Travel-blogger Alexander Lapshin’s irreverent reviews have left him in the doghouse before, but it was an alleged trip to separatist Nagorno Karabakh that really landed him in hot water. The Israeli-Russian blogger was detained in Belarus almost a month ago, and now, reportedly, is about to get extradited to Azerbaijan for supposedly trespassing on what Baku sees as Azerbaijani territory and supporting Karabakhi independence.
The case appears to mark the first time that a foreign national has been detained outside of Azerbaijan on such grounds.
A bout of camaraderie between two mustachioed strongmen, Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, appears to have entrapped the blogger. Cooperation has been tightening recently between the two, who share a propensity for never-ending presidential terms and a dislike of critical, independent media.
To be sure, Lapshin is no freedom-fighter, like many of those who have been jailed in Belarus and Azerbaijan. Catering to Russian-speaking audiences, his Livejournal blog Puerrtto details his travels to 122 countries and territories. He has been doing mostly what travel writers do: posting photographs of landmarks and dishes, complaining about bureaucracy and bad driving, but also throwing in an occasional coarse word.
One rubric, billed as the author’s quarrels and lawsuits “with just about everyone in the world,” features Lapshin’s jeremiads about impediments to international travel. There are entries that blast Uzbekistan for requiring its citizens to get exit visas to leave the country, criticize Israel for supposedly over-zealous border guards and offer tips on how to conceal visits to Israel from select Arab countries.
A brouhaha between Azerbaijan and Armenia is threatening to hamper the operations of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in multiple member nations, including Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
OSCE country mandates are the responsibility of the organization’s permanent council, which deals with all the OSCE day-to-day business and is comprised of representatives of all 57 member states. But as the OSCE told EurasiaNet.org “participating states have not yet reached consensus on extension of mandates of a number of OSCE field operations.”
“The Chairmanship continues to lead negotiations on this with the aim of early agreement,” an OSCE press officer said in an email
A source familiar with the situation has said the holdup is down to a battle of wills between Azerbaijan and Armenia over budgets for certain security-related programs. The standoff between the two foes has precipitated a veto from Armenia on the normally automatic extension of field office mandates.
The OSCE has said that its field operations will, this impasse notwithstanding, remain open and continue administrative and non-mandate-related work pending agreement on this issue.
Meanwhile, Moscow-based news website ferghana.ru has cited its own sources as saying the existing situation has had a negative impact of moods within the staff and fostered much disillusionment about the organization’s inability to fulfill its stated missions.
“There is growing disappointment over the nature and purpose of the OSCE, which is supposed to prevent conflicts and yet is powerless when it comes to pursuing consensus, even in such basic matters as the extension of mandates,” the source told the website.
The Iron Dome air defense system in action in Israel. (photo: Israeli Defense Forces)
Azerbaijan has reached a deal with Israel to buy the Iron Dome air defense system, a senior Azerbaijani government official has announced. But questions remain over how useful the celebrated system really is for Azerbaijan and whether it would be worth the cost.
Over the last couple of months, there have been a number of reports that a deal like this was in the works, and last month this blog featured a post on how those reports probably weren't true. There are technical reasons that the Iron Dome won't do what Azerbaijan wants. And the state-of-the-art system would be a budget buster for Azerbaijan, which has been forced by falling oil prices to slash expenditures, not least on the military.
But on December 17, the Minister of Defense Industry Yaver Jamalov gave a press conference and announced that the deal had been made. "The Azerbaijani Defense Industry Ministry and the relevant Israeli body have reached the agreement on procurement of the Israeli Iron Dome air defense system," Jamalov said.
Azerbaijan made a double PR-play on December 14 that could have proven a winning ticket with the upcoming administration of US President-Elect Donald Trump. But, ultimately, it fumbled the ball.
In Washington, the embassy of the predominantly Shi’a Muslim country co-hosted a Hanukkah party at the Trump International Hotel with a prominent American Jewish organization. In Baku, the Azerbaijani government welcomed to town Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a declared Trump fan, and talked big and beautiful.
