Russian President Vladimir Putin led a high-powered delegation to Baku this week, and security issues seemed to be high on the agenda, leading to renewed speculation about whether the traditional geopolitical allegiances in the South Caucasus may or may not be shifting.
The fact that the delegation included such a large number of heavyweights spoke to the significance of the visit. In addition to Putin, it included Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, Energy Minister Alexander Novak and the heads of Russia’s biggest oil companies, Rosneft and Lukoil. Also along for the visit were some ships from Russia's Caspian Flotilla and the fleet's commander, Vice Admiral Sergey Alekminsky. Putin's remarks after his meeting with Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev focused mainly on economics and business ties, but also touched on security:
During our talks we paid a great deal of attention to resolving problems in the Caspian region. We are interested in seeing this region become one in which peace and cooperation reign. There are still many unresolved issues here, relating to security, border delimitation, conserving biological diversity in the Caspian Sea and so on. We have a vested interest in resolving all these problems, naturally taking into account the interests of all littoral states.
It is symbolic that our talks coincide with a friendly visit of a detachment of the Russian Caspian Flotilla to Baku. The Dagestan missile ship and the Volgodonsk small artillery ship are among the vessels. At the end of 2013 Azerbaijani sailors plan to make a return visit to Astrakhan.
Azerbaijan has investigated reports of sales of French/German anti-tank missiles to Armenia, and has concluded that they were provided by Greece and Cyprus. Azerbaijan news agency APA reports, citing unnamed military officials:
The investigations carried out by Azerbaijan have revealed that Armenia has purchased anti-tank missiles and a lot of machine-guns and grenade throwers from Greece and Cyprus in the past two years. According to the obtained reports, Armenia has purchased more than 20 MILAN missiles from Greece. The missiles have been reportedly sold from the arsenal of Greek armed forces.
For its part, the Greek embassy in Baku has denied the claim.
Shortly thereafter, APA reported that Azerbaijan itself had bought anti-tank missiles from Ukraine last year. Ukraine, in theory, is subject to the same sanctions as France and Germany are: the sanctions are imposed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, of which Ukraine is a member, too. But the sanctions obviously are enforced only by certain OSCE members.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Armenia has yet to comment on the issue.
Azerbaijan is complaining about reports that Armenia has required French/German anti-tank missiles in apparent violation of European sanctions against the two countries. The controversy began when an Armenian website published photos of an Armenian Ministroy of Defense exposition last year. On display, apparently, was a MILAN anti-tank missile, jointly produced by France and Germany.
And Azerbaijan has objected, reports APA: "The embassies of [France and Germany] in Azerbaijan were demanded to clarify how these countries that imposed an embargo on the sale of weapons to the conflicting parties could deliver these systems to Armenia."
Both the French and German ambassadors have responded publicly, saying they didn't do it. The French ambassador:
“I have no precise information about this sale which is very highly improbable, because the export of military equipment would be in contradiction with these sanctions. The French side is now investigating the information and the source it came from.”
"Germany is in compliance with OSCE embargoes on arms sales to Armenia and Azerbaijan. Exports of military equipment would be contrary to the sanctions. The federal government doesn’t have additional information," the embassy said.
Meanwhile, the Armenian Ministry of Defense is staying quiet on the matter.
The results for Azerbaijan proved the big surprise from the South Caucasus in this year's Global Corruption Barometer by anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International.*
Though Azerbaijan is repeatedly rated and berated as the region’s most corrupt country, many of the 1,001 Azerbaijanis surveyed for the poll by the Baku-based SIAR (Social and Marketing Research Company) had a more positive assessment of their national corruption situation than did respondents for neighboring Armenia and Georgia.
Azerbaijan long has had run-ins with allegations that senior officials and members of President Ilham Aliyev's family are cashing in on their positions, but, apparently, most respondents believe the government now is giving the corruption fight all it's got. Sixty-eight percent of respondents deemed the government's actions "effective," a rate which topped Georgia, often described as the region's main corruption-buster, by 14-percentage points.
