Russia and Iran, comrades-in-sanctions from the West, are connecting with each other . . . through a railway. And Azerbaijan intends to be the crucial middle link.
The Russian State Railroads Company earlier this week announced plans to build a railway link from Russia, across Azerbaijan, to Iran. An intergovernmental agreement on building the railway is expected to be signed in July next year and the Russian firm said it will foot the bill for the project.
Azerbaijan has its reasons to be suspicious of both countries, but, so far, has given no sign of skittishness about the deal.
How successful Azerbaijan will be in juxtaposing an Eastern train project with a Western one is unclear, however. The idea is not likely to earn warm support in the West, with which Baku already has a relatively schizophrenic relationship — chummy when it comes to energy and assistance for NATO in Afghanistan; far cooler when it comes to reported Azerbaijani abuses of civil rights.
Perhaps that last factor, at least to some degree, contributeAzerbaijan to think it's time to explore what it has in common with Russia and Iran, and express it through rail.
Russian Duma Speaker Sergei Narishkin, in Tehran from November 16-17, made no bones about the project being a slapback at the West.
A senior European diplomat has visited the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh to try to reduce tensions after Azerbaijani armed forces shot down an Armenian helicopter there last week.
Andrzej Kasprzyk, the Special Representative of the OSCE Chairperson in Office, visited the de facto Karabakh capital of Stepanakert on November 17. Kasprzyk seems not to have made any public comments, but Armenian officials used the occasion of his visit to complain about what they called a muted international reaction and perceived "impunity" for Azerbaijan.
And Kasprzyk's visit itself became another point of contention between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Armenian officials said he would visit the site of the shootdown during his visit, but Azerbaijan's Ministry of Defense said that was "another lie and speculation of the Armenian side." And indeed, when Kasprzyk visited the line of contact for a planned monitoring mission on November 18, he appears not to have gone to the crash site.
The site has remained closed to Armenian forces since the helicopter was downed on November 12; it still has not been ascertained whether all three of the aircraft's crew died in the crash. Likewise, there has yet to be any outside assessment of the claims of the opposing sides that the helicopter had crossed the line of contact and was preparing to attack Azerbaijani positions (as Baku says) or was on the Karabakh side of the line and was unarmed (as Yerevan and Stepanakert say).
The presidents of Azerbaijan and Iran, Ilham Aliyev and Hasan Rouhani, at an official dinner in Baku. (photo: president.az)
Iran President Hasan Rouhani completed a visit to Baku, and while the two sides didn't announce anything too newsworthy, the visit underlined how tension between the two countries has considerably diminished over the course of this year.
Rouhani visited Baku November 12-13, and his delegation also included senior presidential aides and ministers of oil, foreign affairs, roads, communications and information technology and economy, as well as the governor of the Central Bank of Iran. And it followed a visit by Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev to Tehran in April. "Indeed, the fact that the two presidents met four times over a period of nine months was a milestone in the history of the two countries’ ties," wrote the Iranian website mehrnews.com in an analysis of Rouhani's trip.
That analysis dated the decline in the two countries' relations to what it called "the Eurovision 2012 misunderstandings," when Baku hosted the European song contest, there were rumors that a gay parade would be held in connection with that, and Iran withdrew its ambassador from Baku.
An Armenian Mi-24 helicopter hit by Azerbaijani fire November 12, in a photo released by the Azerbaijan Ministry of Defense.
After Azerbaijani armed forces shot down an Armenian helicopter, probably the most significant military incident between the two sides in two decades, Armenian military and political figures have promised to retaliate.
The helicopter was shot down on November 12, near the line of contact between the two armed forces. Azerbaijan said the Mi-24 helicopter had crossed the line of contact and was planning to attack, Armenia said the aircraft remained on its side and was moreover unarmed. At least two of the helicopter's crew were killed (and some reports said all three crew members died).
The warnings of retaliation came almost immediately. "The consequences of this unprecedented escalation will be very painful for the Azerbaijani side," a spokesman for the Armenian Ministry of Defense said that day.
One small act of retaliation already took place: on November 13, the day after the helicopter was shot down and Azerbaijan declared the airspace over Karabakh "closed," Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan flew there anyway on a helicopter.
Karabakh's airspace "really is closed, but only to the Azerbaijan air forces, and they should have had the courage to finish the sentence," David Babayan, an adviser to the territory's de facto president, told RFE/RL.
When you think caviar, you don’t necessarily think of breakaway Nagorno Karabakh, a remote South-Caucasus region over which Azerbaijan has been warring with separatists and Armenia for years. But that is about to change. Karabakh claims it has just entered into the caviar industry and, potentially, in a big way.
The region’s de-facto prime minister, Ara Arutiunian, believes that Karabakh is destined to become a global player in the caviar industry by dint of a new fishery business in the village of Magatis set up in part by Armenian Diaspora investments, Armenian and Russian news sites reported, citing a Karabakhi media outlet. The first batch of black caviar is expected to be produced as early as this December.
Aqua-farming may seem a peculiar economic-development choice for the landlocked region, but Arutiunian insists production levels will hit 30 tons annually in seven years — a level that appears to be a drop in the bucket compared with Azerbaijan or Russia, both caviar-majors.
How exactly Karabakh ("black garden" in Turkish and Persian) would get its caviar to outside markets is a larger question. The only way out of the region for ordinary vehicles is via Armenia, the region’s protector, but Armenia has just joined the Eurasian Economic Union, a Moscow-led trade club that, in theory, would require it to set up a customs post with Karabakh, as the internationally recognized property of Azerbaijan.
