Screenshot from a video released by Armenia's National Security Service, purporting to show an Igla missile smuggled by Samvel Babayan, a former security forces leader and key member of an opposition bloc.
The Armenian parliamentary election campaign took an unexpected turn on March 22, when agents from the National Security Service arrested Samvel Babayan, a former de facto defense minister of Nagorno Karabakh and a key ally of Seyran Ohanyan, one of the leading candidates. The NSS accused Babayan and two other Armenian citizens of smuggling a surface-to-air shoulder-fired Igla missile system from Georgia. A video released by NSS showed what appeared to be a missile packaged neatly and stacked behind some boxes in a garage.
Babayan is a member of the pre-election bloc led by Ohanyan, who replaced Babayan as Nagorno Karabakh’s defense minister in 1999 before serving as Armenia’s defense minister from 2008 until last October. The arrest comes amid increased tensions between the Ohanyan bloc and allies of President Serzh Sargsyan, suggesting that the arrest may be politically motivated.
Last week, the Ohanyan bloc held a campaign event in the village of Jrarat in Armenia’s Armavir province. The village chief attempted to call off the rally, brandishing a handgun, but was disarmed and roughed up, ending up at the hospital. Adding to the intrigue, this wasn’t just any village mayor, but a brother of General Levon Yeranosyan, the commander of Armenia’s police forces and known for his rough-and-tumble style when it comes to critics of the president.
Screenshot of a video posted by Arshak Zakaryan, a videographer who works with the Armenian Ministry of Defense, showing the portion of Haramı Düzü, or "forbidden plain," where 5 Azerbaijani soldiers died on February 25. White arrow points to the location of the bodies between the Azerbaijani (left) and Armenian (right) trenches.
At least five Azerbaijani servicemen were killed on February 25 in the worst flare-up of fighting over Nagorno Karabakh since last April. As per usual, the Armenian and Azerbaijani press services published versions of the incident at odds with one another.
The renewed violence comes as spring approaches and many fear an even more serious bout of fighting than last April's, in which more than 200 were killed, itself the worst fighting since the ceasefire was signed in 1994. “The likelihood of another outbreak of fighting at the level observed in April 2016, or higher, is significant,” wrote Carey Cavanaugh, the former United States chair of the Minsk Group that is attempting to resolve the conflict, in an analysis last week. “That clash roused nationalist sentiments, fed growing political discontent in Armenia, and showed Azerbaijan that it can regain some territory by force.”
The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry was first to report on the incident at about 10 in the morning of February 25, claiming that fighting broke out due to “large-scale provocations by Armenian forces” along the line of contact (LoC) between the two sides and that its forces suffered casualties but “forced the enemy to retreat.”
About 20 minutes later, the web site of Nagorno Karabakh’s armed forces published its statement, claiming that the fighting was a result of Azerbaijani incursions attempted overnight in the eastern and southeastern sections of the LoC and that bodies of some the Azerbaijani servicemen remained in the no-man’s land between the two sides. The Armenian side also claimed a build-up of Azerbaijani armor near the LoC.
President Serzh Sargsyan of Armenia and de facto president Baho Sahakyan of Nagorno Karabakh at a joint meeting in 2016. (photo: president.am)
On February 20, the de facto republic of Nagorno Karabakh will hold a referendum on a new constitution that would change the form of government from semi-presidential to a fully presidential. It would also, as a result, allow incumbent president Bako Sahakyan to retain his post beyond the current limit of two five-year terms.
There appears to be sufficient public support for the new constitution. Most local political groups have endorsed it, with 20 of 33 members of parliament voting in favor. Proponents of the change emphasize the security imperatives governing the transition, in particular after last April's heavy fighting with Azerbaijan. According to its advocates, a fully presidential system is better suited to managing the continuing military stand-off with Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan has taken similar steps in recent years, eliminating presidential term limits and, last year, extending each term from five to seven years, effectively reducing the frequency of electoral distractions.
The change in Karabakh also calls for presidential and parliamentary elections to be held concurrently every five years. Since the local parliament was last elected in 2015, that would mean a three-year transition period, during which the president would be chosen by the parliament, until the new system kicked in. Few doubt that the parliament would elect Sahakyan to the post or that he could seek re-election in 2020.
The former NATO Central Asia liaison office in Tashkent. (photo: NATO)
Central Asians are more likely to see NATO as a threat rather than as a source of protection, according to a new survey.
