Call it Azerbaijan's interpretation of traditional Caucasian hospitality. Its citizens may be facing a bad currency-crunch, brought on by devaluation and depressed oil prices, but that’s not gonna stop this South Caucasus country from footing the bill for travel and accommodation for the “more than 6,000” athletes competing in this June’s European Olympic Games in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku.
But the European Olympic Committee, which is running the Baku games, claims that covering athletes’ costs is standard for Olympic-host countries.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s government does, however, have a thing for “spectacular shows.” In 2012, almost $80 million was spent on Eurovision, a continental pop music extravaganza. Baku plans to foot a $8 billion bill for the European Olympic Games, even though its manat can buy 33.5 percent less per dollar now and fears persist that the nation’s hydrocarbon-supported revenues may halve this year.
Offline, the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh may be outside of Baku’s control, but, online, Azerbaijan seems to have reclaimed the disputed land. Azerbaijani officials are boasting of allegedly having convinced Facebook to strip the separatist territory’s page of its verified status, which denotes that the page is authentic.
This reported victory, preceded by an avalanche of complaints from Azerbaijani users, is nothing to sneeze at in the South Caucasus, where Facebook is by far the most popular social network. It is also often the prime online venue for social activism and political debate.
And yet, Baku’s victory was not complete. Though the "Nagorno-Karabakh Republic" page is not accessible, pages using the region’s Armenian name (Artsakh) and calling for recognition of its independence remain intact.
Facebook, which has faced flak before over its page-decisions, has not yet commented officially on the downgrading of the breakaway region's page.
But Facebook is not the only part of the virtual world in which Azerbaijan has been asserting its internationally recognized right to Karabakh. In the past, the country engaged in toponymic arguments with Google for using “pro-Armenian” place-names in its maps, and with MSN for describing Karabakh as an independent entity in its weather listings.
After a U.S. Congressional committee held a hearing critically examining U.S.-Azerbaijan relations, Azerbaijan's parliament responded with a retaliatory event of its own, accusing the U.S. of ignoring Baku's strategic cooperation with Washington.
On February 12, the House's Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats held a hearing, "Azerbaijan: U.S. Energy, Security, and Human Rights Interests." As expected, members of Congress and American experts on Azerbaijan criticized Baku for its accelerating crackdown on any opposing voices in the country, including the raid on and closure of the U.S. government-funded RFE/RL office.
Baku has been increasingly vocal in its criticism of the U.S., and this time took the step of organizing its own counter-hearing just two days later, "Energy and Security Cooperation: Partnership Based on Mutual Interests." Azerbaijani opposition website contact.az noted that government officials in Baku resent what they see as ingratitude for the contributions that they make to U.S. security interests:
The head of the Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Relations Samad Seyidov described relations between the two countries 'strategic partnership'. He further spoke about the support that Azerbaijan provides to Washington and how the US does not appreciate this.
If you haven't yet made your plans for Valentine’s Day, but have 100 grand to spare and no qualms about decadent luxury, you may have missed an opportunity. The Four Seasons Hotel in Baku, capital of the hydrocarbon-rich, freedom-poor country of Azerbaijan, is laying a claim to the world's priciest and swankiest Valentine’s Day offer.
The roughly $128,000 (100,000 manats) deal includes a limousine pickup anywhere in the world, first-class flight to Baku, the regional center for affluence and corruption, and two nights of pampering in a presidential suite. It comes with a personal butler and roses and candles galore. Topping it off is a milk bath and a pair of Cartier watches with "his and her" names engraved.
In a television-drama project likely to create a stir in the Caucasus, Russian film-industry tsar Nikita Mikhalkov plans to revisit the life and, most controversially, the death of the famous 19th century Russian writer and diplomat, Alexander Griboyedov.
The story of Griboyedov, best known for his pasquinade of Moscow’s aristocracy, Woe from Wit, makes for a perfect plot for a period-drama. His literary defiance of imperial Russia’s calcified upper crust, his marriage to a beautiful Georgian princess in Tiflis (Tbilisi) and his brutal murder in Tehran were all set during the tectonic geopolitical shifts of the early 19th century.
In Mikhalkov’s version of the story, Griboyedov, the tsar’s emissary to Tehran, is not killed by a lynch mob of Persians which, as is widely believed, massacred the entire staff of the Russian embassy to Persia in 1829. Mikhalkov claims he has it on good authority that the hero of his film fell prey to intrigues of the British as they strove to hem in Russia’s regional clout.
Azerbaijan and Armenia are both seeking to strengthen their ties with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, applying to be formal observers of the organization, the SCO's chief has said.
The China-led economic and security bloc is in expansion mode: in the upcoming summit in Ufa this summer India and Pakistan are expected to become full members. And according to SCO Secretary General Dimitriy Mezentsev, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Maldives, Nepal, and Syria are applying to become observers.
Mezentsev, speaking at a press conference February 10, also put Iran in the same category of applicants as India and Pakistan, and said that there are "no legal obstacles" to them becoming members. So might Iran, too, be slated to join this summer?
