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.
Tajikistan’s strongman President Emomali Rahmon has silenced the opposition at home without much of a fight. Abroad, his administration is employing help of Interpol – the avowedly non-political international police organization – to stifle dissident voices.
Acting on an Interpol all-points-bulletin, a so-called red notice, the Finnish authorities detained 31-year-old Sulaimon Davlatov on February 20. A long-time resident of St Petersburg, Russia, Davlatov was travelling to Lithuania when he was seized. The Tajik authorities accuse Davlatov of being a member of the outlawed Group 24 – and, without publicly presenting evidence, of sending citizens to fight in Syria.
Currently, the Interpol website lists 127 red notices for Tajik citizens. Their alleged crimes range from robbery and drug trafficking to terrorism.
Critics say the Interpol system is open to manipulation by authoritarians determined to track down their political rivals. The Warsaw-based Open Dialogue Foundation wrote in a February 24 report:
NATO warships deploy to the Black Sea. (photo: NATO)
A six-ship NATO naval group is conducting joint exercises in the Black Sea, and the Russian military is taking advantage of the event to carry out war games of a sort.
The NATO group is led by an American admiral aboard the USS Vicksburg, and also includes warships from Canada, Germany, Italy, Romania, and Turkey. The training "will include simulated anti-air and anti-submarine warfare exercises, as well as simulated small boat attacks and basic ship handling manoeuvres," according to a release from NATO.
An anonymous source in the Russian naval base at Sevastopol, Crimea, told agency RIA Novosti that they are following the deployment and using it as an opportunity to practice testing the NATO forces' anti-aircraft systems. The probing is being carried out by Su-30 fighters and Su-24 bombers, the source said:
"Our pilots are mainly monitoring the direction of the NATO ships and monitoring the tasks that they are carrying out on their visit to the sea," the source said. "In addition, the ships' crews are no doubt conducting exercises with our planes to practice an air attack, which gives our pilots the opportunity to gain experience maneuvering and conducting aerial surveillance both in and outside of the range of the anti-aircraft systems."
The leader of Russia-backed South Ossetia worries that Georgian doctors are undermining the breakaway entity’s health.
During a cabinet session of the de-facto South Ossetian government held March 2, Leonid Tibilov, the president of the self-proclaimed republic, expressed concern about the number of South Ossetian residents traveling to Georgia to seek medical treatment.
South Ossetia, along with the autonomous region of Abkhazia, broke free of Tbilisi’s rule in the early 1990s. In the aftermath of its 2008 war with Georgia, Russia recognized the independence of both entities, which remain heavily dependent on Kremlin subsidies.
Despite decades of political enmity, many South Ossetians prefer Georgian health services to what they can obtain at home, and they find Georgian healthcare to be cheaper than what can be found in Russia. Many are attracted by Georgia’s universal insurance program, which covers residents of the separatist regions. Official policy in Tbilisi holds that South Ossetia and Abkhazia are still part of Georgia.
South Ossetian authorities permit residents to make trips across the breakaway lines only in cases of a healthcare emergency, but, as Tibilov observed a year ago, a growing number of South Ossetians are opting for regular treatment in Georgian clinics. Georgian officials said that the number reached 400 last year, reported Ekho Kavkaza news service. The fraternization makes South Ossetian leaders uncomfortable.
You can find donkeys at Bishkek’s theme parks painted to look like zebras. A Kyrgyz proverb has it that travelling on one to the jailoo, or mountain pasture, is a sign of social lowliness.
In a country that reveres – and eats – the horse, the humble donkey is a poor substitute, destined to spend its days poked and prodded by rural boys dreaming of stallions.
For this reason, allegations that a farm outside Bishkek is doing a spritely trade flogging donkey meat to eateries in Kyrgyzstan’s capital have caused mass consternation and soul searching. The parliament’s committee on agrarian policy threatened on March 2 that the government had until March 15 to deliver justice for Kyrgyz meat lovers, or face a vote of no confidence.
Investigators promptly opened a criminal case against the farm, which denies wrongdoing, on March 3.
The scandal began brewing on February 24 when journalists from state television followed up on the complaints of locals and visited a farm in Sololuk District, not far from Bishkek. Gruesome photos soon emerged online of piles of severed donkey heads and other donkey parts at the farm’s less-than-sterile-appearing slaughterhouse.
Selling donkey meat is not a crime in Kyrgyzstan, but the journalists claimed – without offering proof – that the animals were bound for Bishkek’s restaurants, where their cuts would masquerade as beef and lamb.
The Taysoygan training grounds, which Russia currently leases from Kazakhstan, in a screenshot from a report on Astana TV.
Kazakhstan has reached an agreement with Russia to take over most of a Russian military training facility in far western Kazakhstan. The deal represents the latest step in Kazakhstan's efforts to regain control over the many Soviet-legacy military and other strategic facilities that Russia still operates in the country.
Under the agreement, Russia will hand over about 90 percent of the Taysoygan testing facility near Atyrau, Senator Sarsenbay Engsegenov told Astana TV. President Nursultan Nazarbayev instructed the Ministry of Defense to work out the details of the agreement, which should be ratified by parliament by the end of March, Engsegenov said. There hasn't yet been any comment from the Russian side.
The Taysoygan facility is currently used for Russian testing of pilots and aircraft, but in the Soviet era it was used for nuclear testing (it was reportedly subject to 24 nuclear explosions in the 1960s and 70s), and today residents still talk about the environmental impact of that: there have been calves born with five legs or one eye, children with a variety of developmental disabilities, and adults tend to have short lifespans.
Call it Azerbaijan's interpretation of traditional Caucasian hospitality. Its citizens may be facing a bad currency-crunch, brought on by devaluation and depressed oil prices, but that’s not gonna stop this South Caucasus country from footing the bill for travel and accommodation for the “more than 6,000” athletes competing in this June’s European Olympic Games in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku.
But the European Olympic Committee, which is running the Baku games, claims that covering athletes’ costs is standard for Olympic-host countries.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s government does, however, have a thing for “spectacular shows.” In 2012, almost $80 million was spent on Eurovision, a continental pop music extravaganza. Baku plans to foot a $8 billion bill for the European Olympic Games, even though its manat can buy 33.5 percent less per dollar now and fears persist that the nation’s hydrocarbon-supported revenues may halve this year.