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.
Amidst all the publicity this weekend to mark the 20th anniversary of the February 25, 1992 slaughter of ethnic Azeris in the Nagorno-Karabakh village of Khojaly , one interesting bit of fresh information related to those events may easily have been overlooked.
In 1992, Sargsyan was the commander of breakaway Nagorno Karabakh's military forces, and, if anyone got the lowdown on what Armenian fighters did or did not do at Khojaly, he is, arguably, the man.
Some of his comments already have appeared in de Waal's 2003 book on the Karabakh conflict, "Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War." But what was left out provides insightful reading -- not only about the details of the war, but also about the psychology of one of its main protagonists.
Asked about the slaughter at Khojaly, Sargsyan does not mince his words: " [W]hen a shell is flying through the air, it doesn't distinguish between a civilian resident and a soldier; it doesn't have eyes. If the civilian population stays there, even though there was a perfect opportunity to leave, that means that they also are taking part in military operations . . . "
Sargsyan concedes that "some form of ethnic cleansing" took place in Karabakh, adding that "It's not possible otherwise."
"But we didn't think up this method. They thought this up," he said in reference to the Azerbaijanis. "when, with the help of their militia, they kicked our people out of the Hadrut and Shusha regions" of Karabakh.
Last week, EurasiaNet.org reported on plans to turn breakaway Nagorno Karabakh into a correctional facility for Armenian convicts. To some, mindful of Armenia's extensive presence in and support for the predominantly ethnic Armenian territory, that may bring to mind the colonial-era relationship between Great Britain and Australia, the British Empire's convict colony of choice. But the Australia references do not end there.
Just as was the case with British convicts in Australia, outcasts from Armenia can also find ostriches in their new homeland. These are not going to be the squint-eyed Australian emus, but, rather, their taller African cousins.
Karabakhi entrepreneur Ararat Bagirian imported the birds from Kenya last August and plans to farm them for eggs, meat and feathers, the Russian news agency Regnum reported. New businesses in Karabakh are not a dime a dozen, so, to encourage the venture along, the de facto government gave Bagirian a 25-million-dram (about $65,000) credit for his new business.
After all, as the saying goes, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
Azerbaijan continues to take the flak for roughshod treatment of the media and political critics. But sitting on an embarrassment of hydrocarbon wealth, the country is in no hurry to change its ways. Behind the maquillage of spruced-up buildings and streets in Baku, rights groups see a ruling political dynasty plagued by rampant nepotism and corruption.
Georgia has released its new "National Security Concept" document, updating it from the 2005 version which said there was “little possibility of open military aggression against Georgia." Now, unsurprisingly, Russia dominates the document (pdf): of the twelve "Threats, Risks and Challenges to the National Security of Georgia" it identifies, ten are tied to Russia and its role in the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Equally unsurprisingly, the U.S. tops the list in the document's section on "Strengthening foreign relationships." But the rest of the list is interesting to peruse. Ukraine is the second country mentioned, ranking as a "strategic partner." Turkey is next, as "Georgia’s leading partner in the region," with cooperation in trade, energy and military spheres. It then cites the importance of relations with "Central and Southeast European and Scandinavian states," as well as Moldova and Belarus, but for whatever reason doesn't mention Western Europe at all (though of course the EU and NATO as organizations are prominently featured). There is a whole paragraph on Latin America and the Caribbean, but no mention of France, Germany, the UK? No doubt the Western European reluctance to admit Georgia into NATO is the major factor there.