Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev and Russian TV journalist Dmitriy Kiselev. (photo: president.az)
During a largely friendly interview with Russian state media, Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev nevertheless pushed back against a number of Moscow's talking points, offering a high-level view on to the two countries' disagreements on issues including the war in Syria and Azerbaijan's arms procurements.
The interview was conducted October 18 in Baku by Dmitriy Kiselyev, one of Russia's most prominent and patriotic television journalists. Kiselyev was fulsome in his praise of Aliyev, Baku, and Azerbaijan, and the interview appeared to be partly a Russian charm offensive toward Azerbaijan, and partly an attempt to portray Aliyev to the Russian public as, if not exactly an ally, then at least someone with whom Russia could do business.
There were a number of softballs, like when Kiselyev asked Aliyev to take credit for the recent rapprochement between Turkey and Russia. Aliyev modestly demurred, but – without Kiselyev's prompting – floated a conspiracy theory about Turkey's shootdown of the Russian jet that resulted in the crisis last year. Aliyev suggested that “certain forces, worried about strengthening ties between Russia and Turkey” were behind it, and agreed with Kiselyev that it could be an “outside” force, without offering any specifics. But it dovetails well with a theory current in Turkey following the rapprochement with Russia that blames Gulenist saboteurs for the shootdown.
And Kiselyev's line of questioning about the West's “double standards,” one of the favorite topics of both Moscow and Baku, led to a long discussion. (One interesting novelty: Aliyev suggested that one of the reasons for the West's criticism of his government was that Baku declined to go along with “campaigns and adventure” that don't benefit it, which in the context appears to refer to Western sanctions against Russia.)
United States Secretary of State John Kerry has created a diplomatic stir in the Caucasus by arguing that the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan "aren't ready" to resolve their conflict over the contested territory of Nagorno Karabakh.
Kerry's remarks about Karabakh were made only offhandedly, in the context of a larger discussion about diplomacy and international negotiations. Discussing the recent deal over Iran's nuclear program, Kerry contrasted that situation -- where the parties were genuinely interested in a resolution because of the risks that failure would bring -- to the Caucasus.
"There are some frozen conflicts in the world today -- Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan-Armenia, where you can’t quite see that right now because the leaders aren’t ready, because the tensions aren’t there," Kerry said. (Underscoring his pessimism, he contrasted Armenia and Azerbaijan unfavorably with the Palestine-Israel peace process, which he characterized as "difficult but you can see how you could get there if people made a certain set of decisions.")
More than 20 years after Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a cease fire to end the fighting over Karabakh, which ended Armenian forces in de facto control of Karabakh, the two sides seem farther apart than ever. And so to anyone following the Caucasus, Kerry's statement on Karabakh was not especially controversial, as the "tensions" that he referred to are mostly pushing in the direction of war, rather than peace.
Azerbaijan, suffering increasing public discontent as a result of a struggling economy, was able to rally citizens around the flag by launching an offensive in Karabakh in April. And in Armenia, radical nationalists staged a rebellion over the summer in order to pressure the government from conceding any ground to Azerbaijan over Karabakh.
President Ilham Aliyev tours the ADEX defense expo in Baku on September 27. (photo: ADEX)
Azerbaijan is facing a large decrease in its military budget as state revenues continue to suffer from low oil prices.
According to budget documents released last week, Azerbaijan is budgeting 1.62 billion manat for defense in 2017, down 27.5 percent from the projected spending in 2016. And that doesn't take into account the declining value of the manat, which will make buying equipment from abroad even pricier.
Keeping track of Azerbaijan's defense budget is as much an art as a science, and another complicating factor has been the "special projects and activities" line in the budget, which had funded military procurement from 2011. It disappeared last year, and this year remains out of the budget. Adding to the confusion, most media reporting on the budget appear to have used a figure of 2.9 billion manat for 2017, but that is the combined figure of defense and internal security spending.
The cut in defense spending is nearly three times the overall decrease in spending, about 10 percent.
