Orthodox Church goes on the rampage in Georgia

Recent events in Georgian capital Tbilisi are alarming many who hoped progressive views might win out over more intolerant, traditional values.

The clash of ideals was starkly evident at an event to mark the International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO), which was disrupted by up to 20,000 counter-demonstrators in May.

Prejudice with a sting: Orthodox women threaten to thrash gays with nettles.

Onnik Krikorian

Despite a statement by Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili that lesbians and gays ‘have the same rights as any other social group’, Patriarch Ilia II, the spiritual leader of the Georgian Orthodox Church, called for the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Trans (LGBT) event to be banned, branding homosexuality ‘an anomaly and a disease’.

The confrontation descended into violence when the 50 LGBT activists at the IDAHO event were forced to flee after the Orthodox crowd broke through barriers, meeting little or no police resistance.

In a scene akin to a medieval witch-hunt, elderly women holding stinging nettles sought to thrash homosexuals, and priests wielded wooden stools to beat and smash anyone or anything they could find.

Two priests were among just a handful of people arrested. But human rights groups and local civil society organizations are concerned that the government is unable, or unwilling, to rein in Church power.

In the two decades since the country declared independence, the power and influence of the Georgian Orthodox Church appears to have increased.

Some activists are saying that Georgia risks resembling little more than a theocracy, while LGBT groups are already reporting a spike in the number of cases of harassment and assault.

But with the parliament ready to consider legislation to decriminalize cannabis use as part of its stated aim to modernize, more confrontation and upheaval seems unavoidable.

The Church and the government are likely to find themselves once again at odds, as the country prepares for a tense presidential election in October.

Eurovision re-opens old wounds in the Caucasus

Armenia and Azerbaijan are sworn enemies, locked into a bitter stalemate over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh. Around 25,000 people died and a million were forced to flee their homes by fighting between the two former Soviet republics in the early 1990s. Lasting peace remains elusive, despite a ceasefire agreement signed in 1994. Scores of conscripts die each year in cross-border skirmishes, but recently the conflict has moved to a new and unlikely battleground – the Eurovision Song Contest.

The kitsch and glitzy music competition has had its fair share of scandals since its inception in 1956, despite the original intention to draw countries from the European Broadcast Union (EBU) closer together. However, the recent inclusion of post-Soviet states has taken national rivalry to new heights.

Last year’s winners, Azerbaijan – creating more of a furore than they could have imagined.

AP Photo / Frank Augstein

Armenia entered Eurovision in 2006, followed by Georgia in 2007 and Azerbaijan the following year; bitter rivalry between the countries of the South Caucasus was evident from the outset.

In 2009, in the wake of its August 2008 war with Russia, Georgia pulled out after its song, apparently mocking President Vladimir Putin, was considered ‘too political’.

In 2009, Armenia ruffled Azerbaijani feathers with a promotional video that featured a statue in the contested Nagorno Karabakh region. This falls under Armenian control, but is considered sovereign Azerbaijan by the international community. Forced to drop the video, Armenia defiantly displayed the offending statue as the main image for its slot during the international tele-voting, which was broadcast live to millions.

Later the same year, in perhaps the worst incident of petty bickering between the two countries, 43 Azerbaijanis who voted for Armenia during the competition were called in for questioning by National Security Service agents.

No wonder, then, that when Azerbaijan won the competition last year, earning itself the right to host the event in its capital, Baku, in 2012, alarm bells rang in Armenia. Given that citizens of either country cannot visit the other under normal circumstances, additional security guarantees for Armenia’s delegation were sought from the EBU, which said that it would not intervene. Armenia formally withdrew from the competition on 7 March.

The problems are not confined to a spat with Armenia. Online activists and journalists are facing intimidation, detention and imprisonment in Azerbaijan, prompting international human rights and other organizations to cast doubts on the country’s suitability to stage Eurovision in the first place. Both local and international groups have flagged up the forced eviction of homeowners to construct the Crystal Hall Stadium where Eurovision will be held.

But some activists disagree. They argue that the international spotlight may result in much-needed reform and change. For now, however, the omens do not look good.

Skulduggery

It all seemed to be on the up and up for Bruce Tasker. In 2004, he was invited to become a special consultant to an Armenian parliamentary commission examining the use of $3 billion in international donor funds. He accepted the invitation – but he never could have guessed what would happen next.

The Armenian capital, Yerevan, was used as a case study for the World Bank-funded $30 million Municipal Development Project to improve its water supplies. Tasker, a veteran British development worker, and his team discovered not only project failure but also an administration riddled with corruption, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars.

