A search-and-destroy operation is underway in Armenia. The targets are enemy Azerbaijani apples, which had the audacity to cross over into Armenian territory and place themselves covertly on Armenian store shelves. But, rest assured, the Armenian authorities say they have mounted a “massive” security action in response.
Ordinary citizens first detected these desperado apples’ infiltration of Armenia. Concerned grocery shoppers posted on social media photos of apple cartons, brashly emblazoned with the word “Azerbaijan,” the country against which Armenia has been at war over breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh for decades.
Against that backdrop, debates online and in the press asked whether Azerbaijan intended the apples to poison Armenians.
Wising up to the homeland security breach, Armenia’s Food Safety Service began inspecting stores nationwide on April 23. After three days of search, the problem appeared larger than originally thought. The enemy apples were found in the capital, Yerevan, and throughout its vicinity.
The Food Safety Service called on citizens to stay clear of the forbidden fruit and set up a hotline for shoppers to alert the authorities about any encounter with the Azerbaijani applies.
Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev observes a presentation by Delta Telecom in 2010. Delta, the de facto state monopoly internet service provider, has been linked to a series of attacks on opposition media. (photo: Delta Telecom)
The Azerbaijani government appears to have taken yet another step to quash online opposition media in the country, who have responded by using a technique borrowed from Chinese dissidents in their escalating cyberwar with the authorities.
The internet freedom organization VirtualRoad reported on April 10 that it had found evidence a “dedicated appliance” aimed at “interfer[ing] actively with web traffic” in the infrastructure of Azerbaijan's de facto internet service provider monopoly. The device is being used to block three major opposition news sites: Meydan TV, Azadliq Qezeti, and Azadliq Radiosu, using a sorting technique called deep packet inspection.
By backing up their site on AWS, Azadliq Qezeti have forced the government’s hand, as Azerbaijan would now have to block all of AWS to block domestic access to Azadliq Qezeti. The potential consequences of this has so far stymied even those behind China’s famed Great Firewall, as it would mean everyone – including major corporations – using Amazon’s popular cloud computing system for apps, databases, management tools, and other services would lose access as well.
Nursultan Nazarbayev and Ilham Aliyev, the presidents of Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, respectively, at an April 3 press conference in Baku. (photo: president.az)
Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev traveled across the Caspian on an official visit to Azerbaijan, where the agenda focused on trade. The dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan, meanwhile, loomed large, albeit behind the scenes.
Nazarbayev was supposed to visit Baku last October, and on the same trip go to the summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in Yerevan. But he canceled, citing illness, though many suspected that he in fact skipped the whole thing in order not to have to go to Yerevan. And it's telling that this time around, he went only to Baku with no visit to Yerevan on the horizon.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev warmly welcomed Nazarbayev on April 3, calling him a "dear friend" of Azerbaijan and praising Kazakhstan as a "brotherly" country. At the same time, Kazakhstan is increasingly seen in Yerevan as hostile to Armenia, which is awkward as Armenia and Kazakhstan are supposed to be treaty allies in the CSTO. And there is an ongoing drama about a change of leadership in the CSTO: the organization has promised that the next secretary general will be an Armenian, but many Armenians have accused Kazakhstan (along with Belarus) of doing Azerbaijan's bidding by blocking that move.
At a joint appearance, Aliyev suggested that Kazakhstan had signed on to its version of the Karabakh conflict -- that it should be resolved on the principle of the inviolability of borders. "These basic points are reflected in the declaration that we signed today," he said. "This is another sign of the principled position of Kazakhstan on the resolution of the conflict." (The declaration was not made public.)
Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev at a 2014 ceremony inaugurating the Southern Gas Corridor. The project is a linchpin of the country's long-term economic strategy, but it's future has become less certain now that Azerbaijan has dropped out of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. (photo: president.az)
Azerbaijan has decided to leave the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) after being suspended by the group for failure to meet the EITI board's demands to ease restrictions on civil society groups.
The dramatic move by Baku will force international financial institutions into a difficult choice: either abide by their promises to condition financial support on the human rights guarantees of the EITI, or put geopolitically important energy projects at risk.
At an EITI meeting in October, the group's board of directors said that Azerbaijan would have to carry out a number of reforms over the following four months in order to avoid suspension from the group.
