Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko speaks at the Yerevan summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization on October 14. (photo: president.gov.by)
The Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russia-led political-military bloc, has again failed to find a new leader during a summit that did nothing to combat the growing suspicion that the organization is dysfunctional.
The CSTO held its annual summit on October 14 in Yerevan, and the current secretary general, Nikolay Bordyuzha, had said that the group would pick his replacement at the summit. But the summiteers, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, left the get-together without settling on a new leader and without explaining that failure. "We'll get back to the matter in late 2016," Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan said after the summit.
It's not clear how significant a role the secretary general of the CSTO plays and what might change with a new person in the role. Some Armenian officials tried to play down the succession issue. "It's not important which nationality or government the next secretary general represents," said Bagram Bagdasaryan, the ruling Republican Party of Armenia's parliamentary leader
But the fact that the new leader is slated to be an Armenian has added some intrigue to the leadership question. Armenia is probably the most loyal CSTO member, with the most to gain -- if a wider war were to break out with Azerbaijan, Armenia could in theory gain the support of its allies.
United States Secretary of State John Kerry has created a diplomatic stir in the Caucasus by arguing that the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan "aren't ready" to resolve their conflict over the contested territory of Nagorno Karabakh.
Kerry's remarks about Karabakh were made only offhandedly, in the context of a larger discussion about diplomacy and international negotiations. Discussing the recent deal over Iran's nuclear program, Kerry contrasted that situation -- where the parties were genuinely interested in a resolution because of the risks that failure would bring -- to the Caucasus.
"There are some frozen conflicts in the world today -- Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan-Armenia, where you can’t quite see that right now because the leaders aren’t ready, because the tensions aren’t there," Kerry said. (Underscoring his pessimism, he contrasted Armenia and Azerbaijan unfavorably with the Palestine-Israel peace process, which he characterized as "difficult but you can see how you could get there if people made a certain set of decisions.")
More than 20 years after Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a cease fire to end the fighting over Karabakh, which ended Armenian forces in de facto control of Karabakh, the two sides seem farther apart than ever. And so to anyone following the Caucasus, Kerry's statement on Karabakh was not especially controversial, as the "tensions" that he referred to are mostly pushing in the direction of war, rather than peace.
Azerbaijan, suffering increasing public discontent as a result of a struggling economy, was able to rally citizens around the flag by launching an offensive in Karabakh in April. And in Armenia, radical nationalists staged a rebellion over the summer in order to pressure the government from conceding any ground to Azerbaijan over Karabakh.
Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan introduces the country's new minister of defense and chief of general staff, Vigen Sargsyan and Movses Hakopyan, respectively. (photo: president.am)
Armenia has appointed a new defense minister, a civilian educated in the United States.
The new minister, 41-year-old Vigen Sargsyan, will replace Seyran Ohanian, who had headed the defense ministry since 2008. Sargsyan had been the chief of staff to President Serzh Sargsyan (no relation).
The two elements of Sargsyan's biography that have attracted the most scrutiny are the fact that he is a civilian (Ohanian was a decorated veteran of the war with Azerbaijan in the 1990s, and held the rank of colonel-general) and that he was educated in the U.S., with a master's degree from Tufts University's Fletcher School, the training ground of much of the U.S.'s foreign policy establishment.
In most countries it's common for the defense minister to be a civilian, but it apparently raised some concerns in Armenia. President Serzh Sargsyan, introducing the new minister on Monday, appeared to try to justify the appointment of a civilian by emphasizing that the role of defense minister has as more to do with personnel, management and veterans issues as with warfighting.
"The minister of defense should occupy himself very little with the day-to-day activities of the armed forces," he said. "I'm confident that Vigen Sargsyan recognizes the level of this responsibility, and I'm confident that he will spare no effort and energy in justifying my confidence and will carry out his responsibilities with honor."
An Iskander missile on parade in Moscow in 2010. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Armenia has shown off advanced missile systems it acquired from Russia, giving it both a potentially substantial military boost as well as a source for controversy in Armenia's state of heightened political tension.