Currently the SCO has six members: China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. India, Iran, Pakistan, Mongolia, and Afghanistan are observers, while Belarus, Sri Lanka, and Turkey are "dialog partners."
Neither Baku nor Yerevan has confirmed Mezentsev's statement. Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan mooted the idea of becoming an SCO observer in 2013, but nothing came of it then.
It does seem like there is some real interest in Azerbaijan in becoming an observer. Independent member of parliament Rasim Musabekov said in an interview that "the SCO is a quite authoritative international forum, located not too far from Azerbaijan. Countries close to Azerbaijan like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyyrgyzstan are in it. So we're interested in being part of this forum." He added, though, that "this will in no way affect the resolution of the Karabakh problem."
For a landlocked country, Turkmenistan is getting into the seafaring spirit: Ashgabat’s new showpiece ferry Berkarar has been shuttling its way around the Caspian Sea – defined by geographers as an inland lake – making trips to both Azerbaijan and Russia so far this year.
The ferry was built in the Uljanik Shipyard in Pula, Croatia – which has produced ferries for the Caspian littoral states since communist times – and delivered to the reclusive Central Asian country in December. Ashgabat has also commissioned a second, smaller ship, Bagtiyar, which is scheduled to arrive this summer. They carry both freight and passengers.
Azerbaijani newswire Trend.az gushed about Berkarar’s latest voyage, from Turkmenbashi to the Azerbaijani capital: “The ferry impresses with its dimensions; it has a length of 155.8 meters, width of 17.5 meters, and height of 12.2 meters,” Trend reported on January 14.
Berkarar can carry “56 trucks loaded with 40-foot containers,” according to News Central Asia’s detailed report on the vessel.
So, provided there are enough goods to fill them, the ferries could help expand regional trade across the contested waters of the Caspian.
A Turkish company is currently modernizing Turkmenistan’s Turkmenbashi port, a commission that is expected to finish in 2017.
Armenia has already retaliated against Azerbaijan for the downing of a military helicopter last month, Armenia's defense minister has said, without saying what the retaliation amounted to.
The Mi-24 helicopter was shot down November 12 near the line of contact between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh; Armenia says it was on a training flight, Azerbaijan says it had crossed the line of contact and was planning an attack.
Armenia immediately promised to retaliate, but it wasn't clear how. And on December 23, Armenian Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian said it has already happened: "A disproportionate response to the Azerbaijani side has been given, part of the information about the operation was given to the public. However, it wasn't appropriate to release all of the information."
The most significant military incident since the shootdown that was partially reported was a heavy exchange of fire, including relatively rare mortar attacks, in early December. The de facto Nagorno Karabakh government claimed that five to seven Azerbaijani soldiers were killed, though that wasn't independently confirmed. Still, even that would seem to not meet the standard of retaliation that Armenia had been promising.
Nettlesome neighbors Armenia and Azerbaijan are in a tug-of-war over pretty much everything, from disputed lands to, most recently, a loaf of bread. Armenia says it has succeeded in claiming something of a cultural copyright to lavash, a regionally popular thin bread, while Azerbaijan’s fierce attempts to thwart Armenian claims to the flatbread have fallen, well, flat.
Over Azerbaijani objections, UNESCO late last week did grant the bread a spot on its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage as an expression of Armenian culture. But the UN agency did so with a disclaimer that lavash is shared by communities in the region and beyond” and that “the inscription does not imply exclusivity.”
One Armenian media outlet claims that UNESCO committee purportedly chose the careful wording after Azerbaijan raised objections during UNESCO’s November 24-28 meeting in Paris. But the wording was enough for both countries to celebrate victory.
Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism announced that it has prevented Armenia from claiming the bread as its own. “Justice has prevailed in this matter,” said Culture and Tourism Minister Abulfas Garayev. “ UNESCO’s decision says that lavash is made all across the region and is not an exclusively Armenian bread.”
Russia's Grad Slavyansk corvette, to be used for the first time in joint exercises on the Caspian Sea next year. (photo: mil.ru)
The Caspian Sea will see its first -- and probably the world's first -- naval biathlon next summer, with all five littoral states taking part, the Russian Defense Ministry has announced.
The naval biathlon appears to be a spin-off of the tank biathlon that Russia inaugurated in 2013 and expanded into a blockbuster event this year. And the principle will be the same, with ships racing and shooting at targets. Missing a target will result in a penalty lap.
"Such a naval competition is unparalleled in the world," said Russian Caspian Flotilla Commander, Captain 1st Class Ildar Akhmerov, according to TASS.
Each country will compete with one ship and one reserve vessel. Armored personnel carriers will also be part of the competition (it's not clear how) and there will be an athletic portion of the contest, as well, with sailors competing in rowing, weightlifting, swimming, and tug-of-war. The competition will take place over several months, starting in March and ending in August.
Also not yet clear: which ships will be used and what they will shoot with. The naval capabilities of the five countries on the Caspian -- Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan -- vary widely. In the tank biathlon almost all participating countries used Russian-provided tanks, but that wouldn't seem to be a workable solution here; it's unlikely the Russian navy would just hand over the keys of one of its ships to Turkmenistan, for example.