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EU criticises elite corruption, lack of skilled staff and more in Georgia AA report

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EU criticises elite corruption, lack of skilled staff and more in Georgia AA report

The European Parliament (Dato Parulava /OC Media)

The European Parliament has expressed concerns over high-level corruption, human rights protection, labour safety, judicial independence, and more in Georgia in a report on the implementation of the country’s EU Association Agreement. Despite criticisms, the report’s summary said overall assessment of the implementation process was positive.

The report, which was passed by the EU parliament 528 votes to 97 on Wednesday, assessed Georgia’s progress in implementing the deal.

The Association Agreement (AA) was signed in 2014 and came into force in 2016; it aims to align Georgian legislation with EU laws, providing directives in a wide range of fields.

The report suggested a lack of skilled staff in government institutions, urging the authorities ‘to guarantee that the structural units dealing with European integration issues in all the ministries are equipped with a sufficient number of specifically qualified officials’.

The report called for more ‘high-level political oversight’ of the agreement’s implementation, including ‘stronger involvement of the Prime Minister and the Minister for Foreign Affairs’.

Elite corruption

The report said that high-level elite corruption remained a serious issue in Georgia, despite acknowledging Georgia’s progress in fighting low and mid-level corruption, leading to a good regional ranking in corruption perception indexes.

The EU Parliament called on Georgia to implement the AntiCorruption Strategy and its Action Plan and said it must ensure that the Anti-Corruption Agency was independent — free of any political interference and separated from the State Security Service.

The European Parliament reiterated ‘the importance of an effective separation of powers and a clear dissociation between politics and economic interests, and stresses that fighting corruption requires an independent judiciary and a solid track record of investigations into high-level cases of corruption, yet to be established’.

The report came in light of a scandal over secret recordings in Georgia suggesting a racket in the Georgian government.

Audio files published by opposition-leaning TV Channel Rustavi 2 in September featured former sports minister Levan Kipiani allegedly attempting to extort expensive cars for other ministers from Omega Group, a business group that owns local TV channel Iberia TV.

Several recordings were released, suggesting the government was applying pressure on businesses.

[Read more about racket allegations in Georgian Government on OC Media: Analysis | Georgia’s tapes scandals suggest something is rotten at the top of Georgian politics]

The secret recording potentially implicate Georgian Dream party chair Bidzina Ivanishvili in extortion (Mari Nikuradze/OC Media)

The report also emphasised the role of the opposition in a parliamentary system as well as ‘the urgent need to put in place more rigorous mechanisms for scrutinising the executive, including through the ability of Members of Parliament to put questions to ministers and the Prime Minister on a regular basis in order to hold them accountable’.

Human Rights

In the report, the EU Parliament expressed concern ‘over the lack of progress in the investigation of the abduction of Azerbaijani journalist Afgan Mukhtarli from Tbilisi, which revealed many shortcomings as regards the functioning of the security services, including partypolitical interference’.

It called on the Georgian Government to deliver a prompt and credible conclusion to the investigation and underscored the need for Georgia to ensure a safe and secure environment for human rights defenders residing in Georgia to ensure such incidents did not happen again.

Mukhtarli was last seen in Tbilisi on 29 May 2017 on his way home after meeting a friend in a local café. He resurfaced jailed in Azerbaijan the next day.

According to his lawyers, Mukhtarli was kidnapped by four Georgian-speaking men, three of them wearing police uniforms, who planted money in his pocket as they took him across the Georgian-Azerbaijani border.

Mukhtarli’s wife, Leyla Mustafayeva, told OC Media in April she was disappointed with the pace and transparency of the Georgian inquiry into the matter, calling it ‘an imitation of investigation’ (Leyla Mustafayeva /Facebook)

Mukhtarli was charged by the authorities in Azerbaijan with smuggling €10,000 in cash, illegal border crossing, and resisting police, eventually being sentenced to six years imprisonment.

[Read more about Mukhtarli’s abduction on OC Media: Activists mark 1 year since kidnapping of Azerbaijani journalist Mukhtarli in Tbilisi]

The report pointed to shortcomings in the protection of fundamental freedoms and human rights, notably for vulnerable groups, and said the authorities should overcome this by fighting hate speech and discrimination against queer people, Roma, people living with HIV/AIDS, people with disabilities, and other minorities.

‘[The EU Parliament] calls on the Georgian authorities to take further steps to protect women against all forms of violence, sexual abuse and harassment at work and in public places, and to increase the number of women on the labour market and in politics where they remain underrepresented’.

In the evening of 14 November, the Georgian Interior Ministry published statistics on femicide, stressing that it had dropped by 58% compared to last year. It also said that in 2018 no cases of a husband killing his wife had been recorded.

Labour safety

The report welcomed the adoption of the law on occupational safety ‘to effectively tackle the dramatic human toll of incidents at work’ and urged the Georgian Parliament to broaden the scope of the law to avoid exemptions.

[In pictures ⁠| Georgia’s deadly construction sites]

It reminded the Georgian authorities of the obligation to respect international labour rights standards and stressed the need to transform the Labour Conditions Inspection Department into a fully-fledged and independent labour inspection system aligned with the International Labour Organisation’s convention to improve safety.

On 7 March the Georgian Parliament adopted a new labour safety law which will come into force in 2019. It includes an obligation for employers to provide accident insurance for employees and to establish an office or appoint a specialist to oversee labour safety.

The law also mandates companies ‘with high-risk workplaces’ to re-register in the registry of economic activities. Parliament’s Healthcare and Social Issues Committee, which gave the green light to the amended version of the bill in February, has defined 11 hazardous sectors in which companies will be required to register.

Trade unions say Georgia’s labour legislation does not do enough to protect workers (Tamuna Chkareuli /OC Media)

Parliament started considering the bill in June 2017 following the death of four miners in a coal shaft in Tkibuli. Data obtained by OC Media from the Ministry of Internal Affairs showed that in 2010–2017, 359 people were killed and 984 injured in workplace accidents.

