In a story more reminiscent of "The Set-Up" than "Million Dollar Baby," the BBC, citing anonymous insiders, has reported that oil-rich Azerbaijan may be relying on more than just its boxers’ muscles to pack a punch at the 2012 Olympics in London. Azerbaijan, the insiders' story goes, allegedly oiled the palm of a boxing organizer with $9 million to secure two gold medals for Azerbaijani boxers at the games. An angry Azerbaijan has countered that the allegations are a pack of lies, the work of unnamed enemies and provocateurs.
The Amateur International Boxing Association (AIBA), the group in the eye of the furor, first claimed that it received an innocuous “investment” from a private Swiss investor, but later admitted that the cash came from Azerbaijan. The group says the transaction had nothing to do with fixing medals and claims that the money came from a private Azerbaijani investor, not the Azerbaijani government.
But the line between private and government realms often can be blurry in corruption-plagued Azerbaijan. The fact that Azerbaijan’s Minister of Emergency Situations Kamaladdin Heydarov, of all people, acted as a mediator between AIBA and the mystery investor only reinforces the point.
The International Olympic Committee is considering launching a probe into the allegations.
After the Armenian government in Nagorno Karabakh said they shot down an unmanned Azerbaijani drone last week, Baku quickly denied that it was theirs, but didn't provide any additional information. But then the state news agency APA came out with an explanation that, to be charitable, we can call "elaborate." Approvingly citing a Turkish tabloid report, APA suggests that the drone may have in fact been Israeli:
The anonymous sources close to Turkish diplomacy claim that the pilotless jet belongs to Israel.
The newspaper says that according to the diplomatic office, the pilotless jet belongs to the Israeli air forces: “The jet ascended from the military base located in Armenia or occupied Karabakh to make the reconnaissance flight related to Iran. Thus, the occupied lands of Azerbaijan are used not for the drug transit and as a terror base but turned into a military base for the secret operations and military reconnaissance”. The source also said that Israel currently holds reconnaissance operations by means of pilotless jets over Middle Eastern countries.
If Armenia really were allowing Israeli UAVs to spy on Iran from its territory, why would they be based in the disputed territory of Karabakh, rather than closer to the Iranian border in Armenia proper? And why would Armenia -- which has good relations with Iran -- allow such a thing in the first place? As this fascinating Wikileaked cable describes, it's in fact Azerbaijan that has a close relationship with Israel -- based in part on their similar perception of the threat from Iran:
Wreckage of what Armenian officials in Nagorno Karabakh say is an Azerbaijani unmanned drone
Armenian forces in the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh have shot down an Azerbaijani unmanned drone aircraft, they say. Azerbaijani officials thus far have been silent on the issue, but the Armenians have produced photos and video of the wreckage.
Vazgenashen, previously known as Gulably, is about ten kilometers from the Line of Contact (LoC) between the two armies. Armenian officials believe the aircraft was on a reconnaissance mission.
Karabakh military officials said there was a spike in Azerbaijani UAV activity in recent days most of it along the LoC. But an Azerbaijani intrusion at such depth can be considered a significant escalation.
The aircraft went down on September 12 at 7:30 AM local time near Vazgenashen in Nagorno Karabakh's Martuni district "as a result of special measures undertaken by units of air defense and radio-electronic warfare of the Karabakh Defense Army," the army's press office reported.
Having a Latin American friend is apparently the latest thing for the separatist territories of the Caucasus. Just after Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega was playing host to a de facto ambassador from breakaway South Ossetia, which Nicaragua thinks is a country, conflicting news reports hit that Uruguay may recognize the independence of Nagorno Karabakh, the cause of over two decades of hostility between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Granted, it may depend on whose news service you read. To hear Armenian news sites tell the tale, it almost sounds as if Uruguayan Foreign Minister Luis Almagro, who supposedly made the declaration at a September 9 seminar in Montevideo on bilateral ties with Armenia, has spent many sleepless nights tormented by questions of faraway Karabakh's status.
