Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Pride and Prejudice

Some thoughts on the Gay Pride parade that never was (and never will be, if some politicians here in Tbilisi get their way)...

An event which was never even planned and would probably be impossible to stage has created a summertime scandal in Georgia – a row which has again highlighted the dubious ideologies of some politicians who claim to be democrats.

Rumours that that a Gay Pride march was due to take place this month started circulating on internet forums earlier in the year. A Georgian opposition leader then entered the debate, suggesting that the government was responsible for organising it, as part of what he described as its mission to destroy Georgian values: “The goal is to break this absolutely rock-solid part of the Georgian mentality and Georgian identity - Christian morality,” alleged the oppositionist, former minister Goga Khaindrava.

A few days ago, the highly influential Georgian Orthodox Church issued a statement calling on the authorities to prevent the acolytes of “Sodom and Gomorrah” from marching through the streets, in order to avoid social unrest. “Homosexual deviation is a great sin,” admonished the Georgian Patriarchate. It also warned that those who supported the legalisation of homosexuality would suffer “God’s wrath” and bring down divine punishment on the entire country.

Homosexuality has, of course, been legal in Georgia for several years, and the country is signed up to European anti-discrimination conventions. But the authorities have kept silent on the row so far, perhaps because they’re fearful of public disapproval in what remains an overwhelmingly socially conservative nation. Three years ago, an event dedicated to ‘tolerance’ was even cancelled after rumours spread that it was going to be a gay-rights promotion.

Some opposition radicals – including, ironically, a representative of the ‘Freedom’ party - have been using the mythical Pride march to try to make political capital at the expense of Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration. By doing so, they’ve shown that they have less concern for human rights than a government which they accuse of restricting civil liberties.

But Paata Subelashvili, a spokesman for Georgia’s only gay-rights organisation, the Inclusive Foundation, said he wasn’t worried by such displays of what he called “modern-day primitive thinking”. Subelashvili believes, somewhat optimistically, that the scandal has at least inspired a public debate about homosexuality. “There is progress because it’s no longer a taboo, it’s being discussed,” he explained. “Even such negative things can be positive in the long run.”

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Stalin Returns to Ukraine

The first new statue of Josef Stalin to be erected in Ukraine for decades has caused controversy in the country. Watch my report for Al Jazeera here... when I went to film it in the city of Zaporizhzhia in south-eastern Ukraine last week, it was an absolute coincidence that I met a fanatical Communist who was also called Stalin.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Unholy Row Over 'Sacrilegious' Book

Scuffles between a small group of free-speech campaigners and hardline Orthodox Christians outside a university in the Georgian capital yesterday have generated passionate but widely differing reactions here.

Giorgi Lomsadze reports in a blog post on the EurasiaNet website that the row began after a promotional event at the university for a new book which apparently mocks the Church – the most respected institution in the country. According to Lomsadze: “The title of the book, Saidumlo Siroba, is a profane send-up of the Georgian term for the Last Supper. (It translates literally as ‘Secret Hogwash’, but is closer to ‘Holy Crap’.)”

A post on suggests that the Orthodox protesters accused their liberal opponents of being traitors, scum, promoters of homosexuality and enemies of Georgia, then started to physically assault them. One prominent opposition politician, Conservative Party leader Zviad Dzidziguri, who’s currently standing in elections for the position of Mayor of Tbilisi, is reportedly backing calls for the controversial book to be banned.

The row follows a fierce dispute last year about a series of video clips which mocked the head of the Church. Musing on yesterday’s clashes, Tbilisi blogger Isterika says that he believes that some kind of cultural “war” is now going on in Georgia.

EurasiaNet’s Giorgi Lomsadze doesn’t see it in such apocalyptic terms, however: “The scuffles are symptomatic of challenges faced by Georgia as it tries to reconcile its reverence for the Church, part and parcel of the country’s national identity, with the dose of cosmopolitan liberalism that democracy and international openness bring,” he writes.

The Killer Instinct

Leaders of former Soviet states sometimes like to portray themselves as muscular 'action men'. Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin has often been photographed, bare-chested with a knife at his belt, on hunting trips in the wilder reaches of his country (see comprehensive gallery here). The latest to do so is former Armenian president Robert Kocharyan (see photo above), whose wildlife-blasting African safari jaunt last year was recently highlighted by Armenian blogger Unzipped. There's more info about the source of the photos on the Global Voices site here.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Building for Victory

In a month’s time, people in Tbilisi will be electing a new mayor, and in the run-up to the polls, parts of the Georgian capital are being refurbished at remarkable speed. Roads are being repaired, historic neighbourhoods renovated, and across the Mtkvari river which flows through the Georgian capital, a new pedestrian bridge is being built - a huge modernist slug of glass and metal called the Peace Bridge (see photo above). Critics say it’s an oversized monstrosity, but according to President Mikheil Saakashvili, its architecture is “a symbol of Georgia’s transition from the past to a better future”, demonstrating how this country is becoming part of contemporary European civilisation.