[Read more about Georgia’s Labour Safety Law on OC Media: Georgia’s parliament adopts labour safety law]

Worthy of praise or criticism?

The report also highlighted the EU’s concerns over a number of other issues raised for years by Georgian civil society, such as the independence of the judiciary, effective investigation mechanisms for investigating human rights violations by law enforcement officers, pressure being exerted by Turkey on Turkish residents and education institutions in Georgia due to their alleged affiliation to the Gülen movement, and more.

[Read more about developments around the Black Sea University on OC Media: Georgian ‘Gülen-connected’ university banned from taking in new students]

Responding to the report, Georgian officials focused on the positive assessments in the report.

The first deputy chairperson of the Georgian Parliament, Tamar Chugoshvili, said the EU Parliament had named Georgia the region’s superstar in terms of European integration.

‘The European Parliament provides a very positive assessment of the implementation of the Association Agreement and the steps taken by Georgia in the process of European integration’, said Chugoshvili.

She said Georgia was not a perfect country and that there were numerous challenges cited in the report ‘some of which we may take into consideration, some of them not’. But she said this was a secondary issue, as what matters was that the EU provided a positive assessment overall.

Georgian Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze also reiterated the progress mentioned in the report and said that ‘the report cites Georgia as a role model in cooperation with EU’.

While the report was highly critical of corruption in Georgia, in his speech on 14 November, Bakhtadze said ‘MEPs said Georgian is doing better at fighting corruption than several EU countries’.

Vano Chkhikvadze, the head of the European Integration programme at the Open Society Foundation Georgia said the report gave so many warnings on many issues that he could not describe the report as a positive assessment for Georgia.

Chkhikvadze told OC Media that some of the issues identified by the EU Parliament, such as high-level corruption, judicial independence, and others, would not have a positive influence on Georgia’s European integration.

Compared to previous, less critical assessments by the Association Council and the Parliamentary Association Committee, he said ‘it becomes clear that EU’s attitude towards Georgia is slowly changing and depicting reality better’.

Chkhikvadze said the main difference was that the report drew attention to issues that Georgian civil society had been vocal about.

‘I think this is a very important report which can become some kind of action plan for the following year. We shouldn’t turn a blind eye to problems indicated in the document and say that everything is OK.’

He said the government must act to make improvements, as ‘the progress Georgia has made is not even enough for the Association Agreement’, let alone more ambitious plans Georgia had for future relations with the EU.

Georgia’s ultimate goal with the EU

Prior to the 5th Eastern Partnership (EaP) summit on 24 November, Georgia made it clear that it had ambitious plans with the EU, the ultimate goal being membership.

Georgia was named the frontrunner among the EU’s six Eastern Partnership countries back in 2015 by European Council President Donald Tusk, and since then has maintained its image as a flagship reformer.

After gaining visa-free access to much of the EU in 2017, officials declared the country had even higher ambitions with the EU. However, questions have remained over what the EU will offer Georgia next and when that might come.

[Read more about Georgia’s ultimate plan with the EU on OC Media: The EaP Summit promised no ‘golden carrot’ — what should Georgia do?]

Controversy over Georgia’s midweek presidential run-off date

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Controversy over Georgia’s midweek presidential run-off date

Salome Zurabishvili and Grigol Vashadze (RFE/RL)

Georgia’s Election Administration has set the date for the second round presidential election for 28 November — a Wednesday. The midweek date was heavily criticised by the opposition and several major civil society groups.

The 28 November poll will see Salome Zurabishvili, who has been endorsed by the ruling Georgian Dream party, face off against the opposition United National Movement’s (UNM) Grigol Vashadze, running under the Strength in Unity coalition.

Zurabishvili narrowly defeated Vashadze in the first round with 38.6% of votes to 37.7% — a difference of just over 14,000 votes.

After the Election Administration’s late-night decision on 14 November, the UNM organised a protest outside its office. Zaal Udumashvili, one of the leaders of the Strength in Unity coalition, called the Election Administration’s building ‘Zurabishvili’s headquarters’ and assured the public that Vashadze would still come out on top.

Time and mobility concerns

Critics have argued that although the election day will be a public holiday in Georgia, holding the vote on a weekday could still prevent some from participating — especially those who need to travel to where they are formally registered.

This includes students and workers who have migrated to Tbilisi from elsewhere, as well as voters abroad for whom 28 November won’t be a day off.

Hours before the decision was announced, three local watchdogs, the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED), Transparency International — Georgia, and the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA), urged the Election Administration to set the date for Saturday, 1 December instead, but without success.

The Election Administration ruled that voting at 55 polling stations outside Georgia would be possible until midnight — to help them participate.

According to the Election Administration, 0.42% of registered voters reside abroad.

Georgian Public Defender Nino Lomjaria also criticised the Election Administration’s decision the next day. She argued that due to internal migration, a weekend run-off date would be a better option.

‘Citizens have to cover long distances to go to the locations where they are registered. The weekend would have made it much easier than [a weekday], even if it’s a day off’, Lomjaria told journalists.

Speaking to journalists during the protest outside the Election Administration right after their decision was announced, Udumashvili ‘didn’t rule out’ that some employers would still oblige employees to work on 28 November.

Another Strength in Unity opposition leader, Giorgi Vashadze (no relation to presidential candidate Grigol Vashadze) pointed out that those employed in state institutions would not face a similar problem, suggesting they would be encouraged to go and vote.

Election watchdogs and opposition parties alleged that during the first round on 28 October vote, the ruling Georgian Dream party pressured state officials to mobilise voters for Zurabishvili.

Observers noted a heavy presence of party activists, mostly from Georgian Dream, outside polling stations, with lists of candidate supporters expected to show up to vote.

Observers noted that this was a widespread practice and while not illegal, could be a way of exerting pressure on voters.

Double standards

Georgian Dream leaders shrugged off criticism about the midweek polling date.

