Foreign ministers of the Caspian littoral states meet in Astana on July 13, 2016. (photo: MFA Russia)
Are the five states around the Caspian Sea finally going to resolve their dispute about how to divide the body of water between themselves?
A number of unusually positive statements from diplomats from the littoral states have suggested that the seemingly intractible dispute is on the verge of being resolved. But if any of the Caspian countries have softened their negotiating positions -- the intransigence of which has resulted in this long dispute -- they aren't telling.
The foreign ministers of the five states -- Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan -- met last week in Astana, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the sides could reach an agreement in a year.
"I believe it is absolutely realistic to aim for signing the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea in 2017. I think this can be done even in the first half of the year," he said. That enthusiasm was shared by Kazakhstan, whose prime minister, Karim Massimov, tweeted: "Met with foreign ministers of Caspian littoral states. There's hope for prompt completion of talks over Caspian Sea Legal Status Convention."
Russian politicians and state media sounded sharp alarm about the July 15 military-coup attempt in Turkey, Moscow's traditional regional rival, with some calling for "responsible organs" to come to the rescue of Russian citizens in Turkey. By contrast, officials in the South Caucasus, which borders directly on Turkey, expressed much greater caution .
The failed coup attempt led to the deaths of 1,661 people, and the injury of 1,440, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim announced at an afternoon briefing on July 16 in the Turkish capital, Ankara. Some 2,839 armed-forces personnel allegedly involved in the coup-plot have now been arrested, he said, according to Turkey's official Anadolu Agency.
Yet even as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that the coup had been put down, Russia’s state-run TASS news agency led with a statement from Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev that “we should undertake all measures for the defense of the interests of our citizens, and also our companies, our entities . . . “ in Turkey.
What measures, if any, were under consideration is not clear, but Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Alexander Romanovich, citing alleged bombing by Turkish military planes, earlier in the morning of July 16 called for "our responsible organs" to organize the immediate evacuation of all Russian citizens from Turkey.
Azerbaijan claims to be close to fielding a domestically produced armed drone, another escalation in its race to arm to take back the territory it lost to Armenian forces.
Azerbaijan's domestic arms industry will be able to supply the drones to its armed forces "in the near future," said Yaver Jamalov, the country's Minister of Defense Industry, at a cabinet meeting Sunday.
"Testing of the unmanned aerial vehicle 'Zarba,' created by your [President Ilham Aliev] on short notice, has been successful, and in the near future the device will be handed over to the armed forces," Jamalov said.
This would seem to be Azerbaijan's first armed drone. It has used surveillance drones, mostly purchased from Israel, for several years and in April's heavy fighting with Armenia it emerged that Azerbaijan also had Israeli Harop "kamizake drones," which are themselves the bomb. Armenia also operates small, domestically produced surveillance UAVs.
This announcement comes amid an unprecedented diplomatic push to try to resolve the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the territory of Nagorno Karabakh, which Armenia won from Azerbaijan in a war as the Soviet Union collapsed.
Shortly after the explosions, hundreds of travelers from nearby countries checked in as safe on Facebook, underscoring the facility’s role as the region’s ultimate layover point. A place where rabbis and mullahs hang out in one lounge, Slavs snap up perfumes and purses at duty-free stores, and Georgians seem to permanently hold court in Starbucks, IST is the world’s third busiest airport and a veritable melting pot.
For many, it is much more than that.
“I spent endless hours there, watching people and munching on that free rahat lokum [Turkish delight],” one Azerbaijani businesswoman, Aygul, who passed through Istanbul two days before the attack, said via Facebook Messenger. “You sit there, look at all these people from everywhere and all the world’s differences seem so small and unimportant.”
Canadian artist Melanie Mehrer wrote Tamada Tales that, on the night of the attack, she had been drawing at an airport Starbucks when two Pakistani men, artists en route to an exhibit in Moscow, noticed her work and struck up a conversation. “We spent a good hour gabbing about art, Islam, Islamic Art, politics, weird stories in our countries' news, what it feels like to feel connected and rooted in your own culture . . .or not. “
For Georgians like Zurab Tatanashvili, an assistant professor of social work at Tbilisi State University, Istanbul airport became synonymous with a door to the West after the Soviet Union imploded in 1991. “Many other Georgians and I first went to the West through that airport and the West came here through it as well,” he commented by phone.
The presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Serzh Sargsyan and Ilham Aliyev, meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg. (photo: kremlin.ru)
Last month, Azerbaijan appeared to have made a significant concession in its struggle to regain its lost territory of Nagorno Karabakh: it agreed to expand the international mission monitoring the conflict. But Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev, newly returned from Moscow where he discussed the plan with his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sargsyan and Russian President Vladimir Putin, is now walking back that promise.
Armenia, as well as the United States, had long pushed for strengthening the monitoring mission, run by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, because the understaffed, underresourced mission is unable to determine who is to blame for the increasingly common ceasefire violations. Azerbaijan, however, had previously argued that increasing monitoring would only serve to solidify a status quo it saw as illegitimate: an Armenian occupation of its land.
