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.
Azerbaijan on January 28 denied reports of having asked for billions of dollars in aid from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to avert an economic crisis amidst plunging oil prices.
“Requesting a $4-billion aid package is out of the question,” claimed Azerbaijan’s Finance Minister Samir Sharifov. “We ourselves lend money to others,” he said, dismissing reports by The Financial Times and Reuters. Citing the International Monetary Fund, the reports said that the IMF and the World Bank were considering requests from Azerbaijan for loans of $3 billion and $1 billion, respectively.
A decade ago, booming oil and gas sales allowed Azerbaijan to stop borrowing from the IMF, and the Caspian-Sea country began to turn from international borrower to international lender. Low oil prices, though, have depleted Azerbaijan’s wellspring and led to dramatic depreciation of the energy-propped national currency, the manat.
The Financial Times said that the donor groups were scheduled to arrive in Baku on February 4 to discuss options for slowing the country’s economic tailspin. Sharifov ardently denied these reports.
Azerbaijan also has rejected thoughts that the oil-price crunch could force it to scale back on another upcoming mega-vanity project. Plans to host a Formula-1 race in the capital, Baku, this June. remain on track, a project spokesperson insisted, Motorsport.com reported.
The United States Congress has held a rare closed hearing on the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, as leading members of Congress are pushing for new conflict-resolution measures favored by Armenia but opposed by Azerbaijan.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee held the hearing last week, with James Warlick, the U.S. co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, testifying. Warlick did not comment on the content of the hearing, except to tweet: "I thank the @HouseForeign affairs committee and its chair @RepEdRoyce for hosting me to discuss #NKpeace. We agreed to work for a settlement."
It's not clear why the hearing was closed, or why it was held now. But tension has been getting worse along the so-called "line of contact" between the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides. Armenian forces won control of the territory, which is de jure part of Azerbaijan, in a war in the early 1990s, but the ceasefire that has held since then has become increasingly tenuous, with violence along the line at its highest level since the war formally ended in 1994. "This is a war, and I would ask you to use the term ‘war’ and not to use the phrase ‘ceasefire violation’ because, in effect, we don’t have a ceasefire anymore,” Defense Ministry spokesperson Artsrun Hovannesyan told reporters in December.
They blame the opposition. Or “religious radicals.” Or even poachers. But whatever they do, even as oil prices dip to record lows, officials in energy-rich Azerbaijan are not blaming a recent string of regional protests on the economy.
Azerbaijani police on January 14 reported making 55 arrests connected to protests over the last two days in towns to the north, south and east of the capital, Baku.
Protesters in Siyazan, a town 115 kilometers north of Baku, clashed with riot police equipped with tear gas and rubber bullets. The Kavkazsky Uzel news service reported that some 300-400 residents rallied in front of Siyazan’s town hall on January 12 and 13 against continued inflation and a massive recent depreciation of the manat, the national currency. The Azerbaijani service of RFE/RL carried footage of what appeared to be military trucks entering Siyazan.
In the opposite corner of the country, protesters on January 12 blocked a highway in the town of Liman, about 215 kilometers south of Baku. Regional officials met the demonstrators to hear their concerns over growing consumer prices and a ban on cash-sales of tobacco and alcohol (since “temporarily” lifted).
Official suspicion for the disruptions has fallen on alleged activists from the opposition Popular Front of Azerbaijan and Musavat Parties — one young Popular Front activist, Turan Ibrahim, has been arrested for seven days — as well as “various radical and religious extremist forces.”