Hours before heroically coaxing Vladimir Putin out of his mysterious 11-day hibernation on March 16, Kyrgyzstan's President Almazbek made a brief stopover in Moldova.
He was flying on a private jet, reportedly provided by one of Moldova’s richest men.
The secretive mission to Chisinau, where Atambayev reportedly met controversial oligarch-politician Vladimir Plahotniuc, has baffled many in Bishkek and angered opposition leaders.
Plahotniuc, aside from being a parliamentarian from the pro-Europe Democratic Party of Moldova, has faced legal scandals related to his business activity in both Great Britain and the Netherlands. In 2012, Business New Europe called the oligarch “a kingmaker.” Others describe him as the most powerful man in Moldova.
Prompting even more questions, Atambayev did not meet Moldovan President Nicolae Timofti during the four-hour layover. Timofti’s press secretary said to local media, as a way of explanation, that Atambayev was short on time and that he “met with someone in Chisinau.”
Atambayev’s office is mostly tight-lipped about the meeting, prompting a furious reaction from opposition leader Ravshan Jeenbekov, who said such behavior – flying on a private jet and holding secret meetings – “does not honor the head of an independent state.”
It seems that the apparatchiks who run the Kremlin-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) have not abandoned hopes of one day integrating Ukraine into the organization.
Tatiana Valovaya, one of the nine members of the EEU’s Commission, the group’s executive arm, was the featured speaker at a recent event hosted by Columbia University’s Harriman Institute in New York. She insisted that there was room for Ukraine to pursue trade partnerships with both the European Union and the EEU. Ukraine could pursue a middle path by following a hodgepodge of practices and regulations, Valovaya added.
“We do not believe there should be a single set of rules in the country, but lots of common rules,” she said.
Valovaya dismissed concerns about the compatibility of EU and EEU requirements, noting that 80 percent of the EEU’s technical regulations were based on EU documents. She did not provide any additional insight on how a mixed system could be coordinated among Ukrainian, EEU, and EU officials.
The EEU, which comprises Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Armenia, has had a tough start since its establishment in January. Sanctions and sagging oil prices have crippled the economy of Russia, its largest member.
Despite these challenges, the EEU has received more than 30 requests from countries wanting to explore free trade agreements with the organization, Valovaya said. A free trade treaty with Vietnam is expected to be signed in the spring, and joint research groups have been formed with Israel, India, and Egypt to explore possibilities. Meanwhile, negotiations with New Zealand are stalled due to “political tensions.”
Billionaire ex-Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, long annoyed by the alleged lack of “correct” current-affairs analysis in Georgia, has launched a daily TV talk-show as part of his ongoing campaign to shape public opinion about the government he brought to power.
Not surprisingly, he was the first guest.
Charging that his enemies’ propaganda dominates much of Georgian television, the 59-year-old Ivanishvili, who left power in 2013, observed that “it is difficult for people to understand what is happening in reality.”
Called 2030, in honor of the year when Ivanishvili expects European-style democracy and wealth to hit Georgia, the 90-minute talkathon is intended as a counterweight to the country’s most popular TV channel, Rustavi2, a station Ivanishvili terms a “machine of lies” run by ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili and his cohort.
“It is about doing the right analysis,” said Ivanishvili, getting on his favorite soap box. He promised to use the 2030 show and an eponymous NGO to produce a new cadre of wonks to tell Georgians what’s really going on in the country.
Of course, one can’t be too careful when choosing the means for delivering such information. The ex-PM has selected GDS, an MTV-style station owned by his rapper son, Bera — an individual he presumably believes also capable of making the “right” analyses.
Ivanishvili opted against the original idea to co-host the show, but he will make frequent appearances to deliver — if the premiere is any indication — lengthy, didactic lectures as host and co-panelists nod approvingly.
Tajikistan’s president often enthuses about leaving behind a country better than the one he took over 23 years ago. But the impoverished Central Asian nation fares poorly in many studies – from transparency and doing business to health and education – often because of the corruption that plagues the country’s weak institutions.
A new appointment promises to change all that.
On March 16, President Emomali Rahmon appointed his 27-year-old son, Rustam Emomali, to head the national anti-corruption agency – the Agency for State Financial Control and Combating Corruption – according to a decree posted on the president’s website. Emomali will report to his father and leave his post at the Customs Agency, which he has led for almost a year and a half.
The president is entrusting his son with one of the most delicate tasks in the country. In the past, the anti-corruption agency has been accused of helping some of Tajikistan’s murky criminal-political factions gain ascendency over others, of being a political tool to snuff out rivals. At the least, it has been faulted for not fulfilling its mandate. Tajikistan, after all, ranks 152 out of 175 in Transparency International’s most recent Corruption Perceptions Index.
After 11 days of no public appearances and dozens of theories and speculations about his curious absence, Russian President Vladimir Putin stepped back into the public spotlight today during a presentation to the news media with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev joining him at the Konstantinovsky Palace in St. Petersburg. Photos released by the Kyrgyz Presidential Press Service show the two leaders striding into a room together, shaking hands, sitting down, and exchanging comments to each other and reporters.
During the discussion the Kyrgyz president commented: "I’d like to add for the media that Mr. Putin just drove me around the [palace] grounds, and was at the wheel himself. I say this to dispel the rumors." Atambayev was referring to more than a week of media commentators, political analysts, bloggers, and government opposition figures conjuring up guesses and gossip as to Putin's absence, including a Kremlin coup, attending the birth of secret lovechild in Switzerland, illness, and even death
Putin added: "Life would get boring without rumors."
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.