With police cordons and security everywhere, Tbilisi’s Locomotive Stadium looked like the venue of an international summit on the night of August 7. In fact, it was a soccer game of modest significance between Azerbaijan’s Neftchi and Georgia’s Chikhura, a team from the small provincial town of Sachkhere that recently rose to prominence thanks as much to its wins as to its rowdy fans’ hostility toward Georgia’s Muslim neighbors.
At a previous, goalless game in Baku on August 1 between these same two teams, Chikhura’s fans rolled out a large map of Georgia with bits of Azerbaijani land depicted as Georgian territories. The map and the catcalls provoked a mass brawl between Georgian and Azerbaijani fans.
Worse things have happened on soccer fields, but in this region, where all countries believe that their neighbors owe them a piece of land and ethnic conflict is often just a brawl away, the authorities hurried to prevent a possible escalation. Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili denounced the violence as a “provocation,” while President Giorgi Margvelashvili and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev pledged by phone that such unpleasantness will not derail the two countries’ friendship.
Earlier, on July 24, another incident occurred in Tbilisi when Chikhura played another qualifying match for UEFA’s Europe League against Turkey’s Buraspor. Purportedly the same group of fans made a Nazi salute and sported Nazi symbols during the match, while one Chikhura player made a crude gesture at Turkish fans. At a post-game press conference, Georgian and Turkish sports journalists came to blows.
Naval vessels participate in the 2011 BlackSeaFor exercises. (photo: Russian MoD)
A Black Sea-wide naval cooperation program in operation since 2001 is "frozen" due to the war in Ukraine, Russian media has reported. Given that the participants in the program, BlackSeaFor, include Russia, its post-Soviet foes Ukraine and Georgia, and NATO members Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania, it's probably more noteworthy that the program hasn't been canceled altogether. But anyway, Russian military sources have told ITAR-TASS that they managed to thwart Ukraine's efforts to kick Russia out of the organization:
"The Kiev authorities' attempts to garner the BlackSeaFor member-countries' support for its anti-Russian initiative failed. No BlackSeaFor state has upheld this initiative," the source told ITAR-TASS on Friday.
“From May to June the Ukrainian authorities were sending their envoys to Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey and Georgia for holding talks with their military and political leaders. Ukraine’s staff in Sofia, Bucharest, Ankara and Tbilisi were running around government offices. However, the attempts were vain,” it said. “The BlackSeaFor countries’ position was to preserve status quo, i.e. the existing format with Russia’s participation.
Ukraine was informed about the BlackSeaFor member-states’ view to freeze the organisation’s activity until the situation in Ukraine normalises,” the source said.
A German Patriot missile system. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
NATO is reportedly looking at ending its deployment of air defense units on the Syrian border, prompting objections from Ankara.
The German newspaper Der Spiegel reported that the U.S., Germany, and the Netherlands are considering ending their deployment of Patriot missile batteries by the end of the year. The systems were deployed in January 2013 in response to the intensified fighting there. The fighting, of course, has not died down, but the threat of a chemical attack has diminished. That, in combination with the fact that the soldiers from Germany and the Netherlands who operate the systems have been overstretched by the long deployment, have led to the reconsideration of the mission, Der Spiegel's sources said.
But Turkey isn't ready for them to go. “Turkey thinks that such a move doesn't serve relations between allies,” one Turkish foreign ministry official told Today's Zaman. Another diplomatic source told Hurriyet Daily News, "At a moment when there are serious security problems [in the region], a decision to withdraw these systems from Turkey would be inappropriate and unsuitable to the [values of our] alliance."
In a perceived nod to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Azerbaijan on June 18 shut down a school network associated with the influential Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, Erdoğan's bête noire.
Erdoğan has accused the US-based religious leader and his followers of conspiring against his government — a charge viewed by outsiders as largely entangled with the ruling Justice and Development Party’s own domestic political struggles — and earlier urged ally Azerbaijan to help him in this fight. Looks like he didn't have to ask twice.