So, taking the Bank’s stated concern with corruption in the former Soviet Republic at face value, Tasker reported his findings, not only to the parliamentary commission, but also to the Bank’s office in Yerevan. Rather than act upon the commission’s interim findings, Tasker says that the Bank turned on him.

Alleging that he was blacklisted by the Bank for reporting the illegalities, Tasker believes pressure was applied on the Government to prevent full public disclosure. He claims that taking the matter further would have revealed colossal fraud and corruption and that all the players, including senior government officials and foreign workers, would lose out. ‘The World Bank is fuelling corruption in Armenia,’ Tasker told _New Internationalist_.

Despite the documented allegations, no action has been taken – including by the World Bank’s own internal watchdog, the Department for International Integrity (INT). The allegations against the Bank and British nationals involved in the project were, however, reported by Tasker to the British Embassy, which informed the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and, in turn, the Serious Fraud Office.

In March 2007, the Washington-based watchdog Government Accountability Project (GAP) took up Tasker’s cause and filed its own complaint with the INT in the hope that an investigation into the documented cases of corruption and fraud would be launched.

When the INT finally responded this August, it gave no indication as to when it would investigate the matter. According to INT, the case was considered to be of ‘medium’ priority and dependent on ‘the availability of investigative resources’. The letter came just days before GAP released its annual report on the INT. The Armenian case was singled out for specific criticism.

Tasker jokes about the INT’s reluctance to investigate the matter: ‘I should consider myself fortunate… the low priority cases are simply filed away with no further action’. Following on from the forced resignation of World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz, this new revelation hammers yet more nails into the coffin of the Bank’s credibility. Self-righteous finger-wagging should start at home.

Rose Revolution ripple effect

When Mikhail Saakashvili, the newly elected President of the Republic of Georgia, forced his way into Parliament last November, there were few analysts who didn’t examine what impact Georgia’s ‘Rose Revolution’ might have on neighbouring Republics.

Since then the opposition in Azerbaijan has shown few signs of increased activity, so all attention has turned to Armenia, where last month the opposition took to the streets in an attempt to replicate events in Georgia. Thousands rallied throughout April, calling for the resignation of the Armenian President, Robert Kocharyan. He had been re-elected for a second term in deeply flawed elections held last year.

Inspired by the November events in Georgia, the first demonstration held by an opposition party in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, took place on 5 April, almost a year after Kocharyan’s controversial inauguration. Former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze had shown reluctance to use force against protesters. Kocharyan showed no such qualms.

Raising the flag: some of the thousands who marched in support of the ‘Rose Revolution’.

Photos: Onnik Krikorian

In the early hours of 13 April, 15,000 opposition supporters marched on the Presidential Palace but were halted in their tracks by razor wire blocking the road. Then a core group of 2,000-3,000 camped overnight on Yerevan’s central Marshal Baghramian Avenue. At 2.00am, water cannon and stun grenades were used to disperse these peaceful demonstrators. As they fled, they were ambushed by groups of riot police waiting on street corners.

Human Rights Watch and the Council of Europe issued a stern warning to the Armenian Government that a repeat of such an incident could not be tolerated and demanded the immediate release of more than a dozen leading activists whom human rights activists consider political prisoners. The request fell on deaf ears.

But despite the perseverance of the opposition, many analysts conclude that attempts to remove Kocharyan from power were doomed from the outset. The Armenian opposition lacks any figure with the charisma and credibility of Georgia’s Mikhail Saakashvili. Shevardnadze was reliant on the United States to maintain power but Moscow rules the roost in Armenia. Last year the Americans might have pulled the rug out from underneath the Georgian President’s feet but there are so far no signs that Russian President Vladimir Putin will do the same to Kocharyan. Armenia remains Moscow’s last outpost in the southern Caucasus.

While attempts to unseat the Armenian President will prove an uphill struggle, street demonstrations continue. The situation remains unpredictable, and it is not impossible that regime change could happen in Armenia. At the very least, recent events in Georgia have contributed to the emergence of an active Armenian opposition for the first time since 1996 and civil rights activists have a new lease of life.

If the Georgian experiment with democracy is seen to be successful, there will be few in Armenia able to challenge the notion that the only way to break free from the stagnated system is completely to overthrow it. But until then, as international organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Freedom House continue to warn, democracy, human rights and media freedoms in Armenia will remain under siege.

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