Kakha Kaladze, Georgian Dream’s General Secretary and Tbilisi Mayor, said on Wednesday that he ‘did not see a problem’ with the date.

‘If someone wants to vote, they will manage it, just like in 2012’, Kaladze told journalists.

The 2012 parliamentary elections, in which the Georgian Dream coalition ousted President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement, was held on 1 October — a Monday. The 2008 parliamentary elections were also held on a Wednesday.

In 2013, Saakashvili ultimately changed his announced plan to hold the presidential election on a Thursday and held it on the weekend instead.

Georgian Dream’s Chair Bidzina Ivanishvili’s past criticism of Saakashvili for his intention to hold the 2013 elections on a Thursday as well as for the 2008 Monday poll was widely circulated on social media and in online media, with many saying it constituted a ‘double standard’.

A ‘pre-agreed’ date

On 7 November, the Election Administration stated that they ‘would not violate the law’ by setting the date for a run-off on a working day.

Speculations that the Election Administration agreed the election date with the ruling Georgian Dream party gained momentum on 14 November when the Election Administration postponed their 13:00 meeting to summarise the election results for six hours.

Soon after the rescheduling, Georgian online media outlet 2020News reported that Tamar Zhvania, the head of the Election Administration, visited Ivanishvili at his residence. Zhvania later called the allegation a ‘blatant lie’.

Speaking to journalists at Georgian Dream’s office the same day, Kaladze said he was sure Zurabishvili would win on 28 November.

Some, including members of the United National Movement, pointed out that Kaladze appeared sure about the run-off date hours before the Election Administration met and made their decision.

Unexpected dissenter

Right before the Election Administration’s decision, Salome Zurabishvili came out against the weekday date, insisting that it would make it harder for the Georgian diaspora to vote.

‘I personally work a lot to reach out to members of the [Georgian] diaspora and to inform them about dual citizenship, for which I’ve been campaigning for so long. I think that diaspora should be more active, which is in the interest of the state’, Zurabishvili said.

However, Zurabishvili added that it was up to the Election Administration to make the final ruling.

In the last presidential elections, in 2013, the Election Administration denied Zurabishvili the right to register as a candidate due to her dual French–Georgian citizenship. In 2017, she gave up her French passport to become a candidate.

After returning to Georgia in 2012, Zurabishvili positioned herself as an advocate for dual citizenship, claiming it would help Georgian emigrants to keep stronger ties with their homeland.

As an independent MP, she advocated for more active involvement of Georgian emigrants and diaspora members into Georgian political life.

In April, Georgia stopped stripping Georgians of their citizenship after they obtain citizenship of another state.

However, on 28 October, Zurabishvili received only 1,231 votes from abroad, while Vashadze got 2,861.

‘Pro-Russia’ vs ‘Soviet diplomat’

According to the final results for the first round, Salome Zurabishvili received 38.64% of votes (616,000), while Grigol Vashadze got 37.74% (601,000).

Due to 2017 constitutional changes, Georgians are now directly electing their president by popular vote for the last time.

After a six-year term as Georgia’s sixth president, Vashadze or Zurabishvili’s successor will be chosen by a 300-member election board.

Initially, the Georgian Dream party were ambivalent about their presidential election strategy, considering even not fielding their own candidate.

On 9 September, the ruling party finally agreed to endorse independent candidate Zurabishvili. Georgian Dream’s Chair Bidzina Ivanishvili had been a vocal supporter of this.

Throughout the last months, both campaigns have accused each other of offering Georgians a candidate unfit for office due to their positions on Russia.

The rivals argued that Zurabishvili’s comments on Georgia ‘starting the August 2008 war’ were against the state’s interest, while both Zurabishvili and Georgian Dream MPs characterised her rival Vashadze as a ‘Soviet diplomat’ due to his early career in the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

On 14 November, Chair of Parliament Irakli Kobakhidze criticised attacks on Zurabishvili. ‘Attacks, offences directed at a female candidate’, he said, represented ‘Asian mentality’.

Dialysis patients in Daghestan protest transfer to state hospitals

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Dialysis patients in Daghestan protest transfer to state hospitals

Protesters at Daghestan’s Ministry of Health (Saida Vagabova/OC Media)

Dialysis patients in the Russian Republic of Daghestan protested on Monday against a decision to transfer them from a private clinic to state medical institutions.

Around 60 patients suffering from kidney failure gathered outside the Ministry of Health in the republic’s capital, Makhachkala, arguing that the state facilities were not fit for purpose.

Patients receiving treatment at the Everest Hemodialysis Centre said they were informed they would be transferred to state institutions on 7 November.

Dialysis is a method of cleansing blood for patients with acute and chronic kidney failure.

Protesters told OC Media that they had met with Deputy Minister of Health Feyzulakh Gabibulayev in the ministry building and told him that by law, patients have the right to choose their medical institution and doctor.

They said he had responded that they could ‘complain anywhere they want’, because ‘everything has been decided and your opinion will not be taken into account’.

That evening, protesters met with the Minister of Health, Dzhamaludin Gadzhiibragimov.

‘Of course, you have a choice and it’s you who decide where to go for treatment, whether it is a private clinic or a state hospital’, the ministry’s website cites Gadzhiibragimov as saying.

‘But, it’s unacceptable to use the misfortune of others for one’s own selfish interests’, Gadzhiibragimov said, without specifying who he was referring to.

‘In state medical institutions, the quality of medical care will be no worse than in the private sector’ he said.

A spokesperson for the ministry told OC Media that Daghestan’s Compulsory Medical Insurance Fund made the decision to transfer the patients after reducing funding for private sector clinics.

The fund, which is financed from the state budget, finances medical services to Russian citizens.

The head of the Daghestani fund’s financial and economic department, Dzhavgarat Akhmedova, denied to OC Media that they had made the decision.

According to Akhmedova, a commission under the ministry decided to assign patients to state clinics, after which the fund redistributed funding accordingly. She said had not seen any documentation on the redistribution of patients from the Everest centre.