The survey, by the American firm Gallup, polled residents of all the ex-Soviet republics except for Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. All of the Central Asian states saw NATO as more of a threat than as protection. Tajikistan was the most anti-NATO state, with 34 percent seeing it as a threat and eight percent as protection. Next is Kyrgyzstan, at 19 percent protection and 30 percent threat; then Kazakhstan, 25 percent protection and 31 percent threat.
It's hard to imagine what NATO would possibly threaten in Central Asia. And while it's tempting to attribute this to exposure to Russian narratives about NATO, Tajikistan is the least Russian-speaking of all these countries, and Kazakhstan the most Russian-speaking, so that explanation isn't satisfying. (The Bug Pit is unable to come up with a better one, though.)
Note that NATO closed down its Central Asia liaison office in Tashkent last year, deciding that it would henceforth operate all of its modest cooperation programs in the region from Brussels.
Armenia also had a mostly negative response, with 20 percent saying NATO is a threat and only eight percent as a protection. Armenia's government makes not-insignificant efforts to maintain real cooperation with NATO, in spite of being a member of the NATO rival Collective Security Treaty Organization. But the fact that the only NATO country on Armenia's border is Turkey no doubt colors public opinion on the alliance.
The diplomatic brouhaha over a travel blogger has led to senior officials in Armenia calling for Belarus to be kicked out of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the security alliance to which they both belong.
Alexander Lapshin, the now-notorious Russian-Israeli travel blogger, was extradited from Belarus to Azerbaijan on February 8. He is facing charges in Baku related to his visit to Nagorno Karabakh, a de jure part of Azerbaijan that is de facto controlled by Armenian forces. Azerbaijan considers a visit to Karabakh to be an illegal border crossing.
Demanding Lapshin's extradition was a dramatic step for the relatively minor crime of an illegal border crossing, especially given that both Russia and Israel are two of Azerbaijan's most important partners, and both have strongly objected to the extradition.
Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev called his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko to personally thank him for the extradition, calling it a "manifestation of the Azerbaijan-Belarus friendship and strategic partnership."
The episode, correspondingly, resulted in outrage in Armenia, including protests at the Belarusian embassy in Yerevan, and there were calls to retaliate against Minsk in various ways, including withdrawing its ambassador and suspending relations. But the most commonly proposed retaliation was to try to kick Belarus out of the CSTO.
Unusually frigid February weather aside, Armenia's politics is thawing out of its traditional winter slumber unseasonably early as it looks ahead to an April 2 election that now appears far less predictable than it had just a couple of months ago.
As in four preceding parliamentary elections, the ruling Republican Party (RPA) is the presumptive favorite. But a half dozen alliances and individual political parties are expected to offer some real competition for seats in the new National Assembly. Pre-election buzz is real, horse trading is in full swing, and even long-disappeared politicos are reemerging to seek out places for themselves in the electoral lists.
What makes this election different is the new constitutional framework that calls for transition of executive power from incumbent president Serzh Sargsyan – who completes his term a year from now – to a prime minister selected by parliamentary majority. That ups the stakes in these elections, and the buzz is all around three individual politicians.
First, is businessman Gagik Tsarukyan, 60, who heads the Prosperous Armenia Party, the country’s second largest since 2007. Tsarukyan has fairly strong support among less well-to-do Armenians due mostly to his philanthropic activities and his man-of-the-people appeal. He has been endorsed by Armenia’s “first oligarch” Khachatur Sukiasyan, who was a key financial backer of ex-president Levon Ter-Petrossian’s 2008 campaign, and Stepan Demirchian, the main opposition candidate in 2003 elections, son of former Soviet Armenian leader Karen Demirchian, and the main presidential challenger in 1998. Perhaps most importantly, Tsarukyan is likely to be backed by former prime minister and RPA election manager Hovik Abrahamyan, who happens to be Tsarukyan's relative through their children's marriage.
Pink protest hats were not the only piece of clothing to mark US President Donald Trump’s January 20 inauguration. He did, in fact, receive a chokha, a traditional wool coat from the Caucasus for men, usually worn with a dagger.
Little suggests that Trump will soon cut a dash in the bandoliered, cinched-at-the-waist costume from a Tbilisi apparel shop. But its offering symbolizes the regional hope that he will not overlook the Caucasus.