That little detail, though, was brushed to one side during Armenia’s October 10 signing of the Union treaty. To hear officials (de-jure or de-facto) in Armenia and Karabakh tell it, no customs post will be built.
While in Baku Shoigu met with President Ilham Aliyev and his counterpart, Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov. Shoigu's delegation included Viktor Chirkov, the Russian navy's top commander, and the discussions appeared to be heavily focused on Caspian naval issues. "Everything connected with the Caspian is important to Russia," Shoigu said.
The two sides agreed to carry out joint naval exercises next year, and Russian newspaper Kommersant has reported that Azerbaijan is interested in buying Russian Bal-E coastal missile systems.
Particularly intriguing was the notion of a "collective defense" system: "We proposed the consideration of the creation of a collective security system in the Caspian region... the first step could be to create a council of naval commanders and to prepare a five-sided agreement on preventing incidents on the Caspian and in the airspace above it," Shoigu said.
The biggest headline to come out of the weekend's Caspian Sea summit in Astrakhan, Russia, was that the five countries along the sea agreed to prevent any outside military presence from the sea. This has been a longstanding goal of the sea's two biggest powers, Russia and Iran, the result of worries that the U.S. and/or NATO would somehow gain a military foothold on the sea via security cooperation programs with Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, or Turkmenistan.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, summing up the summit's results and formal declaration, said:
The declaration sets out a fundamental principle for guaranteeing stability and security, namely, that only the Caspian littoral states have the right to have their armed forces present on the Caspian. This was the way the situation developed over history, and we do not seek to change it now. In general, only the five Caspian countries that have sovereign rights over the Caspian Sea and its resources will resolve all matters pertaining to the region.
An Azerbaijan coast guard vessel patrolling the Baku harbor, 2012. (photo: The Bug Pit)
The presidents of the five countries on the Caspian Sea are meeting in Astrakhan, Russia, on Sunday and will agree to "prevent" the military presence of non-littoral countries on the sea, a Russian official has said.
Russia and Iran, the two largest powers on the sea, have long been trying to exclude external powers -- read, the United States -- from establishing a military presence on the sea. The negotiations on this have gone on very much behind the scenes, but the newly independent Caspian countries -- Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan -- have relied to varying degrees on the U.S. to get their new navies up and running. And Azerbaijan, in particular, seemed to be resisting this push to exclude external forces.
"Yes, there are some [American] programs, according to which rearmament of the naval and coast guard forces are being carried out, but this is no cause for alarm that some Caspian country could be a corridor for the military presence of other countries in the Caspian region," said pro-government Baku analyst and journalist, Tofik Abbsov, in an interview in April. He added that reports to the contrary were common in the Russian media and served to "escalate the atmosphere of non-existent trends of tension."
But now Russia and Iran seem to have worn down Baku's resistance. "A political statement was prepared for the summit containing a provision about preventing military presence of non-regional states in the Caspian Sea. There were difficult consultations on the issue, but the sides managed to agree on this principle," said Yuri Ushakov, a Russian presidential aide, on Friday.
Scotland’s dabbling in secessionism has been closely watched in the ex-Soviet Union, the Shangri-La of separatism. From Transnistria to Karabakh to Crimea, all eyes have been on the UK recently, in hopes that the Scottish example would change hearts and minds about claims to independence.
In South Ossetia, approaching, on September 20, the 24th anniversary of declaring itself independent from Georgia, many were inspired by the “peaceful and civilized” conduct of the Brits. Abkhazia produced a video, in which a group of people unfurl a giant Scottish flag to the sound of Mel Gibson bellowing “Freedom!” in Braveheart.
Yet with Scotland’s September-18 vote to stay with the United Kingdom these public expressions of separatist-solidarity with Scotland have suddenly fallen silent. Only Nagorno Karabakh, which itself has seen a referendum proposed as part of the solution to its differences with Baku, issued a statement, observing that “regardless of the result,” the Scottish referendum had shown that letting people decide their own fate is “the norm in a democratic society.”
Screen shot of video of the opening ceremony of the Rapid Trident 2014 U.S.-led military exercises in western Ukraine.
Georgia and Azerbaijan are among the participants at U.S.-organized military exercises now underway in western Ukraine, while Armenia -- which was originally scheduled to take part -- is absent.
The exercises, Rapid Trident, have been held every year since 1995 and this year involve about 1,300 soldiers and are being held in Yavoriv, in Lviv province. Obviously this year's exercises are being held under very different circumstances than previous iterations have been. And naturally they are being seen by the Kremlin as yet another way in which the U.S. and its European partners are carrying out an anti-Russian agenda using Ukraine as a proxy.
For Bug Pit readers, the most interesting element of Rapid Trident 2014 is the participation of the South Caucasus states. Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia have all taken part in previous versions of the exercise. Unsurprisingly, given its firm pro-West, anti-Russia stance, Georgia has taken part again, sending a platoon to Ukraine for the drills.
Also unsurprisingly, Armenia is not taking part. As a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russia-led post-Soviet military bloc, it would be awkward if Armenian troops were training alongside NATO forces. (Interestingly, though, as late as March Armenia was still being listed as among the scheduled participants in Rapid Trident 2014; apparently they changed their minds between then and now.)