Armenians may have been troubled by Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to their country, as it seemed to be an exhibition of Russia's tightening grip on Yerevan's foreign policy. But in Azerbaijan, the visit occasioned a different sort of fear: that Putin was confirming Russia's military support for Armenia in a potential conflict with Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh.
One military expert in Baku, Uzeyir Cafarov, said that Putin's support for Armenia would increase the risk of conflict. "We must be extra careful regarding the situation on the front line in January and February. It is possible that local clashes will take place on the front line. Russia continues to play double games. We must not give in to this and must bring into Russia's attention that its position on the Karabakh conflict is biased," Cafarov told the newspaper Azadliq, according to a BBC Monitoring report.
And member of parliament Zahid Oruc told sia.az (also via BBC Monitoring), "With this visit and by increasing the number of Russian troops in Armenia, Russia is stimulating the regional arms race and pushes others to this. This is a threat to the lasting peace in the region."
The “corrupting influence of the West” is a catchphrase immortalized by the 1969 cult Soviet comedy, The Diamond Arm, in which a busy-body apartment-manager (portrayed by iconic actress Nonna Mordykova) becomes suspicious of the new, supposedly bourgeois ways of a neighbor after he returns from abroad.
You would not expect to hear a post-Soviet government official repeat this line today. Unless, that is, you happen to be in the oil-soaked Caucasus country of Azerbaijan.
In a December 2 speech in Baku, Ali Hasanov, a senior political aide to President Ilham Aliyev and a tireless guardian of public loyalty to his boss, called on all and sundry to fight back against the pernicious effects of Western influence that supposedly are pitting Azerbaijani young people and the media against their own people and the state.
“Each of us has a duty to protect youth from the corrupting influence of the West,” he instructed his audience, the APA news agency reported. “We can’t allow certain young men to engage in an anti-Azerbaijani activity for some 2 or 3,000 manats" via Western donor grants, he argued.
By "anti-Azerbaijani activity," Hasanov presumably means any action seen as presenting a challenge to the Aliyev family, in power for most of the past 44 years. Western grants meant to help democratize Azerbaijan inevitably translate into challenges to that status quo, in Hasanov's mind.
But, never fear, President Aliyev and his youth fund are here. In a bid to preserve Azerbaijan's "integrity," the fund is dishing out grants to match civil-society funding by Western democratization groups.
Police in Azerbaijan have arrested an Iranian and accused him of planning an attack on the Israeli embassy in Baku. In many places this would be big news, but it's become somewhat dog-bites-man in Baku, the government claims evincing more skepticism than alarm.
In the latest incident, Baku police arrested 31-year-old Hassan Faraji after he was seen near the Israeli embassy exhibiting "suspicious behavior." Israeli media have reported that "Faraji is a part of the Iranian Quds Forces, a special unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard that, among other roles, is tasked with planning and executing terrorist attacks against Israeli targets overseas." Iran has denied that, while accusing Azerbaijani authorities of torturing Faraji, which Baku denies.
Anyway, this is the latest of a long string of plots that Azerbaijan has accused Iran of fomenting in Baku. The Bug Pit asked Anar Valiyev, a Baku-based analyst who as far back as 2007 was writing that the regularity with which Baku accuses Tehran of plotting attacks. Valiyev noted that this recent accusation is especially hard to believe, given that Iran is finally managing to work its way out of international isolation:
Though you wouldn’t know it looking at how Russia treats activists who protest oil drilling in the fragile Arctic, Moscow has a soft spot for the environment – when it’s politically expedient.
Days after a European Union representative said Brussels is moving forward with plans to build a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan across the bottom of the Caspian Sea, a senior Russian official said Moscow is concerned about the effect on the Caspian’s “extremely sensitive ecosystem.”
Igor Bratchikov, the Russian president's special envoy for the delimitation and demarcation of borders with CIS states, also told Russia's RIA Novosti news agency on November 22 that the EU plans are an "interference in Caspian affairs.”