Azerbaijan's energy giant, the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijani Republic, already had taken over 11 high schools, 13 university-exam preparation centers and a private university believed to be linked to the Gülen movement.
As in Turkey, the facilities enjoyed a good academic reputation, and had a nationwide presence. Experts earlier interviewed by EurasiaNet.org about the takeover generally saw political motivations for the takeover.
But the schools’ parent company, the Azerbaijan International Education Company, in which SOCAR holds shares, claims its eye is just on the bottom line. The schools, the company claimed, were not financially viable.
A 2012 Georgian postage stamp celebrating the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The new deadline for a new railway line that would connect the Caspian Sea to Turkey appears to be delayed yet again, making it highly unlikely that Georgia and Azerbaijan will profit much from U.S. military transportation business.
The presidents of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey met in Tbilisi on Wednesday, and the focus was "joint energy and transportation projects, among them Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway." This is the railroad that last year the three countries had been promoting as the centerpiece of their proposal to gain a significant share of the "retrograde" transit of U.S. military equipment out of Afghanistan and back to Europe and the U.S. The idea would be to ship equipment through Central Asia, over the Caspian Sea, and through the South Caucasus. The railroad was "the vital missing link which will be operational soon," said Batu Kutelia, deputy secretary in the office of national security, said at the time. A senior Turkish official said the railroad would be operational by the end of 2013 and that "taking into consideration the reverse transit process, we wanted to accelerate the process."
This would be a geopolitical winner from the Pentagon's perspective, as it would decrease the U.S.'s reliance on the mercurial Pakistan and the new enemy, Russia. As an analyst at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation wrote this week:
Nice try, but, no, your condolences were not accepted, said Yerevan after Ankara expressed commiseration on the April 24 anniversary of Ottoman Turkey's 1915 slaughter of thousands of ethnic Armenians.
In what Washington praised as an “historic” move, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan offered words of consolation to the “grandchildren” of the victims of the World-War I-era massacre, describing the events of that period as “a shared pain” for both Turks and Armenians. He added, however, that other peoples, including Turks, also endured brutalities during that time.
The comment was the closest Ankara has come to recognising the slaughter.
But Yerevan was having none of it. The statement was merely “another, perhaps a little more sophisticated way, of concealing and denying the genocide of the Armenians,” said Vigen Sarkisian, spokesperson for Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan.
Ethnic Armenians in Turkey seem to have displayed some appreciation for Erdoğan’s words, but Yerevan described them as putting “killers and victims” on the same footing. It repeated that Turkey needs to own up to its Ottoman predecessors having committed genocide against ethnic Armenians.
Erdoğan called on Armenia to leave the past behind it and move on, but Yerevan believes that recognizing that past is the best way for Turkey to do the same.
Azerbaijan has arrested and charged prominent newspaper correspondent Rauf Mirkadirov, a political analyst critical of its policies, with alleged espionage for Armenia.
On April 19, Turkish police yanked Mirkadirov, an Ankara-based journalist for Azerbaijan's Russian-language Zerkalo (Mirror) daily, off a bus as he was preparing to return to Azerbaijan via neighbouring Georgia. Mirkadirov's press accreditation earlier had been canceled.*
Zerkalo wrote that it had initially assumed that a "misunderstanding" or "technical" reasons had caused the accreditation-snag; issues which, "with fraternal Turkey," would soon be sorted out, it said.
That notion soon went out the window.
Word of Mirkadirov's deportation from Turkey became public this weekend, but Azerbaijan's interior ministry and border-control officials initially denied any knowledge about his deportation, Zerkalo reported.
On April 21, the prosecutor's office stated briefly that he had been charged with treason; specifically, with espionage, under аrticle 274 of Azerbaijan's criminal code.
Elaborating at a briefing later that day, Mirkadirov's lawyer, Fuad Agayev, told reporters that prosecutors claim Mirkadirov, who has visited Yerevan in the past for various conferences, allegedly passed on information describing Azerbaijan's military situation and "strategic objects" to Armenian agents.