On perceptions of corruption in the public sector, Azerbaijan finished a half point behind Georgia, roughly mid-range on a scale of one to five, while Armenia settled firmly into the trouble zone at 4.4.
Similarly, both in Azerbaijan and Georgia, public perception of corruption of political parties was 28 percent of respondents, according to Transparency International (TI). The rate is noticeably higher in Armenia, at 57 percent.
Russia has completed a big arms delivery worth about $1 billion to Azerbaijan, following reports that Baku was in fact suffering under a quiet de facto arms embargo from Moscow. The deals were in fact signed over the last two years, and most of them seem to have been previously reported. But they were apparently recently delivered to Baku and included, according to Reuters, "nearly 100 T-90C tanks, Smerch and TOS-1A multiple rocket launchers and Msta-A and Vena artillery cannons."
But wait, Bug Pit readers are saying. Didn't we just hear in April that Russia had cut off arms sales to Azerbaijan, in particular of several military aircraft deals that were in the works? That doesn't necessarily contradict today's news, given that the latter refers to various deals already signed. An interesting paragraph in the Reuters piece:
A source at the Russian Defence Ministry said the order had been on hold for some time to avoid upsetting the military balance in the South Caucasus, where Russia has a military base in Armenia and an agreement to defend the country if it comes under attack. But the deal had been pushed through at the behest of Russia's powerful arms industry, he said.
Turkey is promoting its eastern cities of Trabzon and Erzurum as potential transit hubs for U.S. and NATO military cargo being shipped out of Afghanistan. With its proposal, coordinated with Georgia and Azerbaijan, Turkey joins a crowdedfield of competitors for the potentially lucrative reverse transit business -- at least $6 billion -- as coalition forces start pulling out of Afghanistan.
At a conference on Afghanistan military transit and broader Eurasian transportation prospects in Riga this week, the head of the Turkish Foreign Ministry’s Department of Relations with Caucasus and Central Asian countries, Yavuz Kül, said that Turkey was opening its territory to both lethal and non-lethal equipment. Trabzon, he said, is about 1,750 miles from Kabul and has good air- and seaport facilities. Erzurum, meanwhile, is only 1,400 miles from Kabul and "at the center of the Turkish rail network," Kül said. With the completion of the Baku-Kars railway project, cargo flown or shipped into Baku will be able to travel by rail to Turkey. "We hope that this will be a hub in the future for reverse transit," he said.
The Baku-Kars project has been consistently delayed: this news story from 2007 said it was supposed to be completed by 2008. But Kül spun it differently: "We are planning to finish by the end of this year. Of course, the initial project was for 2015. However, taking into consideration the reverse transit process, we wanted to accelerate the process," he said, adding that they will "coordinate with our Georgian and Azerbaijani friends."
Georgia and Azerbaijan have been publicly cooperating a lot lately, with presidential meetings and news of co-producing military jets and armored personnel carriers. That military cooperation, in particular, is projected to grow, writes Azerbaijani analyst Zaur Shiriyev. In a two-part series in Today's Zaman, Shiriyev looks at some of the details of the increasing cooperation, in particular in the military-industrial sphere. Shiriyev traces the increased cooperation to the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia:
[S]ince 2008, new opportunities have arisen. Prior to 2008, Baku had long demanded that Tbilisi stop letting Armenia repair its battle tanks and other armored techniques at a Russian munitions factory in Tbilisi. Once Georgia cut ties with Moscow and agreed, high level ministry of defense visits from Azerbaijan to Georgia commenced and both sides reached a compromise. This stimulated the development of their defense industry cooperation.
Azerbaijan doesn't have aspirations to join either NATO or the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a top government official said on a visit to Germany. "We envision our future security model within the framework of the Nonaligned Movement,” said Ali Hasanov, head of the presidential department for socio-political issues, said at a forum dedicated to “Azerbaijan’s European Path: Achievements and Potentialities.” Hasanov added: “Therefore Azerbaijan will neither be a member of NATO nor the CSTO, while cooperating with both.”
