U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits Turkey on Friday, and some reports suggest that the Turkish government is prepared to agree to host a NATO missile defense system there. Turkey, you'll recall, wanted to impose several conditions on the system's deployment in Turkey, mainly that it not explicitly target Iran and that information from the system not be shared with Israel.
It's not clear that any of those issues have been resolved, but a couple of U.S. senators have called on the administration to consider using the South Caucasus, instead. Senior U.S. missile defense officials, the senator wrote, have said that "a forward-deployed X-Band radar in either Georgia or Armenia would have significant advantages for the missile defense of the United States," according to a letter (pdf) obtained by ForeignPolicy.com blogger Josh Rogin. (Presumably the reference to Armenia is a mistake and they mean Azerbaijan, which gives a sense of how attuned to the regional dynamics the senators are.)
If this sounds familiar, it's because the same senators said the same thing in February -- though then they were accompanied by two additional senators. It's not clear why those senators dropped out of this campaign, but it could be because the whole idea makes little sense. As Daniel Larison writes:
Azerbaijan may have canceled joint military exercises with the U.S. two years in a row, but security cooperation between the two countries is still on track, says U.S. ambassador to Baku Matthew Bryza. A senior Pentagon official visited Baku last week and among the agreements made was to take part in two new sets of military exercises later this year, Bryza said in an interview with Trend:
Last Friday's bilateral security dialog was very positive and achieved several concrete results, said Bryza.
"One is that we are going to accelerate our cooperation to help Azerbaijan protect its critical energy infrastructure. Two - move ahead with some military exercises and cooperative programs including one that will take place in Romania in August, one other one will be in Germany involving a hundred and more Azerbaijani solders with the NATO partners," said the ambassador.
Bryza acknowledged that U.S.-Azerbaijani relations haven't been the best for the last couple of years, the period in which Baku twice, without much explanation, canceled the bilateral military exercises that were supposed to take place in Azerbaijan.
"We did go through a difficult period for several months but I strongly feel that we not only have come out of the negative trend but we've built on an already existing strong foundation and we are moving forward," he said.
There aren't too many details about the new exercises planned for Romania and Germany. I asked Adil Baguirov, managing director of the U.S. Azeris Network, for his take. He says exercises held outside the country are less susceptible to Russian or Iranian pressure:
This post was amended on 6/30/11; the report does not cover the May 26, 2011 clash between police and protesters in Tbilisi.
In keeping with a persistent trend, the state of democracy in the South Caucasus ranges from so-so (Georgia) to bad (Armenia) to really bad (Azerbaijan), according to the recently released "Nations in Transit," an annual democracy health test for the former Soviet Union, Central and Eastern Europe, prepared by the Washington, DC-based Freedom House.
First case: Azerbaijan. The country was diagnosed with a “Consolidated Authoritarian Regime,” a chronic and “severe disregard of basic freedoms” and of “due democratic process.” The richest in resources and the poorest in democracy of the three South Caucasus countries, energy-rich Azerbaijan saw its 2011 score slip by a seventh of a point to 6.46, a notch above the absolute-failure score of 7.
Last year’s parliamentary vote, widely seen as a state-managed show to lend a whiff of legitimacy to Azerbaijan's ruling Aliyev dynasty, contributed to the decline. The report holds that the ruling elite continues to bathe in the country’s natural resources -- oil and gas -- and allows no leeway for opposition, media or civil oversight; in effect, leaving Azerbaijan vulnerable to the same pressures that led to the Arab uprisings.
Azerbaijan celebrated its Armed Forces Day on Sunday with a big military parade in Baku and the first display of the country's new, Russian-supplied S-300 air defense system, the existence of which had been the source of some skepticism.
The parade featured 6,000 soldiers and a variety of hardware (you can see a video below). Azerbaijan's president, Ilham Aliyev, also gave a speech in which he boasted about Azerbaijan's military prowess and vowed to retake the disputed province of Nagorno Karabakh, now controlled by Armenians.
A few weeks ago there was some back and forth between Armenians and Azerbaijanis about whether Russia would come to Armenia's defense in the case of a war over Nagorno Karabakh. Well, now a top Russian general has weighed in, and he sounds pretty certain that Russia would get involved. General Andrei Tretyak, the Chief of the Main Operations Directorate of the Defense Ministry, discussed the Russian military's future plans with some analysts, and this is from Dmitry Gorenburg's account:
In a discussion on the situation in Karabakh, General Tretyak agreed with a participant’s assessment that the possibility of conflict in that region is high, but argued that it is gradually decreasing as a result of Russian efforts to reduce tension in the region. He disagreed with the suggestion that Russia’s relationship with Armenia is eroding and made clear that Russia will carry out its promises to that country. No one should see Russia’s refusal to intervene in Kyrgyzstan last summer as a precedent for Karabakh, as that was a very different situation.
Hmm, that can't make too many folks in Baku feel too confident. Tretyak also weighed in on Central Asia, and suggested that the Collective Security Treaty Organization could help fill the security vacuum that will be created by the U.S. leaving Afghanistan. And he seems to acknowledge that the CSTO kind of dropped the ball on Kyrgyzstan last year, when it did nothing to stop the pogroms that took place there in what many saw as the first big test of the collective security group:
He also felt that what he saw as the inevitable US withdrawal from the region will have a negative effect on stability.
