Azerbaijan's policeman-in-chief has evaluated the March 11 protest and reached a conclusion: the reason why an Egypt-style revolution did not happen is because most young Azerbaijanis love and cherish their president, Ilham Aliyev.
The president, it seems, was not distracted by young protesters’ calls for more democracy and less corruption; apparently, he was focused on tackling what his supporters might term more serious problems, such as rising egg prices.
Those supporters might concede that, yes, there were a few impressionable young minds who were led astray and encouraged by “certain forces” (a regional euphemism for the opposition and/or general forces of evil) to challenge the rule of the egg-cartel-battling president.
“The radical opposition and its leaders, unchanging as set decorations, are willing even to make a pact with the devil” to get more power and justify their “formal presence” on the political stage, charged the Interior Ministry.
But Usubov might well assert that Azerbaijan's police have the best interests of any "wayward" young activists -- and other government critics-- in mind.
The U.S. is planning to help Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan develop their navies, emphasizing the increasing importance of Caspian Sea security and the possibility of the sea's militarization, with all five bordering countries (including Iran and Russia) planning to build up their strength in the oil- and gas-rich sea.
In a just-released 875-page document (pdf), the State Department (which administers military aid, not the Pentagon) gives more information about what it plans to spend its money on. As previously reported, the Obama administration is proposing to cut its military aid to the Caucasus and Central Asia by about 8 percent, from $36.7 million in last year's request to $34 million this year. More than half that aid, $18 million, is earmarked for Georgia. But in the initial announcement, there wasn't much explanation for where the money is going. ($34 million, after all, is a drop in the $47 billion ocean of the total proposed State Department budget.)
Reading through the plans for military aid in the region, the most intriguing thing is that there is a clear emphasis on aid for the navies of the countries that border the Caspian. Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are all planning on building navies more or less from scratch, rich with oil money and anxious to protect their investments (and flex their muscles). The U.S. has helped these countries with their naval capabilities in the past, with the ill-fated Caspian Guard program and by donating some leftover patrol boats to the three countries. But that was before any of these countries got serious themselves about their navies, and was a bit ad hoc. It's hard to tell how serious the new plans are, and of course the amounts of money are still pretty small, but it does seem to be a concerted effort to build naval capacity in the Caspian.
Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, has been taking a British tabloid beating over the controversial links he has cultivated in his role as a trade envoy. Touring the world for years drumming up business for the United Kingdom with assorted dictators and despots, the underemployed prince seems to roll with a motley crew, including some movers and shakers in Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan.
Earlier this week Andrew managed to cling on to his envoy role despite his links to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. This furor seems not to have bothered the “Prince of Sleaze,” as he’s come to be known. Even as his position was under intense scrutiny on March 7, he was lobbying a member of Britain's parliament to promote business links with Azerbaijan, a country he has visited on numerous occasions. He is said to be a frequent dinner guest of President Ilham Aliyev.
A March 11 rally against Azerbaijan's government, heavily promoted on Facebook, may or may not prove a real "day of rage," but Azerbaijani police are not taking any chances. Nor is Azerbaijan's chief psychiatrist, who would most likely advise the country's Facebook activists to visit their doctors for treatment of "mental problems."
Chief psychiatrist Garay Geraybeyli on March 7 appeared to use a Soviet-era tactic for quashing dissent by implying that individuals who frequent Facebook and other social networks are mentally unbalanced.
In an interview with the pro-government news agency Trend, Geraybeyli asserted that "People who prefer virtual relations have problems with real-life conversation. They do not have a sufficient vocabulary. They have problems with their speech . . . The result is mental problems."
That evaluation, however, has not stopped police with their cyber-crackdown.
Sakhavan Soltani, a member of the youth wing of the opposition Musavat Party, was hauled in for questioning on March 8. The day before, another anti-government activist, Rashadat Akhundov, was taken into custody. Earlier on, two other activists, involved in organizing the same Facebook "day of rage, " were handed prison sentences.
The Armenia-Azerbaijan military balance is getting a lot of scrutiny these days, and Jane's Intelligence Review has just published a good reported analysis (subscription required) by Emil Sanamyan that has a lot of interesting points. Among them:
-- "Upon closer inspection, Azerbaijan's purported 'military budget' incorporates not just the paramilitary forces outside the Ministry of Defence but also state prosecutors and even courts, with an apparent intention to inflate the overall figure for propaganda effect."
-- "The combined Armenian and Nagorno-Karabakh defence army total is estimated by Jane's to be around 300 T-72s, considerably larger than the 110 officially declared by Yerevan. Azerbaijan is thought to maintain around 350 to 400 T-72s... Baku has declared only 217 tanks, although it it likely that this figure was designed to appear under the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty ceiling of 220."
-- "[F]or now it is the Azerbaijani UAV capability that provides the most immediate potential for escalation. Armenian defence officials have confirmed that Azerbaijan has begun flying its UAVs close to the Line of Contact that separates the two sides, with several such flights reported since 2008. In mid-2010, two Armenian Su-25s were dispatched to try to intercept these UAV flights."
-- "Armenian officials also claim that Armenia has begun to domestically produce UAVs and that more than a dozen have already entered service, with the aim of co-ordinating artillery fire. These have yet to be seen publicly."
In what appears to be Azerbaijan's second Facebook-related imprisonment in less than a month, a court in the city of Ganja on March 4 sentenced youth activist Bakhtiyar Hajiyev to one month in prison. Details about the charges against Hajiyev were not immediately clear.
