Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan meets with CSTO Secretary General Nikolay Bordyuzha in Yerevan. (photo: president.am)
The head of Russia's post-Soviet military bloc has made his first-ever visit to the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, checking on the readiness of Armenian troops there. The show of support was made just before Armenia was scheduled to sign an agreement to become a member of Russia's other big Eurasian integration project, the Eurasian Union.
But Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan took the occasion of the visit to criticize the bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, for failing to consistently support Armenia's interests in its conflict with Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno Karabakh, which Armenian forces control but which de jure belongs to Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan's government has repeatedly threatened to take back the territory by force, and Armenia's alliance with Russia and the CSTO is its strongest security guarantee.
"The president underscored that the positions of a number of CSTO partners on issues being of paramount importance to allies, particularly on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, expressed in different international platforms, do not correspond to the common spirit of the negotiation process, contradict the statements and proposals of the OSCE Minsk Group, as well as to the documents endorsed within the framework of the CSTO," Sargsyan's office said in a statement. "[Azerbaijan President] Ilham Aliyev’s bellicose and Armenophobic statements do not rouse a keen response among our CSTO partners which could have suppressed the adventurous desires of the Azeri leadership."
A MiG-29 fighter jet and an icon of Mercurius of Smolensk. (Wikimedia Commons; Bug Pit composite image)
The Russian air force has decorated three of its MiG-29 fighter jets based in Armenia with images of medieval Christian saints. "The pilots are sure that the faces of the holy men on the fuselages of the military machines will not only protect them, but will strengthen their martial spirit," the press service of the Southern Military District announced.
One can't help but notice that the three heroes so honored -- Alexander Nevsky, Dmitry Donskoy, and St. Mercurius of Smolensk -- are known for their struggles and martyrdom fighting against the Tatar-Mongol yoke.
"The earthly journey of Prince Alexander Nevsky, Dmitry Donskoy, and the martyr Mercurius of Smolensk was marked with military glory and honor and they became Christian saints. The pilots consider them to be their heavenly protecters," the Russian military announcement continued.
Dmitry Donskoy is best known for his victory in the Battle of Kulikovo, a decisive moment in Russia's throwing off Mongol rule. Russian forces in that battle were famously inspired by an icon of Alexander Nevsky. And Mercurius was martyred after an icon of the Virgin Mary instructed him to attack the forces of Batu Khan which were nearing Smolensk.
That sort of historical reference may gladden the hearts of the MiGs' Armenian hosts, whose enemy, Azerbaijan, are kin to the Tatars. But one wonders how it will be received by Russia's Turkic Muslim allies in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
Regrettably, the press service didn't release any photos of the decorated planes.
Screen shot of video of the opening ceremony of the Rapid Trident 2014 U.S.-led military exercises in western Ukraine.
Georgia and Azerbaijan are among the participants at U.S.-organized military exercises now underway in western Ukraine, while Armenia -- which was originally scheduled to take part -- is absent.
The exercises, Rapid Trident, have been held every year since 1995 and this year involve about 1,300 soldiers and are being held in Yavoriv, in Lviv province. Obviously this year's exercises are being held under very different circumstances than previous iterations have been. And naturally they are being seen by the Kremlin as yet another way in which the U.S. and its European partners are carrying out an anti-Russian agenda using Ukraine as a proxy.
For Bug Pit readers, the most interesting element of Rapid Trident 2014 is the participation of the South Caucasus states. Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia have all taken part in previous versions of the exercise. Unsurprisingly, given its firm pro-West, anti-Russia stance, Georgia has taken part again, sending a platoon to Ukraine for the drills.
Also unsurprisingly, Armenia is not taking part. As a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russia-led post-Soviet military bloc, it would be awkward if Armenian troops were training alongside NATO forces. (Interestingly, though, as late as March Armenia was still being listed as among the scheduled participants in Rapid Trident 2014; apparently they changed their minds between then and now.)
Armenia on September 9 got a gift from Greece — a law making it a crime to deny that the World-War-I slaughter of ethnic Armenians in Ottoman Turkey amounts to genocide. Needless to say, thanks already have been expressed.
