In the two weeks since Saudi Arabia announced that it was forming a yet another "coalition" to combat Islamist terror, the allegiances of the former Soviet states have come under increasing scrutiny. All of them, however, appear to believe that they have little to gain from picking a side and continue to spurn the advances from various suitors, including Russia and the United States in addition to the Saudis.
When Saudi Arabia announced its 34-member coalition of majority-Muslim states, there was a conspicuous lack of any post-Soviet republics in its ranks. Azerbaijan said it was considering the idea, and apparently still is.
A Saudi newspaper reported that Tajikistan's ambassador to Riyadh said that Dushanbe was considering the idea, and that President Emomali Rahmon would discuss the idea during his visit to Saudi Arabia in January. But the same day, that was denied by the country’s deputy foreign minister, Parviz Davlatzoda, who told the Russian news agency TASS, "We do not consider this at all."
Part of Tajikistan's reluctance is no doubt due to Moscow's hostile attitude toward the Saudi coalition. The Russian press has heaped scorn on the notion of the coalition; one journalist asked President Vladimir Putin about it, noting that "This will be an anti-Russian alliance, and it includes Turkey. This is very dangerous." Putin played the good cop, though:
Saudi Arabia on Tuesday announced the creation of a 34-country coalition of Muslim states aimed at fighting terrorism. Those 34 countries did not include the six Muslim-majority states of the former Soviet Union, though Azerbaijan said that it was considering joining in.
It's not yet clear what exactly the coalition will do: "It remains unclear what the Sunni kingdom is asking the other countries to do—whether it is a loose grouping to talk strategy and share intelligence or the first step to establishing a fighting force against the Sunni militant group," the Wall Street Journal reported.
The geopolitics of the new coalition suggest the emergence of a sort of new Cold War bloc arrangement in the region. The United States praised the creation of the new group. "In general it appears it is very much in line with something we've been urging for quite some time, which is greater involvement in the campaign to combat ISIL (Islamic State) by Sunni Arab countries," said U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.
Discussion of the draft comes right after a fatal police raid last week, when special troops were sent to “quell rebels” in the Baku suburb of Nardaran, home to a conservative Shi’a community. Two law-enforcement officers and four men tagged as alleged militants were killed. Police arrested a local spiritual leader, Taleh Bagirzade, and members of his Movement for Muslim Unity. They accused the group of plans to overthrow the government and establish a sharia state.
Given the government’s practice of running roughshod over critics, some question its motivations in the Nardaran raid. The town, EurasiaNet.org has reported, has generally been seen as “a different world” from the rest of Azerbaijan, with no national police allowed on its territory.
A fire that left most of Azerbaijan offline on November 16 appears to speak to the insecurity of the Internet supply in the South Caucasus, where nationwide Internet dim-outs are nothing new.
Early on Monday, a cable caught fire in a ganglion of lines belonging to Delta Telecom, Azerbaijan’s all-but-monopoly Internet supplier. The blaze eventually affected roughly 90 percent of the country’s networks, according to internet connectivity tracker Renesys.
Careful in its wording, the communications ministry termed the problem “a partial breakdown” in equipment, caused by a melting cable and smoke.
The incident lead to a roughly seven-hour-long Internet outage and brought down many locally hosted websites. As Azerbaijan’s main gateway to the Internet, Delta Telecom sells international traffic to nearly all internet service providers. The company also hosts on its servers several government websites.
Azerbaijani officials stressed that mission-critical operations — banking and the country’s bread-and-butter, oil-and-gas extraction – were not affected. The Internet connection was mostly restored late on the same day, but the outage left Internet users, both corporate and individual, in a huff.
“The government should take immediate measures to prevent such incidents from happening again and also to make the field more competitive and make alternative infrastructure available,” advised the Azerbaijan Internet Forum, a non-governmental coalition.
South Korean naval chief Admiral Jung Ho-sub lays flowers at Azerbaijan's Martyrs' Alley in Baku. (photo: MoD Azerbaijan)
The head of South Korea's navy is on a short tour around the Caspian Sea, visiting military officials in Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan to discuss security cooperation.
Admiral Jung Ho-sub visited Astana on Monday and Baku on Tuesday. The official message in each country was remarkably similar: the aim of the visit was to build naval relations with the respective countries, specifically singling out the hosting of sailors at South Korean military schools and conducting training on Korean ships.
But there was likely more to the visit than that. South Korea has been in discussions with both Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan about equipping their growing navies. In 2013, Azerbaijani officials visited South Korea with an extensive shopping list that included submarine boats, naval destroyers, transport ships.
Similarly, Korean firms have been active in seeking naval military business from Kazakhstan, including possibly building warships and constructing a new shipyard on the Caspian.
If any military deals between South Korea and the Caspian states have gone through, they haven't been made public. After the Azerbaijanis' trip to Korea in 2013, local media reported that one of Seoul's concerns about selling weaponry to Azerbaijan was the possibility of irking Russia. Nevertheless, Korea represents a relatively uncontroversial option for Astana and Baku as they pursue the increasingly sensitive process of Caspian naval armament.
