Surveys show that Armenians tend to believe that the man has to be the principal moneymaker in a family. But looks like the country's presidential family is bucking that trend. Judging by official income disclosures, President Serzh Sargsyan lives, financially speaking, in the shadow of his richer wife, Rita.
While the president was scrimping together a modest annual income in drams of some $34,900 (salary plus accruals on loans) in 2011, Rita Sargsyan was busy making the dram equivalent of $41,000, reported the investigative news service Hetq. Perhaps because of his modest revenue, the Armenian president did not do any large-scale shopping or investment in 2011, if we go by his income declaration.
In neighboring Georgia, President Mikheil Saakashvili seems to be the breadwinner in his family. President Saakashvili’s annual salary in laris is just $1,000 higher than that of his Armenian counterpart, while his wife, Sandra Roelofs, has not disclosed any earned wages for 2011. Saakashvili owns more property than his wife, but the his and her bank accounts seem to be about the same size in that family. As of May 16, 2012, the president reported about $85,000 in his bank accounts (in dollars, euros and laris), while the first lady has above $86,000 worth of euros and laris.
Several days after apparent widespread skirmishes all along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border and the Nagorno-Karabakh "line of contact," there is still very little information about what actually happened. For a while, though, at least on the internet, it seemed that a serious escalation of violence was imminent.
It's a bit odd that, amid all the rumors of massive fighting, there doesn't seem to have been any casualties on either side, suggesting that the reports may have been some sort of deliberate disinformation campaign. And that's what the Armenian Defense Ministry has suggested:
The rumors spread by Azerbaijani mass media on the possible combat operations on NKR–Azerbaijan line of contact towards Aghdam and Fizulai are nothing but imagination.
In comparison to June 7-8, the ceasefire violations in different parts of the front line have become more frequent and have increased. This, however, did not affect and will not affect the general state.
All the usual suspects issued the usual statements calling on both sides to settle the conflict peacefully, etc. But one international reaction was especially notable: Russia's. A Russian military spokesman noted that airmen at the Russian military base in Armenia have been stepping up their training flights since the beginning of the year. From the New York Times:
Russian fighter jets stationed at a base in Armenia have conducted about 300 training flights since the beginning of 2012, and have increased the number of flying hours by more than 20 percent from last year...
Hillary Rodham Clinton may have gotten lots of love and wine in Georgia, but if we were to pick one man in the Caucasus truly overjoyed to see Madam Secretary, that would be the Azerbaijani youth activist Bakhtiyar Hajiyev.
Hajiyev, an organizer of an attempted rally perceived as opposing the heavy-handed Azerbaijani government, was recently freed from prison in what many believe was a PR move to please Baku's high-profile visitor. Perhaps his release gave Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov the chance to say that Azerbaijan is busy strengthening human rights. It ain’t gonna happen overnight, he added.
In Baku, Clinton sat down for a chat with Hajiyev and expressed hope that he will be allowed to do his work without interference and that, generally, Azerbaijanis will be allowed to speak their minds. She urged the Azerbaijani government to release its critics from prisons and also to keep working on providing more oil and gas to the West.
But Clinton’s Caucasus run did not ended up well for everyone in Azerbaijan and neighboring Armenia. The exchange of gunfire between the two countries that marked the kickoff of the secretary of state's tour reportedly resumed on the eve of Clinton's arrival in Baku . Some commentators believe that the shooting was intended to whip up US interest in pushing more aggressively for a resolution to the two countries' decades-long conflict over the breakaway region of Nagorno Karabakh. Both sides, as per usual, blame the other for this latest ceasefire violation.
Just as Hillary Clinton is making a trip through the Caucasus, the Azerbaijan-Armenia border is seeing some of the worst violence in years. On Monday, three Armenian soldiers were killed by Azerbaijani forces, and on Tuesday, the Armenians retaliated, killing five Azerbaijanis. Alex Jackson, in a very worthwhile post at his blog Caspian Intel, notes that the violence was not on the "Line of Contact" separating Azerbaijanis and Armenians at the de facto border of Nagorno Karabakh, but at the state border between Armenia and Azerbaijan proper. Further, the two incidents took place about 25 miles apart, "which indicates that the clashes are not linked by local geography (i.e. an Armenian incursion followed by a local Azerbaijani counterattack) but part of a broader pattern of probing attempts along the border," Jackson writes.
The implication is that, on one side or both, there was a degree of regional-level coordination by military commanders and a willingness to test the defences of the other side across a wide swathe of territory. This expansion of the battlefield marks a serious escalation.
The U.S. State Department is considering allowing a sale of surveillance equipment to Azerbaijan, which supporters say is needed to help protect against Iran. But Washington's Armenian-American lobby and its allied members of Congress are objecting, arguiing that it could be used against Armenian forces in the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh, as well.
