organization. Working in coordination with a network of offices, chapters and supporters throughout the United States and affiliated organizations around the world, the ANCA actively advances the concerns of the Armenian American community on a broad range of issues. To learn more, visit www.anca.org.

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People’s Prelate Honored at New York Gala

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People’s Prelate Honored at New York Gala

TERRACE ON THE PARK, NYHundreds of admirers of the new Prelate of the Eastern Prelacy, Archbishop Anoushavan Tanielian, were in attendance at a long-awaited, sold out gala. Guests came from Massachusetts, Chicago, Detroit, Canada, Paris and Lebanon to celebrate Archbishop Anoushavan Tanielian.

The beloved Prelate, elevated from Bishop to Archbishop in an encyclical by Catholicos Aram I of the Great House of Cilicia, had celebrated the Holy Badarak at the St. Illuminator’s Cathedral in New York that morning to an overflowing assemblage.

At the banquet hall following a sumptuous reception, the attendees filed into an elegant ballroom decorated with white and lilac flowers gracing the tables, the colors symbolizing the clerical rank of the Prelate.

Archbishop Tanielian voiced the invocation, after which Susan Chitjian Erickson, Secretary of the Executive Council and Chairperson of the Banquet Committee warmly welcomed the guests and led a celebratory toast to the honoree.

Mistress of Ceremonies Karen Jehanian, Vice Chairperson of the Executive Committee, introduced the honorary guests and recognized the members of the Prelacy staff.

WITH THE PEOPLE

Click to view slideshow.

What was especially impressive about this event was that there was no head table. The more than a dozen priests present each sat at separate tables with the people, a directive of the Prelate, symbolizing his closeness to the faithful.

The Very Rev. Fr. Mesrop Parsamyan representing the Eastern Diocesan Primate and the Very Rev. Fr. Daniel Findikyan read the Primate’s inspiring message.  

Calling Srpazan “a fellow churchman and longtime friend,” the Diocesan Primate expressed his respect and admiration for the many honors and achievements of the Prelate. “Your devotion to the Christian mission of the Armenian Church is plainly evident in the personal integrity and humility which are the abiding characteristics of your ministry.”

Recounting the recent elections of both the Eastern Primate and Eastern Prelate, Fr. Daniel Findikyan said he “sensed the hand of God” behind these simultaneous developments.

HEAL THE BODY OF OUR CHURCH

“I pray that it signals that the Divine Physician is ready to heal the body of our church, restore its ability to breathe freely with both lungs, beckoning us forward with the promise of a new sunrise, heralding a new day, so that our entire people may be revived by the unifying grace of the Holy Spirit,” the Primate said. This prophetic message garnered a huge ovation.

Dr. Ara Chalian, speaking on behalf of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), the Armenian Relief Society (ARS), Hamazkayin, Homenetmen and the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) recounted the endearing and inspiring qualities of “young Anoushavan, the people’s hoviv” who like Nersess Shnorhali “went on a journey of introspection.” “Where are we today? And where will we go?” he asked. 

“Our church, our organizations and our families will not survive on their own. It is our responsibility,” he said with special emphasis.  

GIRD UP YOUR LOINS

In a message replete with symbolic images, the 30-year Chairman of the Religious Council Archpriest Fr. Nerses Manoogian stated that Srpazan Tanielian, “our fifth Prelate will follow the suit of our four previous Prelates in successfully keeping our churches and communities afloat.”

Having known Srpazan for more than half a century, Der Nerses stated with confidence that there is only one direction for the honoree, and that is forward. “No difficulty can slow him down, no obstruction can hamper his course. He is always focused and determined to carry on. So fasten your seat belts. This driver is not your average driver.”

“And for this Prelate, there is only one timeline – NOW,” Der Nerses continued. “Whether it is midnight or early dawn, the good ideas should be incarnated right away. And as the prince of the church, he always presents himself like the ideal servant portrayed in the Gospels who ‘girded up his loins’ and was ready to go. So gird up your loins if you want to keep pace with him,” he instructed the audience. “Diligence and devotion are his brothers, and humility is his sister,” said Der Nerses to thunderous applause.

Chairman of the Executive Council Jack Mardoian, Esq., paid tribute to the “new spirit” in the Prelacy even though the work is the same. “I see a joy that cannot be replicated, a love that Srpazan shows for all Prelacy communities, a spirituality and a mission for all of us to go forward together.”

In a passionately recited poem which she created for this occasion, Seta Balmanoukian extolled the many attributes of Srpazan to a loud ovation.

