Azerbaijan continues to take the flak for roughshod treatment of the media and political critics. But sitting on an embarrassment of hydrocarbon wealth, the country is in no hurry to change its ways. Behind the maquillage of spruced-up buildings and streets in Baku, rights groups see a ruling political dynasty plagued by rampant nepotism and corruption.
Russia will be holding a series of military exercises in the North Caucasus, Armenia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia this fall, reportedly in preparation for a possible U.S.-Israeli attack on Iran. The exercises, called Kavkaz-2012, will be held in September and won't be tactical/operational but strategic (i.e. won't involve large numbers of troops). The exercises will, however, include officers from the breakaway Georgian territories. The focus on surveillance, air defense and logistics suggests that Russia is tailoring the exercise to prepare for a U.S.-Israel-Iran war, says Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta:
As suggested by the head of the Center for Military Forecasting, Colonel Anatoly Tsyganok, "Preparations for the Kavkaz-2012 exercises seems to have begun already largely due to the increasing military tensions in the Persian Gulf." "In a possible war against Iran may be drawn some former Soviet countries of South Caucasus. How, then, to ensure the viability of Russian troops stationed abroad, for example, in Armenia? Apparently, the General Staff will plan some proactive measures, including learning to organize in critical logistic supply of troops," said the expert.
Georgia has released its new "National Security Concept" document, updating it from the 2005 version which said there was “little possibility of open military aggression against Georgia." Now, unsurprisingly, Russia dominates the document (pdf): of the twelve "Threats, Risks and Challenges to the National Security of Georgia" it identifies, ten are tied to Russia and its role in the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Equally unsurprisingly, the U.S. tops the list in the document's section on "Strengthening foreign relationships." But the rest of the list is interesting to peruse. Ukraine is the second country mentioned, ranking as a "strategic partner." Turkey is next, as "Georgia’s leading partner in the region," with cooperation in trade, energy and military spheres. It then cites the importance of relations with "Central and Southeast European and Scandinavian states," as well as Moldova and Belarus, but for whatever reason doesn't mention Western Europe at all (though of course the EU and NATO as organizations are prominently featured). There is a whole paragraph on Latin America and the Caribbean, but no mention of France, Germany, the UK? No doubt the Western European reluctance to admit Georgia into NATO is the major factor there.
Baku experienced a suicide-attempt drama yesterday in a downtown seaside park that highlighted an unusual approach to mental health issues.
Twenty-eight-year-old Parviz Mikailov had climbed a parachute tower and informed onlookers of his intention to jump to his death. Soon enough, the police, an emergency medical team, a psychiatrist and Mikailov's relatives arrived on the scene. Some young people posted a “Love Life!” poster in the window of a nearby building.
Eventually (after Mikailov had slit his wrists), the psychiatrist talked the young man out of jumping and convinced him to come down.
It would have been a typical suicide-attempt situation, if not for the court verdict that followed. Mikailov was not committed to a hospital; rather, he was charged with hooliganism and sent to prison for two months.
Apparently, it did not cross the Baku judge’s mind that a man who first tried to skydive to his death and then cut his wrists might need psychiatric counseling. Instead, the court focused on the breach of public peace.
The World Health Organization has reported that Azerbaijan has neither a state policy for mental health, nor a body to execute it. But the country does have strict rules against disturbing public order.
Where is war most likely to break out in 2012? Between Georgia and Russia? Armenia and Azerbaijan? Tajikistan and Uzbekistan (or Tajikistan and itself)? News is thin this week between (non-Orthodox) Christmas and New Year's, so analysts and pundits are coming out with their predictions for 2012, and a lot of them touch on the possibility for conflict in the Caucasus and Central Asia.
The International Crisis Group's Louise Arbour, writing in Foreign Policy, lists Central Asia as one of "Next Year's Wars":
Tajikistan, for example, now faces a growing security threat from both local and external insurgencies, something it has almost zero capacity to contain. Adding to the country's woes, relations with neighboring Uzbekistan are at an all-time low, with their long-running water dispute no closer to resolution and occasionally deadly border incidents threatening to spark deeper violence.
She also mentions the U.S.'s tight relationship with Uzbekistan (though it's not clear how that would spark a war next year) and the regional divide in Kyrgyzstan.
And on the Caspian Intelligence blog, Alex Jackson is making guarded predictions for 2012 for the Caucasus. In Georgia, he says there is a greater risk of violence as next year's elections approach:
Azerbaijan and Russia are wrapping up three days of negotiations in Baku on the new terms of the Gabala radar station that the Russian military operates in Azerbaijan. The talks were led by Azerbaijani Defense Minister Safar Abiyev and Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov, and they don't seem to have come yet to any agreement on the use of the radar, whose current lease expires in December 2012.
Azerbaijan is asking for a higher rent -- increasing from $7 million a year to $100 million, according to an Azerbaijani member of the parliamentary defense committee, as well as more local employment and more mitigation of the station's environmental effects. Russia, in turn, is reportedly proposing to build a new station (the current one was built in 1985) that would have a much smaller footprint, and to keep the current rent (which according to most sources is actually $10 million a year). From Nezavisimaya Gazeta (in Russian):
Meanwhile, on the eve of the start of the Baku round of negotiations, an unexpected statement was made by Vladimir Savchenko, general director of the Academician Mintz Radio Engineering Institute, who reported that Russia plans to complete construction of the latest radar, "Voronezh-VP" in Gabala (Azerbaijan) in 2019 . This station will replace the previous generation Daryal radars.
