Azerbaijan is seriously preparing for war with Armenia over the disputed region of Nagorny Karabakh, the country's defence minister told international peace mediators in Baku on Friday.
"Azerbaijan is seriously preparing to liberate its territories," Safar Abiyev said in comments published by the ministry's press service.
It's hard to know how seriously to take these sorts of statements; the phrase "bellicose rhetoric from Baku" is by now a firmly entrenched cliche of Caucasus journalism. Still, that statement sounds, to my ears, more blunt than normal.
One of the most interesting parts of the recent International Crisis Group report (pdf), was its speculation about what would happen in a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Karabakh. It concluded that, while Azerbaijan has an obvious advantage in military spending, a variety of other factors could give Armenia an edge:
Former President Ter-Petrossian, was careful not to present the 1990s war as a conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, in order to emphasise the battlefield role of Nagorno-Karabakh forces and to downplay the Armenian army’s involvement. The present Armenian leadership makes no such pretence. A premeditated resumption of hostilities by Armenian forces is not likely, but cannot be ruled out, as Yerevan commentators and some military officials, notably in Nagorno-Karabakh, warn of a “preventive war” if the entity comes under imminent threat.
What happens when the flagpole proudly displaying the world's largest flag gets the wobbles? This is a case for the Azerbaijani Ministry for Emergency Situations.
Azerbaijan's 35-by-70-meter national flag, flying atop a 162-meter flagpole, has had its ups and downs -- quite literally -- since it made its debut last May as the world's largest flag. In September 2010, it was taken down after a powerful Baku gale tore it apart -- twice.
With Karabakh’s status in abeyance, the airport in the capital, Stepanakert, is unlikely to have an international arrivals section. All flights will be bound for Armenia, the territory's ethnic kin and sovereign best friend.
Karabakh's de facto aviation officials expect the daily Stepanakert-Yerevan flights on Air Artsakh (Artsakh is the name widely used by Armenians for Nagorno Karabakh) to begin in May. A round-trip ticket on the airline's three 50-seat CRJ200 jets is expected to cost from $50 to $60, Regnum reported.
How Karabakh plans to deal with the International Civil Aviation Organization, which assigns the airport codes used in flight plans, is an unknown. Karabakh is recognized officially as part of Azerbaijan; under ICAO rules, therefore, it presumably would be up to Baku to request that the Stepanakert airport gets an international code.
When Azerbaijan passed a law last year that would, for the first time, allow foreign military bases on its soil, the leading candidates seemed to be Russia, Turkey and the U.S. And even those seemed unlikely, given little obvious reason any of them would want a base in Azerbaijan.
But now, perhaps, a dark horse may be interested in setting up camp in Azerbaijan: Canada. Since 2001, Canada has maintained a forward logistics operation in Dubai, called Camp Mirage, for its forces in Afghanistan. But the Canadians were forced out of Camp Mirage late last year after refusing to submit to demands by the UAE government to give additional landing rights for UAE airlines in Canada. Canadian officials complained that "Canada was essentially being used as a pawn in heavy-handed blackmail."
But one military analyst says that Canada should instead consider Baku as "the most suitable regional location for us to establish our next logistic staging area." His argument is largely a process of elimination, noting the precarious positions of Germany and the U.S. in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, respectively. By contrast:
Human Rights Watch has taken a look at the human rights situation in the South Caucasus and is not impressed by what it found. Army brutality in Armenia, IDP evictions in Georgia and roughshod treatment of media in Azerbaijan make for some bleak paragraphs in the watchdog’s 2011 world report.
Nor is a largely indifferent international community doing much to make matters better worldwide, the group said. While key Western powers such as the EU and the US can have an influence on human rights problem areas, the New York-based organization charged that they are instead settling for a “Façade of Action.”
[Human Rights Watch receives financing from the Open Society Foundations. EurasiaNet.org is financed by the Open Society Institute, a separate part of the Open Society Foundations network.]
In considering the long-term prospects for a new war in Nagorno Karabakh, the key factor is of course Azerbaijan's growing wealth, especially relative to Armenia's stangnancy. But that could lead to two opposing results: either Azerbaijan would not want to risk damaging its vibrant economy by starting a war, or its oil-funded military will be so much stronger than Armenia's that trying to retake Karabakh would be inevitable.
Azerbaijan scholar and consultant Svante Cornell has written a new book on the country, Azerbaijan Since Independence, which he introduced at an event yesterday in DC. And the part that was most interesting to me was that he came down very much on the side of war being inevitable.
His argument: that while an Azerbaijan invasion of Karabakh would elicit international condemnation, it would probably be short-lived and not amount to much, comparable to what happened with Croatia when it ethnically cleansed the Serb-dominated eastern part of the country in the 1990s. (UPDATE: I should have mentioned originally, this assumes that the invasion would be quick; if not, a protracted conflict would cause a lot of foreign companies to not be interested in operating there.)(SECOND UPDATE: Cornell writes to clarify that the above are not his personal views, but those of "parts of the Azerbaijani leadership." That was clear in his talk, in my writing I just unfortunately conflated his views and the ones he was reporting. My apologies.)
In addition, Azerbaijan, as the party unhappy with the status quo, always has an interest in keeping the situation at high tension. And that raises the risk of an accidental escalation of a small incident into a full-scale war.
Azerbaijan is moving forward with a curious social experiment. The government may soon order most of its citizens to change their last names and to pick first names for their children from a government-compiled list. The project, first announced last year, is meant to erase the influence of Azerbaijan’s erstwhile overseer, Russia, and to help Azerbaijan go back to its national roots.
Parliament is expected soon to discuss a bill that would replace Russian last name endings such as “-ov/-ova” with Azeri-style endings such as “-lie,” “-oglu,” “-gil,” or “-soy.” Upwards of 80 percent of Azerbaijani last names end with “-ov/-ova," “-ev/eva," according to the National Academy of Sciences.
Nizami Jafarov, head of the parliamentary committee on cultural affairs, told Zerkalo newspaper that ethnic minorities would be exempt from this requirement. Jafarov said that those who do not wish to change their last names will have to take their case to court.
The bill also proposes to impose limits on the first names that can be given to babies. Names from aggressor countries, ergo Armenia, will be outright banned, while Azerbaijani parents will be advised against giving their children names that sound funny in foreign languages.
One key question, though, appears to remain unanswered -- whether or not Azerbaijan's president, Ilham Aliyev, plans to set the example for change himself.
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.”