Would the Collective Security Treaty Organization come to Armenia's aid in the event of a war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno Karabakh? It's a question that has been the matter of speculation for some time. And last week Armenia's defense minister said yes, the CSTO would support Armenia. Via AFP:
“Given Armenia’s membership in the CSTO, we can count on an appropriate response and the support of our allies in the organization, who have specific responsibilities to each other and the ability to react adequately to potential aggression,” Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian told a security conference in Yerevan.
Of course, what "an appropriate response" entails could be very much up to interpretation. And much depends on whether the war would involve only Karabakh -- which is de jure part of Azerbaijan -- or Armenia. If the former, the CSTO would be less likely to get involved, since it wouldn't involve an attack on a member nation. In a piece called "Kazakhstan dashes Armenia's collective security hopes," News.az quotes a couple of Kazakh security experts saying making that point:
“If a military conflict began in Nagorno-Karabakh, this would not be an attack by Azerbaijan on Armenia”, [Murat] Laumulin [senior fellow at the Kazakh president's Strategic Research Institute] said. "This issue is Azerbaijan’s internal affair, because Nagorno-Karabakh is a part of Azerbaijan’s administrative territory....”
The director for analysis and consulting at Kazakhstan’s Institute of Political Solutions, Rustam Burnashev, shares Laumulin's view.
He said that the Nagorno Karabakh conflict was an internal Azerbaijani affair: “What's most important is how much Armenia itself would raise this issue and how much Azerbaijan would bring it before the international community."
Russian and Azerbaijani officials are meeting soon to discuss terms of Russia's use of the Gabala radar station after the current contract expires next year. And Azerbaijan is signaling that it intends to up its demands from Moscow. News.az quotes an unnamed military source:
“Azerbaijan wants to prepare the new contract. Baku has got a number of proposals concerning it,” said the source and added that the proposals include increase of the lease payment, extra assistance of Russia for eliminating the ecological impacts of the radar, increase of the number of Azerbaijanis in the staff of the radar station, joint use of the radar, non-passage of information to the third state without the consent of Baku etc.
News.az also interviews a military analyst and former top air defense officer, Vladimir Timoshenko, who says that if Russia doesn't want it any longer (a possibility, since it has set up a newer radar in Armavir, in the North Caucasus), it will probably be dismantled:
[I]t is profitable to earn a lot of money for lease of the facility.... So we are interested in extending the contract. If, however, Russia says that the station is no longer needed, the radar will be dismantled for scrap, because we do not need it.
Timoshenko also raises the possibility (but then dismisses it) that even if Russia didn't need it, it might continue to lease it just so that the U.S. doesn't have the chance to use it:
Hold on tight, Georgia and Armenia, it's time to run scared: Now that two Azerbaijani performers have triumphed at Eurovision, the continent’s annual pop mega-extravaganza will be headed next year to your next-door neighbor, Azerbaijan, leaving a trail of glamor and camp in its wake.
Singers Nigar "Nikki" Jamal and Eldar "Ell" Gasimov, who got the Euro-pop crown for their “Running Scared” love ballad, received a hero’s welcome at home and, as a bonus, a personal audience with President Ilham Aliyev and his wife, Mehriban Aliyeva.
It is no small feat to win the world’s glitziest pop contest, in which voting often tends to reflect Europe’s political fault lines. But despite the winners' expressed desire "to bring Europe together," those fault lines are not likely to disappear when the show comes to Baku next year.
On the foreign policy front, there's neighboring Armenia, a hardcore Eurovision enthusiast and former contest finalist, that's already debating whether or not to participate in an event hosted by its archenemy, Azerbaijan.(One MP, disappointed by this year's loss, has even proposed a parliamentary debate about how Armenia's Eurovision candidates are chosen.)
Heydar Aliyev, the former president of Azerbaijan, would have turned 88 years old on May 10. So naturally, the government pulled out all the stops. Like last year, thousands of flowers from 50 countries literally covered the park between the Heydar Aliyev Palace and the statue of Heydar Aliyev as two hot air balloons were inflated in front of the giant flower mosaic of Heydar Aliyev (pictured here), ensuring that his unmistakable Kremlin-Mona-Lisa smile would soar above the city already covered by his portraits.
Vladic Ravich is a freelance photojournalist based in Turkey.
Is the demilitarization of the Caspian Sea still a viable possibility? Representatives of the five Caspian littoral states (Azerbaijan, Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Iran) just finished meeting in Baku, and their statements to the press afterwards suggested that all was peace and harmony on the sea. Via Contact.az:
The question of military activity is an important element of the legal status of the Caspian Sea, said [Azerbaijan's] Deputy Foreign Minister Khalaf Khalafov. "The work in this direction is going on. There are different approaches. There is an idea of demilitarization. There is an idea of regulating the activity of armed forces. Of course, we have not come yet to a common opinion," Khalafov said on April 27.
The Russian representative at the talks, Alexander Golovin, agreed:
[Golovin] stressed that "all the littoral states agree that the Caspian should be a sea of peace and friendship." "And accordingly, none of the littoral states is going to start up the arms race, or compete in the military sphere with each other," Golovin said. This is not the field of activity on which the littoral states must spend their efforts, he said.
So they say. But actions speak louder than words, and here are a few of the recent developments on the sea: