Russia has promised to upgrade its military base in Armenia, while also helping to bolster Armenia's own air forces, as controversy continues to brew in Armenia over Moscow's huge weapons delivery to foe Azerbaijan. It's not clear to what extent the former is tied to the latter, but Armenian analysts say that Russia does appear to be trying to assuage public opinion among Armenians stung by Russia's apparent betrayal.
Secretary General of the Collective Security Treaty Organization Nikolay Bordyuzha was in Armenia last week, and though details were scarce, he appeared to endorse a CSTO base in that country, as well as creating a Caucasus-based CSTO air force. Reported RIA Novosti:
Modernization of Russia’s 102nd Military Base at Gyumri, in northern Armenia near its border with Turkey, and the airbase at Yerevan’s Erebuni Airport will begin this year and continue for several years, Artur Bagdasaryan, head of the National Security Council, said after a meeting with Nikolai Bordyuzha.
“Collective security forces are being formed in the South Caucasus region where Armenia is the sole CSTO member state. Joint air forces will also be set up here,” explained Baghdasarian.
“Armenia’s air force will be expanded,” he told a joint news conference with Bordyuzha. “Not only the air force but also the air-defense system in general will be modernized and re-equipped. The Russian military base [in Armenia] will also re-equipped. In terms of modernization, 2014 will be a very important year.”
An Iskander-M on parade in Moscow in 2010. (photo: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/9K720_Iskander)
Russia has deployed an advanced new missile system to its base in Armenia,amid deteriorating relations with Armenia's rival, Azerbaijan. A source in Armenia's Defense Ministry confirmed to RFE/RL's Armenian service the deployment of "several" Iskander-M systems.
The Iskander-M is a relatively new Russian mobile (truck-mounted) theater ballistic missile system, comparable to the infamous Scud but with a longer range (400 km) and more accurate.
The Iskanders will be stationed at Russia's base in Gyumri, so it's not clear whether or not they would be a factor in any war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the territory they both claim but which Armenian forces control, Nagorno Karabakh. It's impossible not to see the deployment in the light of the recent chill in Azerbaijan-Russia relations, including the apparent cancellation of fighter aircraft deliveries. Emil Sanamyan, a keen observer of Armenia-Azerbaijan defense issues and Washington editor of the Armenian Reporter, tells The Bug Pit that "I see it as an effort to build up deterrence against the war in Nagorno Karabakh and also to increase the Russian footprint in the Caucasus, particularly in light of the closure of the Gabala radar." [Gabala, recall, was the Russian radar that Azerbaijan hosted until the two sides failed to agree on an extension of the terms.]
It's also the case that Russia is upgrading its equipment across the board, so this may just be part of a regular update with no geopolitical implications. But you can bet that in Baku they are looking closely at this.
The Tajikistan-Afghanistan border, for much of its 800 miles as open as this. (photo: The Bug Pit)
Russia's Central Asia security bloc held a summit in Kyrgyzstan this week, and the main item on the agenda appeared to be the ostensible danger of increased tension in the region as a result of the U.S./NATO pullout from Afghanistan, which is supposed to start next year. But the outcome of the summit subtly highlighted how the alliance's members -- Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan -- have differing agendas vis-a-vis regional security.
At the summit, the organization reportedly decided to "step up control" on the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, which would be the weak link in any security cordon between Afghanistan and the ex-Soviet world. What that means is unclear, though: Russia has been pushing Tajikistan to allow it to again police that border, as it did until 2005. But Tajikistan has been fairly adamant that it doesn't want the Russians to come back. Russia's ambassador to Tajikistan told Reuters a couple of weeks ago that Moscow wants to bring back its border troops to Tajikistan, though such a deployment would "of course" have to be agreed upon by Tajikistan, as well. Tajikistan's government has been notably silent on the issue lately, so it's not clear whether they might be mulling a change of policy and allowing Russian border troops again.
Along with this, Russia is continuing its alarmist rhetoric about the dire consequences of the U.S. pullout in 2014, reports RIA Novosti:
Prince Charles, the 64-year-old heir to the British throne, arrived in Armenia on May 28 in the first instance of British royalty gracing the ancient South Caucasus country with a visit.