The Iskander missiles were spotted on Friday, in a rehearsal for tomorrow's military parade to mark 25 years of Armenian independence. The acquisition hasn't been announced officially, but the Russian newspaper Vedemosti cited two "managers of the military-industrial complex" confirming that Russia supplied four launchers (with two missiles each) to Armenia, and that they were provided under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which gives Russia's allies discounts on military hardware.
There were reports last year that negotiations on a more advanced version of the system, the Iskander-M, were underway between Russia and Armenia, but those were never publicly confirmed.
If this acquisition did in fact take place, it's a significant move: Armenia would be the first country other than Russia to get the weapons, among Russia's most advanced ballistic missiles. And it provides Yerevan a substantial capability boost in its arms race with Azerbaijan. Armenia-backed forces currently occupy Nagorno Karabakh, which is still de jure part of Azerbaijan, and Azerbaijan has heavily rearmed with the aim of taking Karabakh back.
The Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russian-led security bloc, is having trouble finding its first non-Russian secretary general, as the man who had apparently been tapped for the job has turned it down.
Last week, Interfax reported, citing unnamed Armenian government sources, that Armenian Defense Secretary Seyran Ohanian would be appointed as the new CSTO secretary general. Ohanian would replace Nikolay Bordyuzha, a Russian former KGB officer who has been the only head the organization has had, serving since 2003.
But on Friday, Ohanian said that he wouldn't take the job. "As concerns my appointment as the CSTO secretary general, there has been no such offer. Today I'm carrying out my duties as minister of defense and I don't have any plans to work in any sort of international structure," he said in an interview with the website news.am. Asked if he would turn down the job if offered it, he said: "Definitely."
Bordyuzha himself said that his successor would be named by October 14, when a CSTO summit is scheduled in Yerevan, and that it would be an Armenian.
This is not the first hiccup the CSTO has experienced in finding a successor for Bordyuzha. Last December Yuriy Ushakov, a senior adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, said that a new appointment was imminent. But just a few days later the CSTO announced that it would instead be extending Bordyuzha's appointment for another year. At that point, too, it was also said that the replacement would be an Armenian.
Germany's government is planning to concede to Turkish demands on the country's recognition of the Armenian genocide in exchange for the German military's continued access to a Turkish airbase, a German magazine has reported.
The compromise is aimed at resolving a crisis that began in June when the German Bundestag adopted a resolution recognizing the mass killings ot Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 as genocide. In response, Turkey recalled its ambassador and blocked the visits of German members of parliament to German troops serving at the Incirlik air base.
Germany has deployed about 250 German troops, six surveillance jets and a refueling tanker to Incirlik as part of the international coalition fighting ISIS in Syria. Germany threatened to pull out of that operation if its parliamentarians weren't allowed to visit. "The German army answers to parliament," Social Democrat leader and Deputy Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel told the regional newspaper Mitteldeutsche Zeitung in July. "And if parliament cannot visit its army, then the army cannot stay there. This is absolutely clear," Gabriel said.
Turkey has laid out two conditions for German MP visits to Incirlik: stronger statements of support for the Turkish government in wake of the coup attempt in July, and stepping back from the Armenian genocide recognition.
A Russian soldier who killed six members of an Armenian family after deserting his military base has been found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. But questions remain over where he will serve his sentence, setting the stage for another conflict between the two allies over Russia's increasingly contentious military presence in Armenia.
The soldier, Valeriy Permyakov, wandered off the 102nd Military Base in Gyumri, Armenia's second city, last January 12, broke into the house of the Avetsiyan family and shot six of them to death. He was captured trying to cross the border into Turkey.
The case shocked Armenia and led to unprecedented protests in Gyumri and Yerevan against the Russian military presence in the country. The Russian presence is largely welcomed in Armenia, as protection against Turkey and Azerbaijan, but lately there has been increasing resentment of Russia's heavyhanded behavior in Armenia. Russia wanted to try Permyakov in a military court on the base, but the protests led Moscow to back down and allow him to be tried in an Armenian court.
