Armenia on September 9 got a gift from Greece — a law making it a crime to deny that the World-War-I slaughter of ethnic Armenians in Ottoman Turkey amounts to genocide. Needless to say, thanks already have been expressed.
The measure comes as part of a new anti-hate-crime law that applies similar penalties for rebuttals of the Holocaust and other war-crimes. The law also toughens punishments for racially and sexually motivated hate-crimes.
Greece ranks as the third country after Switzerland and Slovakia to criminalize claims that the slaughter, which Turkey downplays as one of many atrocities of World War I, ranks as a genocide. In 2012, France, home to a large Armenian Diaspora, adopted a similar bill, which strained relations with Turkey before being overturned by the French Constitutional Court.
Ankara, which is playing its cards warily with Armenia in the run-up to the 2015 centennial anniversary of the massacre, does not appear yet to have responded to Athens’ criminalization vote.
Nor, as yet, has Turkic strategic ally Azerbaijan, Armenia’s enemy-number-one.
The two “brothers” are not generally quiet on such matters; the Azerbaijani government, for instance, stepped up to the plate for Turkey on France’s genocide-denial decision.
As president, Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on September 2-3 paid his first foreign visit (not counting a trip to Turkish-controlled Cyprus) to Azerbaijan to talk about things the two countries share: a friendship, a feud with Armenia and pipelines.
"We are very glad that you came home to Azerbaijan, your homeland, in less than a week after your inauguration," declared Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev by way of greeting to his new counterpart, though old ally. Erdoğan, for his part, wanted to emphasise that the mi-casa-es-su-casa relationship that characterized his nine-year run as prime minister will continue strong. "We are two countries, one nation," he underlined.
And what keeps an alliance together better than a mutual enemy? Both presidents condemned Armenia's occupation of breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh and adjacent Azerbaijani lands. Aliyev vowed to spare no effort to counter the "lies about the Armenian genocide," the Ottoman-era massacre of ethnic Armenians that Turkey claims was collateral damage of World War I.
Some observers believe that the Karabakh conflict is an even bigger obstacle to the normalization of ties between Turkey and Armenia than the genocide row. Baku carries enough cultural and financial influence over Ankara to thwart any attempts at reconciliation. The Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey energy corridor is too important to Ankara to let anything threaten the route.
Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev inspects an Israeli-built coast guard vessel built in Baku. (photo: president.az)
Azerbaijan is acquiring 12 new coast guard vessels from Israel and is discussing the possibility of buying naval corvettes, as well.
The news emerged after Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev formally opened a new shipyard for the coast guard. No mention was made publicly of the Israeli provenance of the ships, but online weapons enthusiasts and the experts at Jane's examined the photos that were released on the president's official site and came to the conclusion that these were warships -- six Shaldag Mk V patrol boats and six Saar 62 offshore patrol vessels -- that Israel had announced it was building for an anonymous customer.
In addition, posters exhibited at the event suggested that Azerbaijan was looking at a more heavily armed Israeli ship, the Saar 72 corvette.
Azerbaijan has already made other naval purchases from Israel, notably some Gabriel-5 anti-ship missiles, which became a source of tension between Azerbaijan and Iran: Tehran, fixated on Israel, mistrusts Baku's close military ties with its enemy.
A photo, released by Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, showing what it says is an Israeli drone launched from Azerbaijan and shot down by Iran.
Iran has blamed a "former Soviet republic to the north" for being the base of an Israeli drone that Tehran claims to have shot down earlier this week. Although the Iranian officials didn't specify Azerbaijan, that is the only country they could mean, and Azerbaijan's government has denied the claim, calling it a "provocation."
Two senior Iranian military officials have said that the Israeli Hermes drone that they shot down did not come from Israel, but from "the north." Via Fars News Agency:
The defense ministers of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey visit an Azerbaijani military unit in Nakhchivan, Azerbaijan. (photo: mod.gov.az)
The nascent alliance between Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey took a big step forward this week when the defense ministers of the three countries met trilaterally for the first time and promised to carry out joint military exercises.
The three ministers, meeting in the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan on August 19, agreed to work on "tripartite exercises to enhance the combat capability of the armed forces of the three countries and the achievement of mutual understanding during joint military operations, including the organization of joint seminars and conferences, cooperation in military education, development of military technology, the exercises for the protection of oil and gas pipelines," said Azerbaijani Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov after the meeting.
While the specific results of the meeting may have had to do with protecting joint infrastructure like the pipelines and railroad projects that the three countries work on together, the geopolitical import of the meeting was undeniable. With Russia's new assertiveness and the recent spike in tensions in Nagorno Karabakh, Georgia and Azerbaijan are keen to get support wherever they can. "Georgia is very fortunate to have such great neighbors and strategic allies like Azerbaijan and Turkey," said Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania. "And these challenging times from the security standpoint in the wider region we need to cooperate more closely and we need to be very tightly in touch with each other to defend the critical infrastructure that is very integral to our development."
The breakaway territory of Nagorno Karabakh, always on the lookout for ways to boost its population, has offered to shelter Yazidis fleeing from Islamic-State terrorists in Iraq.
“The Armenian people cannot be indifferent to what is now being done to the Yazidi people,” David Babaian, spokesperson for Karabakh’s de-facto president, Bako Sahakian, commented to RFE/RL’s Armenian service on August 19. “The Yazidis are the only people who have become an integral part of the Armenian people.”