His younger brother, Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, tends to favor Armenia’s arch-enemy, energy-rich Azerbaijan, and enjoys hanging out with its president, Ilham Aliyev. So, now the two rivals -- the countries, not the brothers -- are evenly paired.
Granted, the Prince of Wales was traveling on private, charity business, but that didn't keep Armenian media from buzzing. Some ponder which Armenian specialties are worthy of the royal visitor; others see a connection between the visit and British interests in Armenian gold mines; while still others have made open-ended inquires about whether the visit's timing betrays a diplomatic gesture.
On May 28, Armenia marks the 95th anniversary of the First Republic, the independent Armenian state that existed briefly between the fall of Tsarist Russia and the rise of Bolshevik Russia.
Many Armenians believe that Great Britain dropped the ball in 1919 when it withdrew its troops from the region, and shares the responsibility for the 1920 Bolshevik conquest of their republic. In a country where, as elsewhere in the Caucasus, century-old events are often discussed as if they happened yesterday, that thought carries significance. Consequently, Prince Charles's arrival is partly seen as a compensatory gesture, the Lragir news service wrote.
Uneasy neighbors: An Armenian flag provides the backdrop for a bust to the late Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev in downtown Tbilisi.
Tbilisi’s Old Town has long been an area where ethnic Armenians, Azeris, Jews, Kurds, and Georgians intermingle.
There’s the Azeri teahouse run by ethnic Armenians on one street, and, on another, one run by ethnic Azeris, where an ethnic Armenian waitress serves customers.
A mosque frequented mainly by ethnic Azeri Muslims sits atop a hill just a few minutes away from an Armenian church where Sayat Nova, the 18th century troubadour who wrote songs and poetry mainly in Azeri, is buried.
A statue to Sergei Paradjanov, the surrealist ethnic Armenian filmmaker whose last film was shot in Azerbaijan, stands just meters away from a shisha café, staffed by ethnic Armenians from the Middle East and often frequented by customers from Azerbaijan.
Home to sizable ethnic Azeri and Armenian populations, Georgia is well-accustomed to such coexistence. But, nonetheless, that doesn’t mean that awkward situations cannot occur.
Recently, for example, an Armenian flag appeared flying outside a privately owned, neighborhood bathhouse that adjoins a park featuring a bust of Heydar Aliyev, the late Azerbaijani president.
The flag was still flying until the eve of Azerbaijan’s May 10 Flower Day celebration, an event to mark the birthday of the late president. On the day itself, the flag reportedly disappeared. A day later, it reappeared.
The juxtaposition, needless to say, is unusual. Aliyev, in office from 1993 until 2003, was Azerbaijan’s president when the war with Armenia and Karabakhi separatists over the breakaway region of Nagorno Karabakh ended with a cease-fire in 1994.
Precise reasons for the flag’s appearance, disappearance, and reappearance could not be confirmed. The management of the bathhouse that displays the flags was not available for comment. “They just chose some international flags from somewhere,” an employee commented, with a shrug.
Once again, Azerbaijan, the region's energy giant, led the pack with diagnoses of chronic cases of intolerance for freedom of expression, corruption in the judiciary system and abuse of detainees by police.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s senior political advisor, Ali Hasanov, did temper his response with elaborations about the importance of Baku's strategic partnership with the US, but he could not help noticing an alleged double-standard in the American criticism.
A country that, as he sees it, had no qualms about folding the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York City is in no position to lecture a country that does not want to allow similarly impromptu demonstrations in the heart of its capital, he implied.
Armenian forces take part in CSTO exercises in Armenia in September 2012.
Most of the focus on the Collective Security Treaty Organization has been its Central Asian activities, as Russia has positioned the new political-military bloc as its primary tool for preventing the spread of instability from Afghanistan toward its borders. But as Sergei Minasyan points out in a good piece for Russia in Global Affairs, it is in fact Armenia for whom the CSTO really holds strategic value. As he points out, among CSTO members (which include Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) only Armenia faces a threat of interstate conflict. (One might quibble with that, looking at increasing tensions between Uzbekistan and its neighbors Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, but certainly the threat of serious military conflict is much smaller there than between Azerbaijan and Armenia.) And the collective security requirements of the CSTO effectively make it impossible for Azerbaijan, in the event that it decides to try to take back its breakaway territory of Nagorno Karabakh, to widen the conflict into Armenia. And that would allow Armenia, if Azerbaijan attacks Karabakh, to use the latter's territory for missile strikes against oil and infrastructure facilities while remaining "unpunishable":
As a result, Azerbaijan is in a military and political zugzwang, which effectively prevents a resumption of war. A direct involvement of the CSTO (or even Russia alone) would make the likely outcome of combat operations in Nagorno-Karabakh more than predictable. Starting a war in Karabakh without spreading it to the territory of the Republic of Armenia (so as to provide no reasons for the CSTO mechanisms and bilateral Armenian-Russian obligations taking effect) would contradict military logic and put Baku in disadvantageous military strategic conditions.
