Reports about Vladimir Putin’s death might be slightly exaggerated, but they have kept Internet-users entertained for two days now. Yet, as journalists go chasing the vanished Russian president, perhaps someone needs to talk to his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sargsyan, who insisted that he spoke to Putin over the phone just yesterday.
According to the Armenian president’s office, Putin told Sargsyan he was planning to come visit Yerevan on April 24 for Armenia’s commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the massive slaughter of ethnic Armenians in Ottoman Turkey.
If the chat did take place, Sargsyan may be the last leader to have spoken to Putin. A trip to Kazakhstan was canceled, as was a meeting with a delegation from breakaway South Ossetia.
Armenia ranks as Russia's main ally in the South Caucasus, so, presumably, Sargsyan would know when he's talking to Putin himself.
But how did Putin sound to the Armenian leader? For now, Sargsyan's office ain't sayin'.
The chat, though, is likely to feed the fire of speculation since Putin disappeared from public view after late last week. What began as a “have you seen Putin?” whisper is turning into a wildly trending “Putin died” phenomenon that some take seriously and others as a total joke. Even an oracular website has been set up to let users ask if Putin is dead or not.
Amidst an angry backlash from Armenian-Americans, Starbucks has removed from cafés around Los Angeles artwork depicting women in Armenian national dress under Turkish flags.
The coffee chain was apparently attempting to cater to LA’s large ethnic Armenian community , but anyone with a smattering of an understanding of Armenian-Turkish relations — or of Google searches — could see how displaying such a poster could go awfully wrong; especially ahead of the centennial commemoration of the slaughter of over a million ethnic Armenians in Turkey.
With the centennial planned for April 24, the century-old dispute about whether or not the killings amounted to genocide has reached a fever-pitch. Armenia already has withdrawn from a largely defunct reconciliation plan with Turkey.
The Armenian National Committee for America, a Diaspora group, launched a social-media campaign at #boycottstarbucks deeming the art “Tasteless!” and calling for the coffee-colossus to remove the photos and apologize.
The outpouring has prompted the company to issue an apology. In what appears to have become the company’s standard response to press-queries, a Starbucks spokesperson wrote to EurasiaNet.org that “We missed the mark here and we apologize for upsetting our customers and the community.”
The spokesperson stated that the artwork has been removed from “our Mulholland & Calabasas store in Woodland Hills” and that the company is “working to make this right" and "to ensure this image is not in any other Starbucks locations."
Similar statements appear to have been sent to RFE/RL and the Armenian-American publication Asbarez.com, according to their reports.
Turkey is reportedly linking its purchase a multi billion-dollar air-defense system to whether the bidder countries recognize the Armenian genocide.
That news, reported by a number of Turkish media, is the latest unexpected turn in the multi-year saga over the arms deal. The original bidders for the deal were companies representing the United States, Europe, China, and Russia, giving the program the air of a geopolitical litmus test. When Turkey announced that it planned to give the Chinese company the contract, it faced a barrage of pressure from its NATO allies who were concerned that linking that system with NATO air defense equipment already in Turkey could expose NATO secrets to China.
All along, Turkey has denied that there was any political subtext to its decision, saying that its choice of China was related solely to questions of price and the fact that China would hand over more of the technology to Turkey. Now, though, that appears to have changed. With the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide approaching in April, Ankara is reportedly waiting to see how the various bidders mark that event.
"Rumors in political circles in Ankara said that no decision will be made over the missile defense system winner before [April 24] since Turkey wants to first see France and the U.S.'s position on the 1915 incidents," reported the pro-government Daily Sabah. "An agreement may be made with China if the U.S. and French administrations take a 'pro-Armenian' stance."
Offline, the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh may be outside of Baku’s control, but, online, Azerbaijan seems to have reclaimed the disputed land. Azerbaijani officials are boasting of allegedly having convinced Facebook to strip the separatist territory’s page of its verified status, which denotes that the page is authentic.
This reported victory, preceded by an avalanche of complaints from Azerbaijani users, is nothing to sneeze at in the South Caucasus, where Facebook is by far the most popular social network. It is also often the prime online venue for social activism and political debate.
And yet, Baku’s victory was not complete. Though the "Nagorno-Karabakh Republic" page is not accessible, pages using the region’s Armenian name (Artsakh) and calling for recognition of its independence remain intact.
Facebook, which has faced flak before over its page-decisions, has not yet commented officially on the downgrading of the breakaway region's page.
But Facebook is not the only part of the virtual world in which Azerbaijan has been asserting its internationally recognized right to Karabakh. In the past, the country engaged in toponymic arguments with Google for using “pro-Armenian” place-names in its maps, and with MSN for describing Karabakh as an independent entity in its weather listings.
In a television-drama project likely to create a stir in the Caucasus, Russian film-industry tsar Nikita Mikhalkov plans to revisit the life and, most controversially, the death of the famous 19th century Russian writer and diplomat, Alexander Griboyedov.
The story of Griboyedov, best known for his pasquinade of Moscow’s aristocracy, Woe from Wit, makes for a perfect plot for a period-drama. His literary defiance of imperial Russia’s calcified upper crust, his marriage to a beautiful Georgian princess in Tiflis (Tbilisi) and his brutal murder in Tehran were all set during the tectonic geopolitical shifts of the early 19th century.