‘Hope for life’

One of the protesting patients, Sevriyat Magomedova, told OC Media that before the Everest centre opened in 2015, patients suffering from kidney failure underwent dialysis in public hospitals. She said that due to old and outdated equipment, the process caused severe pain.

Magomedova said patients were forced to stand in line for several hours as the hospitals in Makhachkala served residents of the whole republic.

‘Many come from the districts and other cities […] The private centre provided patients with free transport.’

Magomedarip Akhmed, another patient suffering from kidney failure, told OC Media that when the Everest Centre opened, ‘we gained a hope for life’.

He said that when undergoing the procedure in a state hospital prior to this, he was told he was ‘almost dead’.

‘Hemodialysis is painless with modern equipment, and after it’s finished we can move around independently. But before, relatives had to lift us from our chairs and carry us to their cars’, Akhmed said.

A spokesman for the ministry told OC Media that a new dialysis ward had been opened at the Republican Clinical Hospital and that there were plans to expand the unit in the new year.

‘Struggle for patients’

The Everest Centre opened in Makhachkala in December 2015 with a stated capacity to treat 250 patients.

Dialysis is free of charge for patients in Russia, paid for by the Compulsory Insurance Fund. The Everest centre is included in the compulsory health insurance system.

Elmira Bakrieva, head of the drug monitoring department at Daghestan’s Compulsory Insurance Fund, told OC Media that the current situation was caused by a struggle by medical institutions to get more patients.

According to Bakriyeva, the fund had been seeking to gradually reduce what it pays for dialysis, which it considered too high compared with the costs of carrying out the procedure.

Bakriyeva said the Everest Centre was connected with former chairman of the government of Daghestan, Abdusamad Gamidov, and that it was included in the compulsory health insurance system when he was in power despite ‘many questions’.

Bakriyeva claimed that doctors were unnecessarily prescribing dialysis for patients ‘for profit’. She said that every year the number of dialysis patients in Daghestan increased by 100 people.

The head physician at the Everest Centre, Patimat Gadzhiyeva, who also manages the dialysis unit at the state-run Republican Clinical Hospital, told OC Media that ‘no normal person would agree to hemodialysis if there was no need for it’.

‘Prescribing this procedure requires the consent of a three-doctor commission and the patient’s relatives’, said Gadzhiyeva.

According to her, an increase in the number of dialysis patients has been observed not only in Daghestan but globally. She said 560 patients were currently undergoing the procedure in Daghestan.

25-year-old ‘with mental illness’ killed in ‘exorcism’ in Azerbaijan

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25-year-old ‘with mental illness’ killed in ‘exorcism’ in Azerbaijan

Murad Soltanov (Facebook)

A 25-year-old man who reportedly suffered from mental illness was found dead in the northeastern Azerbaijani city of Shabran on Saturday, after an apparent ‘exorcism’ attempt.

The Interior Ministry of Azerbaijan reported on Monday that Murad Soltanov, a resident of Baku, was discovered in a flat with multiple bodily injuries.

Pictures circulating online showed Soltanov’s body covered in bruises.

Police have opened an investigation for inflicting fatal injuries and using forbidden treatment methods resulting in death.

Police said they had detained six local men who confessed to beating Soltanov with sticks from pomegranate trees in an attempt to ‘exorcise’ him.

The Interior Ministry released a picture of the suspects in custody

Azerbaijani news site Qafqazinfo quoted a friend of Soltanov as saying that he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia in Baku and that his condition had deteriorated before he departed for Shabran with his father.

The Interior Ministry said that Murad’s father, Shahin Soltanov, had previously taken him to a cleric in the village of Mashtagha, on the outskirts of Baku, who also attempted an ‘exorcism’ on him.

Afterwards, according to Sputnik Azerbaijan, Murad’s father rented a flat in Shabran, took another cleric, mullah Fizuli Garibov there, and paid him ₼400 ($240) to conduct a ritual on his son to ‘free him from bad spirits’.

Qafqazinfo quoted Soltanov’s friend as saying that during the ordeal, Soltanov begged the men to stop ‘but they said it was not him speaking; it was the demon’.

He said his body was black from bruises and that there were traces of vomited blood.

Land reform activist ‘beaten up’ in Kabardino-Balkaria

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Land reform activist ‘beaten up’ in Kabardino-Balkaria

From left to right: Human rights activist Valery Khatazhukov, Adam Medaliyev, and journalist Konstantin Gusev after the attack on Medaliyev (Facebook)

A prominent land reform activist in the Russian republic of Kabardino-Balkaria has claimed he was attacked and his car set on fire.

In a statement released by the local branch of Russian rights group Za Prava Cheloveka (For Human Rights), Adam Medaliyev said he was beaten up on 7 November in the town of Nartan, just outside the Republic’s capital, Nalchik.

According to him, his car was set alight near his house in Nalchik later the same night.

Medaliyev said he noticed a car with no number plates parked at the gate of his Nartan house as he drove up to it in the evening, after which two young men in medical masks came out of it.

‘One of them approached me and said: “Salam Aleykum” [a Muslim greeting]. I responded to the greeting, and at the same time, he suddenly struck me in the face with a fist. After that, the second young man in a medical mask approached us and also began striking my body with an object resembling a bat’.

Medaliyev said he believed the incident was connected to his work advocating for local residents in a land dispute in Nartan.

‘I believe that at present there is a real threat to my life and health, as well as to the life and health of my family members’, he said in the statement.

The land issue

Medaliyev said he had informed the police of both incidents, and also sent the statement to the prosecutor of Kabardino-Balkaria, the Commissioner for Human Rights, as well as the regional branch of the opposition Yabloko Party.

Khakim Kuchmezov, chair of the Yabloko party in Kabardino-Balkaria, told OC Media that he also linked the attack on Medaliyev with his activism.

Activist Ibragim Yaganov, an associate of Medaliyev’s, also related the attack to the conflict over land in Nartan.