An angry Azerbaijan, which wants Karabakh back at any cost, isn't buying it. Baku claims that it has been assured that Montevideo respects Azerbaijan's territorial integrity. Still, Azerbaijan's Argentina embassy is checking up on the story.
The Spanish news agency EFE, meanwhile, has posted a version that suggests something less than a full assertion of Karabakh's independence, but enough to raise Azerbaijani eyebrows.
For your Tamada's part, during a recent trip to Latin America he had a hard time explaining what the conflicts in the Caucasus are all about, so was almost surprised to hear that anyone in Uruguay has heard of Nagorno Karabakh, much less feels strongly on the issue.
Azerbaijan's defense minister told U.S. officials that the country was interested in "active cooperation with NATO up to full membership" but couldn't say so publicly, according to a diplomatic cable recently released by Wikileaks. The cable recounts a 2007 meeting between Defense Minister Safar Abiyev and a U.S. delegation from the Pentagon and State Department headed by then-Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Peter Rodman:
Abiyev said that Azerbaijan's cooperation with NATO had a goal in mind. He said that this goal "could not be announced, for certain reasons" at present, but that Azerbaijan sought "active cooperation with NATO up to full membership". He said that the ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was the only inhibitor of Azerbaijan moving even more quickly with NATO: "It is time for more serious, more active steps by the US in Minsk Group. Our cooperation with the US and NATO would be more open and more decisive in this case."
There is ample reason for suspicion here. It's not clear what the "certain reasons" for Baku's reticence were, perhaps the fear of a bad Iranian or Russian reaction, an issue that's frequently cited in the cables from Baku. There is reason to doubt the sincerity of that fear (see below). But even if you take the Azerbaijanis at their word, if you can't even announce publicly that you want to join NATO, the obstacles are so daunting as to make any such wish meaningless.
With Azerbaijan's confirmation of its purchase of a new air defense system from Russia, the S-300, by displaying it at its Armed Forces Day parade in Baku a few weeks ago, it "instantly becomes the most capable SAM [surface-to-air missile] system in the region," writes air defense analyst Sean O'Connor in the latest edition of the IMINT & Analysis newsletter.
The most intriguing part of the sale is that Azerbaijan's foe, Armenia, is a strong military ally of Russia; Russia stations troops at a big base in Gyumri, Armenia, and supplies heavily discounted weapons to the Armenian forces (and by extension, the Armenians who control the breakaway Azerbaijani territory of Nagorno Karabakh). All that, no doubt, was part of the reason that Russia denied that the sale had taken place, only to be proven wrong in a flashy parade in central Baku:
Regardless of Russia’s motivations for keeping the sale out of the public eye, Rosoboronexport’s public denial of the contract represents an interesting occurrence. On one hand, Rosoboronexport’s implications may have been completely accurate if a complete contract did not exist at the time of announcement. Finalization of the contract and subsequent non-announcement to temper Armenian concerns represents a logical course of action in that regard. On the other hand, however, the following statement represents a factual description of the Azeri Favorit situation: the press reported a sale, Rosoboronexport denied a sale, and Rosoboronexport then delivered Favorit components to Azerbaijan.
This incident will serve to cast doubt upon any future denials of Russian military sales to foreign states, leaving observers to ask the question: “what is really going on?”
A top Iranian military official has taken aim at neighboring Azerbaijan's president, Ilham Aliyev, saying the government in Baku may become a victim of a "people's awakening." That has prompted angry replies from Baku and a disavowal from Iran's foreign ministry. The controversy began with remarks made by Major General Hassan Firouzabadi, chief of staff of Iran's armed forces, quoted by the Fars News Agency:
"I hope Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev would pay heed to the issues which strengthen pillars of his government, otherwise he will face a dark future since people's awakening cannot be suppressed," Firouzabadi said.
"People's awakening cannot be suppressed. Some neighboring and Muslim states with which we enjoy friendly relations continue to ignore friendship criteria and give freedom to Zionist regime (of Israel) to meddle in their country's affairs. They also give command to bar Islamic rules," Firouzabadi added.