Bratchikov said that while constructing a trans-Caspian pipeline "it would be thoughtless and ruinous not to take environmental factors into account."
"The consequences of any incident would be catastrophic for the extremely sensitive ecosystem of the Caspian Sea," Bratchikov said. "Moreover, it is not Europeans or Americans, but the littoral states that would have to solve [problems] in case of a disaster."
The EU official, Denis Daniilidis, said the draft agreement, which he expects Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan to sign later this year, ensures that any pipeline adheres to the "highest environmental standards."
Azerbaijan naval vessels on parade in 2011. (photo: Wikimedia commons)
Azerbaijan will start building a warship next year, military sources told the news agency APA. No details were given, including what sort of ships were under consideration, or who Azerbaijan might be partnering with. Just: "Baku Shipbuilding Plant has already submitted the projects of some ships for Navy for different purposes and the ships will be constructed after the projects are agreed."
While Azerbaijan has been the relative laggard in the Caspian Sea arms race (instead prioritizing equipment oriented toward war with Armenia over Nagorno Karabakh), recently it has evinced a bit more interest in its navy. As part of the blockbuster arms deal with Israel it is buying Gabriel anti-ship missiles, and just last month it said it would soon start receiving Uran-E naval missiles from Russia.
Azerbaijan has never before produced a military vessel, so it's safe to assume that it's not doing this by itself. So the big question is, who's the partner? I asked several sources in Baku and Moscow, and no one knew (or would say). The most likely partner would seem to be Turkey, which has been fairly active in helping Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan build up their navies from scratch. And the news came out as Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev was visiting Turkey (though the only defense contractor Aliyev seems to have visited was Turkish Aerospace Industries, where he looked at helicopters and training aircraft). I happened to meet Turkey's top government defense industry official, Murad Bayar, this week and asked him if Turkey was participating, and he answered noncommittally, saying the two sides had "had some consultations, but there is nothing definite."
The Iran-Azerbaijan border in Nakhcivan (photo: The Bug Pit)
A shooting on the Iran-Azerbaijan border has led to the border being closed for several days, the latest episode of tension between the two countries. The controversy began last week, when an unidentified gunman (in military uniforms, according to Azerbaijan) fired shots at a tractor working on the shore of the Araz River that forms the border between the two countries.
No one was injured, but in response, "The Azerbaijani side accused the Iranian military of the fire and demanded an explanation. Not having received them, the Azerbaijani authorities closed the nearest border crossing point Shahtakhti," near the site of the incident in Azerbaijan's Nakhcivan exclave. And then Iran retaliated by closing off the other two border crossings in Nakhvican, citing "Baku's refusal to negotiate over the issue." From Press TV:
[Iranian embassy in Baku press secretary Mohammad] Ayatollahi said Azerbaijan sealed the border crossing in an “unconventional move” on Wednesday after an unidentified assailant opened fire on a tractor in the border region without causing any casualties.
He stated that the border closure has created serious problems for Iranian passengers and drivers....
He stated that an Iranian border guard was killed by Azeri security forces in Bileh-Savar two years ago, but Iran did not close the border and pursued the issue through the relevant authorities.
Nearly every day, the exact same headline pops up in the news feeds of those who follow conflict n the Caucasus: "Armenian Armed Forces violate ceasefire in several directions." And with only slightly less frequency, and only slightly more variation, another headline appears: Azerbaijan Violates Ceasefire over X times Last Week."
The stories -- reprinted press releases from the respective ministries of defense -- follow the same numbing pattern. From the Azerbaijani side, after a couple of paragraphs saying where the alleged shooting took place, the exact same four paragraphs close out the piece:
The conflict between the two South Caucasus countries began in 1988 when Armenia made territorial claims against Azerbaijan.
Armenian armed forces have occupied 20 per cent of Azerbaijan since 1992, including the Nagorno-Karabakh region and seven surrounding districts.
Azerbaijan and Armenia signed a ceasefire agreement in 1994. The co-chairs of the The OSCE Minsk Group, Russia, France and the U.S. are currently holding peace negotiations.
