Russian President Vladimir Putin ended a mysterious 11-day disappearance by materializing for a meeting with his Kyrgyz counterpart in St. Petersburg on March 16, Kremlin pool journalists at the meeting reported on Twitter just before 2 p.m. local time.
Kyrgyzstan’s aggressively pro-Putin president, Almazbek Atambayev, confirmed his counterpart was in good health, Russian state media reported. For his part, Putin dismissed reports on his health, saying “[life] would be boring without gossip.”
Putin had last been seen in public on March 5. There was no immediate explanation for his long absence.
The president rarely drops out of sight. So with his disappearance coming at a time of heightened anxieties in the West about Russia’s course, and rising militant nationalism at home, Russian and international media nervously speculated over his whereabouts. Pundits postulated that the president had died, was recovering from a botched Botox job, had been toppled in a place coup, or was on a secret mission to oversee the birth of a lovechild in Switzerland.
Even some of Russia’s urban liberals – no Putin lovers – became concerned that if the president had exited, who or what would come next. Had Putin been deposed in a coup by hardliners even more hardline than himself?
Putin’s spokesman tried in vain all last week to bat away the speculation, which was fueled by revelations that recent footage of presidential meetings had been pre-recorded.
In the hours before Putin appeared, as the suspense grew in St. Petersburg, some noted that Kyrgyz journalists had not been invited on the trip with Atambayev.
Recent reports that Russian military vehicles were appearing in Georgia have raised complaints in neighboring Azerbaijan that Tbilisi is “betraying” Baku by allowing the Russian military to ship military supplies into Armenia via its territory or airspace.
The story of the Russian vehicles in Georgia is almost certainly a tempest in a teapot – after footage surfaced of Russian-made ZIL 131 military trucks on Georgian streets, various theories quickly emerged. Georgia's opposition claimed the trucks were evidence that the current government was in cahoots with Moscow, while some suggested they may be on the way to Armenia, where Russia both has its own large military base and provides substantial military aid to the armed forces there. But it didn't take long for another, more banal explanation to come out: the vehicles were decommissioned in Russia and are being sold on the commercial market.
There's no indication that the Russian trucks were in fact destined for Armenia, but the question of how Russia supplies its base in Armenia, as well as delivers military aid there, has long been a secretive and contentious one. Armenia is separated from Russia by Azerbaijan and Turkey, which are hostile to Armenia, and Georgia, which is hostile to Russia. Georgia nevertheless did allow overflights of Russian military shipments to Armenia until 2011, when it publicly annulled the agreement with Russia allowing for that transit. The status of that transit is now unclear, though there have been various unconfirmed reports that it was reinstated even while former president Mikheil Saakashvili was in power.
U.S. Marines and Georgian soldiers conduct joint military exercises in 2014 at the Vaziani military base. (photo: U.S. Marine Corps)
NATO appears to have settled on a site for its planned training facility in Georgia, where the alliance plans to start conducting military exercises by the end of this year.
NATO's Deputy Secretary General, Alexander Vershbow, wrote in a letter to Georgian Defense Minister Mindia Janelidze that the alliance favors the Vaziani military base, about 20 kilometers outside the capital, Tbilisi, in the vicinity of the international airport.
"From my point of view, Vaziani military base is a strong candidate for locating a joint training and assessment centre,” Vershbow wrote in the letter, reported agenda.ge. Vershbow further "expresses hope that the Georgian side will make a decision about the training centre’s location together with NATO experts in the near future," agenda.ge wrote.
Vaziani is a former Soviet base that remained in the hands of the Russian military until 2001. Russia bombed it during the 2008 war with Georgia over the breakaway territory of South Ossetia.
All things considered Russia has responded with relative equanimity to the news of the new NATO facility in Georgia. But Moscow naturally objects; Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov complained last month in a meeting with his de facto South Ossetian counterpart David Sanakoyev about “the non-stop process to drag Georgia into NATO... Naturally, if these measures start to take practical shape – evidently, this process has already begun – we will take measures to prevent negative effects of these developments."
Armenia plans to use Eurovision, the pop-and-politics fest extraordinaire, to ask Europe not to “deny” that the slaughter of thousands of ethnic Armenians in Ottoman Turkey amounted to genocide.
The Armenian entry for Eurovision, “Don’t Deny,” has not formally been linked to many countries’ – most notably, Turkey’s – reluctance to admit that the slaying amounted to genocide. But in the song’s video, presented on March 12, the subtext is fairly obvious.