Azerbaijan's massive arms budget has been a cornerstone of the government's efforts to take back the territory of Nagorno Karabakh, which it lost to Armenian forces during a war as the Soviet Union collapsed, either by force or by forcing Armenians to negotiate.
“It is our priority and we will continue to increase military spending," said Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev in 2014. "Over the past 10 years, our military spending has increased more than 20-fold, and our spending allocated to the armed forces is approximately twice as large as Armenia’s overall state budget."
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev hosts his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin for tea at his house. (photo: president.az)
The presidents of Russia, Iran, and Azerbaijan met in Baku this week, for the first time in this trilateral format, part of a week of heavy diplomatic activity that highlighted the shifting international relations around the South Caucasus.
The Baku meeting took place on Monday, and was taken on the initiative of Azerbaijan. The top agenda item was a railroad project that could connect Russia and Eastern Europe to the Persian Gulf.
That project would bring not only economic benefits to the three countries, but could be a geostrategic boon for Azerbaijan, as well, said Zaur Shiriyev, a Baku-based political analyst. He noted that this project would compete with another Russia-initiated North-South railroad project, that would go from Russia through Abkhazia, Georgia, and Armenia.
"This transport corridor bypasses Armenia, thereby eliminating the possibility of reopening the Russian-Georgian railway though Abkhazia, or any kind of discussion that was used a threat [against] Baku," Shiriyev said in an email interview with The Bug Pit. He noted that that Armenia project also could have competed with another Azerbaijani rail priority, the currently under-construction Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway that will connect Azerbaijan to Turkey and Europe.
President Ilham Aliyev at the opening of the Araz munitions plant in Shirvan in 2010. (photo: Ministry of Defense Industry of Azerbaijan(
Azerbaijan's government has responded with uncharacteristic solicitousness to an explosion at a state munitions factory that killed two workers and injured 24 more, underscoring the importance the state places on its defense capacity.
The explosion occurred at the Araz munitions plant in the city of Shirvan, southwest of Baku, on July 26. Azerbaijani authorities said it was caused by a stockpile of old ammunition that had been slated for disposal.
The government's response was swift and active: the Minister of Defense Industry Yavar Jamalov visited the injured at the hospital and went to the funerals of those killed. The ministry's press service is releasing regular updates on the health of the injured. An investigative commission was formed and the state prosecutor's office opened a criminal case. This level of responsiveness is unusual for a government that tends to rule in a distant, imperious manner and to punish the messengers who call attention to bad news in the country.
A high-level meeting reportedly set to take place later this year in Turkmenistan could put talk of building a natural gas pipeline across the Caspian Sea back on the agenda.
The Associated Press on July 23 cited Turkey’s ambassador to Turkmenistan, Mustafa Kapucu, as saying that the presidents of his country, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan will meet to discuss the issue. The talks pick up from the EU-brokered Ashgabat Declaration of May 2015, which was signed by the energy ministries of the three countries and set down objectives like creating a legal framework for gas sales by Turkmenistan to Europe and “[developing] constructive dialogue” on the required infrastructure.
The fact that heads of state are set to sit around the table presumably suggests all the governments involved envision a transition from preliminary paper-shuffling to some concrete breakthrough, although experience teaches that this may not be the case.
The resurgence of interest in trans-Caspian would come at a timely juncture for Turkmenistan, which is now reduced to selling almost all of its gas to China. A small if growing amount if being sent to neighboring Iran.
Diversification of export routes has long been an article of dogma for Turkmenistan, and yet it has exasperatingly seen only a reduction of its international markets in recent years. Its erstwhile main customer Russia bought 45 billion cubic meters of gas in 2008, but that has through a series of commercial and diplomatic vicissitudes dwindled to nothing.
Since gas is so important to Turkmenistan, many have surmised that the country’s economy is performing far worse than the government officially allows for.
The Azerbaijani government was forced to deny Turkish press reports that Turkey was establishing a military base in the country.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev signed an agreement "confirming the protocols on the transfer of buildings and structures in the military cantonment Gyzyl Shryag and the terminal at the military airfield in Zainalabdin Tagiyev to the use of the armed forces of the Turkish republic," Azerbaijani media reported on Thursday.