The measure comes as part of a new anti-hate-crime law that applies similar penalties for rebuttals of the Holocaust and other war-crimes. The law also toughens punishments for racially and sexually motivated hate-crimes.
Greece ranks as the third country after Switzerland and Slovakia to criminalize claims that the slaughter, which Turkey downplays as one of many atrocities of World War I, ranks as a genocide. In 2012, France, home to a large Armenian Diaspora, adopted a similar bill, which strained relations with Turkey before being overturned by the French Constitutional Court.
Ankara, which is playing its cards warily with Armenia in the run-up to the 2015 centennial anniversary of the massacre, does not appear yet to have responded to Athens’ criminalization vote.
Nor, as yet, has Turkic strategic ally Azerbaijan, Armenia’s enemy-number-one.
The two “brothers” are not generally quiet on such matters; the Azerbaijani government, for instance, stepped up to the plate for Turkey on France’s genocide-denial decision.
As president, Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on September 2-3 paid his first foreign visit (not counting a trip to Turkish-controlled Cyprus) to Azerbaijan to talk about things the two countries share: a friendship, a feud with Armenia and pipelines.
"We are very glad that you came home to Azerbaijan, your homeland, in less than a week after your inauguration," declared Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev by way of greeting to his new counterpart, though old ally. Erdoğan, for his part, wanted to emphasise that the mi-casa-es-su-casa relationship that characterized his nine-year run as prime minister will continue strong. "We are two countries, one nation," he underlined.
And what keeps an alliance together better than a mutual enemy? Both presidents condemned Armenia's occupation of breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh and adjacent Azerbaijani lands. Aliyev vowed to spare no effort to counter the "lies about the Armenian genocide," the Ottoman-era massacre of ethnic Armenians that Turkey claims was collateral damage of World War I.
Some observers believe that the Karabakh conflict is an even bigger obstacle to the normalization of ties between Turkey and Armenia than the genocide row. Baku carries enough cultural and financial influence over Ankara to thwart any attempts at reconciliation. The Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey energy corridor is too important to Ankara to let anything threaten the route.
Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev visits frontline troops August 6. (photo: president.az)
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev made a morale-raising visit to troops along the front lines of fighting with Armenia, escalating the rhetoric around the recent conflict even while the shooting appears to have died down.
On Wednesday, Aliyev visited troops near the Aghdam region (which overeager Azerbaijani media had reported that its forces had already won back) and, in a military uniform, delivered a stemwinder of a speech, which he the next day summarized on twitter.
"We are not living in peace, we are living in a state of war. Everyone must know this," he said. "The war is not over. Only the first stage of it is. But the second stage may start too."
He also seemed to support the theory that the uptick in fighting was intended to sharpen international attention on the conflict. "Azerbaijani citizens are not pleased with the activity of mediators because the main mission of mediators is to settle the conflict, not to keep it in a frozen state and conduct confidence building measures," he said. "The Azerbaijani army is showing its strength, which is having an impact on the talks... If the Azerbaijani army starts an offensive, the enemy will find itself in a very difficult situation. This is known to us, the enemy and the mediators. Therefore, I believe that the developments of recent days will prompt mediators to take some action."
Nevertheless, fighting appears to have died down and Aliyev is scheduled to meet with his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sargsyan in Sochi, Russia, on Friday and Saturday.
The death toll in fighting between Armenians and Azerbaijanis continued to rise, reaching at least 18 as the two sides blamed each other for the escalation and Russia began efforts to try to defuse the crisis.
As sporadic fighting continued through the weekend, Azerbaijan's losses grew to 13, by Baku's count, while Armenia's grew to five by their count. Both sides said the others' losses were greater than reported; Armenia said 25 Azerbaijanis had been killed since July 28, when the fighting flared up, while Azerbaijan claims that 70 Armenians died just August 1-2.
In an interview with state television, the defense minister of the de facto Nagorno Karabakh Republic, Movses Hakopyan, blamed the Azerbaijani defense minister, Zakir Hasanov, for provoking the conflict in order to "prove himself" after being recently appointed. And he expressed confidence in his forces: "Ignorant and shortsighted acts by the enemy have shown that he is capable of anything, however if large-scale military activity begins, the armed forces of Karabakh have nothing to worry about," he said. "I think that after the recent events the people of Azerbaijan have to understand toward what its leadership's adventurism is leading. The number of losses will only increase and our borders won't change, and if some change happens it will come at the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan."
