Shortly after the explosions, hundreds of travelers from nearby countries checked in as safe on Facebook, underscoring the facility’s role as the region’s ultimate layover point. A place where rabbis and mullahs hang out in one lounge, Slavs snap up perfumes and purses at duty-free stores, and Georgians seem to permanently hold court in Starbucks, IST is the world’s third busiest airport and a veritable melting pot.
For many, it is much more than that.
“I spent endless hours there, watching people and munching on that free rahat lokum [Turkish delight],” posted one Azerbaijani businesswoman, Aygul, who passed through Istanbul two days before the attack. “You sit there, look at all these people from everywhere and all the world’s differences seem so small and unimportant.”
Canadian artist Melanie Mehrer wrote Tamada Tales that, on the night of the attack, she had been drawing at an airport Starbucks when two Pakistani men, artists en route to an exhibit in Moscow, noticed her work and struck up a conversation. “We spent a good hour gabbing about art, Islam, Islamic Art, politics, weird stories in our countries' news, what it feels like to feel connected and rooted in your own culture . . .or not. “
For Georgians like Zurab Tatanashvili, an assistant professor of social work at Tbilisi State University, Istanbul airport became synonymous with a door to the West after the Soviet Union imploded in 1991. “Many other Georgians and I first went to the West through that airport and the West came here through it as well,” he commented by phone.
The presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Serzh Sargsyan and Ilham Aliyev, meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg. (photo: kremlin.ru)
Last month, Azerbaijan appeared to have made a significant concession in its struggle to regain its lost territory of Nagorno Karabakh: it agreed to expand the international mission monitoring the conflict. But Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev, newly returned from Moscow where he discussed the plan with his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sargsyan and Russian President Vladimir Putin, is now walking back that promise.
Armenia, as well as the United States, had long pushed for strengthening the monitoring mission, run by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, because the understaffed, underresourced mission is unable to determine who is to blame for the increasingly common ceasefire violations. Azerbaijan, however, had previously argued that increasing monitoring would only serve to solidify a status quo it saw as illegitimate: an Armenian occupation of its land.
It wasn't clear why Azerbaijan had agreed to the concession, but an OSCE statement after last month's meeting in Vienna said the two sides agreed to implement an "investigative mechanism." It wasn't specified what that mechanism would be, but Armenians and other have pushed for devices that could record the origin of gunshots.
“We have planned out concrete steps to boost the process of negotiations, and the presidents agreed on a trilateral statement, which reaffirms their commitment to normalization of the situation on the line of contact and also includes their consent to increasing the number of the OSCE monitors,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has a small ceasefire monitoring mission in Karabakh. For years, the OSCE has arranged peace talks on Karabakh through its Minsk Group, a mediation mechanism led by Russia, the US and France.
Repercussions from the "four-day war" with Azerbaijan in April continue to resonate in Armenia, with several senior officials arrested on corruption charges and one prominent political figure accusing the government of "deceiving" Armenians about their military capabilities.
Three security officials were arrested on Monday. “They were arrested for different criminal charges. They are suspected of various wrongdoings. In one case accepting poor quality supplied goods, in another case, according to preliminary data, procurements with exaggerated expenses,” said Sona Truzyan, a government spokesman, as reported by commonspace.eu.
This follows the firing of three other senior Ministry of Defense and armed forces officials at the end of April, also amid various corruption-related investigations. All this is in reaction to the results of fighting in early April in the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh, which resulted in the greatest number of casualties since a ceasefire between the two sides was signed in 1994, and during which Azerbaijan for the first time since then captured some new territory.
Further underscoring Yerevan's desire to shake things up, President Serzh Sargsyan replaced one of the fired MoD officials with a relative outsider, David Pakhchanian, as Deputy Defense Minister Chairman of the State Military Industrial Committee.
U.S. Marines train Azerbaijani soldiers in Romania in 2011. (photo: U.S. Marine Corps)
Azerbaijan has gotten $20 million in military aid from the U.S. Department of Defense over the last ten years, while Armenia has gotten nearly nothing, a review of U.S. government documents shows.
While the U.S. State Department has traditionally administered most foreign military aid, since the onset of the "War on Terror" the Defense Department has taken on increasing responsibility for military aid. And although the U.S. State Department for the most part observes a policy of "parity" in aid to the two countries, the Department of Defense has been less cautious in maintaining a balance. Baku has benefited in particular from two Pentagon aid programs, known as Section 1004 and Section 1206, which are subject to less Congressional oversight and less stringent public reporting requirements.
Azerbaijan has gotten $8.5 million since 2005 in funding from Section 1004, which provides counternarcotics assistance, and $11.5 million from Section 1206, which provides counterterrorism aid. Armenia, by contrast, has gotten just $41,000 in Section 1004 funding and no Section 1206 money, according to data collected by the Washington advocacy group Security Assistance Monitor, which maintains a database of the various U.S. military assistance programs.
The presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia, and senior diplomats from the U.S., Russia, and France, meet in Vienna. (photo: U.S. State Department)
Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to strengthen the international monitoring of the front lines between their armed forces, a potentially significant step that could make it possible to identify the causes of the increasingly frequent flareups in violence between the two sides.
The agreement emerged from a meeting between the presidents of the two countries in Vienna on Monday night brokered by the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe and the United States, Russia, and France. The high-level involvement in the conflict follows what has come to be known as the "four-day war" in early April, the worst violence since the two sides signed a ceasefire agreement in 1994.
An OSCE statement after the meeting between Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev reported that the two sides "agreed to finalize in the shortest possible time an OSCE investigative mechanism. The Presidents also agreed to the expansion of the existing Office of the Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairperson in Office."
The paucity of resources of the current monitoring regime, with only six monitors covering a long, remote, line of contact, has made it nearly impossible to determine what is behind a ceasefire violation. And while the OSCE statement is vague, expanding the OSCE monitoring office and creating an "investigative mechanism" could ameliorate some of those problems.
Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey have reiterated their intention to expand military cooperation, including holding joint military exercises aimed at protecting oil and gas pipelines. But the promises of further cooperation belie the stalled development of this would-be military bloc on Russia's southern flank.
The defense ministers of the three countries met Sunday in Gabala, Azerbaijan, and afterwards they announced a variety of cooperation measures including joint military exercises, cooperation on cyber security, and "further improvement of trilateral exercises on the protection of oil and gas pipelines," in the words of Azerbaijan Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov. While some of this already has been going on, Hasanov added that the three sides are preparing a memorandum to "to enter a new stage" of the cooperation. Hasanov's Georgian counterpart, Tinatin Khidasheli, said Georgia would host the new joint exercises next year.
This nascent alliance was formalized in 2012, but of course much has changed in the region since then, like Russia's growing assertiveness and the collapse of Russia-Turkey relations. So it now includes one country that is a longtime Russian enemy (Georgia), another new but fervent enemy (Turkey) and one country strenuously keeping its options open (Azerbaijan).
Armenia’s defenses against Azerbaijan may include the usual in armaments and soldiers, but, according to Armenian parliamentarian Tevan Poghosian, the military planning for the future should also feature a much more microscopic component, as well – sperm.
For a small country of roughly 3 million people, one that’s already experienced a massive loss of population from migration and war, and which senses its existence entails a fight, the Armenian military’s losses spark questions about the future. The “continuity of generations” needs to be ensured, Poghosian told parliament on May 2.
“War is over, beware of peace” goes a phrase from the Caucasian Chalk Circle, a play by Bertolt Brecht. It rings true today when peace in the Caucasus is brought by Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who is initiating a new phase of the roughly 24-year-long talks between Azerbaijan and Armenia to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
After brokering a shaky April 5 ceasefire between the two, Moscow now has hit on “intensive negotiations,” a familiar prescription, as the way forward. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov traveled to Yerevan on April 21 to talk about the Karabakh negotiations.
As yet, however, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk Group, the tripartite body headed by Russia, the US and France, which has overseen the Karabakh talks since 1992, is not in the picture.
“It was the initiative of Russian President Vladimir Putin,” said Ali Hasanov, a senior aide to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. “He addressed the presidents of both countries [Armenia and Azerbaijan] and preparations are underway now for the negotiations process.”
“We have activated all necessary diplomatic mechanisms to place the sides at the negotiations table,” Russia’s Kommersant newspaper quoted an unnamed Kremlin official as saying.
The official said that Moscow attaches top importance to finding peace in Karabakh, but, then, whether in South Ossetia, Ukraine or Syria, it always does, supposedly.
In an unprecedented move, Mihran Poghosian, a senior Armenian official named in the Panama Papers’ corruption exposé, resigned from office on April 18. His stated reason, though, was not the accusations against him, but, apparently, a more patriotic one – the dishonor of sharing press space alongside Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.
In an explanation sent to Armenian media outlets, Poghosian described himself as “saddened that my name is being raised alongside the family of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev, who has actually privatized millions of dollars,” according to an English-language translation of his comments published by RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “I find it unacceptable that I might be the reason for any possible civilized parallel to be drawn between my country and dictatorial Azerbaijan.”
“Is this a sign that something is changing in this country?” asked Yerevan resident Naira Soghomonian, 31. “Or is this another way of distracting people from the truth? Anyway, who would have thought . . .?”
Civil activist Syuzan Simonian, founder of the Front of Armenian Women, suspects the resignation is intended to quiet potential frustration with the government.