The latest seasonal outbreak of conspiracy theories in Russia has it that the Americans are infecting the former Soviet Union with swine flu through a laboratory in Georgia.
A surge in H1N1 influenza in the Caucasus provided a fresh news peg for Russian paranoia about a US-funded biolab in Georgia, named after former US Senator Richard Lugar. The Kremlin long has declared the facility a bioweapon planted by the US next to the Russian border, and blamed it for spreading everything from anthrax to cow madness.
Now, Russian media, be it the Kremlin’s international propaganda arm Sputnik or local tabloids, are connecting the dots between post-Soviet sneezing and the Indiana Republican. Russian news cited concerns about the Georgian facility in neighboring Armenia, where the swine-flu death toll reached 18 last week, but all such headlines seem to be coming from Russia.
Even reporting on denials from Georgian health officials offers Russian media an opportunity to keep the theories in the spotlight.
“This is utter nonsense . . . spewed by the special services of a certain country,” said Paata Imnadze, deputy chief of the Georgian National Center for Disease Control and Public Health. The Lugar Lab’s mission, Innadze said, is to study and prevent the spread of diseases in humans and animals.
Russia's post-Soviet security alliance is showing more and more signs of fracturing along regional, cultural, and political fault lines, as Armenia criticizes other members for not taking its side against Azerbaijan.
Armenia is probably the most loyal member of the alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization. And Yerevan has long complained about the fact that some of the other CSTO members, like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, have supported Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia in Turkic and Muslim fora.
That tension has been heightened recently as a result of increasing violence along the line of contact between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces around the disputed Nagorno Karabakh territory, as well as the fallout between Russia and Turkey.
The CSTO's Turkic members, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, have sympathized with Turkey over Russia in that dispute to a degree that is suprising given Russia's far stronger economic and strategic ties in Central Asia. And if they're not willing to support Russia -- which really has the ability to either pressure or help the Central Asian states -- they are certainly far less likely to support Armenia, which which they have little in common other than a fading Soviet legacy.
The schism doesn't have only to do pan-Turkic sympathies between Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, and Azerbaijan. Belarus, too, has refused to take the Kremlin's side against Turkey. Just as important as any cultural ties is a reluctance among all of Russia's allies to sign up for Moscow's increasingly unpredictable foreign policy ventures.
The Caucasus’ most legendary love-hate relationship careened heavily toward hate recently amid claims of alleged Armenian encroachments on what Georgians hold most sacred. This time it is not about land disputes, as the Caucasus’s worst disputes tend to be. At stake are song and dance.
Within a span of just a couple of weeks, two YouTube videos left Georgia gasping with anger at its southern neighbor. First came a song video. It was a melody called “Hayastan” (Armenia) by a little-known, young Armenian composer that bore similarities to a Georgian hit song from the ‘50s, “The Country of Flowers.”
Then came a dance video. It featured an Armenian dance company performing kartuli, an iconic Georgian dance number one choreographer deems Georgia’s “calling card.” Performed to the music of Georgian composer Zakaria Paliashvili’s 1921 opera Daisi, the video described the routine as an Armenian wedding dance.
Elsewhere, these videos could have been a regular copyright dispute, but in Georgia they revived a deep-seated stereotype about Armenians allegedly calling dibs on any regional achievement in history or culture. The anger that resulted has prompted some Georgians to argue that this is a stereotype that needs to end.
Advocates for the survivors of an Armenian family killed by a Russian soldier say that the soldier's murder trial is being unduly influenced in favor of Russia.
The soldier, Valeriy Permyakov, has already admitted that he killed seven members of the Avetisyan family after deserting the 102nd Russian military base in Armenia's second city of Gyumri. He has been convicted of desertion by a Russian military court, and is now on trial for murder.
Russia originally announced that it planned to try Permyakov for murder, as well, but street protests in Gyumri and Yerevan against that decision forced Moscow to back down and agree to let Armenian courts try him.
But the way the trial is being conducted has again raised accusations that Russia is trying to influence it. The trial is being overseen by an Armenian judge, but is being conducted on the premises of the Russian military court at the base in Gyumri.
The trial began in December, and then lawyers for the defense complained that the presence of Russian servicemembers in the courtroom "shows that it is overseen by the Russian side," Armenian media reported. The judge at the time disagreed, saying they were needed to protect Permyakov, but when the trial resumed on Monday the Russian servicemembers had been replaced by Armenian guards.
The United States Congress has held a rare closed hearing on the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, as leading members of Congress are pushing for new conflict-resolution measures favored by Armenia but opposed by Azerbaijan.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee held the hearing last week, with James Warlick, the U.S. co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, testifying. Warlick did not comment on the content of the hearing, except to tweet: "I thank the @HouseForeign affairs committee and its chair @RepEdRoyce for hosting me to discuss #NKpeace. We agreed to work for a settlement."
It's not clear why the hearing was closed, or why it was held now. But tension has been getting worse along the so-called "line of contact" between the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides. Armenian forces won control of the territory, which is de jure part of Azerbaijan, in a war in the early 1990s, but the ceasefire that has held since then has become increasingly tenuous, with violence along the line at its highest level since the war formally ended in 1994. "This is a war, and I would ask you to use the term ‘war’ and not to use the phrase ‘ceasefire violation’ because, in effect, we don’t have a ceasefire anymore,” Defense Ministry spokesperson Artsrun Hovannesyan told reporters in December.
