The United States and the European Union have taken renewed interest in constructing a pipeline to take natural gas from Turkmenistan across the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan and westward to Europe. The move is motivated by a desire to further decrease Europe's dependence on Russian gas in the wake of Moscow's newly assertive foreign policy posture, but regional analysts say the pipeline could also increase tensions around the Caspian.
European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic visited Ashgabat this week for talks with energy ministers of Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Turkmenistan. He told Reuters that the EU expects to start receiving gas from Turkmenistan by 2019.
"[W]e discussed all aspects referring to the trans-Caspian pipeline," Sefcovic said. "We made a big step in the strategic direction... Now there is a political decision that Turkmenistan will become part of this project and will feed the European direction."
The possibility of a trans-Caspian pipeline has been long discussed but has been hindered by a number of obstacles, not least of which is the opposition of Russia, which stands to lose market share in Europe were the pipeline to be built. Russia is the single-largest supplier of gas to Europe, holding about 30 percent of the market share (and far more in some Eastern European countries). And the volatility in Moscow has renewed efforts in Brussels and Washington to reduce that dependency.
Known for its penchant for curbing civil liberties, the government of Azerbaijan is now moving to limit gastronomic freedom as well. To popularize the Caspian Sea country’s national cuisine, tourism officials have decided to make a traditional breakfast mandatory for all of the country’s hotels to serve. But first, they decided to "patent" an Azerbaijani breakfast.
The prospect of thousands of hungry athletes and spectators descending on Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, this summer for the June 12-28 European Games, no doubt prompted the decision. The former Soviet republic is hosting and financing the event, a Europe-only Olympics, to promote itself, and its culture internationally.
Cuisine, of course, is part of that mission, and breakfast, after all, is the most important meal of the day.
But what exactly goes into a trademarked "Azerbaijan Breakfast"?
Despite its enthusiasm for the idea, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, as yet, has not gotten around to elaborating. Nor has the state patent office.
It might be difficult to make the claim that an Azerbaijani breakfast is so unusual as to be patent-worthy, however. Generally, the meal can include sheep-cheese, honey, yogurt, a variety of fruit, scrambled eggs with tomato, bread, and tea, tea, tea — a combination not too dissimilar from other places in the region.
Azerbaijan was the second-largest arms importer in Europe over the past five years, according to a new report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, an arms trade research group.
Azerbaijan accounted for fully 13 percent of all of Europe's arms imports over the last five years, SIPRI reported, behind only the U.K. (The report doesn't list dollar values for the imports.)
While overall arms imports have been decreasing across Europe, Azerbaijan is bucking the trend: its imports of weaponry increased 249 percent in the period 2010-2014 when compared to the previous five-year period, 2005-2009.
SIPRI also tabulated the world trade in drones ("unmanned aerial vehicles" in military-speak) and Azerbaijan also ended up near the top of that list, as the fourth-largest importer of drones in the world since 1985, trailing only the U.K., India, and Italy. It also scored impressively in another SIPRI survey from last year, tallying the second-largest increase in defense budgets in the world over the past ten years.
Recent reports that Russian military vehicles were appearing in Georgia have raised complaints in neighboring Azerbaijan that Tbilisi is “betraying” Baku by allowing the Russian military to ship military supplies into Armenia via its territory or airspace.
The story of the Russian vehicles in Georgia is almost certainly a tempest in a teapot – after footage surfaced of Russian-made ZIL 131 military trucks on Georgian streets, various theories quickly emerged. Georgia's opposition claimed the trucks were evidence that the current government was in cahoots with Moscow, while some suggested they may be on the way to Armenia, where Russia both has its own large military base and provides substantial military aid to the armed forces there. But it didn't take long for another, more banal explanation to come out: the vehicles were decommissioned in Russia and are being sold on the commercial market.
There's no indication that the Russian trucks were in fact destined for Armenia, but the question of how Russia supplies its base in Armenia, as well as delivers military aid there, has long been a secretive and contentious one. Armenia is separated from Russia by Azerbaijan and Turkey, which are hostile to Armenia, and Georgia, which is hostile to Russia. Georgia nevertheless did allow overflights of Russian military shipments to Armenia until 2011, when it publicly annulled the agreement with Russia allowing for that transit. The status of that transit is now unclear, though there have been various unconfirmed reports that it was reinstated even while former president Mikheil Saakashvili was in power.
Call it Azerbaijan's interpretation of traditional Caucasian hospitality. Its citizens may be facing a bad currency-crunch, brought on by devaluation and depressed oil prices, but that’s not gonna stop this South Caucasus country from footing the bill for travel and accommodation for the “more than 6,000” athletes competing in this June’s European Olympic Games in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku.
But the European Olympic Committee, which is running the Baku games, claims that covering athletes’ costs is standard for Olympic-host countries.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s government does, however, have a thing for “spectacular shows.” In 2012, almost $80 million was spent on Eurovision, a continental pop music extravaganza. Baku plans to foot a $8 billion bill for the European Olympic Games, even though its manat can buy 33.5 percent less per dollar now and fears persist that the nation’s hydrocarbon-supported revenues may halve this year.