And to the delight of the audience, New York City’s well-known soloists Vagharshak Ohanyan and Anahit Zakaryan sang several songs, with Archbishop Yeghise Tourian’s “Yete Zis Danis” being a special favorite. Also sharing her musical talent was violinist Svetlana Mkrtchyan.

Representative of the Republic of Artsakh to the USA Robert Avetisyan shaking hands with Archbishop Anoushavan Tanielian

Artsakh Representative Robert Avedissian, stated that “in this crucial period for the Armenian people, we are blessed to have someone like Srpazan who spares no effort to make Armenia, Artsakh, our community and our church strong and proud.”

“The room was full of love and respect for the Srpazan,” said long-time community activist Hagop Kouyoumdjian. “His new position as Prelate is an important event for our community.”

And Karen Bedrosian Richardson called the recent elections of “two mild-mannered” religious leaders an “historic opportunity for potential cooperation and unification.”

FIRE OF LOVE

In an emotionally delivered spontaneous message, Archbishop Anoushavan Tanielian spoke of his focus on “love in action.” “Wherever there is love,” he said “there is paradise discovered. We are not starting anything new. What is new is our approach, our understanding.”

“I will approach my mission with a new dynamism of the successful work of my predecessors with faith and prayers,” declared the Prelate with emphasis.    

“I want to bring the fire of love into our daily life, and especially focus on the youth, work for our people’s sustenance of a healthy mind and body and rediscover our identity as Americans, Armenians and Christians.” The singing of Giligia by all present ended the joyous and celebratory occasion.

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Sanctions Relief Removes Obstacle to U.S.-Armenia Aluminum Trade

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Sanctions Relief Removes Obstacle to U.S.-Armenia Aluminum Trade

WASHINGTON, D.C.—The U.S. Senate has rejected a bid to block the easing of sanctions on Russian aluminum company Rusal PLC, which will have the practical effect of reducing pressure on an Armenian aluminum mill, reported the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA). The Armenal mill employs 700 people in Yerevan, indirectly supports thousands of area families and exports products to U.S. and other international markets.

“While we did not take a position on the broader policy debate over the lifting of specific sanctions, we do welcome the net effect of today’s vote, which is to ease pressure on a successful, export-driven Armenian enterprise that employs over 700, supports many times that number of Armenian families, and exports products to U.S. markets,” said ANCA Executive Director Aram Suren Hamparian. “The ANCA remains committed to working constructively with legislators from both parties to address undue, improper, or unintended consequences of U.S. regional sanctions on Armenia and the U.S.-Armenia trade relationship.”

Armenal’s factory in Arabkir, Yerevan, Armenia

Armenal, based in the Arabkir district of Armenia’s capital Yerevan, supplies aluminum foil for packaged food, beverage, cigarette and other export markets primarily in the U.S. and Europe. U.S. firms purchasing products from Armenal include Colorado-based Trinidad Benham Corp and Illinois-based Handi-Foil of America and Durable Packaging International.

According to Reuters reports in September of 2018, the Armenal plant, which produced over 33 tons of foil products in 2017, was set to cut output in 2018 following initial U.S. sanctions on Russian businessman Oleg Deripaska and several of the companies he controls. After extensive negotiations led by U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, three of these companies, including Rusal, which is affiliated with Armenal, now comply with U.S. sanctions laws, effectively lifting restrictions on exports. Supporters of the sanctions in the Senate questioned whether Deripaska’s divestment eliminated his actual control of these companies.

Senate efforts to block the Trump Administration’s decision to loosen sanctions against Rusal and the other two companies associated with Deripaska were blocked Wednesday, falling just short of the 60 votes needed under Senate rules.

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ANCA

The Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) is the largest and most influential Armenian-American grassroots organization. Working in coordination with a network of offices, chapters and supporters throughout the United States and affiliated organizations around the world, the ANCA actively advances the concerns of the Armenian American community on a broad range of issues. To learn more, visit www.anca.org.

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ARF to Convene 33rd World Congress in Artsakh

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ARF to Convene 33rd World Congress in Artsakh

YEREVAN—The 33rd World Congress of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation will be held from January 16 to 24 in Artsakh, with more than 100 delegates from all regions of the organization, as well as guests from around 30 countries.

World Congress, which is the highest body of the party, will hold its inaugural session at 11 a.m. at the Artsakh National Assembly.

The ARF World Congress will discuss the activities of the party during the past four years, determine the strategy and plans for the party for the upcoming four years.

At the end of the meeting, the World Congress will elect a new ARF Bureau, the highest governing body of the organization.

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