In a sudden display of lenience, Azerbaijan’s strong-armed leader, President Ilham Aliyev, pardoned 137 inmates, including his critics, in one fell swoop on March 17.
Lawyer and rights defender Rasul Jafarov, prominent democracy advocate Anar Mammadli, several members of the youth movement NIDA and opposition party Musavat are among the prisoners to be freed under the amnesty. International civil liberty watchdogs have long insisted these individuals were persecuted in retribution for their criticism of the government and had pressed for their release.
Earlier on the same day, an Appeals Courts in Baku ordered the release of a controversially arrested journalist, Rauf Mirkadirov. The Appeals Court overturned Mirkadirov’s six-year sentence on charges for spying for Armenia, Azerbaijan neighbor and enemy. Amidst protests from international human-rights advocates, Mirkadirov spent two years in prison.
Late last year, a well-known peace and democracy activist, Leyla Yunus, who, like Mirkadirov, was engaged in civil diplomacy activism with Armenia, was freed from prison because of poor health. Her husband was also freed, but she was not cleared of charges that included spying for Armenia, an accusation seen as preposterous by civil-rights watchdogs.
The Murena amphibious assault ship, due to enter the Caspian Flotilla in 2017. (photo: Almaz Shipbuilding, Khabarovsk)
Russia's plans to introduce a new amphibious assault ship into its Caspian Flotilla has raised questions among just which of its neighbors' shores Russia envisages assaulting.
The new ship will join the Caspian Flotilla next year, according to a report by the Ministry of Defense-run TV Zvezda. The ship is designed to carry marine assault teams, including 140 troops and one tank or two armored personnel carriers, up to a beach.
"There is a valid reason for strengthening the Caspian Flotilla with this vessel," TV Zvezda reported. It quoted military analyst Alexander Mozgovoy: "The region is extremely unstable. There are both our North Caucasus republics, where terrorist groups appear quite often, and also the nearby states."
Russian military blogger Andrey Shipilov picked up the story and wrote a post entitled "Russia prepares for an invasion of the countries of the Caspian." He notes: "The equipment is purely offensive, the only function of which is to seize coastal territories. And just as it is written in the story, it's very necessary on the sea now; the only open question is which state's territory is the target of this necessity?"
Russia's senior defense industry official has made an unexpected visit to Baku, as a Russian newspaper reports that Azerbaijan is refusing to pay for a shipment of Russian arms.
"The fall in oil prices has affected everyone, and Azerbaijan is no exception," an unnamed Russian defense industry official told the newspaper Kommersant. As a result, a shipment of weapons ordered several years ago by Azerbaijan is currently sitting in port waiting for payment, the official said.
An early version of a story on the Sputnik Azerbaijan site cited an Azerbaijani military expert backing that up, but some time after it was published all references to Baku's failure to pay were erased.
In an apparent effort to sort out the situation, Russia's deputy prime minister in charge of defense industry, Dmitry Rogozin, arrived in Baku for a previously unannounced visit on Wednesday night. On Thursday, Rogozin posted a photo with him and Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev on his facebook page with the caption "Following positive negotiations with the leader of friendly Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev." There was no indication of what may have resulted from the positive negotiations.
Counter to civil-rights activists’ hopes, it was petroleum rather than press freedom that took the top billing during European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini’s visit to Azerbaijan. In Baku, Mogherini commended Azerbaijan as a reliable source of energy and strategic partnership for Europe. The civil liberties watchdogs argued that, with its displays of intolerance for homegrown critical opinion, Azerbaijan is not worthy of an EU partnership.
But for the EU policymakers, worthy partners in the region are mainly defined by cubic meters; not necessarily democracy rankings. Mogherini said in Baku on February 29 that there is an internal consensus within the bloc that its collective foreign policy should give priority to “partners and initiatives that are crucial for better diversification of the EU energy resources.” A key role is reserved for Azerbaijan is this regard, as it is the starting point of a forthcoming East-West natural-gas pipeline system.
Mogherini attended a big gathering on the Southern Gas Corridor, a 3,500-kilometer road to energy security for Europe. EU, US and British energy officials were all in town to partake in the discussion on what is touted as a fix for the continent’s politically prohibitive dependence on Russian natural gas. On hand also were officials from Azerbaijan’s neighbors Turkey and Georgia, both anticipating eventual shares of tens of billions of cubic meters of gas from the pipeline chain.
Russia has announced the details of a new shipment of arms it is sending to Armenia, a relatively rare move likely connected with Russia's ongoing tension with Turkey.
Last week, the Russian government announced that it would be providing Armenia with a $200 million credit to buy equipment including multiple-launch rocket systems, anti-tank missiles, handheld antiaircraft missiles and upgrades to tanks.
The credit was announced last year, as an apparent concession by Russia amid large-scale street protests in Armenia against the country's Russian-owned electricity company. But the details of the weapons to be acquired weren't released, which is the normal practice with Russian arms deliveries to Armenia, said Emil Sanamyan, an analyst who closely follows Caucasus military affairs.
In general, Armenia prefers to cultivate an air of mystery about what weaponry exactly it is acquiring, partly to keep its rival, Azerbaijan, off-guard but also because it likely is acquiring far less and so has little to gain by flaunting it. Azerbaijan, by contrast, tends to exaggerate its purchases in an effort to intimidate.
(That said, Azerbaijan's purchases are still substantial, and a large portion of them also come from Russia. This week, the Stockholm International Peace Research institute released a report noting that Azerbaijan was the largest importer of arms in Europe over the period 2011-15, and that it accounted for nearly five percent of Russian exports over that period.)