A group of Iranian lawmakers has begun drafting a bill on reattaching Azerbaijan to Iran by updating the terms and conditions of a 19th century treaty that ceded part of modern-day Azerbaijan and most of Armenia to Russian control.
The 1828 Turkmenchay Treaty ended the last war between Russia and Persia and paved the way for St. Petersburg to establish suzerainty over the South Caucasus. (Tehran already had given up its claims on Georgia in the 1813 Treaty of Gulistan.)
But the Iranians now argue that there was a critical detail in the fine print.
The treaty, they say, was valid only for 100 years and, therefore, the lawmakers’ logic goes,“re-annexing” Azerbaijan, Iran's northern next-door neighbor, is in order, Iran's government-run FARS news agency reported. Cities "lost" to the Russian Empire were supposed to be returned to Tehran just like "the British-Chinese deal over Hong Kong," the agency claimed.
Politicians in Baku were quick to counter that it is actually Iran that needs to hand over a chunk of its territory to Azerbaijan -- specifically, the northwestern border areas whose primarily ethnic Azeri residents make up about a quarter of Iran's population of roughly 74.8 million.
"Persians have always been in our bondage," asserted ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party Executive Secretary Siyavush Novruzov, APA news agency reported.
Now that the Roman Catholic Church has smoked out a new pope, everyone is looking for a local angle in the news from the Vatican. Armenia seems to have found one.
The Armenian Apostolic Church may be an introverted, exclusive club, much smaller than the Catholic Church, but, conceivably, backing from the Vatican could help the Armenian cause worldwide. The global, well-organized Armenian Diaspora has pointed out that Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, the newly crowned Pope Francis, has been a friend of the Armenian community in Argentina. The community hopes that the pontiff will take this friendship to his new home in the Vatican.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported that Bergoglio often attended liturgies dedicated to the ethnic Armenians massacred in Ottoman Turkey in the early 20th century. As an archbishop, he reportedly called on Turkey to own up to the atrocities against Armenians, which Turkey insists was collateral damage of World War I.
Along with building support for its refusal to recognize breakaway Nagorno Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan, achieving recognition of the 1915 massacre as genocide is an end that Armenia is pushing worldwide.
The Vatican is not immune to lobbying, and many ethnic Armenians, especially those in Argentina, hope that Bergoglio will stick to his alleged position on the massacre.
But Yerevan is not just leaving it to the Diaspora to advocate Armenian causes in the Holy See. Earlier this month, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan appointed his son-in-law Mikael Minasian as the country’s first-ever ambassador to the Vatican.
Supporters of Armenian presidential candidate Raffi Hovannisian are gathering this evening in central Yerevan for what Hovannisian called a "celebration of victory", but more questions than answers exist about the claim.
The official returns for the February 18 vote placed the American-born Heritage Party leader far behind incumbent President Serzh Sargsyan, but Hovannisian claims this is a result of his votes being stolen. Sargsyan failed to convince his challenger otherwise during a tête-à-tête yesterday in the presidential residence, and Hovannisian emerged from the talks insisting that he would press on.
“My dear compatriots . . . we are defending our Constitution, our rights,” he declared to protesters in Liberty Square. “This is not about the fight between Raffi and Serzh, but about the future of the Republic of Armenia and its citizens.”
Mindful of the ten deaths that followed the last time there was a presidential election fight, both sides appear to be approaching the conflict with some degree of caution.
The presidential administration released a little video teaser of the closed meeting between the two men. “You look kind of sad,” Sargsyan told Hovannisian with a disarming smile -- an observation which his rival denied, also with a smile.