Armenia has not yet implemented the U.N. Security Council's four resolutions on the liberation of the Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding regions.
The Armenian press releases are even more repetitive, not bothering to name the sites of the alleged violation. They all follow this form, nearly verbatim, the only variation being the number of violations over the past week:
The adversary violated the ceasefire, at the line of contact between the Karabakh-Azerbaijani opposing forces, around 200 times past week.
The commander of Russia's troops in Armenia has said those troops could be used in a conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno Karabakh, the first time that a Russian officer has publicly made such a claim. The commander of Russia's 102nd military base, Colonel Andrey Ruzinsky, made the comments in an interview with the Russian military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda (via RFE/RL):
“If Azerbaijan decides to restore jurisdiction over Nagorno-Karabakh by force the [Russian] military base may join in the armed conflict in accordance with the Russian Federation’s obligations within the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)."
It's never been entirely clear how Russia would see the collective security provisions of the CSTO in the event of a conflict over Karabakh. While they would seem to clearly obtain if Azerbaijan attacked Armenia itself, since Karabakh is in de jure Azerbaijani territory, one could easily imagine Russia saying that a conflict restricted to that territory would be none of its business. But there really isn't any room for interpretation there, and this seems like a clear Russian shot across Azerbaijan's bow.
Azerbaijan took a while to respond, prompting the opposition news agency Turan to criticize official Baku for ignoring Col. Ruzinsky's statement. But when Baku finally did respond, it naturally, blamed Armenia:
“No treaty envisages the involvement of the Russian base into the hostilities in Nagorno Karabakh on Armenian part”, MP and political scientist Rasim Musabayov....
As part of an overhaul of reproductive-health policies, Azerbaijanis facing the double whammy of low incomes and infertility may soon be entitled to state-sponsored in-vitro fertilization.
With a population of just under 9.6 million, the largest in the South Caucasus, Azerbaijan already boasts the region's highest birth rate (an estimated 17.7 births per 1,000 people), but, apparently, more needs to be done.
If the law is adopted, "we want to conduct artificial insemination with public funds . . . for those who are in need of social support," said Musa Guliyev, deputy chairperson of parliament’s social policy committee and the bill's main sponsor, Azernews.az reported. Others may be eligible via mandatory health-insurance, he added.
Under a draft law on reproductive health, an Azerbaijani citizen will be considered legally infertile after a year of solid attempts to conceive prove futile, Biznesinfo.az reported.
The bill is being fine-tuned before it hits parliament for debate later this fall, added Guliyev, who represents the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party.
Artificial insemination has been practiced in Azerbaijan since 2004 with a 40-45-percent success rate, higher than the European average, Azernews reported. Azerbaijani Muslim groups opposed the draft law earlier this year.
But artificial insemination is not the only reproductive area Guliyev, a neurologist by background, intends to target.
Zakir Hasanov, Azerbaijan's new defense minister (photo: Azerbaijan Ministry of Internal Affairs)
Azerbaijan's newly re-elected president Ilham Aliyev has announced his new cabinet, and it contains one surprise: long-serving Defense Minister Safar Abiyev has been let go. Abiyev was a controversial figure, holding his post since 1995 and widely seen as the source of much corruption in the MoD. The conventional wisdom for some time has held that if Abiyev were replaced, that would be a signal that Azerbaijan was getting ready to move to try to take back the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh. So is that what's happening?
Yerevan-based analyst Richard Giragosian says so; he posted on his social media sites that "the risk of war over Karabakh has just increased three-fold, as this move may signal the start of real defense reform and adoption of serious offensive posture, as well as a possible end to corruption within the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense."
But a source in Baku, who asked not to be named, said that internal considerations may be more at play in Abiyev's removal. For one, he was the target of recent protests over poor conditions for Azerbaijani soldiers. Secondly, he was at the center of a dispute this month between the U.S. embassy in Baku and the Azerbaijani government over criticism of the presidential vote. And Abiyev reportedly had a bad reputation among allies.