Azerbaijan is walking a narrow line on Syria, trying not to offend either of its powerful neighbors, offering apparently contradictory statements this week about where its sympathies lie.
In an interview with an Austrian newspaper, Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov expressed qualified support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. "Currently, President Assad is the only guarantor of the integrity and security of Syria," Azimov said. "His army is a legal institution. We welcome a political process, in which Assad would remain in power until the election of his replacement."
Azimov also criticized Russian airstrikes in support of Assad: "I believe that the Russian airstrikes are inefficient and costly." But Azimov's comments were overall seen as surprisingly favorable to Russia. "This may req some explaining before #Azerbaijan Pres Aliyev comes to Washington," former U.S. ambassador to Baku Richard Kauzlarich wrote on his twitter account.
"Support for Assad means that the country is together with Russia and Iran, defending the dictatorship. It is also important that Azerbaijan and Turkey expressed the opposite position on the Syrian issue. In the whole ... interview Azimov confirms that Azerbaijan is close to the dictatorial regimes, such as Russia and Iran, and it is against the position of the free world," said Azerbaijani oppositionist Isa Gambar.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva wave to the crowds during the 2015 European Games at Baku's Olympic Stadium, now available for wedding rentals.
If anyone’s looking for an extravagant venue for upcoming nuptials, Azerbaijan is now renting a new, $640.5-million stadium in its capital, Baku, for weddings. Built specifically for the 2015 European Games, a quasi-Olympic contest, the arena now stands as an empty, 68,195-seat testimony to the hydrocarbon-blessed country’s runaway spending on international-attention-grabbing, mega-undertakings.
That the stadium is open for wedding parties may be an exciting opportunity for well-heeled Azerbaijanis to score the event of their lifetime, but many Bakuvians criticize what they deem an embarrassing waste of taxpayer money by President Ilham Aliyev’s government on glitzy, one-off vanity projects.
“This stadium is the apotheosis of a mindless waste of money and corruption,” Ali Kerimli, chairperson of the opposition National Front of Azerbaijan Party, told the Kavkazsky Uzel news site. The millions could instead have been invested in creating jobs, he added.
Some Facebook users joked that soccer stars like Barcelona’s Lionel Messi and Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo should be invited as tamadas, Caucasus-style party emcees, for the stadium’s weddings.
As Moscow tests for Turkey’s weaknesses in the fight over the downed SU-24 fighter plane, Russia’s communists have gone on a mission to revoke a treaty that their Soviet forefathers signed with Ankara. Heads are turning in the South Caucasus, which was essentially sliced and diced into its modern-day shape by the treaty and another 1921 Soviet-Turkish accord.
The document under debate, the 1921 Treaty of Moscow, drew a line between the Turkish Republic and the Soviet Union, and also set the borders of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia without the consent of the three newly Bolshevik-occupied nations. The partitioning was further cinched by the Treaty of Kars, signed by the then Soviet republics’ Bolshevik-installed authorities.
The idea of revoking the treaty, pitched to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, comes amidst an unscheduled military exercise in Russia’s Southern Military District, which borders on the South Caucasus. Russian military analyst Viktor Murakhovsky commented to gazeta.ru that the exercises are meant as “a little signal” to Turkey. “[B]ecause we’re headed toward war with them, very quickly and certainly,” he predicted.
In remarks to the Azerbaijani news service APA, however, the Russian Communist Party’s deputy chairperson, Valery Rashkin, pooh-pooh’d the notion that Moscow withdrawing its signature from the 1921 Treaty of Moscow could lead to war with Turkey. “[O]n the contrary, we will begin the negotiation process.”
Azerbaijan is being forced to cut its defense budget, once the pride of the nation, as a result of the collapse in oil prices.
Other oil-dependent states in the region like Kazakhstan and Russia also will likely have to make across-the-board budget cuts because of the drop in oil prices. But the situation appears most dire in Azerbaijan, not least because it is locked in a conflict with Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh.
Azerbaijan's government has consistently bragged about its defense budget, which, starting in 2011, it claimed exceeded Armenia's entire state budget. Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry spokesman Hikmat Hajiyev told the American newspaper Defense News in a story published this week that that "defense spending had enabled the Azerbaijani armed forces to be supplied with requisite advanced weaponry needed to re-take 'its Armenian-held territories.'"
“It is our priority and we will continue to increase military spending," said Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev in 2014. "Over the past 10 years, our military spending has increased more than 20-fold, and our spending allocated to the armed forces is approximately twice as large as Armenia’s overall state budget."
Russia's post-Soviet security alliance is showing more and more signs of fracturing along regional, cultural, and political fault lines, as Armenia criticizes other members for not taking its side against Azerbaijan.
Armenia is probably the most loyal member of the alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization. And Yerevan has long complained about the fact that some of the other CSTO members, like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, have supported Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia in Turkic and Muslim fora.
That tension has been heightened recently as a result of increasing violence along the line of contact between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces around the disputed Nagorno Karabakh territory, as well as the fallout between Russia and Turkey.
The CSTO's Turkic members, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, have sympathized with Turkey over Russia in that dispute to a degree that is suprising given Russia's far stronger economic and strategic ties in Central Asia. And if they're not willing to support Russia -- which really has the ability to either pressure or help the Central Asian states -- they are certainly far less likely to support Armenia, which which they have little in common other than a fading Soviet legacy.
The schism doesn't have only to do pan-Turkic sympathies between Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, and Azerbaijan. Belarus, too, has refused to take the Kremlin's side against Turkey. Just as important as any cultural ties is a reluctance among all of Russia's allies to sign up for Moscow's increasingly unpredictable foreign policy ventures.