Ten days ago, Azerbaijan slung into space its first-ever satellite as an apotheosis of the country’s hydrocarbon-fueled progress. And what better way to celebrate the joy and the glory of the moment than to burst into song?
“Our first national satellite went into orbit. How can I not be happy, oh, motherland?” elated, shiny-eyed opera singer Ramil Qasimov bellows out in a handsome, optimism-infused tenor. “And now that our voice comes from the cosmos, nothing can restrain my joy,” he continues, gesturing dramatically in an online video recently posted in the Azerbaijani Studies Digest listserv.
A festively dressed choir, each woman holding a single flower, then kicks in with the politically correct chorus: “With Ilham, we march toward happy tomorrows . . . !”
The folk dancers kick and jump, the choir croons, the conductor waves her hands and the Azerbaijani satellite flies high in the sky.
If you feel like you've seen this somewhere before, you would not be far wrong.
Reminiscent of Soviet-era hymns to the proletariat, space exploration or young communists, the panegyric to the 3.2-ton, $230-million piece of national pride has sparked much eye-rolling among many Azerbaijani Facebook users.
But those Azerbaijanis weary of the country's Aliyev personality cult may see more space singing soon.
President Ilham Aliyev, so dearly mentioned in the song, has pledged that the February 8 satellite launch is just the first step in his country’s space ambitions. Lease fees are expected to recoup the cost of the US-made satellite and oil-and-gas dollars will help sponsor future projects and, perhaps . . . even accompanying soundtracks?
In tightly ruled Azerbaijan, people are not usually pampered by dismissals of failing government officials, but President Iham Aliyev has gone the distance this time to tackle a recent outpouring of popular anger in the region of Ismayilli by firing its governor, Nizami Alakbarov.
The governor's nephew, Vugar Alakbarov, son of Labor and Social Welfare Minister Fizuli Alakbarov, reportedly became the cause of car-burning riots and clashes with police in the region's main city after a January 23 car accident involving his luxury sports car and a local taxi. Alakbarov the younger allegedly beat the taxi driver, with no interference from police. The Alakbarov family is reputed to have wide-ranging economic interests in the region, and resentment at their impunity from the law runs strong.
The central government’s first response followed the standard steps in its crisis management playbook: send in riot police, arrest reporters, and civil rights activists and politicians, who expressed solidarity with the protesters, and, of course, blame external foes for everything.
“If I hear again that a member of some family acts like a hooligan, does not know who to behave himself, this person will be arrested and his father will be dismissed,” declared Aliyev at a recent meeting.
The Persian Empire at its greatest extent, including -- yes -- territory of today's Armenia, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan.
A minor diplomatic kerfuffle has arisen over an Iranian presidential candidate's campaign promise to "return" Armenia, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan if he is elected. The candidate, Ayatollah Sayyid Mohammed Bokiri Kherrozi, promised that:
“If I am elected as president, I will return the lands of Tajikistan, Armenia and Azerbaijan, which were separated from Iran...
He said the return of the territories separated from Iran will be the major program of his pre-election campaign.
“I will get back these lands without any bloodshed.”
Naturally, this was not well received in Baku, Dushanbe or Yerevan.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Tajikistan responded with a statement calling Kherrozi an "intriguer, an ignoramus and an unaware person" (according to BBC Monitoring's translation). Asked about Kherrozi's claim, Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry spokesman Elman Abdullayev said that he "doesn’t comment on absurd and groundless statements."
And Iran's ambassador to Yerevan had to clarify that Kherrozi's remarks did not reflect official policy:
Speaking about the mentioned remark, Ambassador Mohammad Raiesi said Kherrozi is not an official but religious figure, thus he cannot express the position of the state.
At 1:35 am this morning, Azerbaijan became a member of yet another elite circle -- the world's “space club;" its membership secured with the successful launch of the South Caucasus country's first telecommunications satellite.
For President Ilham Aliyev, on hand with First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva to monitor the operation from a newly built satellite-management center near Baku, the 3.2-ton satellite, dubbed AzerSpace-1, is “another great victory showing" Azerbaijan's "success," and the start of a trek into outer space.
But unlike for another victory – Azerbaijan’s 2011 Eurovision Song Contest win -- this time there were no street celebrations, and no sign that ordinary Baku residents had stayed up late for the event. Still, the vibe was positive.
Though AzerSpace-1 may have depended more on Azerbaijan’s ready cash ($230 million for the US-made satellite plus insurance and two management centers) than on its own astronomical know-how, the government means for that to change.
Currently, it’s paying for about 200 Azerbaijani students to study the space sciences at leading universities in Ukraine, the US and France. Upon return, these students will make up the core of an Azerbaijani space industry, the Ministry of Communications announced. To help matters along, Baku’s State Technical University opened a relevant faculty last year.
The government also roped in as an advisor on its space odyssey a former director of the Soviet Academy of Sciences’ Space Research Institute, physicist Roald Sagadeev.
Azerbaijan never had any intention of shooting down flights to Karabakh, the country's deputy foreign minister has said, in what appears to be an effort to back away from previous statements threatening to do just that. From AZE.az:
[Deputy Foreign Minister Araz] Azimov said that Azerbaijan was not ready to shoot down civilian airplanes, as Armenians and their supporters are constantly crying.
"In accordance with the Chicago convention, specific rules exist which are recognized by the Azerbaijani side, which provide for the prevention of illegal flights and forcing them to land in specific airports. So it is not true, when someone earlier tried to speculate that 'Azerbaijan will shoot down civilian flights," Azimov reported.