Armenian journalist Laura Bagdasarian, who ran a joint online publication with Azerbaijani human rights activist Leyla Yunus, also was mentioned in the charges, Agayev said.
The Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Donald Cook, just arrived in the Black Sea, in a file photo. (photo: Morgan Over. U.S. Navy)
Russia continues to complain about the U.S. and NATO's naval presence in the Black Sea, suggesting the Kremlin is going to keep pushing to limit western military influence in the sea.
After Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov criticized the U.S. and Turkey for ignoring the Montreux Convention, the 1938 treaty that regulates the naval presence in the Black Sea, the Kremlin has doubled down on its criticism, saying that the U.S. had kept a warship in the sea for longer than the 21 days it is allowed. Turkey -- which enforces the convention -- had responded to that accusations, saying they "do not in any way represent the truth"
In an April 20 statement, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the Turkish statement "extremely bewildering" and that the USS Taylor had stayed 11 days longer than it was supposed to. "Turkey did not inform us about the overstay. We have expressed our concern to the Turkish and US side in a verbal note," the statement said. "We presume that Turkey, as well as non-neighboring countries, will in the future strictly observe their obligations with respect to the convention."
The USS Taylor, recall, had run aground in the Black Sea and had to be serviced in Samsun, Turkey, as a result (a fact the Russian statement didn't mention).
At the same time, Russia responded strongly to the entrance of another U.S. warship into the Black Sea, the USS Donald Cook. An unnamed Russian Defense Ministry source told ITAR-TASS that, given the presence of a French warship already in the sea and the planned arrival of two more, we can say that NATO is building a naval grouping in the Black Sea in the vicinity of the Russian border for the first time since 2008." The source went on:
A Chinese HQ-9 air defense system, possibly no longer headed soon to Turkey. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Amid the continuing controversy over Turkey's selection of a Chinese company to build a sensitive air defense system, Turkey's top state defense industry official has been demoted and there are reports Ankara may be considering trying to build the whole thing itself.
Recall that the controversy began in September, when after a drawn-out competition, Turkey announced that it had chosen the Chinese HQ-9 air and missile defense system. The Chinese system was competing against ones from Russia, the U.S., and Europe, so the competition appeared to have -- rightly or wrongly -- a geopolitical component. Turkey's announcement resulted in a significant amount of U.S. and NATO pressure; Turkey's Western partners are concerned about the possibility that China could gain sensitive NATO data via the system.
Over the last month or so, there have been several indications that Turkey is rethinking its choice. Unnamed sources told the newspaper Hurriyet that the U.S. and European companies that lost out are considering changing their offer to give Turkey more of the sensitive technology involved in building the system (a key Turkish criterion for the program and one which the Chinese company, by all accounts, was best at). That also, though, would increase the price (and the Chinese system was already cheaper).
The guided-missile destroyer USS Donald Cook, reportedly en route to the Black Sea (photo: Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Adam Austin)
As the U.S. prepares to send another warship into the Black Sea, it is facing Russian accusations that the increased American military presence there is illegal.
The U.S. is planning on sending its fourth warship to the Black Sea since February. Pentagon officials confirmed that another warship would be heading soon to the Black Sea. "This is to reassure our allies of our commitment to the region. ... It is a direct result of the current situation in Ukraine," said U.S. Army Colonel Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman. (NBC News reported that the ship would be the guided missile destroyer USS Donald Cook and that it would be heading to the Black Sea in the next few days.) The new deployment comes on the heels of another ship's visit in March and two more in February.
That appears to be too much for the Kremlin. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said April 3 that the U.S. has violated the Montreux Convention, the 1938 treaty that regulates the number and kinds of ships that can enter the Black Sea.
"There exists the Montreux Convention, which gives extremely clear criteria limiting the deployment of warships not belonging to the Black Sea governments in regard to tonnage and length of stay," Lavrov said.
"We have noticed that US warships have extended their deployment beyond the set terms a couple of times lately, and at times they did not always comply with the regulations that are set within the Montreux Convention."