The presidents of the CSTO member states gather in Moscow on December 21. (photo: CSTO)
Russia's post-Soviet security bloc has put off a decision to appoint a new secretary general, suggesting some internal dissension about the direction of the organization.
The heads of state of the six Collective Security Treaty Organization members met in Moscow on Monday and judging from the official statements, no particularly big decisions were made, other than reaffirming the group's intention to fight terrorism.
But just a few days earlier, an adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Yuriy Ushakov, said that the group would be choosing a new secretary general. "Working discussions are going on about that issue. There will be a final decision before the leaders on Monday. Several variants are being discussed," Ushakov said.
The CSTO's declaration Monday, however, noted: "The collective security council decided to prolong the authority of CSTO General Secretary Nikolay Bordyuzha until January 1, 2017."
Ushakov said that the next secretary general would be from Armenia: "The rotation is being considered on the basis of the Russian alphabet, so it's completely logical that Armenia will become the general secretary in the organization. But this issue is still being discussed."
This explanation about "rotation" isn't entirely convincing. Bordyuzha, a Russian and a career Soviet KGB officer, has been the CSTO's only general secretary and has served since 2003.
It may not be a coincidence that Armenia also happens to be the only CSTO ally who has unambiguously sided with Russia in its row with Turkey that resulted from the November shootdown of a Russian jet on the Turkey-Syria border.
A December 2 tweet by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin.
The Russia-led military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, has declared its support for Russia in its ongoing conflict with Turkey. But the fact that the CSTO's statement was issued by an Armenian general, and that all of the other CSTO members have conspicuously failed to publicly back the statement, has only reinforced the impression that few of Russia's friends are willing to take its side against Turkey.
On Wednesday, the CSTO's military committee met in Moscow and, according to the organization, unanimously condemned Turkey's shootdown of a Russian Su-24 bomber on the Turkey-Syria border last month.
"All chiefs of staff of the CSTO member states supported the position of Russia, calling the Turkish aggression treacherous. It can't be judged any other way — it was a stab in the back, as Russia said immediately," said the chief of staff of the Armenian armed forces, Colonel-General Yuriy Khachaturov.
He went on: "We support Russia in all of its decisions... The CSTO is united as never before. We will get stronger."
Discussion of the draft comes right after a fatal police raid last week, when special troops were sent to “quell rebels” in the Baku suburb of Nardaran, home to a conservative Shi’a community. Two law-enforcement officers and four men tagged as alleged militants were killed. Police arrested a local spiritual leader, Taleh Bagirzade, and members of his Movement for Muslim Unity. They accused the group of plans to overthrow the government and establish a sharia state.
Given the government’s practice of running roughshod over critics, some question its motivations in the Nardaran raid. The town, EurasiaNet.org has reported, has generally been seen as “a different world” from the rest of Azerbaijan, with no national police allowed on its territory.
Tajikistan’s Transportation Ministry has grounded all flights by Tajik-registered cargo company Asia Airways after one of the company’s Antonov-12 jets crashed in South Sudan.
Despite that precautionary measure, officials in Tajikistan are stressing that they deem the craft’s operator, which they say is Armenian company Ala International Limited, ultimately responsible for maintenance of the plane.
The head of the Transportation Ministry civil aviation department, Yusuf Rahmonov, said in remarks reported by Asia-Plus that authorities in South Sudan are now investigating the causes of the accident, which killed around 40 people. The crew on the Antonov, which was built at a factory in Uzbekistan in 1971, reportedly included citizens of Russia and Armenia.
But Armenian authorities have been quick to deny their liability and appear eager to pass the buck back to Tajikistan.
A spokesman for the national aviation authorities in Yerevan, Ruben Grdzelian, has said that neither Ala International Limited nor the Antonov are registered in Armenia, RIA-Novosti news agency reported.
“Eight air companies are registered in Armenia, and Ala International Ltd, which owned the An-12 that crashed in South Sudan, was not among them. Moreover, the national registration signs of the An-12 — EY-406 — is a sign for Tajikistan. So it is obvious that the plane was registered in that country,” Grdzelian was quoted as saying.
A series of airspace violations related to Russian airstrikes in Syria has raised tensions between Russia and Turkey, adding a military dimension to what has long been a political disagreement over how to deal with the violence in the Middle East.
The controversies began shortly after Russia began its air campaign in support of the Syrian government. Turkish authorities said that Russian jets had entered its airspace from Syria on two occasions, on October 3 and 4. Russia claimed the incursion was an accident caused by the weather but Turkish, NATO, and American officials argued that it was intentional.
The point, said Turkish military expert Aaron Stein, was a warning to Turkey to not challenge Russia in Syria. "Turkey's historical adversary [Russia] is intentionally breaching Turkish air space, obviously to send a message to Turkey," he told RFE/RL.
Days later, Turkish military transport helicopters crossed into Armenian air space on two occasions, October 6 and 7. As in the earlier Russian case, Ankara explained the situation by bad weather, but it was widely interpreted as being a retaliatory measure, albeit an understated one, by Ankara. "Armenia was the least challenging place to respond in a deescalated way," said Emil Sanamyan, a regional security analyst, in an email interview with the Bug Pit. "The Russians and Armenians got the point and just ignored it."