Relations between Iran and Azerbaijan have always been wary, as Iran mistrusts Baku's secular leadership and suspects them of having claims over the roughly 25 percent of Iranians who are ethnically Azeri. Tensions have increased recently with the shooting death of an Azerbaijani border guard, apparently by an Iranian counterpart. And, as the Fars piece reported:
Azerbaijani officials have been preventing Muslim schoolgirls wearing headscarves from attending schools.
Hundreds of people staged demonstrations in Azerbaijan and called on the government to overturn the decree. They also chanted slogans against the anti-Islamic law.
The peaceful demonstrations were stopped by police and security forces that resorted to force and detained a number of people.
Fed up with threats that Baku will forcibly retake her native Nagorno-Karabakh, a 13-year-old Armenian girl sat down and penned a letter to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev recently. Aliyev, perhaps moved by the curious sophistication of the child’s missive, found time to respond with both a history lesson and an invitation.
“Why do you want to grab my homeland, which does not belong to you? Your own lands are not enough for you?” writes the girl, who signs off as Adelina Avagimian, a student from Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital Stepanakert (which Azerbaijanis call Khakhendi). Little Adelina argues that Karabakh has always been Armenian. And besides, she’s never seen any Azerbaijanis around.
Aliyev begins with a lengthy history lesson on how Karabakh was actually Azerbaijani land until the Armenians drove all the Azerbaijanis out during the conflict in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“I don’t mean to give you boring lectures on the region’s history, but the Armenians started settling en masse around the South Caucasus, including Karabakh, only after these lands became part of the Russian Empire,” writes Aliyev. “I hope that on one of the starry nights that are so beautiful in Karabakh, when you look at the sky and dream of a peaceful future, you will ask your grandpa about this.”
The chief of Nagorno Karabakh's armed forces says the Armenian-controlled territory has substantially boosted its capacity over the last six months, reports RFE/RL:
Lieutenant-General Movses Hakobian estimated that the "military potential" of his troops grew by 20 percent in the first half of 2011.
"During this period, the qualitative and quantitative state of our weapons and military hardware changed quite a lot," Hakobian told a news conference in Stepanakert on August 12. "Quite serious reforms were carried out with the restructuring of two army brigades."
I'm not sure how one quantifies "military potential," but Hakobian said the military is getting new artillery, air defense and anti-tank weaponry, and this year will be getting two divisions-worth of new tanks. All of this is coming from Armenia, presumably originally from Russia, though it hasn't been declared where it should be in the UN Register.
In any case, though, this is still small potatoes compared to the Armenians' foe, Azerbaijan, which nearly doubled its defense spending this year.
Azerbaijan this week had a visitor from the past. Enter Ayaz Mütalibov, who ran Azerbaijan when the country violently tore away from the Soviet Union, and during the early years of its confrontation with Armenia over the breakaway region of Nagorno Karabakh.
Although facing criminal charges in Azerbaijan, Mütalibov, the country's first post-Soviet president and last Soviet boss, was allowed home to Baku from his low-profile 19-year exile in Moscow to attend the funeral of his elder son. Mütalibov is accused of facilitating the brutal 1990 crackdown on a pro-independence rally in Baku, failing to prevent the 1992 massacre of Azerbaijanis by ethnic Armenians in the town of Khojaly and plotting to overthrow the late President Heydar Aliyev.
In a fresh illustration of how a family matter can take precedence over laws or old feuds in the Caucasus, Heydar Aliyev's son, the current President Ilham Aliyev, suspended the prosecution of 73-year-old Mütalibov for the occasion.
“Mister President, following the principles of statesmanship and also [the] national traditions of our people, gave his consent to [the] return of Mütalibov because of the severe illness of his son,” a presidential administration representative was quoted as saying by Kavkazsky Uzel news service. The charges against Mütalibov will remain in force, however.