People here often like to give monuments satirical nicknames, like the Soviet-era concrete arches (now demolished) which used to be known as ‘Andropov’s Ears’, in tribute to the former Communist leader Yuri Andropov. Some people refer to the glass dome which sits atop Saakashvili’s Reichstag-style presidential palace as ‘Misha’s Egg’, while the Georgian nickname for the bizarre but magnificent former Transport Ministry building on the edge of the capital is too obscene to publish here. And the new Peace Bridge? Due to its shape, which somewhat resembles a giant sanitary towel, scurrilous jokers in Tbilisi are already calling it ‘Always Ultra’.

Sceptics have been complaining that funds are being invested in sprucing up the urban environment just before a crucial election, and at a time when many commercial construction projects have been put on hold due to the continuing effects of the global financial crisis and the post-war economic slump here. But the authorities are determined to give Tbilisi a make-over and reverse some of its post-Soviet decay, and - politics aside - there’s little doubt that some neglected districts of the city centre will look more attractive in the months to come. Whether the money is being well-spent, however, is up to the voters to decide.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Yogurt or Vodka?

Claims were made earlier this year that the 'world's oldest woman' is alive and thriving in Georgia. The alleged 129-year-old, Antissa Khvichava, lives in a rural village and was shown playing backgammon and drinking vodka in television footage distributed to the international media by a Georgian broadcaster.

But considering how often claims about extraordinary longevity are made and later disproved, it comes as no surprise that some Georgian experts are now suggesting that it probably isn't true, according to an admirably sceptical report by Molly Corso on the Eurasianet website.

However, despite the official statistics on the average life expectancy in Georgia (75.3 years for women, 66.4 years for men), this region does have a reputation for human longevity - as illustrated by the advertisement above, which was filmed in 1977 for a yogurt company. Maybe a vodka manufacturer will now seek out Antissa Khvichava to make a follow-up advert promoting the virtues of a regular intake of strong alcohol...

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Whistleblower Wins Again

Good news stories aren’t so frequent here in the Caucasus region, so when they do come along, they’re worth celebrating. Last year, Armenian environmental activist Mariam Sukhudyan was facing a possible five-year prison sentence for slander after exposing alleged abuse at a children’s home. The charges were finally dropped a few weeks ago, and in another welcome development, Sukhudyan and her colleagues won first prize at the Social Innovation Camp event here in Tbilisi last weekend with their web project aimed at combatting ecological damage to forests.

Here's more on the scandal caused by the prosecution of Sukhudyan, from a piece I wrote for The Moscow Times recently:

A young activist working as a volunteer at a residential school for orphans and children with mental disabilities exposes allegations of physical and sexual abuse. A nationwide scandal follows, with calls for a full investigation. What happens next? No, the whistleblower isn’t praised, but charged with slander and threatened with five years in prison.

That was the situation in Armenia last year, when activist Mariam Sukhudyan took the allegations of child abuse to the national media. But this month, after a long campaign, justice finally triumphed, and Sukhudyan was vindicated. The charges were dropped and a prosecution was launched against a former teacher.

A few months ago, I visited the school – an old Soviet institution on a windswept hilltop outside the capital, Yerevan ­- to find out what had happened there. The staff, desperate to prove that no abuse took place, gave me a guided tour and insisted that Sukhudyan and other activists who also worked as volunteers were deluded. “Because they were so young and inexperienced, they didn’t understand that every child here has mental disabilities and very active imaginations,” argued one staff member. Disturbing video testimony from one of the children told a different story, however.

The scandal exposed the grim conditions in some of Armenia’s ageing juvenile institutions, which child welfare experts believe should be transformed or shut down. The government has been trying to reform, but not fast enough. Sukhudyan, who is also a committed environmental activist, told me that she felt she had to speak out on behalf of those who could not. This view was echoed by the United States ambassador to Yerevan, who recently presented her with the embassy’s 2010 ‘Woman of Courage’ award, and spoke of her “determination to act in order to right a wrong, in spite of the personal sacrifices it entailed”.

Sukhudyan hopes that the case against her has helped to open up a closed system to public scrutiny. “We can already see some changes,” she said. “Interest and attention towards children in special schools has considerably grown, people are more informed about the situation.” But although she no longer faces a jail sentence, it’s clear that those in power still need to do more to protect those who can’t protect themselves.