Offline, the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh may be outside of Baku’s control, but, online, Azerbaijan seems to have reclaimed the disputed land. Azerbaijani officials are boasting of allegedly having convinced Facebook to strip the separatist territory’s page of its verified status, which denotes that the page is authentic.
This reported victory, preceded by an avalanche of complaints from Azerbaijani users, is nothing to sneeze at in the South Caucasus, where Facebook is by far the most popular social network. It is also often the prime online venue for social activism and political debate.
And yet, Baku’s victory was not complete. Though the "Nagorno-Karabakh Republic" page is not accessible, pages using the region’s Armenian name (Artsakh) and calling for recognition of its independence remain intact.
Facebook, which has faced flak before over its page-decisions, has not yet commented officially on the downgrading of the breakaway region's page.
But Facebook is not the only part of the virtual world in which Azerbaijan has been asserting its internationally recognized right to Karabakh. In the past, the country engaged in toponymic arguments with Google for using “pro-Armenian” place-names in its maps, and with MSN for describing Karabakh as an independent entity in its weather listings.
After a U.S. Congressional committee held a hearing critically examining U.S.-Azerbaijan relations, Azerbaijan's parliament responded with a retaliatory event of its own, accusing the U.S. of ignoring Baku's strategic cooperation with Washington.
On February 12, the House's Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats held a hearing, "Azerbaijan: U.S. Energy, Security, and Human Rights Interests." As expected, members of Congress and American experts on Azerbaijan criticized Baku for its accelerating crackdown on any opposing voices in the country, including the raid on and closure of the U.S. government-funded RFE/RL office.
Baku has been increasingly vocal in its criticism of the U.S., and this time took the step of organizing its own counter-hearing just two days later, "Energy and Security Cooperation: Partnership Based on Mutual Interests." Azerbaijani opposition website contact.az noted that government officials in Baku resent what they see as ingratitude for the contributions that they make to U.S. security interests:
The head of the Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Relations Samad Seyidov described relations between the two countries 'strategic partnership'. He further spoke about the support that Azerbaijan provides to Washington and how the US does not appreciate this.
If you haven't yet made your plans for Valentine’s Day, but have 100 grand to spare and no qualms about decadent luxury, you may have missed an opportunity. The Four Seasons Hotel in Baku, capital of the hydrocarbon-rich, freedom-poor country of Azerbaijan, is laying a claim to the world's priciest and swankiest Valentine’s Day offer.
The roughly $128,000 (100,000 manats) deal includes a limousine pickup anywhere in the world, first-class flight to Baku, the regional center for affluence and corruption, and two nights of pampering in a presidential suite. It comes with a personal butler and roses and candles galore. Topping it off is a milk bath and a pair of Cartier watches with "his and her" names engraved.
In a television-drama project likely to create a stir in the Caucasus, Russian film-industry tsar Nikita Mikhalkov plans to revisit the life and, most controversially, the death of the famous 19th century Russian writer and diplomat, Alexander Griboyedov.
The story of Griboyedov, best known for his pasquinade of Moscow’s aristocracy, Woe from Wit, makes for a perfect plot for a period-drama. His literary defiance of imperial Russia’s calcified upper crust, his marriage to a beautiful Georgian princess in Tiflis (Tbilisi) and his brutal murder in Tehran were all set during the tectonic geopolitical shifts of the early 19th century.
In Mikhalkov’s version of the story, Griboyedov, the tsar’s emissary to Tehran, is not killed by a lynch mob of Persians which, as is widely believed, massacred the entire staff of the Russian embassy to Persia in 1829. Mikhalkov claims he has it on good authority that the hero of his film fell prey to intrigues of the British as they strove to hem in Russia’s regional clout.
Azerbaijan and Armenia are both seeking to strengthen their ties with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, applying to be formal observers of the organization, the SCO's chief has said.
The China-led economic and security bloc is in expansion mode: in the upcoming summit in Ufa this summer India and Pakistan are expected to become full members. And according to SCO Secretary General Dimitriy Mezentsev, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Maldives, Nepal, and Syria are applying to become observers.
Mezentsev, speaking at a press conference February 10, also put Iran in the same category of applicants as India and Pakistan, and said that there are "no legal obstacles" to them becoming members. So might Iran, too, be slated to join this summer?
Currently the SCO has six members: China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. India, Iran, Pakistan, Mongolia, and Afghanistan are observers, while Belarus, Sri Lanka, and Turkey are "dialog partners."
Neither Baku nor Yerevan has confirmed Mezentsev's statement. Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan mooted the idea of becoming an SCO observer in 2013, but nothing came of it then.
It does seem like there is some real interest in Azerbaijan in becoming an observer. Independent member of parliament Rasim Musabekov said in an interview that "the SCO is a quite authoritative international forum, located not too far from Azerbaijan. Countries close to Azerbaijan like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyyrgyzstan are in it. So we're interested in being part of this forum." He added, though, that "this will in no way affect the resolution of the Karabakh problem."