On March 9, after another board meeting, the EITI said that Azerbaijan's progress had been unsatisfactory and that it would be suspended: "While the Board welcomed that Azerbaijan had taken further steps to meet the EITI Standard, it was assessed not to have fully met the corrective actions related to civil society space set by the Board in October."
Shortly afterwards, the State Oil Fund of the Republic of Azerbaijan issued a statement calling the EITI's move "unfair" and that it was dropping out of the initiative. The statement suggested that the EITI had shifted the goalposts by expanding its demands from transparency in the energy sector: "The irrelevant facts introduced by different advocacy groups on various occasions show that the Initiative failed to stick to its original mission and objectives." The statement continued:
Screenshot of a video posted by Arshak Zakaryan, a videographer who works with the Armenian Ministry of Defense, showing the portion of Haramı Düzü, or "forbidden plain," where 5 Azerbaijani soldiers died on February 25. White arrow points to the location of the bodies between the Azerbaijani (left) and Armenian (right) trenches.
At least five Azerbaijani servicemen were killed on February 25 in the worst flare-up of fighting over Nagorno Karabakh since last April. As per usual, the Armenian and Azerbaijani press services published versions of the incident at odds with one another.
The renewed violence comes as spring approaches and many fear an even more serious bout of fighting than last April's, in which more than 200 were killed, itself the worst fighting since the ceasefire was signed in 1994. “The likelihood of another outbreak of fighting at the level observed in April 2016, or higher, is significant,” wrote Carey Cavanaugh, the former United States chair of the Minsk Group that is attempting to resolve the conflict, in an analysis last week. “That clash roused nationalist sentiments, fed growing political discontent in Armenia, and showed Azerbaijan that it can regain some territory by force.”
The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry was first to report on the incident at about 10 in the morning of February 25, claiming that fighting broke out due to “large-scale provocations by Armenian forces” along the line of contact (LoC) between the two sides and that its forces suffered casualties but “forced the enemy to retreat.”
About 20 minutes later, the web site of Nagorno Karabakh’s armed forces published its statement, claiming that the fighting was a result of Azerbaijani incursions attempted overnight in the eastern and southeastern sections of the LoC and that bodies of some the Azerbaijani servicemen remained in the no-man’s land between the two sides. The Armenian side also claimed a build-up of Azerbaijani armor near the LoC.
First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva at a meeting of Azerbaijan's Security Council at which she was named vice president of the country. (photo: president.az)
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has appointed his wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, as the country’s first vice president, a move that had been anticipated since the VP post was created as the result of a constitutional referendum last year.
The move places the first lady first in line of succession, a responsibility that formerly fell to the prime minister. It was condemned and mocked in roughly equal measure; opposition politician Ali Kerimli called it “an official step towards the establishment of a monarchy.” Pro-government voices were relatively muted on the news. “Without doubt, everyone had been expecting Mehriban Aliyeva in particular to be appointed to the position of First Vice-President of Azerbaijan,” Novruz Mammadov, deputy head of the presidential administration, wrote on Facebook.
Aliyeva professed to be humbled by the appointment. “Mr. President, I express my deep gratitude to you for this high confidence in me,” she said at a meeting of the Security Council. “Over the past years, your ideas of statehood, patriotism, your courageous protection of Azerbaijan’s national interests, and your unity with the people of Azerbaijan were an example for me.”
A photo released by the de facto authorities of Nagorno Karabakh of an Azerbaijani Israeli-produced ThunderB drone that Armenian forces shot down during last April's fighting.
Turkmenistan was Turkey's single largest weapons buyer over the past five years, while the arms industries of Belarus and Israel are increasingly dependent on Azerbaijan's business, a new report has shown.
The report, by the arms trade research group Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, also shows that Azerbaijan is one of the world's leading arms importers. And while a large majority of Baku's purchases still come from Russia, its dependence on Moscow is declining.
Azerbaijan was the 21st leading arms importer in the world over the period 2012-2016, according to new data published by SIPRI. Only two countries ahead of Azerbaijan on that list had smaller populations -- Israel and Singapore.