"The Armenian side, speculating on these questions, attempts to put pressure on Azerbaijan by conducting these flights to the Khojaly airport. Recall that these territories are occupied and opening an illegal air corridor means an occupation of airspace," he said.
A number of Azerbaijani officials have threatened to shoot down flights landing in Karabakh, from the military to the civil aviation authority to the cabinet of ministers. While they may not have specified that they would shoot down civilian flights, given that the primary purpose of the Karabakh airport is for civilian use, the message Azerbaijan was attempting to send was clear.
The World Economic Forum, the meet-and-greet extraordinaire held each year in the Swiss town of Davos, will hold a retreat in Baku, Azerbaijan this April.
Azerbaijani officials and pro-government media are already blowing the trumpets to announce that the skyscraper-studded Azerbaijani capital will, once again, host a shoulder-rubbing of the rich and the powerful. The World Economic Forum has confirmed the plans to EurasiaNet.org, but has not specified further details.
And, with a presidential election down the road, Azerbaijani officials are not inclined to be modest. The decision to hold the Davos event in Azerbaijan is a testimony to the country’s growing influence on the international arena, said Ali Ahmedov, executive-secretary of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party.
“This decision also proves that the international community highly evaluates the economic reforms held in Azerbaijan under the leadership of President Ilham Aliyev,” Ahmedov was quoted by News.az as saying.
Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia and Turkey have agreed to create a "joint armed forces of Turkic-language countries," the four countries decided at a "constitutive conference of the Association of Eurasian Law Enforcement Organs with Military Status" on January 23 in Baku.
Few details were offered about what exactly this new force would entail. Given that the officials at the conference were from law enforcement agencies (Azerbaijan's Interior Ministry, Turkey's Gendarmerie, Kyrgyzstan's "internal police"), the phrase "joint armed forces" seems a bit grandiose, but that's what they're calling it. What will be the function of this unit? Will Kyrgyz police operate in Turkey, or vice versa? And is Mongolian really a Turkic language?
The one concrete thing that seems to have been decided is that the symbol of the new unit will be a horse. Still, it's an intriguing development: most of the energy around Turkic unity in the 1990s has dissipated, and now talk of inter-Turkic unity is relegated mostly to the cultural sphere. So a Turkic armed unit of any sort would break some ground. And if the Tatars join, then we'll really have some news...
UPDATE: Both Turkey and Kyrgyzstan are denying that this actually happened. The dreams of the pan-Turkicists dashed again...
Azerbaijan is using international aviation law to justify its threats to shoot down aircraft using the allegedly soon-to-open airport in Nagorno Karabakh, the territory that Azerbaijan lost to Armenians two decades ago. But are they interpreting the law correctly? I asked an aviation lawyer with experience in the Caucasus, whose response, essentially, was "not really." The entire response is at the bottom of this post; it's very lengthy but worthwhile if you're interested in how the law might apply here. (The lawyer asked not to be identified.)
In short, the Chicago Convention is the act that regulates international aviation; both Armenia and Azerbaijan are signatories, and it is what Azerbaijan has used in public justifications of the policy to shoot down aircraft in its airspace. After the Soviet Union shot down a Korean Airlines passenger jet in 1983, the convention was amended to more precisely deal with civilian aircraft violating another country's airspace. As the lawyer explains, in this case Azerbaijan would have to make a positive identification that this is a military flight before shooting it down:
With a satellite launch coming up, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev wants you to get it straight: Azerbaijan is not an ex-Soviet country; it is a cosmic country.
Following the launch, slotted for February 7, Azerbaijan will officially become “a space country,” Aliyev declared.
Azerbaijan, like some of its, well, ex-Soviet peers, is sick and tired of being put in the post-Soviet context as if it is the nation’s sole achievement. After all, the country has come a long way. Did it not feed many barrels of oil and many cubic meters of natural gas to Europe, fabulously redecorate its capital, Baku, and host the Eurovision Song Contest, for crying out loud? Will it not also host the first all-European Olympics?
Still, international media, foreign diplomats and scholars just can't kick the post-Soviet refrain.
“When sometimes in the meetings with foreign partners they say, ‘post-Soviet countries,' I go, ‘[W]ait. Azerbaijan is not a post-Soviet country. Perhaps some are post-Soviet countries, but we are not,’” News.az reported Aliyev as saying.
The entire world will stand corrected then, the thinking goes, when the region’s first independent satellite soon goes orbiting around the planet (including over Azerbaijan's much-hated neighbor, the non-cosmic country of Armenia), as airborne testimony of Azerbaijan’s progress away from the post-Soviet era.
After last week's post about Azerbaijan threatening to shoot down flights to the soon-to-open airport in Nagorno-Karabakh, a number of Azerbaijanis wrote in to argue that Azerbaijan would be fully in its rights to do so. One of them, Adil Baguirov, co-founder and member of the Board of Directors of the U.S. Azeris Network, agreed to a short email interview. It's printed, in its entirety, below.
The Bug Pit: Do you believe Azerbaijan would have a legal right to shoot down civilian aircraft going to the Karabakh airport?
Adil Baguirov: By definition, as well as from the standpoint of law and even logic, there can be no civil aircraft that would be determined, in a non-emergency situation, to land at an airport in the Armenia-occupied territories of Azerbaijan. Any and all aircraft that willingly tries to fly into, and land in, the Armenia-occupied territories of Azerbaijan, such as into the Khojaly airport (a.k.a. Stepanakert airport, or Khankendi airport) is not a civilian aircraft, but a military aircraft that can be carrying military cargo and personnel, and thus can be legally shot down. That entire airspace over the occupied territories has been a publicly declared Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) since 1992.