One of the more interesting story lines from the recent Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Russia was the addition of new "dialogue partners": Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, and Nepal.
The role of a dialogue partner is not clear, and seems to vary: Belarus had been a dialogue partner, and played an active role in the organization. President Alexander Lukashenko went to the summit earlier this month and Belarus was upgraded to an SCO observer. Turkey, meanwhile, became a dialogue partner in 2013 and since then both the SCO and Ankara, by all public appearances, seem to have completely ignored one another.
But that caveat aside, becoming part of the SCO is nevertheless a statement of some sort of geopolitical intention. Armenia's accession is not too surprising: it is Russia which is clearly interested in pushing SCO expansion in order to boost its own international status, and Yerevan is highly susceptible to Moscow's wishes.
Azerbaijan's entrance, however, is more interesting. What does Azerbaijan have to gain from being part of the SCO?
For one, the SCO's focus on weakening Western norms of human rights is clearly attractive given its accelerating feud with the United States and European countries over what Baku says is unfair criticism of its political and human rights practices.
He had a flat in downtown New York and a castle in Burgundy, but gave it all up for a hayseed village life; most recently, in disputed Nagorno Karabakh. He is German Sterligov, the founder of Russia’s first commodity exchange, and he recently came out of his hermitage in the breakaway territory to face enemies and possibly prosecution back in Moscow.
One of post-Soviet Russia’s first millionaires, 48-year-old Sterligov, who advocates a return to the old Russian alphabet, tsarism and living off the land, earlier this month fled the blandishments of the Moscow region to set up operations in bucolic Karabakh, the longtime battlefield between Armenians and Azerbaijanis.
In a July 13 press-conference, he called the accusations “a lie.”
One of his aides has linked the campaign against Sterligov in Russia to his historical opus, “From Adam to Putin,” in which he wishes that the Russian president would become a Christian. Sterligov accuses the Russian Orthodox Church of heresy.
It’s always unsettling to learn that a repressive government has sophisticated computer malware. But in the case of Azerbaijan, the good news is that they don’t necessary know how to use it.
In emails leaked Sunday, the employees of Italian cyber-surveillance company Hacking Team exchange both giggles and exasperation as they field questions from Azerbaijan, where interior and national security officials were trying to get the hang of the spyware, Meydan TV reported on July 9.
The information, obtained by unknown hackers, makes up part of 400GB of data released via BitTorrents; a grab one privacy expert deemed the equivalent of Edward Snowden’s handiwork, Wired reported.
According to the conversation with the Azerbaijani officials, the Hacking Team offered help in “infecting targets” with the spyware, which allows remote access to all computer files and the ability to control computers’ cameras and microphones.
The Italian company had denied selling its products to abusive governments. Yet the leaked data showed that the Azerbaijani government had used a California-based company to license Hacking Team’s Remote Control System spyware, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. found. The initial payment was 320,000 euros (about $402,000) with continued annual payments for maintenance.
Azerbaijan's new naval base in Puta, inaugurated in June 2015. (photo: president.az)
The Caspian sea states will discuss creating a "collective security system" on the sea at a meeting in Russia this fall, a Russian military official announced.
Russia's top naval commander, Admiral Viktor Chirkov, met with naval delegations from Azerbaijan, Iran, and Kazakhstan last week in St. Petersburg, and afterward announced that the states discussed creating a consultative organ of all the Caspian sea navies and a collective security system, and signing an Agreement on the Prevention of Incidents on the Caspian.
"During the meetings with [Admiral Chirkov] the delegations confirmed their readiness to work on these issues, and agreed to conduct the first round of corresponding consultations in Russia in October," the statement from the Russian Ministy of Defense said.
The idea of a collective security system was first publicly mooted by Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu last year in Baku; Chirkov's comments suggest it is moving forward.
The notion of collective security on the Caspian is a bit odd; it wasn't explicitly mentioned which of the five states would be involved in the organization, but the goal is presumably for all of them to be. And then, on a closed sea with no other potential enemies, the idea of collective security is overkill -- from whom would they be defending themselves?
Tbilisi had an unusual visitor on July 2. But one whose presence could have far-reaching consequences for the energy map of both the South Caucasus and Europe.
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s two-day state visit to Georgia, his first, involves the usual meetings with the usual assortment of senior Georgian officials and the usual signing of various, vaguely described agreements.
The two countries have not divulged the details.
The Turkmen government is excited about how the use of “transportation-transit infrastructure between the Caspian and Black Sea regions will provide for the supply of broad inter-regional integration with the states of Europe, and the Near and Far East.”
Georgian Foreign Minister Tamar Beruchashvili, for her part, expressed a hope that the visit would bring “interesting results” for “deepening” the two countries’ relations as well as for “the execution of regional projects.”
Of course, bottom line, that means one thing – energy.
A few months ago, European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic told Reuters that Turkmen gas would reach European markets by 2019.
The European Games and its implicit race between hydrocarbon dollars and human rights have come to an end after a grandiose closing show on June 28 in Baku and divergent opinions about what the Olympics-style event has done for Azerbaijan.
