Just like the rest of us, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili all want to start off 2011 on the right foot. Here’s what the South Caucasus’ three tamadas-in-chief pledged to accomplish (with some paraphrasing) as they raised a toast to the New Year:
* To make more money from oil and gas. While everyone last year was whining about the financial crisis, Azerbaijan's economy (officially) grew by five percent, fueled by 51 million tons of oil and 27 million cubic meters of natural gas.
*To share the wealth. Focus on social programs: schools, pensions, healthcare, that kind of thing.
*To regain control (peacefully) over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh enclave and to prevent it from becoming another Armenian state. One such state -- allegedly also situated on historic Azerbaijani territory -- is bad enough, the presidential thinking appears to go.
*To make more friends among foreign countries and international institutions.
*To plant more trees. Last year, Azerbaijan planted more than 6 million trees – an historic first, said Aliyev.
*To drink more water. Azerbaijan now has the means to bring drinking water to 300,000 rural residents.
Turkey is betting that Central Asia will be a growing market for its weapons manufacturers, with plans to set up an office in either Azerbaijan or Turkmenistan to promote Turkish defense exports, reports Today's Zaman:
Turkey has decided to take yet another step in increasing its defense industry exports by launching three more promotional offices in Europe, Central Asia and the Gulf.
According to information Today’s Zaman received from Defense Ministry sources, Turkey has intensified efforts to that end in the past couple of months. The sources, who wished to remain anonymous, said the country already received an offer from Qatar to establish an office inside the country’s General Staff headquarters, while the remaining two offices will be opened in Belgium and either Azerbaijan or Turkmenistan. The first such office was opened in Washington, D.C., last month and retired Air Marshal Maurice Lee McFann was brought as the head of the office in the US capital.
It's telling that Central Asia is included among the far larger defense markets of Europe, the U.S. and the Middle East, and suggests that Turkey foresees a lot of growth there. Turkey's straight defense exports to the region have thus far been pretty scanty, though it is lately setting up a lot of joint ventures with companies in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Turkmenistan, however, is a curious choice for the site of such an office. The Turkmenistan government doesn't announce much about their military procurement plans, but does Turkey know more than the rest of us?
The Italian newspaper Il Goglio has offered a chest-beating apology to Azerbaijan for running earlier this month a sensationalist piece that alleged "informal meetings" between Azerbaijani First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva and Belorussian President Alexander Lukashenko.
Citing its "imprudence" in using "unconfirmed information" from WikiLeaks, the newspaper now says the story was untrue. “Our sources turned out completely unreliable and, in essence, our article does not deserve attention and is absolutely unreliable in its form and content,” reads an excerpt from the retraction translated by Azerbaijani news outlets. “We hope that the wonderful relations and mutual sympathy and good feelings that exist between the Italian and Azerbaijani people will not suffer for a moment because of our journalistic mistake.”
This post was amended on December 21 to correct a currency conversion.
In Azerbaijan, even Santa Claus doesn't get a free ride. Describing their preparations for the New Year, Baku city officials announced that individuals hoping to work as Ded Moroz ("Grandfather Frost"), the ex-Soviet cousin of Santa Claus, will have to fork over 60 manats (about $75) to the city for the honor. The same applies for Ded Moroz's female sidekick Snegurochka, a snow maiden believed to be Ded’s granddaughter.
So far, the city has short-listed eight candidates out of a total pool of 18 to play Ded Moroz, said Allibas Bagirov, spokesperson for the city trade and services agency responsible for licensing metropolitan Ded Morozs.
Bagirov blamed the ongoing absence of Ded Morozs in Baku not on the licensing fee, but on the Azerbaijani capital's weather -- too warm and sunny, he said.
But the license only allows Ded Morozs or Snegurochkas to offer their services outdoors. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism is licensing most indoor Ded Morozs and Snegurochkas, who will be appearing at various festive functions. A separate permit is needed to “ho-ho-ho” on the seafront promenade, Baku Boulevard.
What is really of national security interest to the U.S. in the Caucasus and Central Asia? One of the latest WikiLeaks cables purports to answer that question, identifying "critical infrastructure and key resources within their host country which, if destroyed, disrupted or exploited, would likely have an immediate and deleterious effect on the United States."
There are surprisingly few such facilities in Eurasia. Unsurprisingly, most of them have to do with oil. Azerbaijan's offshore Sangchal oil and natural gas terminal, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline and the Novorossiysk oil export terminal (which is in Russia but ships oil from Azerbaijan) are all on the list.
In Turkey, in addition to the BTC pipeline, the Bosphorus Straits is listed, and a handful of Turkish industrial machinery makers are on the list as well, including Durma, Baykal and Ermaksan. All seem to be involved in the making of sheet metal, occasioning us to wonder why Turkish sheet metal is so vital to U.S. security. (Any ideas?: email and I'll update the post.)
Another curious inclusion: the Khromtau Ferrochromium Complex, a chromite mine located in western Kazakhstan, near the city of Aqtobe. Kazakhstan is apparently the world's third-largest producer of chromite, which is used in making stainless steel and other alloys. (Chromite mines in South Africa and India, the world's two largest chomite manufacturers, also appear in the cable, so it doesn't seem like there is anything particularly unique about Kazakh chromite.)
Armenia got a dressing-down from the U.S. for selling arms to Iran, Azerbaijan has reservations about embarking on a U.S.-sponsored military "train and equip" program and also would oppose the U.S. fomenting unrest in Iran's ethnic Azeri regions. Those are some of the early revelations, from world of Eurasian security issues, in the first tranche of the latest Wikileaks data dump.