The equipment in question hasn't been precisely identified, but it is some sort of surveillance equipment that would be installed in Mi-35M attack helicopters that Azerbaijan has lately been acquiring from Russia. The State Department and Azerbaijan are saying that the equipment would be used by Azerbaijan's border service, and an "action item" by the U.S. Azeris Network emphasizes that the equipment is required to police the border with Iran:
[I]t is the moral responsibility of the U.S. Congress and Government to show their support to their strategic ally in that turbulent region and stand strong with Azerbaijan. Such support should start with statements and resolutions in support of sovereign, secure and independent Azerbaijan, to supplying it with defensive systems such as Patriot air-defense systems (PAC3), border protection equipment, helicopter protection systems, simulators, Command and Control gear, and any other defensive and border-protection military hardware and software that would protect Azerbaijan’s energy infrastructure, make it less vulnerable, and send a strong message to Iran to stop bullying and threatening. We should show our allies that we value their partnership and friends, and are not ignoring the threat Iran poses.
Three Armenian soldiers were killed by gunfire from neighboring Azerbaijani just as US Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton was about to go country-hopping in the South Caucasus.
Clinton arrived in Yerevan today and, after a stop in Georgia, is due in Baku on June 6.
To hear the Azerbaijani news service APA tell it, the “preventive measures,” which wounded three Armenian soldiers as well, were directed at stopping the Armenian military from infiltrating Azerbaijan from Armenia's northern Tavush region.
But, as is the standard case in Caucasus countries hosting Clinton, you need to tune into the news on the other side of the conflict line for the second side of the story.
Armenian news reported that the Armenians died in a shootout as they tried to halt an infiltration from Azerbaijan. “Thanks to [the] courage[ous] actions of the soldiers… [the] enemy was drawn back,” ArmenPress cited Armenia’s Ministry of Defense as saying.
The not-so-frozen Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region is most definitely going to be discussed with Madam Secretary in both places.
Civil rights as well. An area where there's a lot to chat about with both sides; Georgia, too.
When news broke a couple of years ago that Russia was selling S-300 air defense systems to Azerbaijan, the immediate assumption was that this had to do with Armenia. The sale suggested a huge shift in Russia's military policy toward the south Caucasus: Russia has a big military base in Armenia and provides Yerevan with weaponry. So why would it be arming the other side? There were all sorts of theories: it was done to intimidate Armenia into signing a long extension of the base agreement with Russia, or that it was pure mercenary motives. Some noted that the range of the S-300s was enough to cover Nagorno Karabakh (over which a war will presumably be fought) but not Gyumri, Armenia, where the Russian base is.
But what if we were all looking in the wrong direction for the threat, to the west rather than to the south? That's what analyst Anar Valiyev today told The Bug Pit in Baku. He says the S-300 is in fact one of the weapons that Baku has been buying to protect against an Iranian attack. He argues that a war over Karabakh would be fought only on the territory of Karabakh, that Armenia (under pressure from Russia) would not to expand the war into Azerbaijan proper, like an attack on Baku's oil and gas installations (which the S-300s are protecting). Therefore, there's no need to protect Baku from an Armenian attack. So, by process of elimination, it's Iran.
It was rainbow flags versus black cassocks in Tbilisi yesterday, the May 17 International Day against Homophobia, when a gay rights march came to blows with an extremist group led by several Georgian Orthodox priests.
“Do you realize what a great crime you are committing by urging small kids… to engage in a wrong sexual lifestyle?” exhorted one priest, who dismissed the marchers’ assurances that the rally was about fighting homophobia. The altercations degenerated into a fistfight after several followers of the Orthodox Parents Union, an ultraconservative group, physically assaulted LGBT rights activists.
Police made arrests on both sides, but reportedly the detainees were released quickly.
The police seem to have stayed neutral during the confrontation, but the bigger human rights test for Georgia is whether the prosecutor’s office will act on LGBT activists’ complaints against their attackers. This would mean taking on priests in a country where the Georgian Orthodox Church is the most trusted institution.
After Turkey and Armenia signed historic protocols in 2009 to normalize relations and reopen the border between the two countries, the reconciliation process between the two countries quickly stalled. As my colleague Yigal Schleiffer wrote, "not much longer after they were signed, the agreement was as good as dead, killed off by a combination of Turkish buyer's remorse, Azeri bullying and Armenian naivete." A thorough report on the history of the diplomatic reconciliation process, by David Phillips, a scholar who has long experience working in Turkish-Armenian relations, concluded that the protocols were in fact effectively dead.
But Phillips spoke Tuesday in Washington, and said he is now more optimistic about the protocols' prospects than he was when he finished that report last month. Recent trips to Ankara and Yerevan and conversations with diplomats in both places gave him new reason for hope, and he said he now wanted to "disassociate himself" from the pessimistic conclusion he gave in his report.
Political forces across party lines, several NGOs and media companies issued a letter that warned organizers that there would be consequences in Vanadzor, too, and that the festival organizers would bear the responsibility.
A previous attempt to screen Azerbaijani films in Armenia also fell through in 2010. The organizers said they will keep trying to promote free thinking and help audiences on both sides of the 24-year-long Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan see through the veil of propaganda.