At least eight Azerbaijani soldiers and two Armenian soldiers have been killed in three days of battle, the largest number of fatalities since 1994 when the two sides signed a ceasefire over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh -- a ceasefire that appears to be growing increasingly untenable.
Azerbaijan's Defense Ministry said that eight of its soldiers had been killed over three days of fighting. According to the Azerbaijani side, "Armenian reconnaissance and sabotage groups attempted to cross contact line along the border line. Azerbaijani Armed Forces defeated all attacks of the enemy. As a result of fights, the Armenians gave casualties and retreated," APA reported. "Defense Ministry reports that the contact line is fully under the control of Azerbaijani servicemen and their blood will be avenged."
Armenia says that Azerbaijan's casualties may have even been greater: an anonymous senior defense ministry official told AFP that Azerbaijan had lost 14 troops in the fighting. "Azerbaijani subversive groups were ambushed," the official said. "As a result, they have 14 dead and lots of wounded. There are no casualties or wounded on the Armenian side." And the Defense Ministry of the de facto Nagorno Karabakh republic said the day before that two of its soldiers were killed as a result of an attempted incursion by Azerbaijan.
The blog CommonSpace.eu said that while there is "atill no clear information about the latest incidents" the number of killed represented "the most serious incident on the line of contact since the cease-fire came into affect in 1994." James Warlick, the United States representative to the OSCE's Minsk Group which is dealing with the conflict,
As of August 1, Armenia will require a doctor’s prescription for sales of Cytotec, a Pfizer-made stomach-ulcer drug that Armenian women often misuse for at-home abortions. But while specialists have hailed the new regulation, the medication still appears to be available for sale without a prescription in some Armenian pharmacies.
Cytotec is contraindicated for pregnant women because it causes severe uterine contractions, which can result in bleeding and miscarriages. The Ministry of Health stated that it removed the drug from over-the-counter sales because of the potential effects, ranging from post-hemorrhage anemia to death, that it can have on pregnant women who ignore those contraindications.
Countries other than Armenia also require a prescription for its use.
But despite the ministry’s new rule, sales of Cytotec appear to be continuing without a prescription. Clerks at nine pharmacies visited by EurasiaNet.org on August 1 in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, said that they still had the medication available for sale without a prescription.
After August 2, however, such sales will be “difficult,” the clerks said. Hundreds of Cytotec pills have been sold in the days leading up to the August-1 switchover to prescription-only sales, they added.
At just 200 drams (50 cents) for a 200-microgram tablet, Cytotec's cost is 100 times lower than that of a hospital abortion.
According to Ministry of Health data provided to EurasiaNet.org, imports of Cytotec to Armenia soared by tenfold between 2010 and 2011, the latest year for which complete data is available, to 26,655 packs.
As international sanctions pile up against Russia, Armenia, a country literally powered by the Russian economy, expects to get hit, too.
Armenian officials and economy-wonks are not certain about the size and scope of the impact, but they are positive there is going to be one. Russia is Armenia’s single largest investor, export-outlet and energy supplier, so the lateral effects of the sanctions could be potentially felt in all those directions. “At this stage it is hard to make expert conclusions. Even the Russian experts do not yet have precise calculations,” Economy Minister Karen Chshmatirian was quoted as saying by Regnum news agency.
The latest round of US sanctions targeted, among others, Russia’s VTB Bank, which happens to be the largest private lender in Armenia. “The measures taken by the US Government to restrict VTB’s access to the capital market do not impact the bank’s operational performance and creditworthiness,” asserted VTB, which is majority-owned by the Russian government. Bloomberg, however, reported that major international lenders to the VTB Group already have put on hold a $1.5-billion loan to the bank.
Another target of the sanctions, Gazprombank, also has a presence in Armenia. It is owned by Russia’s state energy giant Gazprom, which essentially is the sole supplier of natural gas to Armenia.