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.
Politicians, who, in both countries, would rather leave unchallenged the image of a national enemy, exploded in anger at the “treasonous” event (sponsored, in part, by the British and American embassies), and the organizers found themselves stranded in a Gyumri press club surrounded by raging demonstrators. Claims were made that the films were all about Azerbaijan-centric propaganda on the two countries' 24-year-long conflict over the breakaway territory of Nagorno Karabakh.
In reality, these were short, “human-interest” stories that had little to do with the war. Previous attempts at cinematic exchanges between Azerbaijan and Armenia were foiled amid similar, politically fed outpourings of public anger.
This time, the authorities in Gyumri tried to pull the plug quite literally on the festival (called, ironically, Stop) by shutting off electricity in the entire area. Saying that security could not be guaranteed, city government and police officials pressured the organizers to cancel the event. The festival’s director, peace activist Georgi Vanyan, who has been the previous target of death threats and a campaign of vilification, was beaten during altercations with anti-festival protesters.
Amid the negotiations between Russia and Azerbaijan over the Gabala radar station, Armenia has stepped in and said they would be willing to host a Russian radar if a deal over Gabala falls through.
The current lease for the radar station expires in December, and Azerbaijan has gradually been raising the price it says it wants to charge Russia under a new agreement. The latest reports had Azerbaijan's price rising from $7 million now to a whopping $300 million. Another set of talks on the issue between the foreign ministers of the two countries took place this week, with no apparent resolution. But Armenia's prime minister, Tigran Sargsyan, said in an interview with the Russian newspaper Kommersant that Armenia would be willing to host a replacement radar, and that it could even be a better site for it than Azerbaijan:
“There may even be advantages, because Armenia is a mountainous country. Coverage can be broader,” Sargsyan said.
Meanwhile, the Russian and Azerbaijani public bargaining continued. Ali Hasanov, a top adviser to Azerbaijan's president Ilham Aliyev, tried to emphasize that the negotiations were taking place on Azerbaijan's terms:
"Gabala radar station is our property. We decide on to whom and on what terms to lease it, taking into account the interests of the state. We take into consideration its cost, policy and its impact on relations with neighboring countries" Hasanov said.
And he downplayed the threat of an Armenian counteroffer:
"We do not have anything against that. Of course, why the Armenian outpost cannot be a radar post as well? If Russia needs to build this post in Armenia, we will not have any objections" he said.
When a massive earthquake rattled Soviet Armenia in 1988, entire towns imploded, killing an estimated 25,000 people. Survivors' stories are well known in Armenia, but now it seems that their genes also have a story to tell. A University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) study of the DNA of 200 Armenian earthquake survivors has revealed a connection between gene types and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), The Los Angeles Times reports.
People with two gene variants (TPH1 and TPH2) which affect production of the “happiness hormone” serotonin tend to display more severe PSTD symptoms, found ULCA psychiatrist Armen Goenjian, an Armenian-American who headed the research group. Believed to contribute just 3 to 4 percent each to PSTD's intensity, the two variants appear to pack a tiny punch, but identifying their role could lead to more effective treatment for PTSD, the BBC reports.
Goenjian said that further studies are required among a more heterogeneous population to consolidate the findings.
Ohanian, Panetta and other U.S. and Armenian officials meet in Washington
Armenia's defense minister Seyran Ohanian has wrapped up a three-day visit to the U.S., as military relations between the U.S. and Armenia quietly strengthen. Ohanian's visit was his first to the U.S. since he became defense minister in 2008, according to Armenian Reporter, which reported that he met with his counterpart Leon Panetta and CIA director David Petraeus, among other officials.
Last month, the two countries agreed to carry out their first-ever joint military exercises in April. And Wikileaked U.S. diplomatic cables show that Ohanian is someone the U.S. likes working with, Armenian Reporter notes:
Although this was Ohanyan's first visit to U.S. since his appointment as defense minister in 2008, Ohanyan is known to have a good rapport with Americans, meeting Petraeus and other senior U.S. officials during visits with Armenian peacekeeping units in Iraq and Afghanistan and to NATO headquarters in Brussels.
"The better we get to know Minister Ohanian, the more we like him as a partner in political-military efforts," U.S. Charge in Armenia Joseph Pennington wrote in a 2009 cable made available by Wikileaks. "He seems a straightforward interlocutor, who is respected in the Armenian government and within the Defense Ministry. His credibility as a soldier is very high, given his long experience commanding NKSDF [Nagorno Karabakh Self Defense Forces] troops."
"We are pleased to find General Ohanian interested and committed on Armenia's NATO-related defense reform efforts and Euro-Atlantic ties," Pennington wrote.
The two big post-Soviet military blocs, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, have announced their respective plans for large-scale exercises this year. The CSTO's will take place in September in Armenia, while the SCO's will happen in Tajikistan in June.
Last September's CSTO exercises were a pretty big deal, involving 24,000 troops and taking place amid a concerted Kremlin effort to gin up the threat from Afghanistan, prompting a lot of observers to speculate that Moscow was trying to use the CSTO as a means of exerting a heavier hand in Central Asia. This year's exercises were still months away, and there are few details available about them, so it's hard to compare yet. But the choice of location in Armenia is curious, given that last year so much of the rhetoric justifying the organization's existence related to Afghanistan. So now is the shift toward the Caucasus, or is it just Armenia's turn?
Meanwhile, the choice of Tajikistan for the SCO exercise, Peace Mission 2012, has prompted one dropout already: Uzbekistan won't be taking part in the exercise, Regnum reports (in Russian):
"During the exercises, a special anti-terror operation in a mountainous area will be worked on. New methods will be used to detect, block and destroy mock outlawed armed formations that have captured a mountain village, according to the legend," the [Tajikistan Ministry of Defense] press centre said.
One Tajikistan member of parliament interviewed by Regnum had harsh words for Uzbekistan's decision:
The resemblance, far-fetched as it may sound, was also detected inside Armenia itself, where, as in many other small countries, there is sometimes an eagerness to trace various things around the world back to Armenia. One Armenian blogger, no doubt with thoughts of former Armenian-populated territory that's now part of Turkey in mind, even called the new lira design a Freudian slip on the part of the Turks.
The voice of reason came from the designer of the Armenian dram, Karen Kamendarian, who told Mediamax he'd already discussed the similarity with some concerned Turks on Facebook. The design of the Turkish lira symbol is clearly based on the Latin letters "t" for "Turkish" and "l" for "lira," he asserted, and its two intersecting lines are also sported by the Mongolian tugrik and the euro as well as the dram.
But amidst the jingoistic shouting on either side, don't expect anybody necessarily to listen.