According to SIPRI's data, 69 percent of Azerbaijan's weapons imports come from Russia, with 22 percent from Israel and under four percent from Belarus. That makes Azerbaijan Israel's second-largest arms customer (accounting for 13 percent of its exports) and Belarus's third-most important customer (11 percent of Belarus's exports).
That 69 percent from Russia is a lot, but when SIPRI made similar calculations two years ago, Azerbaijan had bought fully 85 percent of its weapons over the previous five years from Russia.
Most of Russia's sales to Azerbaijan have been for land forces, including armored vehicles, artillery, and anti-tank missiles. From Israel, Azerbaijan has bought a large variety of drones, as well as anti-tank missiles and some naval equipment.
The former NATO Central Asia liaison office in Tashkent. (photo: NATO)
Central Asians are more likely to see NATO as a threat rather than as a source of protection, according to a new survey.
The survey, by the American firm Gallup, polled residents of all the ex-Soviet republics except for Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. All of the Central Asian states saw NATO as more of a threat than as protection. Tajikistan was the most anti-NATO state, with 34 percent seeing it as a threat and eight percent as protection. Next is Kyrgyzstan, at 19 percent protection and 30 percent threat; then Kazakhstan, 25 percent protection and 31 percent threat.
It's hard to imagine what NATO would possibly threaten in Central Asia. And while it's tempting to attribute this to exposure to Russian narratives about NATO, Tajikistan is the least Russian-speaking of all these countries, and Kazakhstan the most Russian-speaking, so that explanation isn't satisfying. (The Bug Pit is unable to come up with a better one, though.)
Note that NATO closed down its Central Asia liaison office in Tashkent last year, deciding that it would henceforth operate all of its modest cooperation programs in the region from Brussels.
Armenia also had a mostly negative response, with 20 percent saying NATO is a threat and only eight percent as a protection. Armenia's government makes not-insignificant efforts to maintain real cooperation with NATO, in spite of being a member of the NATO rival Collective Security Treaty Organization. But the fact that the only NATO country on Armenia's border is Turkey no doubt colors public opinion on the alliance.
An embattled Israeli-Russian travel blogger was trotted in front of news crews in Baku on February 8 following his extradition from Belarus to Azerbaijan, where he is facing charges of illegal border-crossing and hostile activity.
News reports showed handcuffed blogger Alexander Lapshin emerging from a government jet in the Baku airport and escorted with gun-wielding guards in balaclavas. “The extradition of Alexander Lapshin is another testimony that Azerbaijan is capable of defending its national interests,” said Deputy Prime Minister Ali Akhmedov.
He remains in pre-trial detention, his next destination not disclosed.
The Russian-language blogger stands accused of unauthorized entry into Nagorno Karabakh, a breakaway territory from Azerbaijan controlled by ethnic Armenian rebels and Armenian military forces. Baku also accuses Lapshin of posting entries supportive of Karabakh’s independence on his Livejournal blog, Puerrtto.
Azerbaijan long has tried to coerce Karabakh back under Baku’s fold through international isolation; mainly by blacklisting foreign travelers to the territory. But this is the first time Azerbaijan had a foreign national arrested in a foreign country and then handed over to its control for such an offense.
Pink protest hats were not the only piece of clothing to mark US President Donald Trump’s January 20 inauguration. He did, in fact, receive a chokha, a traditional wool coat from the Caucasus for men, usually worn with a dagger.
Little suggests that Trump will soon cut a dash in the bandoliered, cinched-at-the-waist costume from a Tbilisi apparel shop. But its offering symbolizes the regional hope that he will not overlook the Caucasus.
Even before Trump’s calls for “America First,” local analysts believe that American foreign policy had become introverted under Barack Obama, with the Caucasus fading fast on Washington’s radar.
So far, expectations are not high that Trump will reverse that trend. Aside from two defunct hotel projects, he has never shown a personal interest in this geostrategic crossroads.
Nonetheless, mulling the Trump future and the Obama past, the South Caucasus closely watched the new American leader’s swearing-in. Some in Tbilisi even opted to take part in a local Women’s March.
Yet Trump’s divisive flamboyance is not what counts in this part of the world. What does is Washington’s actual role in global and regional affairs.
In Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, some observers say that Obama was the least concerned with post-Soviet affairs of any US president in memory. And when the US takes a step back, it can only mean one thing in these parts: Russia steps in.