Everything was in place for showing the world Azerbaijan’s alleged religious tolerance and multiculturalism (two recurring official PR themes), but, then, Donald Trump had to get into the act.
Or, rather, his hotel.
Ahead of Wednesday’s party, over a hundred protesters from the Jewish American activist group If Not Now marched down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Trump International Hotel to denounce the Azerbaijani embassy and its co-host, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations (COP), for celebrating Hanukkah at a venue owned by Trump.
“They are economically supporting Trump tonight and there is also a lot of symbolism around this,” one protester complained about the COP, a local ABC News affiliate reported.
You know it’s that time of year again when the government of a far-off, predominantly Muslim country throws a Hanukkah party in a Donald-Trump hotel in Washington, DC. Trump may have been less than inspiring for many Muslims and Jews alike, but leave it to energy-rich Azerbaijan, full of the holiday spirit, to sense an opportunity to bring everyone together, bar the skeptics.
Ever keen to put itself on the map as a diversity-embracing nation, Azerbaijan – or, rather, its US embassy – will cohost this December 14 Hanukkah reception with the 52-member Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. Washington, DC’s newly opened Trump International Hotel is the venue of choice for the pair’s celebration of “freedom and diversity," according to news agency JTA.
Freedom is one thing for which Azerbaijan is not renowned, but the ex-Soviet republic indeed serves as a rare example of a Jewish-friendly, predominantly Muslim nation. For years, Israel and Azerbaijan have been trading guns, intelligence and professions of friendship.
A screen adaptation of the South Caucasus’ famous love story, Ali and Nino, promoted by the Azerbaijani government, strikes many local viewers more as a travel commercial for Azerbaijan than as a faithful reenactment of the most enigmatic book to come out of this region in the past century.
Set during the Russian Empire’s twilight years, British director Ali Kapadia’s new take on Kurban Said’s 1937 novel follows the story of a passionate relationship between a spirited, young Muslim nobleman from Azerbaijan, Ali Khan Shirvanshir, and a Christian aristocrat, Nino Kipiani, from neighboring Georgia.
In the original novel, Ali Khan Shirvanshir’s choice for a wife echoes, as Said puts it, Azerbaijan’s own choice between “progressive Europe and reactionary Asia.” Shirvanshir, for instance, agrees that his wife will not have to wear a veil, yet his father initially objects to the wedding as unsuitable for a Muslim man.
But in the movie, the gaping cultural divide between the two star-crossed lovers (played by Palestinian actor Adam Bakri and Spanish actress Maria Velverde ) is reduced to a few cherry-picked, zingy one-liners. Shirvanshir's cunning Armenian friend Melik Nachararyan ("a fat man with sheep's eyes"), who, in the book, kidnaps Kipiani and is killed by Shirvanshir, becomes a debonair, decent man (played by Italian actor Riccardo Scamarcio), struggling to reconcile his love for Kipiani with his loyalty to his Azeri friend.
Viewers at one movie theater in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, the fictional Nino Kipiani’s hometown, felt they were left with a syrupy, placid melodrama.
The Iron Dome air defense system in action in Israel. (photo: Israeli Defense Forces)
Azerbaijani officials and several media sources have reported that Baku is working on a deal with Israel to buy the "Iron Dome" air defense system. The deal would be a blockbuster, as the legendary Iron Dome is a state-of-the-art system that has dramatically reduced the number of rocket attacks on Israel but has yet to be exported anywhere else.
In spite of the widespread reports, Azerbaijan is highly unlikely to actually purchase the Iron Dome, a very costly system that is technically incapable of meeting Azerbaijan's needs. The prevalance of the reports, however, seems to speak to a continuing concern within Azerbaijan that its foe, Armenia, may have gained a step on it in the arms race.
Last month, Azerbaijani member of parliament Yedva Abramov reported that the Iron Dome was "ready for delivery" to Azerbaijan. Abramov said that the system would render ineffective the Iskander missiles that Armenia recently acquired from Russia. "This system will not allow the Iskander rockets to hit the ground," Abramov said.
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."