‘Definitely, today’s attack is the work of his opponents on the land issue’, Yaganov told Caucasian Knot.

Medaliyev had been advocating for the distribution of land from what was a collective farm in Soviet times to local residents.

When the state-owned Nartan Experimental Production Farm, which had taken over management of the land, went bankrupt in 2010, auctions were arranged to sell off the land.

Medaliyev told OC Media in January that even before this, the land had already been transferred to ‘influential officials’.

‘Now auctions are being held, but they auction too large plots (100–1,000 hectares) and they put forward conditions for 100% prepayment for the land. A farmer isn’t able to rent a large area and isn’t able to pay 100% of the price outright. Therefore, we believe that the auctions in this form are not a panacea.’

‘We, the residents of the rural settlement of Nartan, believe that we are being illegally deprived of the opportunity to use public collective land’, Medaliyev said.

Local residents protested against the auction saying they did not have the means to participate in it and demanded the local authorities distribute the land to locals.

In May, the organisers of the auction recognised it had failed due to the refusal of local residents to participate in it.

Not the first attack

The attack on Medaliyev was not the first crime in the Kabardino-Balkaria against rural activists demanding land reform.

In October 2016, a resident of the village of Verkhniy Akbash Murat Kishev was shot in the head and neck. He and other local residents had demanded they be granted the right to use land they said had been illegally appropriated.

In May 2017, local farmer Ruslan Kumakhov was killed in the village of Altud. He had advocated for the right of local residents to rent land that someone from a neighbouring village had taken over.

‘At present, almost all the land in Kabardino-Balkaria belongs to a narrow circle of people. There are villages where residents do not own a single square meter of land’, the official web page of the Yabloko party cites Kuchmezov as saying.

[Read more on OC Media: When the ground slips out from under the feet]

The head of rights group Za Prava Cheloveka in Kabardino-Balkaria, Valeriy Khatazhukov, told OC Media that the authorities ‘postponing the solution to the land problem’ and protecting officials at the republic and district level could in future lead to ‘a major social explosion in the republic’.

 

Protesters defy Tbilisi mayor over Christmas tree

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Protesters defy Tbilisi mayor over Christmas tree

Malkhaz Machalikashvili (left) and Zaza Saralidze (Mari Nikuradze/OC Media)

Protesters in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, have defied demands by Tbilisi Mayor Kakha Kaladze to clear the area in front of the parliament building to make room for a Christmas tree.

Six major NGO’s including the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, ISFED, and Transparency International — Georgia,  succeeded in setting up tents outside parliament after Kaladze told Fathers for Truth protesters Zaza Saralidze and Malkhaz Machalikashvili they should ‘find somewhere else to protest’.

The two have been camped out in front of parliament continuously for months accusing the government of abuse of power.

Saralidze, is the father of 16-year-old Davit Saralidze, who was murdered outside a school in Tbilisi in December, while Machalikashvili’s son, Temirlan Machalikashvili, was killed in a special operation in December 2017.

The groups said they were protesting against the restriction of the ‘constitutionally guaranteed freedom of assembly’.

Police initially tried to prevent them setting up tents, citing security concerns. But after a scuffle with police which resulted in both Saralidze and his mother falling ill and being hospitalised, protesters succeeded in setting up 15 tents in front of parliament. 

Supporters of the protest launched an online petition saying they did not want a Christmas tree from City Hall if it meant ‘violating human rights’. The petition has over 9,000 signatures.

Georgian Dream U-turn

Later that night, Parliamentary Vice-Speaker Tamar Chugoshvili, a member of the ruling Georgian Dream Party, called on Tbilisi City Hall and the Interior Ministry to ‘follow the regulations’ which ‘did not prohibit setting up a tent unless it prevented traffic movement or endangered functioning of any institution’.

Kaladze, who also serves as general secretary of Georgian Dream, claimed the following day that City Hall did not have the right to ban the protest, claiming his deadline of 7 December for protesters to leave was a ‘mere recommendation’.

Aleko Elisashvili, a runner-up in the 2017 Tbilisi mayoral elections, former Parliamentary Speaker Davit Usupashvili, a former ally of Georgian Dream, and others were critical of the government’s actions.

Elisashvili and Usupashvli both pointed out that tents were widely used in Tbilisi during protest campaigns led by a number of current Georgian Dream leaders against the previous government.

Legal challenge

The authorities have attempted to prevent Saralidze and Machalikashvili from setting up tents in front of parliament on the city’s central Rustaveli avenue several times throughout their protest.

On 26 October, police detained Saralidze and charged him with assaulting a police officer with a tent pole as he tried to prevent them from taking the tent away.

He was later released on bail but faces up to 7 years in prison if convicted.

Malkhaz Machalikashvili in front of a poster reading ‘[Georgian] Dream kills’.(Mari Nikuradze/OC Media)

On 9 November, Georgia’s Public Defender Nino Lomjaria stated that the authorities preventing protest leaders from setting up a tent ‘constituted an illegal restriction of the freedom of assembly’.

She called Tbilisi mayor Kakha Kaladze’s demand that protesters clear the area for the traditional Christmas tree there an ‘artificial and illegal argument’.

A number of major rights groups expressed the same position.

The Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA) pointed to a 2016 case they won against Tbilisi City Hall after they banned environmental group Guerilla Gardeners from setting up tents in front of the city administration building.

The Court ruled the ban was an infringement of civil liberties.

Protest leaders represented by rights groups GYLA and EMC have mounted a legal challenge against the authorities’ attempts to evict them.

The Interior Ministry argued in court that their actions were based on ‘secret information’ concerning security matters. They have been given until 15 November to present the evidence to the judge.

Birthday commemorations

On Monday, Machalikashvili, whose son Temirlan was killed by security forces in Georgia’s eastern Pankisi Valley in December 2017, was joined by Saralidze in front of Georgian Dream’s offices, accusing government of killing an ‘innocent youth’.

Temirlan would have celebrated his 20th birthday that day.