In Mikhalkov’s version of the story, Griboyedov, the tsar’s emissary to Tehran, is not killed by a lynch mob of Persians which, as is widely believed, massacred the entire staff of the Russian embassy to Persia in 1829. Mikhalkov claims he has it on good authority that the hero of his film fell prey to intrigues of the British as they strove to hem in Russia’s regional clout.
Azerbaijan and Armenia are both seeking to strengthen their ties with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, applying to be formal observers of the organization, the SCO's chief has said.
The China-led economic and security bloc is in expansion mode: in the upcoming summit in Ufa this summer India and Pakistan are expected to become full members. And according to SCO Secretary General Dimitriy Mezentsev, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Maldives, Nepal, and Syria are applying to become observers.
Mezentsev, speaking at a press conference February 10, also put Iran in the same category of applicants as India and Pakistan, and said that there are "no legal obstacles" to them becoming members. So might Iran, too, be slated to join this summer?
Currently the SCO has six members: China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. India, Iran, Pakistan, Mongolia, and Afghanistan are observers, while Belarus, Sri Lanka, and Turkey are "dialog partners."
Neither Baku nor Yerevan has confirmed Mezentsev's statement. Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan mooted the idea of becoming an SCO observer in 2013, but nothing came of it then.
It does seem like there is some real interest in Azerbaijan in becoming an observer. Independent member of parliament Rasim Musabekov said in an interview that "the SCO is a quite authoritative international forum, located not too far from Azerbaijan. Countries close to Azerbaijan like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyyrgyzstan are in it. So we're interested in being part of this forum." He added, though, that "this will in no way affect the resolution of the Karabakh problem."
Citing anonymous sources, several mainstream Russian news sites claimed on February 5 that 18-year-old Valery Permyakov, charged with the deaths of seven members of the Avetisian family, spent more than a month in a psychiatric hospital before being stationed late last year at Russia’s 102nd army base in Gyumri.
LifeNews, referencing military investigators, reported that doctors at a psychiatric hospital in the Siberian town of Chita where Permyakov was stationed supposedly detected “serious behavioral disorders.”
An unnamed source told Gazeta.ru that Permyakov earlier had received a diagnosis of mental retardation. “They didn’t have the right at all to induct him [into the army], much less to place him on guard with a weapon,” the source said.
Armenia's chief prosecutor has formally asked his Russian counterpart to hand over a Russian soldier accused of killing seven members of a family outside Russia's military base in Armenia. The request was made just after the two sides apparently had agreed to try the soldier in a Russian military court at the base.
The Russian soldier, Valery Permyakov, is accused of killing seven members of the Avetsiyan family just after deserting his guard post at the 102nd military base in Gyumri, Armenia's second city, on January 12. Shortly afterwards the Armenian authorities announced that Permyakov would be tried under the Russian justice system, in spite of the fact that the base agreement seems to suggest he should be tried under Armenian jurisdiction. That sparked unprecedented protests in Gyumri and Yerevan by Armenians unhappy about how the case was being handled.
More than three weeks later, the back-and-forth jockeying between Russia and Armenia over the case continues, indicating that it remains the subject of delicate negotiations, with serious implications for Armenia's government stability and Armenia-Russia relations.
A signboard welcoming travellers into breakaway Nagorno Karabakh proclaims a “Free Artsakh” (the traditional Armenian name for the region), but on Saturday a group of Armenian activists learned the limit to that freedom.
The topic is controversial, and, apparently, not one that Karabakh’s de-facto leader, Bako Sahakian, a onetime KGB employee, is eager to debate publicly. Particularly amidst an uptick in security-concerns, as fatal clashes with Azerbaijani forces continue.
Sahakian earlier had warned that the motorcade could bring undesired consequences to Karabakh.
But participants charge it was the Karabakhi police who did that.
As the motorcade on January 31 drove toward Karabakh, video footage filmed by Founding Parliament activists showed uniformed police demanding documents (claiming they were “checking for a raid”), and then starting to attack both the cars and their occupants.
On an overhead ridge, masked men with automatic rifles closely watched the clash, while various men in civilian clothes surfaced to join in. One of the witnesses, Aram Hakobian, claimed to Aravot.am that gunshots had been fired, and that the uniformed men had thrown the Armenian flags on the ground and stomped on them.
A Russian soldier who allegedly massacred an Armenian family is expected to stand trial in Armenia, not Russia. Armenian General Prosecutor Gevorg Kostanian on January 15 made this clear to outraged citizens, who were worried that Armenia would defer justice to its Russian big brother.
The January 12 slaughter of six people in the northwestern town of Gyumri, the site of Russia’s 102nd army base, could not have come at a worse time for Armenia. Just ten days previously, its controversial membership in the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union had become official. The sign-on took place amidst heavy criticism of Yerevan’s economic and security dependence on Russia.
The Gyumri murder now has put Armenia’s policies toward Russia further to the test. Angry Gyumri residents have demanded the handover of the alleged culprit, Private Valery Permyakov, and accused the authorities of mollycoddling Moscow.
Russia’s ambassador to Armenia, Ivan Volynkin, appears aware of the risks of such sentiments. In January 15 comments to the state-financed Russian news outlet Sputnik (picked up by Armenian news outlets), he expressed condolences for the tragedy, but emphasized that “this problem must not be politicized."
"Crime has no nationality, especially in this case," he emphasized.
Armenia’s small Heritage Party, the most outspoken of Armenian political party against economic integration with Russia, so far has called only for a transparent investigation into the crime.