Now the conflict could turn to where Permyakov serves his sentence. The judge, apparently contrary to standard procedure, declined to say where he would be sent. Some Armenian media reported that a deal is in the works to exchange Permyakov for an Armenian prisoner currently serving time in Russia.
A screenshot of a video released by the State Security Service of Georgia, showing the questioning of a suspect alleged to have plotted to blow up a gas pipeline between Russia and Armenia.
Georgia's security services have arrested five men they claim were planning to blow up a gas pipeline between Russia and Armenia, setting off speculation about who could have been behind the alleged plot.
The State Security Service of Georgia announced that it had broken up the plot and released a video showing the explosives they seized, the accused men being taken into custody and questioned, and schemes of the attempted plan. Two others were also arrested in connection with the plot, a police officer accused of "abuse of power" and someone accused of not reporting the plot.
So the question immediately became: who would want to blow up the pipeline? Taken together, Russia and Armenia -- the likely targets of the plot -- have plenty of foes. At a press conference, the authorities alluded to an intriguing Ukraine connection. From Civil.ge:
One of the journalists at the briefing asked the State Security Service official if the arrested men had “links to Ukraine” – the journalist said that his question was stemming from a post on a social media by one of the Georgian volunteer fighters in Ukraine, who wrote that their supporters had been arrested in Georgia.
An investigator from the State Security Service, Savle Motiashvili, responded: “According to available information, one of the arrested men was visiting Ukraine often, but it is not yet clear whether this criminal group was directed from Ukraine.”
Soldiers from Kazakhstan take part in the opening ceremony of "Cooperation-2016," the CSTO military exercises taking part near the borders of Estonia and Latvia. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
Russian military exercises near its western borders have become de rigeur over the last couple of years, as tension between Russia and NATO has spiked. But exercises that kicked off this week are novel in that Russia has brought along its allies from the Caucasus and Central Asia, which have for the most part sought to avoid getting drawn into Russia's conflict with the West.
The exercise kicked off August 16 in the Pskov oblast, which borders Estonia and Latvia. About 5,000 Russian soldiers are taking part, along with about 1,000 from the other countries of the Collective Security Treaty Organization: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.
These exercises, under the rubric "Cooperation," are the annual cornerstone of the CSTO military exercise program. But there are some new twists this time. For the first time in the history of the exercises, Russia's ambassador to NATO Aleksandr Grushko is observing them. "Obviously, in the situation where NATO countries are pursuing a course of military containment of Russia, we have to undertake efforts to ensure that Russia's safety is secured," he said at a press conference there. "I'm sure that the NATO countries are carefully following" the CSTO exercises, he added. "The art of war is an extremely competitive field."
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev hosts his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin for tea at his house. (photo: president.az)
The presidents of Russia, Iran, and Azerbaijan met in Baku this week, for the first time in this trilateral format, part of a week of heavy diplomatic activity that highlighted the shifting international relations around the South Caucasus.
The Baku meeting took place on Monday, and was taken on the initiative of Azerbaijan. The top agenda item was a railroad project that could connect Russia and Eastern Europe to the Persian Gulf.
That project would bring not only economic benefits to the three countries, but could be a geostrategic boon for Azerbaijan, as well, said Zaur Shiriyev, a Baku-based political analyst. He noted that this project would compete with another Russia-initiated North-South railroad project, that would go from Russia through Abkhazia, Georgia, and Armenia.
"This transport corridor bypasses Armenia, thereby eliminating the possibility of reopening the Russian-Georgian railway though Abkhazia, or any kind of discussion that was used a threat [against] Baku," Shiriyev said in an email interview with The Bug Pit. He noted that that Armenia project also could have competed with another Azerbaijani rail priority, the currently under-construction Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway that will connect Azerbaijan to Turkey and Europe.