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.)
In an initiative new to Muslim Azerbaijan, its parliament has broached the topic of legalizing civil partnerships. A group of lawmakers believe that recognizing such partnerships as legal unions is needed to protect the often neglected rights of the growing number of children born out of wedlock. Also, the change will help ensure the “genetic health” of the nation, parliamentarians say.
As part of that “genetic health” campaign, Azerbaijan also plans to introduce mandatory premarital health checks. A set of amendments to what is known as the Family Code is meant to toughen requirements that couples inform each other of their medical conditions before their wedding-day.
“Making these amendments to the Family Code does not conflict with human rights, as we are talking about a healthier national genetic pool and healthier children,” Parliamentary Commission on Social Policies Chairperson Hadi Rajabli told the Interfax-Azerbaijan agency.
The Code’s Article 13.3 states that concealing from a spouse a diagnosis of HIV/AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases provides grounds for the annulment of a marriage. Rajabli proposes expanding the list of medical conditions that must be reported before a wedding.
He said that the idea of premarital checkups had been dismissed before on concerns that couples, especially in rural parts of the country, could simply buy a health certificate from a doctor — an understandable concern in what is often rated among the world’s most corrupt countries. Henceforth, though, physicians will face charges if they sell fake certificates, Rajabli said.
What parent would not want to make their child’s first day of school memorable? But few may rival parents in Azerbaijan, where many first-graders arrived on September 15 in cars resplendent with flowers and bows, and cortèges of kith and kin in tow.
Short of tin-cans tied to the rear bumper, many a car was adorned with full-on wedding-style decorations, to hear the cops tell it. The showy processions — purportedly a growing whim in this oil-and-gas-rich Caspian-Sea republic — careened down the streets of the capital, Baku, giving quite a headache to traffic police. “Sometimes a first-grader is conveyed by up to 15 to 20 cars,” complained Baku traffic police spokesperson Vagif Asadov to Trend news agency.
Asadov claimed that these cars end up parked everywhere, turning the traffic situation in this city of over 2 million from bad to worse. “This has practically paralyzed traffic on the streets,” fretted Asadov. “Should a policeman stand at every meter [of roadway] ? Why can’t these people understand that they are causing an inconvenience to themselves and to others, and that this is not normal and looks ridiculous?“ he went on to ask.
But the inconveniences to others may not be the upmost thing on the minds of these parents. As in neighboring Georgia or Armenia, where students often come bearing flowers for their teachers, they want to make sure their children’s education starts with due pomp and circumstance.
Asadov is having none of it. “Parents must understand that their kids are going not into the army, but to school, and actually will be back home in a few hours," he advised.
Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev visits the country's first defense expo, ADEX. (photo: president.az)
Azerbaijan has held the country's first international defense exposition, showing off the wares of its military-industrial complex and attracting foreign companies hoping to profit off Baku's rapidly growing military budget.
The expo, ADEX, was held in Baku this week and featured 200 companies from 34 countries. The profile was somewhat similar to the region's other defense expo, Kazakhstan's KADEX, with foreign exhibitors dominated by Russia, Turkey, Israel, and Belarus, along with a smattering of European, American, and Asian companies.
Azerbaijan, like Kazakhstan, is putting a lot of effort into building a local defense industry by attracting bigger, more experienced foreign partners to set up joint ventures with Azerbaijani companies. It's doing so to reduce its dependence on foreign weaponry, said Deputy Defense Minister Yahya Musaev said at the show. “It is no secret that this [foreign purchasing] leads to a one-sided dependence. Therefore, we conduct scientific research, train specialists to create the technology for national defense industry."
There seem to have been a lot of shipbuilders and navy-related companies at ADEX; Dutch shipbuilder Damen was the "platinum sponsor" of the show and Chinese and Turkish shipbuilders also exhibited, suggesting they think there is naval business to be had in Azerbaijan.
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.