Officials in the oil capital of the Caucasus say, all puns aside, that the event has been a gas. Government-influenced media (in other words, mainstream Azerbaijani media) is busy cultivating a sense of achievement and President Ilham Aliyev’s government is promising to host more sporting events that raise Azerbaijan’s international profile.
But some critics question the need for the Games. The Guardian wrote that Baku 2015 left the impression of “ghost games;” that “there is no real need for in a crowded calendar and willed into existence by the endless expansionism of the Olympics movement and an authoritarian state.”
Sports Minister Azad Rahimov was a bit on the defensive amid reports of excessive spending. He claimed that the alleged 960 million manats ($914.55 million) price-tag for the Games was within range of initial estimates, but there are reports of much higher spending.
But that’s not all – it’s co-hosting the European soccer championship in 2020 and has set its sights on perhaps even the Summer Olympic Games in 2024.
Baku’s earlier Olympics bids failed, but the European Games left the city with some new, glittering sports infrastructure and the authorities are bent on making the most of it.
Azerbaijan’s big decision about going for the 2024 Olympics won’t come until September, however, and rests with President Ilham Aliyev, who also doubles as the chair of the Azerbaijani National Olympics Committee, Sports Minister Azad Rahimov specified on June 26.
Rahimov, though, believes that the European Games have put Baku on the right road. Holding large-scale sports events puts Azerbaijan "on the road leading to the Olympics,” the minister said.
The opening ceremony for Azerbaijan's new Caspian Sea naval base at Puta. (photos: president.az)
Azerbaijan has inaugurated a new base for its navy on the Caspian Sea, which it calls "the largest and most modern military object in the Caspian basin."
The base was formally opened on June 25, Azerbaijan's Armed Forces Day, in a ceremony with President Ilham Aliyev.
"Today we have gathered for the opening of the naval base. This event shows the strength, the power of our country," Aliyev said at the ceremony. "This base meets the highest world standards and is one of the biggest military objects created in recent years in Azerbaijan."
The old base, near the center of Baku, was the home of the Soviet Caspian Fleet. In 2011 Azerbaijan announced it was leaving that base and building a new one as it sought to expand the very modest naval forces it inherited after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The new base is in the town of Puta, about 30 kilometers southwest of Baku, and was originally scheduled to open last year. The announcement of the new base included some detail on the living, dining, and medical facilities for sailors but somewhat less on the operational details of the base. It did emphasize that it would facilitate real-time monitoring of activity in the Azerbaijani sector of the sea by means of surveillance stations on islands and on naval vessels. It also will allow for information sharing between naval forces, the border control service and the State Maritime Administration.
There was no mention of what sort of vessels the base might accomodate, but Azerbaijan has been active in recent years in trying to enlist foreign partners in naval shipbuilding.
The State Department has released its annual "Country Reports on Terrorism" reviewing terrorism activity from the past year and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the ISIS is the overwhelming focus throughout the report, but also in the former Soviet Union.
"The ongoing civil war in Syria was a significant factor in driving worldwide terrorism events in 2014," State wrote in the report's introduction. "The rate of foreign terrorist fighter travel to Syria – totaling more than 16,000 foreign terrorist fighters from more than 90 countries as of late December – exceeded the rate of foreign terrorist fighters who traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, or Somalia at any point in the last 20 years."
The report continues State's practice of describing governments' perceptions of the threat of terrorism, rather than Washington's own perception. The introduction of the section on South and Central Asia reads: "Central Asian leaders have expressed concern about the potential terrorist threat posed by the return of foreign terrorist fighters to the region in the wake of ISIL’s growth in the Middle East and the drawdown of U.S. and Coalition Forces in Afghanistan."
Last year's report expressed substantial skepticism about Central Asian government's claims about terror threats; that skepticism is less apparent in this report's newly written sections on ISIS. However, a senior State Department official testified before Congress earlier this month on ISIS in Central Asia and downplayed the threat, noting that the vast majority are not recruited in Central Asia but abroad, particularly in Russia.
Azerbaijani athletes competing in the European Games have been allowed to dispense with fasting for Ramadan in a bid to boost predominantly Shi’a Muslim Azerbaijan’s results in the Olympics-style competition.
With 29 medals to its name, Azerbaijan currently ranks second to Russia for medal-results among the 50 countries taking part in the Games. How many of its 285 athletes are observant Muslims is open to speculation, but, apparently, the Caucasus Muslim Authority, a close ally of the secular Azerbaijani government, wants to do its part for the team effort, too.
Victory on the playing field “pleases God,” local clerics ruled in a recent fatwa and blessed athletes who opt to skip the fast, which bans food, drink and sex from dawn to sunset, APA news agency reported on June 19.
The month-long celebration of Ramadan started in Azerbaijan on June 18, less than a week after the Games began.
“To make sure that the valiant Islamic sportsman is stronger than his competitor in the month of Ramadan, he cannot observe oruj [fast],” said the Baku-based Caucasus Muslim Authority. “To defeat a competitor on a sports field, to defend the honor of your country and raise the flag of your homeland is important and pleases God.”
The fact that this is the first time that Azerbaijan has hosted the Games qualifies as a special circumstance, the body held.
Azerbaijan was the only country that bid to host the Games, a pet project for President Ilham Aliyev, who heads up the National Olympic Committee.