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.
The long-serving strongman leader of Kazakhstan has confirmed his intention to stand for reelection in a snap vote next month. He is guaranteed to win a landslide.
Nursultan Nazarbayev accepted the nomination of his ruling Nur Otan party to stand in the April 26 election at a party congress on March 11, his Twitter feed reported.
“I declare my agreement to stand as a candidate for president from the Nur Otan party in the upcoming elections,” @AkordaPress, the Twitter account run by the presidential administration, quoted him as saying.
“We must move forward,” he told the congress in remarks quoted by Tengri News, after delegate after delegate had proposed in fawning speeches that the incumbent accept the nomination. Nazarbayev remarked that he was “not so young” but was ready to “do great deeds in the future.”
Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan has not just dealt his deepest-pocketed rival, Gagik Tsarukian, a political knockout. Some now claim that, with the beefy tycoon's formal withdrawal from politics, Sargsyan has left punch-drunk arguably the most combat-capable part of Armenia’s opposition camp.
As members of Tsarukian's Prosperous Armenia Party start to drift away, the party, the country's largest legislative minority, is being forced to reinvent itself. The question is whether and how it can.
Don't expect Tsarukian to offer any public tips, however. “Henceforth, please do not bother me with any questions related to politics,” he said in a March 5 adieu to his party.
Coming on the heels of his threats to take to the streets with ex-President Levon Ter Petrossian, another Sargsyan-foe, to force early elections, it might seem some sort of detailed elaboration is required.
It hasn't happened. In fact, public disappointment over Tsarukian’s backdown, some observers believe, could mean that Prosperous Armenia does not have much of a future.
The Damavand destroyer, which formally entered service in Iran's Caspian sea fleet on March 9, 2015. (photo: MoD Iran)
Iran's newest, most capable warship in the Caspian Sea has formally entered service following a March 9 ceremony at the port of Bandar-e-Anzali.
While Iranian officials played up the technical capabilities of the new ship, they also noted that one of its missions would be training, highlighting the fact that the Caspian remains a very secondary strategic priority for Tehran.
The ship, the Damavand, is a Jamaran-class destroyer with more sophisticated weapons than the original Jamaran, with "highly advanced anti-aircraft, anti-surface and anti-subsurface missile systems" and "capable of tracking and targeting aerial, surface and sub-surface targets simultaneously," Press TV reported. It entered sea trials in 2013.
"The operational radius of Damavand is so vast that it can sufficiently be used for all naval missions in the Caspian Sea," Head of the Self-Sufficiency Jihad Department of the Iranian Navy Rear Admiral Ali Qolamzadeh told Fars News Agency. But he added that it also could be used for "training missions," suggesting a rather less strategic focus. (The Caspian has traditionally been a site for Iranian naval training; during the Soviet era that was the sea's sole purpose for the Iranian navy.)
The Secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, attended the inauguration and called the Caspian a "sea of peace, friendship and security." And he repeated the oft-made claim that "outside powers" (read: the United States) are trying to sow dischord on the sea.
Turkmenistan is undertaking the first large-scale mobilization of its reserve military forces since gaining independence, which government officials say is required to ward off the threat of ISIS forces gathering in neighboring Afghanistan.
That's according to a report in Central Asia Online, a Pentagon-funded news website known mostly for its sunny promotion of the activities of some of the world's most authoritarian governments. This report, even though it falls into that same pattern, is nevertheless pretty extraordinary for the fact that it gets several Turkmenistan officials to talk on the record, and some of them even disagree with one another.
"This is the first large-scale and serious ... mobilisation of reservists in the nearly 24 years of the country's independence," Defence Ministry official Agamyrat Garakhanov told Central Asia Online, calling the number of called-up reservists a "state secret".
For years, Georgia has been notorious for its widespread use of pirated software. But now officials in Tbilisi are vowing to address the issue, pledging in a memorandum signed with software giant Microsoft to use only properly licensed products.
“It is no secret that Georgia for years relied on unauthorized software. We can say that Georgia had the highest rate of counterfeit software usage in the world,” Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili said during the March 5 signing ceremony.
Georgia was cited as the largest user of bootlegged software in a 2009 study that covered 115 nations. A 2014 study showed that the country had made little progress in stemming the problem, with roughly 90 percent of the software installed by computer users not being properly licensed.
Some observers contend that the widespread reliance on pirated software makes Georgia vulnerable to cyber-attacks. During the country’s 2008 war with Russia, Georgia suffered from massive cyber sabotage at the hands of Russian hackers.
US Ambassador to Georgia Richard Norland, who attended the signing ceremony, said the agreement sends a powerful message that “Georgia wants to do business in the right way, in accordance with the rule of law, respecting intellectual property,” the Interpressnews newswire reported.