Malkhaz Machalikashvili’s mother during the protest on 12 November in front of the Georgian Dream office (Mari Nikuradze/OC Media)

‘You are not men enough to come out and admit your guilt. I demand the state admits their crime’, Machalikashvili said during the rally, joined by several dozen people from Pankisi.

The rally specifically targeted Soso Gogashvili, the former deputy head of the State Security Service (SSG), who is currently heading the election campaign of presidential candidate Salome Zurabishvili. Georgian Dream has endorsed Zurabishvili for president and campaigned for her.

Machalikashvili’s family identified Gogashvili as being responsible for the special operation in which Temirlan was killed. The family insist he was shot dead while asleep in his bed.

Machalikashvili also named Vakhtang Gomelauri, the head of the SSG, and the special forces team members in the operation as being responsible for his son’s death.

[Read on OC Media: Questions in Pankisi, after Georgian Security Services kill teen]

Khorava Street commission updates

On 12 November, the opposition European Georgia Party summoned Interior Ministry Giorgi Gakharia to update parliament on how they were proceeding with the recommendations of the Investigative Parliamentary Commission into the Khorava Street murders.

On 31 May, Tbilisi City Court acquitted both suspects in the case of striking the killing blows to Davit Saralidze, leaving open the question of who killed him.

Zaza Saralidze (Mari Nikuradze/OC Media)

The commission concluded on 5 September that the investigation into the killings was compromised to protect a high-ranking official and his relatives. They held the Interior Minister and Justice Minister ‘politically responsible’ for this.

The opposition-led commission said that Mirza Subeliani, a former Prosecutor’s Office official, may have compromised the investigation and should have been investigated for evidence tampering and pressuring witnesses.

Authorities arrested and charged Subeliani only for failing to report a crime. Leaked recordings aired by opposition TV channel Rustavi 2 in mid-September suggested he had agreed with the authorities to take the fall and be jailed for a year only.

[Understand Georgia’s tapes scandals on OC Media: Georgia’s tapes scandals suggest something is rotten at the top of Georgian politics]

Georgian Dream leaders including Gakharia immediately disputed the findings of the commission, labelling them ‘politicised’.

However, on Monday, Parliamentary Speaker Irakli Kobakhidze told MPs that Gakharia was ready to meet them at their earliest convenience.

Zurabishvili and family ‘receive death threats’ from opposition supporters

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Zurabishvili and family ‘receive death threats’ from opposition supporters

Salome Zurabishvili (centre) with her daughter Ketevan Gorjestani and son Teimuraz Gorjestani (Mari Nikuradze/OC Media)

 

Georgian Dream–endorsed presidential candidate Salome Zurabishvili and members of her family received SMS and audio death threats from ‘former military officers’, she announced on Monday.

Messages including ‘I will put a hole in your head’ and ‘I will drink your blood’ were allegedly sent to from 9–11 November.

At a press conference on Monday, the presidential candidate said she knew who the senders were but declined to reveal their identities, other than to describe them as ‘former military officers’. She said that judging by posts on their Facebook pages, they were ‘connected to’ the opposition United National Movement Party (UNM) and their leadership.

Soon after Monday’s press conference, the Interior Ministry confirmed that Zurabishvili had reported receiving death threats on 10 November and that they had opened an investigation.

The ministry said threats were made using Facebook, and the probe by the Ministry’s Criminal Police Department was also looking into ‘unauthorised access of a computer system’.

Zurabishvili told journalists the threats were ‘another step towards creating an atmosphere of tension, enmity, and hate in the country, with the daily participation of inner and outsider leaders of one political movement, as well as their supporters and TV anchors’.

Zurabishvili’s campaign and leaders of Georgian Dream have on several occasions accused the UNM of targeting Zurabishvili with ‘aggression’, ‘misinformation’, and ‘hate’.

Zurabishvili said that the senders claimed to be speaking on behalf of military troops, which she called a ‘manipulation’ that was ‘offensive’ to Georgians soldiers.

Georgian authorities condemned an attempt to involve the military in the election campaign on 8 November, after Devi Chankotadze, a retired Lieutenant-General and former Chief of the Joint Staff of the Armed Forces, publicly condemned Zurabishvili.

Speaking at the Mukhatgverdi Brothers Cemetery with other supposedly former military officers, he urged Georgians not to vote for Zurabishvili over her remarks on the 2008 August War.

Zurabishvili has repeatedly accused former president Mikheil Saakashvili, leader of the UNM, of falling for Russian ‘provocations’ and starting the war.

Zurabishvili was also verbally confronted over her comments by a UNM activist during her visit to the village of Atotsi, near South Ossetia, on 8 November.

She said she had reported the incidents to the authorities to ‘prevent any attempt to destabilise’ the country.

Responding to Zurabishvili’s claims, UNM MP Salome Samadashvili told news agency GHN  ‘if I held a press briefing every time I received threats on Facebook, it would be awkward’. She added that the claims needed to be substantiated.

Calling out NGOs

At the press conference, Zurabishvili also called on  Georgian NGOs that she said had ‘failed to react’ to previous cases of ‘hate speech, gender-based discrimination, and violation of political correctness’, to condemn the death threats.

According to Zurabishvili, if they failed to do so, NGOs would ‘share the responsibility’.

[Read also about anti-NGO rhetoric during the election period on OC Media: Georgia’s ruling party lashes out at NGOs over Omega tapes criticism]

Georgian Dream Secretary and Tbilisi Mayor Kakha Kaladze told journalists that considering the atmosphere before the first round of the presidential elections, he ‘wasn’t surprised’ by the news.

‘I have reacted to offensive statements, lies, and propaganda numerous times, but threatening a person with murder is too much, it needs a serious reaction’.

Georgia’s Public Defender Nino Lomjaria responded to the news, writing on her Facebook page that making death threats was a crime and should be dealt with by law enforcement agencies, not civil society.