The performers, a sextet called Genealogy, are made up of five ethnic Armenian artists (from Australia, Ethiopia, France, Japan and the US), reportedly all descendants of survivors of the 1915 massacre, and a singer from Armenia.
The group, mostly kitted out in contemporary renditions of early 20th-century outfits, sing amidst retro-shots of an extended World-War-I-era family. The family ultimately vanishes, leaving empty chairs behind.
Armenian Weekly claimed that each singer in the collective stands for a petal of the forget-me-not flower, the symbol chosen for the April 24 genocide-centennial in the Armenian capital, Yerevan. The publication claimed that Armenian singer Inga Arshakian represents the midpoint of the flower — the center of gravity, if you will — for the far-flung Armenian Diaspora.
The centennial’s official commemoration date hits roughly a month before Eurovision’s May 19-23 run in Vienna.
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.
A Soyuz TMA-14M spacecraft with American astronaut Barry Wilmore and Russian cosmonauts Alexander Samokutyaev and Elena Serova aboard descends toward the clouds near the Kazakh town of Dzhezkazgan on March 11. The trio returned to Earth after almost six months onboard the International Space Station, where they served as members of the Expedition 41 and 42 crews.
March 11 was supposed to be a big day for South Ossetia, the tiny breakaway region with a wish to become one with Russia. A South Ossetian delegation had arrived in Moscow with an engagement ring — the so-called Treaty on Alliance and Integration — but Russia was just not ready to commit. Perhaps because it has too much going on in its life right now.
The main battleground for the 2008 Georgian-Russian war, South Ossetia never made a secret of its desire to become the next Crimea. Its leadership had left for the signing-ceremony in Moscow to much fanfare at home and teeth-grinding in jilted Tbilisi, which claims the mountainous border region as its own.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin did not even receive the delegation, much less sign the agreement meant to merge the Russian and South Ossetian economies and government agencies.
Russian media was awash with speculation: Putin had a running nose or thinks the territory did a sloppy job with the agreement or is bogged down in Ukraine and does not feel like adding another region to his land-grab collection right now. “Indefinite postponement of such a document’s signing on the eve of an event is an unprecedented development,” wrote Russia’s Vzglyad newspaper.
Iran has assailed Georgia, in particular Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani, for not being neighborly. Tehran’s burst of criticism came in response to recent comments by Tsulukiani that were seen as disparaging of Iran and Iranians.
Tsulukiani sparked the diplomatic spat on March 9, expressing approval in a television interview of changes to immigration procedures that have prevented thousands of potential Chinese, Iranian, Iraqi and Egyptian visitors from entering the country. Tsulukiani also said that in the future Georgia would only allow “well-wishers” to enter the country, prompting rights activists and the Iranian embassy to assume that Iranians were not regarded among the country’s well-wishers.
An Iranian government press release described the justice minister’s comments as “incompetent and ignorant.”
“The restrictions placed upon Iranian investors and tourists can be regarded as Georgia’s loss of Iranian friends’ skills, capital and valuable services,” the statement added.
The Georgian minister met with the Islamic Republic’s Ambassador Abbas Talebifar on March 10. After the meeting, Tsulukiani put down the incident to miscommunication and claimed that Iranian-Georgian friendship is as strong as ever.
The government insists that tightening immigration rules for Iranians and other nationals was required under an association agreement that Georgia signed with the European Union in 2014. However, some observers suspect that authorities had an additional motive for strengthening procedures: to pander to conservative, anti-immigrant voters.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani tried to end uncertainty about Iran’s desire for Turkmenistan's gas during his first official visit to the gas-rich Central Asian country on March 11, promising an unspecified increase in imports.
Over the last few years, at least in terms of gas, Turkmenistan’s relationship with Iran has been second only to its relationship with Russia in volatility. Tehran makes occasional noises about boosting domestic production and doing away with a tiresome trade pickled with disputes.
But during his visit Rouhani confirmed that the Islamic Republic would up imports from Turkmenistan.
That must be music to Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s ears. The Turkmen economy has been struggling on the back of the sharp downturn in Russia and the slumping ruble; moreover, Moscow suddenly slashed imports of Turkmen gas last month.
Referring to increased transport links with Turkmenistan, such as the new Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran railway, Rouhani set an ambitious target for bilateral trade to grow by more than 15 times from its current $3.7 billion to $60 billion by 2020, his official president.ir website cited him as saying.
For his part, Berdymukhamedov was also effusive: “In recent years, given the growing cooperation in different fields, bilateral ties between Tehran and Ashgabat have taken on a new meaning,” said the Turkmen president, who also called Rouhani a “brother” in comments picked up by AFP.