“It does not mean that Azerbaijan will not or can not change its choice. The choice can change anytime. Azerbaijan’s national interest is the decisive factor, if the national security interests require that it is necessary to join NATO, then it will be so. If national interests require reconsidering Azerbaijan’s participation in CSTO, this issue will be reconsidered. Our security, energy, economic, political and social interests arise from and are based on the needs, interests of the Azerbaijani people,” he said.
Given that Azerbaijan hasn't been doing anything to indicate that it intends to join either alliance, it's not exactly news that Hasanov said this. But it's an interesting statement in the context of Azerbaijan's recent rocky relations with Russia. President Ilham Aliyev has been palling around with his Georgian counterpart and Kremlin bugaboo Mikheil Saakashvili, and there has been talk of an "emerging alliance" between Georgia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan. And that was before the great Eurovision scandal.
Uneasy neighbors: An Armenian flag provides the backdrop for a bust to the late Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev in downtown Tbilisi.
Tbilisi’s Old Town has long been an area where ethnic Armenians, Azeris, Jews, Kurds, and Georgians intermingle.
There’s the Azeri teahouse run by ethnic Armenians on one street, and, on another, one run by ethnic Azeris, where an ethnic Armenian waitress serves customers.
A mosque frequented mainly by ethnic Azeri Muslims sits atop a hill just a few minutes away from an Armenian church where Sayat Nova, the 18th century troubadour who wrote songs and poetry mainly in Azeri, is buried.
A statue to Sergei Paradjanov, the surrealist ethnic Armenian filmmaker whose last film was shot in Azerbaijan, stands just meters away from a shisha café, staffed by ethnic Armenians from the Middle East and often frequented by customers from Azerbaijan.
Home to sizable ethnic Azeri and Armenian populations, Georgia is well-accustomed to such coexistence. But, nonetheless, that doesn’t mean that awkward situations cannot occur.
Recently, for example, an Armenian flag appeared flying outside a privately owned, neighborhood bathhouse that adjoins a park featuring a bust of Heydar Aliyev, the late Azerbaijani president.
The flag was still flying until the eve of Azerbaijan’s May 10 Flower Day celebration, an event to mark the birthday of the late president. On the day itself, the flag reportedly disappeared. A day later, it reappeared.
The juxtaposition, needless to say, is unusual. Aliyev, in office from 1993 until 2003, was Azerbaijan’s president when the war with Armenia and Karabakhi separatists over the breakaway region of Nagorno Karabakh ended with a cease-fire in 1994.
Precise reasons for the flag’s appearance, disappearance, and reappearance could not be confirmed. The management of the bathhouse that displays the flags was not available for comment. “They just chose some international flags from somewhere,” an employee commented, with a shrug.
A United Nations report has implicated Azerbaijan and a Kazakhstan airline executive in violations of arms embargos against North Korea. The Associated Press acquired the report, to the U.N. Security Council committee monitoring sanctions against North Korea.
Among the violators was Azerbaijan, for trying to buy anti-aircraft missiles from North Korea:
The panel... recommended sanctions against the Hesong Trading Corporation, a subsidiary of the Korea Mining Development Trading Corp., which was involved in trying to sell 70 North Korean portable anti-aircraft missiles to Azerbaijan. British arms dealer Michael Ranger was convicted in July 2012 of attempting to sell the missiles.
The court heard that in email correspondence with his arms supplier in North Korea, Ranger boasted that he had been a guest of the Azerbaijani government and was driven round in a Lexus limousine whilst on business there to discuss the supply of Man-Portable Infrared Homing Surface to Air Missiles. It also heard how he told the US manufacturers of Berettas pistols that he had secured orders from the Azerbaijani Ministry of Emergency Situations following a meeting with ‘two people directly under the President’ in February 2010. The jury agreed that the evidence clearly demonstrated Ranger’s intention to disregard the embargos and duly delivered a conviction.
The U.N. report also named a citizen of Kazakhstan it says was involved in shipping arms to North Korea: