Pro-Putin Russian bikers, known for their politically incorrect expeditions, have now caused concern in Azerbaijan, after they announced plans to descend on Nagorno Karabakh on July 31, in breach of an Azerbaijan-imposed travel ban on the breakaway territory.
This is not the first time that the infamous, Kremlin-funded motorcycle club, the Night Wolves, has sparked controversy. Earlier this year, with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s blessing, this Russian nationalism-on-wheels tried to retrace the Soviet Army’s route to Berlin to commemorate the 1945 victory over Nazi Germany.
Several European countries like Poland, Lithuania and the Czech Republic refused to offer passage to this new red army, both because of their controversial trajectory and for their support for pro-Russia fighters in Ukraine. Only a small group of club members made it to Germany; most of them in a rental car.
A pack of Night Wolves then headed to Georgia, much to the outrage of many Georgians angry over the continued Russian occupation of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia. After all, the country’s biggest bête noire, Putin, is an honorary member of the gang.
In Georgia, the group’s leader, Alexander Zaldastanov, aka Surgeon, added fuel to the fire by expressing regret that he had to use an international passport to cross from Russia to Georgia.
“What is this? I even have to fill out forms in Sevastopol, Ukraine, where I spent my childhood,” he complained to Georgian media. “It is a tragedy that we all don’t live in one country anymore.”
“As long as you’re going to be thinking anyway, think big,” goes an old line from headline-grabbing US presidential candidate Donald Trump. And in Azerbaijan, Trump, the mega-real-estate mogul, has done just that, in terms of both project and partner.
But the deal also raises big questions about how well he grasps the lay of the land in Azerbaijan.
Trump lent his name and management know-how to an upcoming, sail-shaped skyscraper in Baku that is owned by billionaire Anar Mammadov, Mother Jones magazine reported on July 29. Mammadov is a son of the country’s powerful transportation minister, Ziya Mammadov, a man whose family has been long accused of battening on privileged access to government contracts for infrastructure development.
The deal and Mammadov’s role as a champion of Azerbaijani interests in the US — he heads the Azerbaijan America Alliance — exemplify the two parallel worlds of US-Azerbaijani relations. Baku now bitterly rebukes Washington’s criticism of its dismal human rights records, even as its insiders actively lobby and sweet-talk US politicians.
Azerbaijan reportedly has arrested for supposed narcotics peddling the brother-in-law of the director of Meydan TV, an online television station that has become a widely cited source of information about alleged abuses within President Ilham Aliyev’s administration .
In a July 27 Facebook statement, the Berlin-based station’s director, Emin Milli, claimed that the detention of his brother-in-law, Nazim Agabeyov, an IT professional, is intended to punish “relatives, family members and take them as hostages” for his station’s reporting. He dismissed the allegations as “bogus and absurd.”
Azerbaijan’s interior ministry has not commented on the report about Agabeyov’s arrest, Contact.az reported Turan news agency as saying. Agabeyov’s father, Mais, told the agency on July 27 that the family has had no contact with his son, nor with investigators since Nazim Agabeyov’s detention “several days ago.”
Drug charges are routinely filed against critics of the Aliyev government and their relatives.On July 22, a similar accusation was placed against Rufat Zakhidov, a nephew of the editor-in-chief of the opposition Azadliq (Freedom) newspaper, Ganimat Zakhidov, now living in self-imposed exile abroad. Another nephew and a cousin of Zakhidov were arrested a few days previously on minor charges.
Since the conclusion of the European Games this month, reports about officials taking an interest in Meydan TV also have increased.
After a period of estrangement, Baku has laid out its terms for getting back on friendly terms with Washington. The suggestions may have come in the form of commentaries from local news outlets, but the medium is the message in Azerbaijan, where most mainstream media is under the government's thumb.
Ultimately, Baku's demands boil down to being accepted for what it is; an increasingly authoritarian regime, by estimates of any international human rights watchdog, and that the US should quit trying to change it.
APA, for instance, in a July 14 piece, construed a meeting between the Azerbaijani armed forces’ Chief of Staff Colonel General Nejmeddin Sadikov and the unnamed US embassy defense attaché as a mutual attempt to mend fences — despite what other outlets, in a copy-and-paste brief, termed the allegedly “destructive” policies of the State Department.
“Azerbaijani Defense Ministry restores ties with Pentagon” read APA’s headline; a bit of a surprise to those not aware that they had ever been severed.
Two days later, in a long and laborious review of US-Azerbaijan relations, Azernews.az announced that "Azerbaijan says yes to the USA`s peace gesture, but . . ."
One of the more interesting story lines from the recent Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Russia was the addition of new "dialogue partners": Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, and Nepal.
The role of a dialogue partner is not clear, and seems to vary: Belarus had been a dialogue partner, and played an active role in the organization. President Alexander Lukashenko went to the summit earlier this month and Belarus was upgraded to an SCO observer. Turkey, meanwhile, became a dialogue partner in 2013 and since then both the SCO and Ankara, by all public appearances, seem to have completely ignored one another.
But that caveat aside, becoming part of the SCO is nevertheless a statement of some sort of geopolitical intention. Armenia's accession is not too surprising: it is Russia which is clearly interested in pushing SCO expansion in order to boost its own international status, and Yerevan is highly susceptible to Moscow's wishes.
