Distractions like a full-on rebellion and raging jihad somehow did not prevent Syria from holding an international cartoon festival this month. And from prizes going to artists from Azerbaijan, better known for supplying recruits for Syria’s Islamic insurgency than for providing the war-torn country with pictorial talent.
The contest’s website does not shed great light on its origins; at least, not for the non-Arabic-speaker. According to Azerbaijan's government-friendly website Azernews, it attracted entrants ranging from France and Morocco to Peru and Thailand.
But the background on Azerbaijan’s two medalists is clear.
In a perceived nod to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Azerbaijan on June 18 shut down a school network associated with the influential Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, Erdoğan's bête noire.
Erdoğan has accused the US-based religious leader and his followers of conspiring against his government — a charge viewed by outsiders as largely entangled with the ruling Justice and Development Party’s own domestic political struggles — and earlier urged ally Azerbaijan to help him in this fight. Looks like he didn't have to ask twice.
Azerbaijan's energy giant, the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijani Republic, already had taken over 11 high schools, 13 university-exam preparation centers and a private university believed to be linked to the Gülen movement.
As in Turkey, the facilities enjoyed a good academic reputation, and had a nationwide presence. Experts earlier interviewed by EurasiaNet.org about the takeover generally saw political motivations for the takeover.
But the schools’ parent company, the Azerbaijan International Education Company, in which SOCAR holds shares, claims its eye is just on the bottom line. The schools, the company claimed, were not financially viable.
The German government released its annual report on the country's arms sales around the world, and what made headlines was the fact that defense exports jumped 38 percent from 2012 to 2013. But in the Caucasus and Central Asia, Germany regularly denied export licenses on grounds of poor human rights records, ongoing conflicts, and the possibility of the equipment being resold to third countries. The report (pdf, in German) specifies the criteria under European Union policy regarding arms exports.
Kazakhstan, for example, was denied exports worth 160,000 Euros under EU criteria having to do with "Respect for human rights in the country of final destination as well as respect by that country of international humanitarian law," "Internal situation in the country of final destination, as a function of the existence of tensions or armed conflicts," and "Existence of a risk that the military technology or equipment will be diverted within the buyer country or re-exported under undesirable conditions." Unfortunately the report doesn't specify what equipment was requested but denied (and in this case, doesn't explain what "tensions or armed conflicts" are going on in Kazakhstan).
Kyrgyzstan was denied four licenses totaling 12,000 Euros under the criteria of "Respect for human rights in the country of final destination as well as respect by that country of international humanitarian law" and "Internal situation in the country of final destination, as a function of the existence of tensions or armed conflicts."
The deaths of two Armenian soldiers on the border with Azerbaijan has led to predictions that Armenia will carry out a "substantial" attack in retaliation.
On June 5, Armenia's defense ministry reported that two of its soldiers had been killed along the border with Nakhcivan, the exclave of Azerbaijan cut off from the rest of Azerbaijan and bordering Turkey, Iran, and Armenia.
"Azerbaijan has shown its true face and prompted us to be prepared for a war," said deputy speaker of parliament Eduard Sharmazanov, according to BBC Monitoring. Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian told a representative from the OSCE that "ongoing escalation in the current operational environment is prone to entail unforeseen consequences for the Azeri side."
And a retired Armenian general, Arkady Ter-Tadevosyan, in an interview with RFERL, said he had "specific information" that Armenia is preparing a "substantial strike" on Azerbaijan in retaliation for the two soldiers' deaths. "If we don't carry out counterattacks soon, the Azerbaijanis will conclude that we're weak. We just need to attack, and the attack needs to be noticeable. I don't only expect, but I know, that such an attack is being prepared."
And there are reports that Armenia has already counterattacked. Again via BBC Monitoring:
On 8 June, opposition Azadliq paper quoted unidentified local social media users as saying that Armenian troops attacked from the direction of Lakataq village in Naxcivan's Culfa District bordering Armenia, adding that the enemy captured "several heights" in the area.
Perhaps the most prickly question about the Eurasian Union -- the new, Russia-centric trade club -- is whether or not its members can bring to this neo-Soviet party their significant others. In other words, associated separatist dependencies.
Like with many Moscow clubs, there is face-control in the Eurasian Union. For now, Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus have it all to themselves. Disputed breakaway formations like Nagorno Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, though, are also keen for inclusion.
But getting the separatist territories in would cause a wave of bad blood between the Eurasian Union members and the countries (Azerbaijan and Georgia, respectively) who demand these territories back. Leaving them out, in turn, may hamper the territories' ability to get economic sustenance from club-founder Russia and prospective member Armenia.
This is a pain in the neck, in particular, for Armenia, which already has been requested by the club to leave its own protégé, Nagorno Karabakh, in the cloakroom.
Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev last week quite curtly told his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sargsyan, that none of the founding members have any desire to aggravate Azerbaijan. You only get in "within the boundaries recognised by the United Nations," he advised at an Astana roundtable.
Sargsyan, a Karabakh native, later said that Armenia never intended to slip the mountainous territory (which Yerevan essentially views as a separate country) into the club.
A Russian TOS-1A in a Baku military parade in 2013. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Just as Armenia was digesting the news that its ally, Russia, was offering a large batch of top-of-the-line tanks to its foe, Azerbaijan, it's emerged that there are other such deals in the works, as well.