One State Department cable from December 2008 describes how in 2003 Armenia "facilitated Iran's purchase of rockets and machine guns," and those weapons were later found to have been used in an attack in Iraq by Shiite militants that killed one U.S. soldier and wounded six others. According to the cable (via The Guardian):
The direct role of high-level Armenian officials and the link of the weapons to an attack on U.S. forces make this case unique and highly troubling. These transfers may provide a basis for sanctions pursuant to U.S. legal authorities. We propose a series of steps that Armenia will need to take to prevent future transfers, which will be weighed in the consideration of sanctions. We hope to use the threat of sanctions as a tool to generate Armenian responsiveness so that we will not be forced to impose sanctions measures.
The cable also relays a letter from then-Deputy Defense Secretary John Negroponte to Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, threatening sanctions if Armenia doesn't clean up its act:
Notwithstanding the close relationship between our countries, neither the Administration nor the U.S. Congress can overlook this case. By law, the transfer of these weapons requires us to consider whether there is a basis for the imposition of U.S. sanctions. If sanctions are imposed, penalties could include the cutoff of U.S. assistance and certain export restrictions.
So what was behind Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan's decision to skip the NATO summit last weekend in Lisbon? The president's office said it was in protest of the language of the NATO joint communique, which emphasizes the principle of territorial integrity in resolving the conflicts of the South Caucasus, which would favor Azerbaijan's position in the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh.
But that language was the same as in the communique issued after the 2008 NATO summit. So why protest now?
I asked Emil Sanamyan, editor of the Armenian Reporter newspaper, and he pointed out that in May, Sargsyan went to NATO and asked them to follow the OSCE's three principles in Nagorno Karabakh, which include people's right to self-determination as well as territorial integrity and non-use of force. (Self-determination is the principle that favors the Armenian side, since Karabakh's population is Armenian, while nominally it remains part of Azerbaijani territory.) From Sargsyan's press conference at NATO:
During the meeting I also emphasized the need and importance for a balanced approach by NATO to the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh process. I expressed hope that future statements about NATO and documents of NATO on the Nagorno-Karabakh will be in keeping with the ministerial statement of the OSCE issued in December 2009, which evenly represents all three of the key underlying principles.
In light of those remarks, Samanyan suggested several possible motives behind Sargsyan's refusal to go to the summit:
If you take reasons provided at face value it is possible that Armenia from now on will take a tougher line on any perceived endorsement of Azerbaijan's claims on Nagorno Karabakh.
President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan arrives in Lisbon for the NATO summit; his Armenian counterpart stayed home
While most of the headlines from the just-concluded NATO summit in Lisbon have focused on the news that the alliance would remain in Afghanistan through 2014, and probably longer, behind the scenes there was plenty of action on the Eurasia front, as well.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili went to the summit, and got a much-coveted meeting with his U.S. counterpart, Barack Obama, and afterwards he took great pains to emphasize how special and unique the meeting was (via Civil.ge):
“I am very satisfied with this meeting,” Saakashvili told a group of Georgian journalists in Lisbon after meeting with President Obama late on November 19 evening. “As you know this was President Obama’s only meeting here at NATO summit, apart his meetings with [Afghan] President Karzai and with the hosts [referring to Portuguese leaders] – and you know that Afghanistan tops the agenda of this summit; actually he had no other meetings here except of these ones. Of course this is already in itself an important message.”
The White House also notes that Obama met with Turkish President Abdullah Gul. And the Kazakhstan state news agency Kazinform says that its president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, also met with Obama, but no one else, including the White House, seems to be reporting that.
The presidents of Iran, Azerbaijan, Russia, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan gather to talk the Caspian
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is on his way to the NATO summit in Lisbon, amid expectations that the meeting will mark a new era in NATO-Russia relations. But yesterday, at another summit -- in Baku, of the five nations surrounding the Caspian Sea -- he gave a Putinesque, thinly veiled warning about the West sticking its nose in that part of the world:
“If at any moment we relax in our mutual cooperation, there is no doubt that other states will want to interfere with our concerns — states that lack a know-how of or a relationship with the Caspian but whose interest stems from economic interests and political goals” he said.
It's not too hard to figure out what "other states" he might be talking about.
At the summit, the five countries signed a security cooperation agreement, the content of which does not seem to have been reported at all. But an Azerbaijani analyst says Russia's big concern is western military involvement in the Caspian:
Russia stands against any foreign naval forces in the Caspian Sea and is most concerned about NATO naval forces.
(And it probably goes without saying that Iran is even more against such a thing.)
But the overarching issue in the Caspian is how to delineate the waters -- and the oil and gas resources within -- between the five countries. And unsurprisingly, no apparent movement was made on that. The Moscow Times surveyed some analysts on the issue:
Oil and gas wealth may have put Azerbaijan on the map, but UNESCO has decided that the world is also indebted to the Caspian Sea country for its tradition of carpet-weaving.
The ancient craft won a place on the list of world heritages that the world body for culture and science wants to celebrate and preserve. The Intangible Cultural Heritage list differs from UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list by commemorating "intangibles" such as the performing arts, social practices, rituals and festivals, rather than “monuments and collections of objects."
Azerbaijani carpet-weaving, around for millennia, shared pride of place with French cuisine and Turkish oil wrestling. Dancing, singing and even hopping are among the world's other impalpable cultural assets, according to UNESCO.