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.
Azerbaijan claims to be close to fielding a domestically produced armed drone, another escalation in its race to arm to take back the territory it lost to Armenian forces.
Azerbaijan's domestic arms industry will be able to supply the drones to its armed forces "in the near future," said Yaver Jamalov, the country's Minister of Defense Industry, at a cabinet meeting Sunday.
"Testing of the unmanned aerial vehicle 'Zarba,' created by your [President Ilham Aliev] on short notice, has been successful, and in the near future the device will be handed over to the armed forces," Jamalov said.
This would seem to be Azerbaijan's first armed drone. It has used surveillance drones, mostly purchased from Israel, for several years and in April's heavy fighting with Armenia it emerged that Azerbaijan also had Israeli Harop "kamizake drones," which are themselves the bomb. Armenia also operates small, domestically produced surveillance UAVs.
This announcement comes amid an unprecedented diplomatic push to try to resolve the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the territory of Nagorno Karabakh, which Armenia won from Azerbaijan in a war as the Soviet Union collapsed.
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],” one Azerbaijani businesswoman, Aygul, who passed through Istanbul two days before the attack, said via Facebook Messenger. “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.