Even before Trump’s calls for “America First,” local analysts believe that American foreign policy had become introverted under Barack Obama, with the Caucasus fading fast on Washington’s radar.
So far, expectations are not high that Trump will reverse that trend. Aside from two defunct hotel projects, he has never shown a personal interest in this geostrategic crossroads.
Nonetheless, mulling the Trump future and the Obama past, the South Caucasus closely watched the new American leader’s swearing-in. Some in Tbilisi even opted to take part in a local Women’s March.
Yet Trump’s divisive flamboyance is not what counts in this part of the world. What does is Washington’s actual role in global and regional affairs.
In Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, some observers say that Obama was the least concerned with post-Soviet affairs of any US president in memory. And when the US takes a step back, it can only mean one thing in these parts: Russia steps in.
A brouhaha between Azerbaijan and Armenia is threatening to hamper the operations of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in multiple member nations, including Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
OSCE country mandates are the responsibility of the organization’s permanent council, which deals with all the OSCE day-to-day business and is comprised of representatives of all 57 member states. But as the OSCE told EurasiaNet.org “participating states have not yet reached consensus on extension of mandates of a number of OSCE field operations.”
“The Chairmanship continues to lead negotiations on this with the aim of early agreement,” an OSCE press officer said in an email
A source familiar with the situation has said the holdup is down to a battle of wills between Azerbaijan and Armenia over budgets for certain security-related programs. The standoff between the two foes has precipitated a veto from Armenia on the normally automatic extension of field office mandates.
The OSCE has said that its field operations will, this impasse notwithstanding, remain open and continue administrative and non-mandate-related work pending agreement on this issue.
Meanwhile, Moscow-based news website ferghana.ru has cited its own sources as saying the existing situation has had a negative impact of moods within the staff and fostered much disillusionment about the organization’s inability to fulfill its stated missions.
“There is growing disappointment over the nature and purpose of the OSCE, which is supposed to prevent conflicts and yet is powerless when it comes to pursuing consensus, even in such basic matters as the extension of mandates,” the source told the website.
Heads of state of CSTO member countries meet at a summit in St. Petersburg. There was a bit more room at the table than planned as Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko skipped the event. (photo: kremlin.ru)
Dissension among the nominal allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russia-led post-Soviet security bloc, continued to deepen at this week's summit, where Belarus was conspicuously absent and accusations were raised of a conspiracy against Armenia.
The CSTO summit was held in St. Petersburg on December 26, and the big news was that Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko was absent. Lukashenko gave no public explanation for his absence though Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitriy Peskov, played it down saying that "our Belarussian colleagues warned us that Lukashenko may not be able to take part in the summit."
There were two potential explanations for Lukashenko's move, not necessarily mutually exclusive. One was that it had to do with Russia-Belarus bilateral relations, and that this was just the latest expression of Lukashenko's discomfort with Russia's tight embrace. "This move seems to be yet another caprice by the Belarusian leader, demonstrating his attitude toward the integration projects that Russia is trying to create in the post-Soviet space," said Bogdan Bezpalko, the deputy head of the Center for Ukrainian and Belarusian studies at Moscow State University. (The CSTO summit was held concurrently with one of the Eurasian Economic Union, the Russia-led economic bloc; the rosters of the two organizations substantially overlap.)
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Collective Security Treaty Organization meets November 24 in St Petersburg. (photo: CSTO PA)
Armenia has blocked Pakistan from becoming an observer in the Collective Security Treaty Organization's parliamentary wing, the latest in a series of signs that Yerevan seeks to take a more assertive role in the Russia-led organization.
The CSTO Parliamentary Assembly is an association of mostly rubber-stamp parliaments to an organization that is mostly a shell of an alliance, so it doesn't often offer much drama.
But last week saw some rare conflict in the CSTO PA as it met for a session in St Petersburg. During the event, Armenia's representative submitted a formal letter opposing a proposal to allow Pakistan to join as an observer. As a result the question was removed from the agenda, the Armenian representative, Eduard Sharmazanov, told Sputnik Armenia.
Armenia and Pakistan have a long-standing dispute: Pakistan not only supports Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia over Nagorno Karabakh, but goes so far as refusing to recognize Armenia's existence until it gives Karabakh back to Azerbaijan. "This position contradicts the approach both of the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, as well as of the CSTO," Sharmazanov said.