According to local news outlets, Armenia is estimated to have a Yazidi population of about 40,000. Data is not available for how many Yazidis live in Karabakh, a predominantly ethnic Armenian region claimed by Azerbaijan.
Babaian skirted discussions of how the region’s de-facto officials would provide for any Yazidi arrivals, however — a sensitive question, given Azerbaijan’s claims that Karabakh and its main champion, Armenia, want to rework the territory’s ethnic makeup.
Armenia’s foreign ministry told RFE/RL that no Yazidis from Iraq have requested asylum or fled to Armenia as yet.
Rallies, though, were held on August 13 in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, to show support for Iraq’s Yazidis, and in neighboring Georgia, which has been estimated to have a Yazidi community of about 20,000.
The Putin-Aliyev-Sargsyan meeting in Sochi was held against the backdrop of the fiercest fighting in years over the remote, mountainous area. That sense of heightened conflict extended to the summit. Before attending the wrestling match, the Azerbaijani and Armenian presidents had a bout of words between themselves. The two accused one another of ignoring UN Security Council resolutions on Karabakh.
That left it to Putin to step in with calls for wisdom and temperance. “[T]here is no bigger tragedy than the deaths of people,” observed the Russian leader.
Perhaps he was speaking from experience, if not from a sense of irony. The international community has widely blamed Moscow for encouraging the fighting in eastern Ukraine between Kyiv and pro-Russian separatists that already has led to the deaths of hundreds, including the downing of Malaysian Airways Flight MH17.
With police cordons and security everywhere, Tbilisi’s Locomotive Stadium looked like the venue of an international summit on the night of August 7. In fact, it was a soccer game of modest significance between Azerbaijan’s Neftchi and Georgia’s Chikhura, a team from the small provincial town of Sachkhere that recently rose to prominence thanks as much to its wins as to its rowdy fans’ hostility toward Georgia’s Muslim neighbors.
At a previous, goalless game in Baku on August 1 between these same two teams, Chikhura’s fans rolled out a large map of Georgia with bits of Azerbaijani land depicted as Georgian territories. The map and the catcalls provoked a mass brawl between Georgian and Azerbaijani fans.
Worse things have happened on soccer fields, but in this region, where all countries believe that their neighbors owe them a piece of land and ethnic conflict is often just a brawl away, the authorities hurried to prevent a possible escalation. Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili denounced the violence as a “provocation,” while President Giorgi Margvelashvili and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev pledged by phone that such unpleasantness will not derail the two countries’ friendship.
Earlier, on July 24, another incident occurred in Tbilisi when Chikhura played another qualifying match for UEFA’s Europe League against Turkey’s Buraspor. Purportedly the same group of fans made a Nazi salute and sported Nazi symbols during the match, while one Chikhura player made a crude gesture at Turkish fans. At a post-game press conference, Georgian and Turkish sports journalists came to blows.
Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev visits frontline troops August 6. (photo: president.az)
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev made a morale-raising visit to troops along the front lines of fighting with Armenia, escalating the rhetoric around the recent conflict even while the shooting appears to have died down.
On Wednesday, Aliyev visited troops near the Aghdam region (which overeager Azerbaijani media had reported that its forces had already won back) and, in a military uniform, delivered a stemwinder of a speech, which he the next day summarized on twitter.
"We are not living in peace, we are living in a state of war. Everyone must know this," he said. "The war is not over. Only the first stage of it is. But the second stage may start too."
He also seemed to support the theory that the uptick in fighting was intended to sharpen international attention on the conflict. "Azerbaijani citizens are not pleased with the activity of mediators because the main mission of mediators is to settle the conflict, not to keep it in a frozen state and conduct confidence building measures," he said. "The Azerbaijani army is showing its strength, which is having an impact on the talks... If the Azerbaijani army starts an offensive, the enemy will find itself in a very difficult situation. This is known to us, the enemy and the mediators. Therefore, I believe that the developments of recent days will prompt mediators to take some action."
Nevertheless, fighting appears to have died down and Aliyev is scheduled to meet with his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sargsyan in Sochi, Russia, on Friday and Saturday.
The renewed ruckus between Armenia and Azerbaijan has prompted calls for rehashing the international approach to finding a peaceful resolution to the 26-year-long Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. But, so far, it appears to be only Russian President Vladimir Putin who's planning to meet with the two countries' leaders.
The reasons for reviving the half-dormant ex-Soviet conflict remain moot. For years now, gusts of fighting have occasionally disrupted the 1994 ceasefire agreement, which ended a full-blown war over breakaway Karabakh. To quote Armenian Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian, Karabakh ever since has been a place of “no war, no peace.”
But with a record number dead in recent weeks, a real threat of another ex-Soviet war is in the air.
With reports of casualties coming in daily, Azerbaijani military officials have claimed that volunteers have been stepping forward to help national forces with the “liberation of the occupied lands.”
In Armenia, Defense Minister Ohanian said on August 5 that, so far, there is no need for mobilization or the deployment of an international peacekeeping force. “Karabakh is the only conflict zone in the world where relative peace is maintained through a balance between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces,” Ohanian declared at an August-6 press-conference.