Azerbaijan this week had a visitor from the past. Enter Ayaz Mütalibov, who ran Azerbaijan when the country violently tore away from the Soviet Union, and during the early years of its confrontation with Armenia over the breakaway region of Nagorno Karabakh.
Although facing criminal charges in Azerbaijan, Mütalibov, the country's first post-Soviet president and last Soviet boss, was allowed home to Baku from his low-profile 19-year exile in Moscow to attend the funeral of his elder son. Mütalibov is accused of facilitating the brutal 1990 crackdown on a pro-independence rally in Baku, failing to prevent the 1992 massacre of Azerbaijanis by ethnic Armenians in the town of Khojaly and plotting to overthrow the late President Heydar Aliyev.
In a fresh illustration of how a family matter can take precedence over laws or old feuds in the Caucasus, Heydar Aliyev's son, the current President Ilham Aliyev, suspended the prosecution of 73-year-old Mütalibov for the occasion.
“Mister President, following the principles of statesmanship and also [the] national traditions of our people, gave his consent to [the] return of Mütalibov because of the severe illness of his son,” a presidential administration representative was quoted as saying by Kavkazsky Uzel news service. The charges against Mütalibov will remain in force, however.
Tajikistan has gone on a but of a small-arms buying spree, and Ukraine has been selling lots of weapons to both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Those are some of the early returns from the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms, to which countries are supposed to report all the weapons imports and exports they have engaged in over the previous year. The 2010 register has been published. Most of the big transfers -- of aircraft or ships, for example -- tend to make the news before this comes out, but lesser deals, like small arms, don't.
Tajikistan hasn't bought much over the last decade, but in 2010 it bought a number of small arms from Serbia and Bulgaria. According to the register, Tajikistan's purchases from Bulgaria:
Recently Azerbaijan again began a serious push to get the US provide it with "defense weapons," in particular, air defense and anti-tank systems.
“Azeri lobbyists and their allies in the US capital received a new assignment from Baku – target getting American weapons for Azerbaijan”, the source said.
“Several years ago, this issue almost defined the US-Azeri relationship, but back then, Baku stepped down after understanding that they couldn’t afford American weaponry on their own”, one of Azerbaijan’s former lobbyists told TURAN’s correspondent, adding, now, Azeri supporters in Washington are arguing that the oil-reach country doesn’t need the US to give them the weapons as aid, they can buy the weaponry.
The article goes on to point out that there is little reason to believe the U.S. would accede to this. Perhaps most of all, it would be against the law, in particular the "Section 907" rules that forbid Azerbaijan from buying weapons from the U.S. And there are several powerful pro-Armenian members of Congress who would make it very difficult to get around that.
Some Wikileaked cables from 2009 reported that Azerbaijan's president, Ilham Aliyev, personally brought up the idea of getting the U.S. to allow weapons sales. But if the lobbyists in the U.S. are now working on this, that would suggest that this is serious.
I asked Adil Baigurov of the U.S. Azeris Network, an Azeri-American advocacy group, what he thought of the report. He said he didn't know if Azerbaijan really was pushing to get U.S. weapons, but that if it were, that would be a good idea:
Satellite photos of air defense systems in Nagorno Karabakh.
Militaries in the former USSR are among the most secretive in the world, but our new information age is creating some opportunities to peek behind the curtain a bit. One of my favorite examples is the open-source military analysis by the folks at IMINT & Analysis, who pore over Google Earth satellite imagery of air defense systems and try to come to some conclusions. In the most recent issue of their newsletter (subscription only, but free, viewable as a Google Doc here) they look at Azerbaijan's systems, and the news isn't good for Armenia. After looking at the various systems Azerbaijan has, they conclude:
This well organised overlapping [air defense] system will deny Armenia any chance of sorties within Azerbaijan’s territory along the Nagorno Karabagh border. Its air force will cover the gaps for the protection for the rest of the nation if Armenia takes desperate measures to inflict extra losses. For the time being Armenia’s limited air arm provides no real threat for any strikes within Azeri territory, the only threat being the R-17 [Scud missiles].
The Scud missiles could be used in an attack on Baku's oil infrastructure, the analysis continues:
Russia's defense minister, Anatoly Serdyukov, is visiting Baku today and met with his Azerbaijani counterpart, as well as Azerbaijan's president Ilham Aliyev, to discuss the future of the Gabala radar station in the country. Russia has operated the station, part of its missile attack warning system, since 1985. The current lease expires at the end of 2012, and Azerbaijan has indicated it wants a certain number of conditions from Russia, including a raise in the rent Moscow pays, plus more mitigation of environmental damage caused by the station and more employment for Azerbaijanis at the station.
Serdyukov arrived in Baku promising unspecified "modernization" of the station:
"We have developed our proposals on the Gabala RS," Serdyukov said. Moreover, we have expanded them and offered to upgrade the Gabala RS. We have certain plans to modernize it."
A working group will be soon established and dispatched to Baku for a two-week visit to consider all technical issues, he added.
After those two weeks, starting August 15, Serdyukov said minister-level negotiations over the new lease can start. If nothing else, this suggests that the idea -- discussed just a few months ago -- that the U.S. and Russia might jointly use the station is pretty much dead.
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.