From that legalese, some Turkish media oversimplified the news. "Turkey to establish military base in Azerbaijan," the state Anadolu Agency wrote in its headline. "Azerbaijan signs protocol allowing Turkey to establish military base," the state-run Daily Sabah wrote.
Azerbaijan's constitution, however, forbids the establishment of any foreign military base in the country, and government officials quickly clarified. "Press reports about the creation of a military base of any country do not have any basis and do not correspond to reality," Deputy Defense Minister Ramiz Tahirov told the AzerTaj news agency.
What exactly constitutes a "base" isn't always clear, but this is a largely bureaucratic move, explained Jasur Mammadov Sumerinli, director of the Caspian Defense Studies Institute, in an email interview with The Bug Pit. Around 60-70 Turkish soldiers are stationed in Azerbaijan, largely as trainers for various branches of the Azerbaijani security services, Sumerinli said.
As Turkey focused its coup-cleanup operations on its education system, its close ally Azerbaijan on July 20 announced the closure of Caucasus University, the country's first private university, founded by supporters of the influential Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, now charged by Ankara with plotting to overthrow Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
The decision brought back memories of 2014 when, as Turkey started to raise the alarm about Gülen, a former government pal, Azerbaijani authorities closed 13 education centers and 11 high schools associated with the cleric’s movement. They were transferred to the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijani Republic (SOCAR).
One Turkish company Çağ Öğrətim (Era Education), believed linked to Gülen, however, had shared control of Caucasus University with SOCAR and another firm.
No more. SOCAR Vice-President for Human Resources Khalig Mammadov posted on his Facebook page that control over Caucasus University has been given to the state-run Baku Higher Oil School .
“Students . . . will continue their education as before,” Mammadov wrote. “The teaching staff of the university will also continue their work.”
The education ministry told APA that after receiving the relevant documents, it will create a working group to allow Caucasus University students to continue their education elsewhere.
Foreign ministers of the Caspian littoral states meet in Astana on July 13, 2016. (photo: MFA Russia)
Are the five states around the Caspian Sea finally going to resolve their dispute about how to divide the body of water between themselves?
A number of unusually positive statements from diplomats from the littoral states have suggested that the seemingly intractible dispute is on the verge of being resolved. But if any of the Caspian countries have softened their negotiating positions -- the intransigence of which has resulted in this long dispute -- they aren't telling.
The foreign ministers of the five states -- Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan -- met last week in Astana, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the sides could reach an agreement in a year.
"I believe it is absolutely realistic to aim for signing the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea in 2017. I think this can be done even in the first half of the year," he said. That enthusiasm was shared by Kazakhstan, whose prime minister, Karim Massimov, tweeted: "Met with foreign ministers of Caspian littoral states. There's hope for prompt completion of talks over Caspian Sea Legal Status Convention."
Russian politicians and state media sounded sharp alarm about the July 15 military-coup attempt in Turkey, Moscow's traditional regional rival, with some calling for "responsible organs" to come to the rescue of Russian citizens in Turkey. By contrast, officials in the South Caucasus, which borders directly on Turkey, expressed much greater caution .
The failed coup attempt led to the deaths of 1,661 people, and the injury of 1,440, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim announced at an afternoon briefing on July 16 in the Turkish capital, Ankara. Some 2,839 armed-forces personnel allegedly involved in the coup-plot have now been arrested, he said, according to Turkey's official Anadolu Agency.
Yet even as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that the coup had been put down, Russia’s state-run TASS news agency led with a statement from Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev that “we should undertake all measures for the defense of the interests of our citizens, and also our companies, our entities . . . “ in Turkey.
What measures, if any, were under consideration is not clear, but Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Alexander Romanovich, citing alleged bombing by Turkish military planes, earlier in the morning of July 16 called for "our responsible organs" to organize the immediate evacuation of all Russian citizens from Turkey.