Azerbaijan's entrance, however, is more interesting. What does Azerbaijan have to gain from being part of the SCO?
For one, the SCO's focus on weakening Western norms of human rights is clearly attractive given its accelerating feud with the United States and European countries over what Baku says is unfair criticism of its political and human rights practices.
He had a flat in downtown New York and a castle in Burgundy, but gave it all up for a hayseed village life; most recently, in disputed Nagorno Karabakh. He is German Sterligov, the founder of Russia’s first commodity exchange, and he recently came out of his hermitage in the breakaway territory to face enemies and possibly prosecution back in Moscow.
One of post-Soviet Russia’s first millionaires, 48-year-old Sterligov, who advocates a return to the old Russian alphabet, tsarism and living off the land, earlier this month fled the blandishments of the Moscow region to set up operations in bucolic Karabakh, the longtime battlefield between Armenians and Azerbaijanis.
In a July 13 press-conference, he called the accusations “a lie.”
One of his aides has linked the campaign against Sterligov in Russia to his historical opus, “From Adam to Putin,” in which he wishes that the Russian president would become a Christian. Sterligov accuses the Russian Orthodox Church of heresy.
It’s always unsettling to learn that a repressive government has sophisticated computer malware. But in the case of Azerbaijan, the good news is that they don’t necessary know how to use it.
In emails leaked Sunday, the employees of Italian cyber-surveillance company Hacking Team exchange both giggles and exasperation as they field questions from Azerbaijan, where interior and national security officials were trying to get the hang of the spyware, Meydan TV reported on July 9.
The information, obtained by unknown hackers, makes up part of 400GB of data released via BitTorrents; a grab one privacy expert deemed the equivalent of Edward Snowden’s handiwork, Wired reported.
According to the conversation with the Azerbaijani officials, the Hacking Team offered help in “infecting targets” with the spyware, which allows remote access to all computer files and the ability to control computers’ cameras and microphones.
The Italian company had denied selling its products to abusive governments. Yet the leaked data showed that the Azerbaijani government had used a California-based company to license Hacking Team’s Remote Control System spyware, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. found. The initial payment was 320,000 euros (about $402,000) with continued annual payments for maintenance.
Azerbaijan's new naval base in Puta, inaugurated in June 2015. (photo: president.az)
The Caspian sea states will discuss creating a "collective security system" on the sea at a meeting in Russia this fall, a Russian military official announced.
Russia's top naval commander, Admiral Viktor Chirkov, met with naval delegations from Azerbaijan, Iran, and Kazakhstan last week in St. Petersburg, and afterward announced that the states discussed creating a consultative organ of all the Caspian sea navies and a collective security system, and signing an Agreement on the Prevention of Incidents on the Caspian.
"During the meetings with [Admiral Chirkov] the delegations confirmed their readiness to work on these issues, and agreed to conduct the first round of corresponding consultations in Russia in October," the statement from the Russian Ministy of Defense said.
The idea of a collective security system was first publicly mooted by Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu last year in Baku; Chirkov's comments suggest it is moving forward.
The notion of collective security on the Caspian is a bit odd; it wasn't explicitly mentioned which of the five states would be involved in the organization, but the goal is presumably for all of them to be. And then, on a closed sea with no other potential enemies, the idea of collective security is overkill -- from whom would they be defending themselves?
Tbilisi had an unusual visitor on July 2. But one whose presence could have far-reaching consequences for the energy map of both the South Caucasus and Europe.
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s two-day state visit to Georgia, his first, involves the usual meetings with the usual assortment of senior Georgian officials and the usual signing of various, vaguely described agreements.
The two countries have not divulged the details.
The Turkmen government is excited about how the use of “transportation-transit infrastructure between the Caspian and Black Sea regions will provide for the supply of broad inter-regional integration with the states of Europe, and the Near and Far East.”
Georgian Foreign Minister Tamar Beruchashvili, for her part, expressed a hope that the visit would bring “interesting results” for “deepening” the two countries’ relations as well as for “the execution of regional projects.”
Of course, bottom line, that means one thing – energy.
A few months ago, European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic told Reuters that Turkmen gas would reach European markets by 2019.
The European Games and its implicit race between hydrocarbon dollars and human rights have come to an end after a grandiose closing show on June 28 in Baku and divergent opinions about what the Olympics-style event has done for Azerbaijan.
Officials in the oil capital of the Caucasus say, all puns aside, that the event has been a gas. Government-influenced media (in other words, mainstream Azerbaijani media) is busy cultivating a sense of achievement and President Ilham Aliyev’s government is promising to host more sporting events that raise Azerbaijan’s international profile.
But some critics question the need for the Games. The Guardian wrote that Baku 2015 left the impression of “ghost games;” that “there is no real need for in a crowded calendar and willed into existence by the endless expansionism of the Olympics movement and an authoritarian state.”
Sports Minister Azad Rahimov was a bit on the defensive amid reports of excessive spending. He claimed that the alleged 960 million manats ($914.55 million) price-tag for the Games was within range of initial estimates, but there are reports of much higher spending.