Twenty-nine-year-old Hajiev, a former parliamentary candidate, is one of the organizers of a youth demonstration against the government planned for March 11. Police in Ganja summoned him twice on March 4 to question him about statements he had posted on Facebook, another youth activist told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Azerbaijani service.
“We learned from the developments in the Arab world that when people
demand freedom, they achieve it. We call on you to stand on the right
side of history, not to resort to force against your own citizens, to
build a fair, happy, and free society in Azerbaijan together with
ordinary people," reads one of those statements, directed to police.
Hajiyev's prison sentence follows a February 17 ruling by a Sumgayit court that put opposition youth activist Jabbar Savanly, another active Facebook user, in prison for one month, pending trial for alleged marijuana possession.
Meanwhile, other anti-Facebook tactics have also emerged. In an apparent attempt at guilt by association, news website Qaynar.info, seen as pro-government, this week posted a list of Azerbaijanis (including EurasiaNet.org contributor Khadija Ismayilova) who have Armenian friends on Facebook.
With the Middle East in their sights, media and policy wonks are now placing wagers on what regime in what faraway place will fall next. Many seem to bet on the former Soviet Union.
Making such predictions is a fool’s game, but in the South Caucasus many politicians and analysts argue that the region's economic hardships and limited civil liberties make for the necessary ingredients for a Middle East-style revolution cocktail.
Aliyev's administration so far has not deigned to respond to these calls; Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan has brushed off similar demands.
Calls for change have been no less frequent in Georgia. But, given the 2003 Rose Revolution, how the Georgian government chooses to respond could provide greater insight into the country's political psychology.
Ever ready to move with the times, the Georgian government appears to be attempting to capitalize on its revolution experience to promote an image abroad as a democratic hipster.
Azerbaijan has signed a deal to buy 24 Mi-35M helicopters from Russia, giving Baku a huge boost in its attack helicopter fleet. News.az reports:
Russian company Rostvertol signed a deal in September-October 2010 to sell 24 Mi-35M attack helicopters to Azerbaijan, Rostvertol General Director Boris Slyusar said yesterday.
The agreement came to light as the general director announced Rostvertol's 2010 trading figures...
The Mi-35M is a multi-purpose attack helicopter, designed to destroy armoured hardware, provide aerial fire support for ground troops, carry paratroopers, evacuate the wounded and transport cargo in its hold and external cradle.
Azerbaijan currently operates 15 Mi-24 attack helicopters, but in addition to more than doubling the fleet the Mi-35Ms are a significant step up from those in capability, with upgraded weapons, engine and night flying capability.
There is no word on how much Azerbaijan is paying, but in 2008 Brazil bought 12 of the same helicopters for $150 million, suggesting that this purchase is somewhere in the $300 million range.
The press from Azerbaijan's neighbor and foe, Armenia, is of course alarmed, as you might expect since that buy is almost equal to Armenia's entire defense budget. One article is titled "Armenia’s strategic ally continues arming Azerbaijan," and another tries to pour cold water on the whole thing:
Azerbaijan has been trying assiduously to get additional U.S. military aid, and U.S. diplomats have considered the idea of providing weapons in exchange for cooperation on the Turkey-Armenia peace process, according to some recently released U.S. diplomatic cables.
The Russian magazine Russian Reporter has published three cables dealing with Azerbaijan, all from 2009, in an article they call "The Azerbaijanian Machiavelli." (To see the cables in English, scroll down to the bottom.)
In one cable, the U.S.'s then-ambassador to Baku Anne Derse describes how Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev asked for various concessions, including weapons sales, that would assuage Baku's concerns over the Ankara-Yerevan talks:
Aliyev asked Ambassador Derse to explore whether any of the following are possible (reftel a): -- Progress on walking back Section 907, -- Defensive military sales, particularly air defense, and -- High-level actions to show commitment to solving NK. Either delivering on one of these items or showing a willingness to have serious dialogue on these requests could be enough to "buy" Azerbaijani silence on Turkey-Armenia.
Some relatively simple possibilities for rejuvenating our bilateral ties in the near term include:
-- A statement from the Administration that supports previous Administrations' positions that 907 unsuitably restricts the President's authority to carry out the foreign relations of the United States, and that the Administration opposes any new conditionality on the President's waiver authority.
Half-stated travel warnings from the US embassy in Azerbaijan are starting to make for a mystery thriller, when a character (in this case, an American) finds himself in a strange town surrounded by people who act as if they are privy to secret knowledge of some imminent danger. Friends lean over and whisper to be careful, others say coming here was not a good idea, the area sheriff maintains that everything is going to be okay, but it is unclear what exactly is wrong.
The US embassy in Baku on February 11 repeated its earlier warning of a potential terrorist attack in Azerbaijan that may target American interests. “The threat remains serious,” the alert reads.
In a move that prompted some speculation that matters are indeed serious, Israel’s embassy closed down on February 14 for alleged “technical reasons." It reopened today. Israel recently advised its citizens to avoid visiting Azerbaijan.
As with alert number one, the US embassy told its citizens to be careful, “particularly in public places associated with the Western community.” The embassy also instructed Americans to maintain “an unpredictable daily schedule” and vary everyday routes of travel.
In a less-than-reassuring statement, Azerbaijan’s Interior Ministry spokesperson Sadig Gezalo observed that no country is insured against terrorism and added that “all diplomatic missions in Azerbaijan and homes of their employees are guarded to ensure safety.”