It wasn't clear why Azerbaijan had agreed to the concession, but an OSCE statement after last month's meeting in Vienna said the two sides agreed to implement an "investigative mechanism." It wasn't specified what that mechanism would be, but Armenians and other have pushed for devices that could record the origin of gunshots.
“We have planned out concrete steps to boost the process of negotiations, and the presidents agreed on a trilateral statement, which reaffirms their commitment to normalization of the situation on the line of contact and also includes their consent to increasing the number of the OSCE monitors,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has a small ceasefire monitoring mission in Karabakh. For years, the OSCE has arranged peace talks on Karabakh through its Minsk Group, a mediation mechanism led by Russia, the US and France.
Repercussions from the "four-day war" with Azerbaijan in April continue to resonate in Armenia, with several senior officials arrested on corruption charges and one prominent political figure accusing the government of "deceiving" Armenians about their military capabilities.
Three security officials were arrested on Monday. “They were arrested for different criminal charges. They are suspected of various wrongdoings. In one case accepting poor quality supplied goods, in another case, according to preliminary data, procurements with exaggerated expenses,” said Sona Truzyan, a government spokesman, as reported by commonspace.eu.
This follows the firing of three other senior Ministry of Defense and armed forces officials at the end of April, also amid various corruption-related investigations. All this is in reaction to the results of fighting in early April in the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh, which resulted in the greatest number of casualties since a ceasefire between the two sides was signed in 1994, and during which Azerbaijan for the first time since then captured some new territory.
Further underscoring Yerevan's desire to shake things up, President Serzh Sargsyan replaced one of the fired MoD officials with a relative outsider, David Pakhchanian, as Deputy Defense Minister Chairman of the State Military Industrial Committee.
U.S. Marines train Azerbaijani soldiers in Romania in 2011. (photo: U.S. Marine Corps)
Azerbaijan has gotten $20 million in military aid from the U.S. Department of Defense over the last ten years, while Armenia has gotten nearly nothing, a review of U.S. government documents shows.
While the U.S. State Department has traditionally administered most foreign military aid, since the onset of the "War on Terror" the Defense Department has taken on increasing responsibility for military aid. And although the U.S. State Department for the most part observes a policy of "parity" in aid to the two countries, the Department of Defense has been less cautious in maintaining a balance. Baku has benefited in particular from two Pentagon aid programs, known as Section 1004 and Section 1206, which are subject to less Congressional oversight and less stringent public reporting requirements.
Azerbaijan has gotten $8.5 million since 2005 in funding from Section 1004, which provides counternarcotics assistance, and $11.5 million from Section 1206, which provides counterterrorism aid. Armenia, by contrast, has gotten just $41,000 in Section 1004 funding and no Section 1206 money, according to data collected by the Washington advocacy group Security Assistance Monitor, which maintains a database of the various U.S. military assistance programs.
The presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia, and senior diplomats from the U.S., Russia, and France, meet in Vienna. (photo: U.S. State Department)
Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to strengthen the international monitoring of the front lines between their armed forces, a potentially significant step that could make it possible to identify the causes of the increasingly frequent flareups in violence between the two sides.
The agreement emerged from a meeting between the presidents of the two countries in Vienna on Monday night brokered by the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe and the United States, Russia, and France. The high-level involvement in the conflict follows what has come to be known as the "four-day war" in early April, the worst violence since the two sides signed a ceasefire agreement in 1994.
An OSCE statement after the meeting between Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev reported that the two sides "agreed to finalize in the shortest possible time an OSCE investigative mechanism. The Presidents also agreed to the expansion of the existing Office of the Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairperson in Office."
The paucity of resources of the current monitoring regime, with only six monitors covering a long, remote, line of contact, has made it nearly impossible to determine what is behind a ceasefire violation. And while the OSCE statement is vague, expanding the OSCE monitoring office and creating an "investigative mechanism" could ameliorate some of those problems.
Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey have reiterated their intention to expand military cooperation, including holding joint military exercises aimed at protecting oil and gas pipelines. But the promises of further cooperation belie the stalled development of this would-be military bloc on Russia's southern flank.
The defense ministers of the three countries met Sunday in Gabala, Azerbaijan, and afterwards they announced a variety of cooperation measures including joint military exercises, cooperation on cyber security, and "further improvement of trilateral exercises on the protection of oil and gas pipelines," in the words of Azerbaijan Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov. While some of this already has been going on, Hasanov added that the three sides are preparing a memorandum to "to enter a new stage" of the cooperation. Hasanov's Georgian counterpart, Tinatin Khidasheli, said Georgia would host the new joint exercises next year.
This nascent alliance was formalized in 2012, but of course much has changed in the region since then, like Russia's growing assertiveness and the collapse of Russia-Turkey relations. So it now includes one country that is a longtime Russian enemy (Georgia), another new but fervent enemy (Turkey) and one country strenuously keeping its options open (Azerbaijan).