She noted that NGOs often faced similar threats and that she herself had been targeted after taking the job. Lomjaria attached images of threatening and abusive messages she claimed to have received several months ago.

Georgian election watchdog ISFED called on the Interior Ministry to investigate the alleged death threats, and urged all candidates and their supporters to refrain from ‘contributing to an atmosphere of violence’.

A Very ARS Thanksgiving

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A Very ARS Thanksgiving

The women of the Armenian Relief Society (ARS) Leola Sassouni Chapter yet again served one of the largest traditional Thanksgiving feasts in Watertown, Massachusetts. This chapter has been hosting Thanksgiving for the local Armenian community for over 40 years.

Reverend Archpriest Antranig Baljian of St. Stephen’s Armenian Apostolic Church, Yeretzgin Cheryl Baljian and ARS Executive Board member Heather Krafian joined about 250 guests in this time-honored tradition the weekend before Thanksgiving.

This year, some new faces to the organization delivered the opening remarks. “I’ve been a member of the ARS Leola Sassouni chapter now for 13 whole days,” said Lara Bastajian-Kechichian during her introduction. Bastajian-Kechichian and Narineh Abrimian were inducted earlier this month along with a dozen other women, most of whom were students of Chairlady Mayda Melkonian at Armenian Sisters’ Academy. “That’s when our dear Deegeen Mayda became Ungerouhi Mayda,” said Abrimian in Armenian, who mentioned that she and her younger sister Talin never missed this annual event. They were even invited to play the piano from time to time.

After a hearty dinner complete with turkey, shredded beef, gananch fasoolya (stewed string beans), rice, sweet potatoes, and homemade cranberry sauce, Melkonian directed her guests’ attention to a special, surprise moment for more than two dozen ARS Leola Sassouni members. The women were recognized for their selfless dedication to the organization with a meritorious service award and an honorary pin.  

The following members were honored for 25+ years of service.

Nartoohi Abrimian
Arsho Avjian
Alice Baloulian
Veron Bechakian
Verjin Chaprazian
Vartouhi Chiloyan
Silva Gebeshian
Dzaghig Kevorkian
Dzovig Kojanian
Anjel Minasian

The following members were honored for 40+ years of service.

Ojeny Abrajian
Mary Arabian
Arpi Azizian
Yevkine Gharibian
Olga Hovagimian
Parkouhi Keshishian
Mayda Melkonian
Zabel Melkonian
Pauline Nakashian
Dikranouhi Ohanian
Kohar Patalian
Yeghisapet Sarkisian

The following members were honored for 50+ years of service.

Mary Bazarian
Arpi Donabedian
Louiza Khrimian
Nevart Kouyoumjian
Mari Momjian

The evening concluded with performances by Huyser Music Ensemble, which was formed back in 2010 under the auspices of St. Illuminator’s Armenian Cathedral in New York City. The talented group sang familiar and rather moving Armenian patriotic songs including “Kedashen-Anoush Hayrenik,” “Odaroutioun,” and “Yergir Hayreni.”

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Leeza Arakelian

Leeza Arakelian

Leeza Arakelian is the assistant editor for the Armenian Weekly. She is a formally trained broadcast news writer and a graduate of UCLA and Emerson College. Leeza has written and produced for local and network television news including Boston 25 and Al Jazeera America.

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Haigazian University Armenian Diaspora Research Center Call for Papers

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Haigazian University Armenian Diaspora Research Center Call for Papers

The Haigazian University-based Armenian Diaspora Research Center will organize its sixth annual conference on the Armenian communities of the Middle East in late May 2019.

 

Research papers may be presented on any of the following topics:

A. History: Armenians in Cyprus or Greece: in the pre-Genocide era or during the post-Genocide period up to recent times.

B. The State establishment and the Armenians:  naturalization of Armenians; Armenians in state offices (the ministries, the military establishment, health, local government, etc.); minority rights in the constitution; Armenian representation in the state; Armenians in local parties.

C. Orphanages, pre- and post-Genocide residential areas and conditions: past and current Armenian settlements/residential areas in the said countries; their evolution in time, demography, occupation, etc.; community structure and relations with the Armenian Diaspora.

D. The Armenian Church: history and role of the Armenian Church (Apostolic, Catholic and Evangelical) in the said countries; its role in inter-religious dialogue and its humanitarian outreach.

E. Organizations: history and role of Armenian organizations (social, philanthropic, sports, etc.) in the said countries; their evolution.

F. Culture: schooling and education; newspapers-literature-publications; choirs, theatre, radio and TV programs; renowned Armenian cultural figures, authors, actors, painters etc.; characteristics and particulars of the Armenian community.

G. Integration: contribution of the community to the local culture (theater & TV, arts,  photography, sports, music etc.); economy and industry, business and the market; media and publishing; social and philanthropic organizations; politics.

H. The Community in the eyes of the natives: the image of Armenians in the mainstream community culture (movies, theater, literature, oral history, collective memory, etc).

I. The Diaspora: repatriation of the Armenians of the said countries to Soviet Armenia since the 1920s; the Cypriot and Greek Diasporas in the UK, Armenia and the world; relations with Armenia and the Armenian Diaspora at large.

J. Matters of identity: The reshaping and transformations of Armenian identity in the said countries; diverse perceptions of identity and their expressions; the engagement of the new generation in community matters; Armenian students in non-Armenian schools; mixed marriages; integration and dissolution in mainstream communities.

 

Participants are expected to present a research paper for 20 minutes in Armenian or English.

A. The participants will submit their final paper for publication in the proceedings of the conference.

B. Participants will have till July 30, 2019 to modify/further improve/develop their papers for the book (if need be).

C. The HU ADRC will provide up to three days of accommodation for the participants of the conference.

D. Applicants are expected to submit an abstract of their paper by email by December 10, 2018 to the Armenian Diaspora Research Center.

E. After an extensive examination and assessment official confirmation of participation and acceptance of the topic will be announced by December 25, 2018.