"The Voronezh-VP is a high-technology station that can be prefabricated. With regard to timing, the plan is to complete it by 2017-2019, but it all depends on the goodwill of our esteemed neighbors. The final agreement will be secured on a political level," Savchenko said....
That seems unlikely, but it's a possibility that some Russian analysts have been discussing lately, as discussions between Turkmenistan and its would-be European partners over the pipeline have advanced.
For example, in an article in Nezavisimaya Gazeta and translated in Itar-Tass:
The building of TCP will mean de-facto the recognition of the division of the Caspian Sea into sectors. This is absolutely unacceptable for Russia, and it will have to take action, similar to the operation for the compelling of Georgia to peace. “This time it will have to compel Ashkhabad and Baku to observe international law, probably, with the help of air strikes, if they do not understand any other language. Remembering what NATO did in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, Russia has no barriers, moral or legal ones, for the use of force in the Caspian Sea,” [Mikheil] Alexandrov [of the Institute of CIS Countries] believes.
And News.Az interviewed Konstantin Simonov, director general of the Russian National Energy Security Fund:
Many people call me a hawk, but I do not deny that this is a matter of prestige of the state – whether Russia is ready to tolerate such an outright move of disrespect. If Russia’s allows to treat itself in a way Tajikistan did a couple of days ago trying the crew of the Russian aircraft, the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline will become possible.
But what we see today is that Turkmenistan, despite the support from Washington and Brussels, is not ready to risk yet. I am very doubtful that Russia will tolerate it. Moreover, the reaction can be very hard up to some sort of military conflict in the Caspian Sea.
Is Turkmenistan ready for this? I have great doubts in this regard.
Azerbaijan seems to be looking seriously at rejuvenating its air force with Chinese-Pakistani fighter jets, the state news agency APA reports. They cite a source from the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex, one of the builders of the aircraft, at the big Dubai air show:
Members of the Azerbaijani delegation watched the JF-17's demonstration flights at the airshow, the PAC officials said.
They said that several rounds of discussions had been held with the Azerbaijani side, but that talks had yet to reach the purchase and sale stage. They said that the initial size of the order had been determined, however. PAC is meeting orders from Pakistan’s Air Forces at present and would be able to meet an Azerbaijani order in the next few years.
This is not news, exactly; Azerbaijan has been talking about this for at least four years. To quote from a news story then:
In the spring of 2007, at the international military exhibition IDEAS in Dubai, the Azerbaijani side became interested in the multi-functional JF-17 fighter developed and produced jointly by China and Pakistan, as well as small-bore weapons and tanks made in Pakistan...
In 2009, APA was reporting it as more or less a done deal.
The saga of the mysterious drone shot down over Nagorno-Karabakh keeps getting more and more intriguing. You'll recall that the Armenian de facto authorities of Karabakh released photos of the downed UAV and claimed that the drone was from Azerbaijan. Makes sense: Azerbaijan operates drone similar to the one shown in photos, with which they try to surveil the area of the line of contact between them and the Armenians. Azerbaijan's state news agency countered with another theory: that the drone was actually Israel's. That was last month, and the story has gone cold since then.
But now, an Israeli website, DEBKAfile, has a new scoop/conspiracy theory: it was Russia! Their take:
Western sources believe Moscow had the Azerbaijani drone shot down as a one-off incident for four objectives:
1. A hands-off road sign to Israel to stay out of the Caspian Sea region and its conflicts. Moscow has taken note of Israel's deepening economic and military footholds in four countries: Azerbaijan, which is the largest, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Georgia, and regards its supply of arms to these countries as unwanted interference in Russia's backyard.
2. Revenge for Israel reneging on its 2009 commitment to build a drone factory in Russia. Moscow decided to confront Israeli drone technicians with Russian antiaircraft crews with an unwinnable ambush.
3. Moscow was also telling Tehran that it was serious about cooperating with Iran to safeguard its rights in the Caspian Sea and willing to use diplomatic, military and intelligence means to halt the spread of Azerbaijani and Israeli influence in the region.
The strange case of the Armenian-Moldovan-Libyan-Latvian arms deal has reached a sort of conclusion: Moldova's ambassador to Baku has apologized for the deal, reports News.az:
'Those responsible for arms sale have been called to the Security Committee of Moldova and commission for security issues of the parliament and brought to responsibility. Though no sanctions have been applied in Moldova related to arms sales to any country, it was politically incorrect to sell arms to Armenia. We will try not to tolerate such cases anymore', the ambassador said.
That's some pretty serious groveling. At least from the official Azerbaijani perspective, relations between them and Moldova are not all that strong, with just $1 million in trade: "The products imported into Moldova from Azerbaijan were natural juice and medicines." They do have a common cause as countries with territories occupied by another country. But there is likely some nuance to Moldovan-Azerbaijan relations I'm missing, that would explain why it is so "politically incorrect" to sell arms to their neighbor. Anyone with the answer, let me know.