APA reported that Russia will shortly deliver another batch of TOS-1A “Solntsepyok”multiple-launch rocket systems to Azerbaijan. The deal to buy those systems was announced last year, but at the time it was reported that it would be for six; now the number has grown to 18.
In addition, Azerbaijan is reportedly in talks with Russia to buy Bal-E coastal anti-ship missile systems. Russian newspaper Kommersant quoted "an informed source in the Russian military-industrial complex" as saying that "negotiations will start later, now there is an understanding that our Azerbaijani colleagues are counting on the purchase of one division of the system."
Naturally Armenia, not having any navy, will not be threatened by the anti-ship missiles. But the Solntsepyoks, on top of the earlier offer of 100 T-90 tanks, is rankling in Yerevan. “I can’t be happy with that but I have no right to stop it,” said Armenian Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian, reported RFE/RL.
A T-90 tank on display on a military parade in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Russia is offering Azerbaijan another 100 tanks, on top of 100 that it has bought over the last three years, in a move that will surely have Armenians asking what more they need to do to prove their loyalty to Moscow.
Speaking at Kazakhstan's KADEX defense expo in Astana, Konstantin Biryulin, the deputy director of Russia's Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation told Russian news agency ITAR-TASS that Azerbaijan's order of 100 T-90S tanks had been completed a month ago. And he added that Azerbaijan has an "option" to buy another 100, but that the option hasn't yet been exercised.
News last summer that Russia completed a $1 billion arms deal with Azerbaijan (which included those 100 tanks) prompted outrage in Yerevan. Armenia has been a loyal ally of Russia, and so selling such a large number of weapons to its enemy seemed like a betrayal.
But that was when Armenia was flirting with signing an Association Agreement with the European Union. Not long after the arms deal was announced, Armenia announced that it had changed its mind about the EU and would instead be joining the Russia-led Customs Union. Now Armenia is scheduled to formally join the Customs Union in June. So another big arms sale to Azerbaijan would seem like an even bigger betrayal.
Writes RFE/RL: "Armenia’s Defense Ministry on Friday refused to comment on Moscow’s apparent readiness to sell more tanks to Baku. Biryulin’s revelation is certain to spark fresh anti-Russian statements by Armenian opposition groups and the media."
A 2012 Georgian postage stamp celebrating the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The new deadline for a new railway line that would connect the Caspian Sea to Turkey appears to be delayed yet again, making it highly unlikely that Georgia and Azerbaijan will profit much from U.S. military transportation business.
The presidents of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey met in Tbilisi on Wednesday, and the focus was "joint energy and transportation projects, among them Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway." This is the railroad that last year the three countries had been promoting as the centerpiece of their proposal to gain a significant share of the "retrograde" transit of U.S. military equipment out of Afghanistan and back to Europe and the U.S. The idea would be to ship equipment through Central Asia, over the Caspian Sea, and through the South Caucasus. The railroad was "the vital missing link which will be operational soon," said Batu Kutelia, deputy secretary in the office of national security, said at the time. A senior Turkish official said the railroad would be operational by the end of 2013 and that "taking into consideration the reverse transit process, we wanted to accelerate the process."
This would be a geopolitical winner from the Pentagon's perspective, as it would decrease the U.S.'s reliance on the mercurial Pakistan and the new enemy, Russia. As an analyst at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation wrote this week:
In coordination with the Kremlin, Russian activists plan an ex-USSR-wide distribution of black-and-orange ribbons meant to commemorate the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. The caveat is that the St. George’s ribbon has evolved to embody Russian power and nostalgia for the USSR; concepts that many in the Caucasus are not willing to wear on their sleeves.
The state-run Russian Information Agency (RIA Novosti), a champion of the annual St.-George's-ribbon campaign, has announced that on May 9, the 69th anniversary of the 1945 Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, millions of ribbons will rain down on ex-Soviet countries, the South Caucasus included.
In an April 29 talk show, headlined “St. George’s Ribbon Struts across the Planet,” RIA Novosti claimed that a massive ribbon-handout rally would be held in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku. The ribbons, talk-show participants said, also would be up for grabs at the Russian embassies in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Moldova. In the case of Georgia, which severed diplomatic ties with Russia after the two countries' 2008 war, the Russian consulate at the Swiss embassy would provide the ribbons.
Many pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine are wearing these ribbons, and the show host made sure to take a swipe at Ukrainian “nationalists” and their alleged attempts to “erase the historic memory" of the war.
But it looks like the show and its claims of a post-Soviet team spirit may have been ultimately meant for a domestic, Russian audience.
The U.S. State Department is skeptical about how Central Asian governments perceive the threat of terrorism in their countries, according to the department's annual review of terrorism around the globe.
In language similar to last year's report, the State Department said that "The effectiveness of some Central Asian countries’ efforts to reduce their vulnerability to perceived terrorist threats was difficult to discern in some cases, however, due to failure to distinguish clearly between terrorism and violent extremism on one hand and political opposition, or non-traditional religious practices, on the other." But this year it added a bit of texture with a mention of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan: "[T]errorist groups with ties to Central Asia – notably the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Islamic Jihad Union – continued to be an issue even as they operated outside of the Central Asian states." (For some serious analysis of what threat the IMU poses, see this post at the Afghan Analysts Network.)