 

For further details, contact: 00961 1 349230 ext. 205, or 00961 3 712058, or send an email to adakessian@haigazian.edu.lb

 

This article is a press release submitted to the Armenian Weekly and has been published to our announcements section as a courtesy. If your organization has an event you would like to submit for consideration, please email us at editor@armenianweekly.com. Publication is not guaranteed.

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Guest Contributor

Guest Contributor

Guest contributions to the Armenian Weekly are informative articles written and submitted by members of the community, which make up our community bulletin board.

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Is Armenia Really Post-Ideological?

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Is Armenia Really Post-Ideological?

On the first of May, as Armenians gathered in the hundreds of thousands in town squares across the country, Nikol Pashinyan stood on the National Assembly floor. During a question period preceding a vote on his candidacy for the Prime Minister’s office, he responded to an accusation by a Republican Party MP that his ‘liberal ideology’ clashed with Armenia’s conservative values. Pashinyan argued that the liberal-conservative paradigm was conceptually meaningless, insisting that Armenia exist in a post-ideological realm.

What it means to be ‘post-ideological’ in Armenia remains unclear. If Armenia’s current political culture serves as any indication, it is perhaps more appropriate to look at the country as ‘pre-ideological’ rather than the latter. Though political parties have long espoused ideologies, experience suggests that personality politics and pragmatism traditionally dominate the Armenian political spectrum rather than dogmatism.

personality politics and pragmatism traditionally dominate the Armenian political spectrum rather than dogmatism.

From a purely utilitarian perspective, however, Pashinyan’s use of the term makes sense. The Velvet Revolution brought together disgruntled citizens from a broad spectrum of political sensibilities, united only by their opposition to the then-current status quo. For Pashinyan to take any firm stance would carry the double risk of alienating a substantial part of his base, while allowing his opponents to pigeonhole him. In other words, this mantra can be understood as ‘pragmatism over ideology.’ It’s about getting things done rather than moralizing.

Pashinyan recently reiterated his post-ideological stance when he distanced himself from the ideologically similar Bright Armenia Party in favor of running on the “My Step” ticket—an umbrella organization made up of a variety of political and civic groups which took part in last spring’s Velvet Revolution.

The Prime Minister must maintain momentum in the run-up to fresh parliamentary elections scheduled for the 9th of December. Though the Velvet Revolution has garnered a lot of global sympathies as well as promises of engagement, political volatility brought about by the delicate ‘cohabitation’ between the revolutionary government and the Republican-dominated Parliament has kept investors watching from the sidelines. Recent courtroom intrigues by the ARF and Prosperous Armenia have convinced Pashinyan of the need to rid himself of untrustworthy allies. To restore investor confidence and push through crucial reforms, Pashinyan will need a cooperative parliament.

Regardless, the unusual coalition of feminists, nationalists, social-democrats, armed-militias, environmentalists, LGBT-rights activists, irredentists and free-market liberals which propelled him to power is likely to implode under the weight of its internal contradictions eventually. The cracks may already be starting to show.

Several weeks ago, Jirair Sefilian, a Lebanese-born Artsakh War veteran turned-fringe government critic attempted to capitalize on the perceived support for the armed insurrection organized by his comrades-in-arms two years ago by launching the Sasna Tsrer party. Though they have pledged their support for the new government as well as the democratic establishment, their uncompromising brand of ultra-nationalism, penchant for military bravado and a deep-rooted suspicion of the State would draw more parallels with the American militia movement than with the rest of Pashinyan’s support base.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are those who hoped the Velvet Revolution would lead to an economic revolution. For these radical activists, many of them too young to remember the Soviet Era, regime change isn’t enough. In their view, political democracy should accompany ‘economic democracy,’ where all citizens would be given the ‘economic means’ to fully participate in democratic life. This faction lobbies for ‘equitable’ redistribution of resources, increased government spending on social welfare, sharp restrictions on the financial system, environmental protection, labor mobilization as well as social justice.

These demands by some of Pashinyan’s more radical supporters may not be easily reconcilable with his promise to kickstart economic growth. Armenia’s tiny consumer base essentially necessitates massive foreign capital injections into the economy to stimulate growth. Attracting foreign direct investment would require sweeping financial deregulation, increased protections for property rights and a fluid labor market—all of which are concessions they might not want to make.

The Republican Party’s participation in the vote has also reignited a looming KulturKampf in the country. Attempting to reinvent themselves as the ‘party of traditional values,’ the Republicans have been clawing away at more conservative elements of Pashinyan’s voter-base by playing the LGBT card. Though the Republican Party has a history of stoking fears of a foreign ‘homosexual-agenda’ to drown out accusations of corruption, they have now weaponized it. Despite dominating parliament for the better part of two decades, the Republicans waited for the month before the election to submit a bill to “ban gay propaganda,” modelled on similar Russian legislation. This motion, along with an earlier proposal to ban gay marriage was withdrawn but did help bring the issue to the forefront of the political discourse.

High-ranking Republican Party lawmakers were also involved in a sustained campaign involving threats of violence which successfully derailed a planned Christian LGBT conference. When pressed on the issue, Pashinyan’s non-answer managed to anger both conservatives as well as LGBT activists.

Despite these dangers, there is little doubt that Pashinyan will survive these pressures long enough to score a significant victory in December. That said, the trend among Armenia’s political class toward gravitating to positions which could be loosely labeled as ‘liberal,’ ‘progressive,’ ‘conservative,’ or ‘nationalist’ may be a testament to the maturity of the Armenian political discourse. The country isn’t moving beyond ideology, as Pashinyan attested, but rather toward it.

With the December 9 election definitively slamming the door on the old ways of doing politics, the stage is being set for a new, more dynamic political arena framed by ideas, not personalities.

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Raffi Elliott

Raffi Elliott is a Canadian-born entrepreneur and occasional journalist who likes to ramble on about socioeconomic and political issues in Armenia. He lives in Yerevan with his family. He also holds a masters degree in International Relations.

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