U.S. and Azerbaijani military officials meet in Baku during the visit of U.S. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus. (photo: U.S. Navy)
The United States Secretary of the Navy has visited Azerbaijan amid heightened tensions on the Caspian Sea.
Secretary Ray Mabus visited Baku on Saturday and met with President Ilham Aliyev as well as Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov. There were no details announced about the content of the discussions, but the visit seems to have been heavily covered in Azerbaijan. And Aliyev, according to the state news agency AzerTac, "noted that the situation in the region has changed a lot recently."
Some of those changes include Russia's repeated launching of cruise missiles from ships in the Caspian; the abrupt cancelation of what would have been the first-ever Iranian naval visit to Baku; and increasingly vocal support by Western officials for construction of a trans-Caspian pipeline to carry gas from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan and on to Europe. All of that, presumably, would have given Mabus and Aliyev a lot to talk about.
Mabus arrived in Baku from Dushanbe where, curiously, the local media seems to have ignored the visit and the U.S. account only mentions him visiting American diplomatic and military officers in Tajikistan. Tajikistan, being landlocked, doesn't have a navy but Mabus also oversees the U.S. Marine Corps, who have been involved in training Tajikistan's special forces units.
Iran's Damavand frigate, which made its first visit to Russia, but skipped a planned trip to Baku without explanation. (photo: MoD Iran)
Iran's navy appears to have quietly scrapped plans to make its first-ever visit to Azerbaijan.
Iranian officials announced earlier this month that a three-ship contingent from their Caspian fleet would be visiting Baku after a stop in Astrakhan for joint exercises with Russia's Caspian Flotilla. The stop in Russia seems to have gone as planned, but on Friday Iranian military officials announced that the ships had returned home to Iran, with no mention of the previous Azerbaijani plans.
"The Iranian fleet of warships comprising Joshan (Shield) and Peykan (Arrow) warships and the hi-tech Damavand destroyer which embarked on a 12-day voyage in the Caspian Sea on October 18 and after conducting joint naval drills with the Russian Navy and berthing at Russia's Astrakhan port returned home today," Navy Commander Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari told the Fars news agency. (It's worth noting that the tour was originally said to be 14 days.)
So what happened to Baku? Although the planned visit was reported in the Azerbaijani media at the start of the trip, there seems to have been no mention since then about the visit or that it had been canceled.
With its November 1 parliament vote just days away, Azerbaijan today continued a string of detentions of senior government officials from the national security ministry and communications ministry that has left observers struggling to explain.
On October 29, Vidadi Zeynolav, the chief of staff of the communications ministry, a high-profile body handling such nationally sensitive projects as Azerbaijan's first satellite launch, was detained for unclear reasons.
To date, 22 arrests of officials related to government-run security or communications bodies have been reported.The first seven cases occurred after Mahmudov’s dismissal on October 17. An additional 15 followed on October 28.
Prosecutors say that the individuals were abusing their official powers or damaging "the rights and legitimate interests" of individuals or organizations, yet details of the cases remain under wraps. The hit list includes the deputy directors of Azerbaijan's counter-terrorism center and transnational organized crime center.
The nomination comes from a Göteborg, Sweden-based group that is not quick to respond to questions. What is known about the group – a certain Swedish Peace Agency (SPA) – is that it is a self-described international organization launched in 2010 to further world peace. The president is 40-year-old Rezha Aghapoor, who was born in “Iranian Azerbaijan,” Iran’s northern province dominated by ethnic Azeris.
SPA did not respond to questions about its sponsorship sources. The organization does not appear to be listed in Sweden’s roster of charities and does not have a working website in Swedish.
Its reasons for nominating Mehriban Aliyeva for the organization’s peace prize are not clear. “Individuals or governmental institutions active in defence of human rights can be nominated for the Prize,” according to the agency's nomination submission rules.
Also in the running is American writer and rights-activist Alice Walker.
Iran's Damavand frigate, which is making its first visit to Russia. (photo: MoD Iran)
Iranian warships are on a rare trip around the Caspian, calling on their neighbors in Russia and Azerbaijan in a period of new uncertainty for the sea.
Three Iranian vessels are scheduled to berth in Astrakhan, the home of Russia's Caspian Flotilla, on Wednesday. After three days in Astrakhan, the ships will head to Baku and then back to Iran. According to Iranian media it is only Iran's second naval visit to Russia and apparently its first to Azerbaijan.
Russia, the dominant power in the Caspian, makes these sorts of small, friendly naval visits around the sea somewhat regularly. In August, a small contingent of Russian ships visited the Iranian coast and conducted joint exercises.
But Iran's first such visit was in the summer of 2013, and then only to Russia. The visit to Baku isn't the only novelty; this time Iran is sending its new frigate, the Damavand, Iran's most powerful ship on the Caspian which was launched earlier this year.
Although the Caspian is the site of much greater attention these days as a result of Russia's surprise missile launch to Syria, this visit was no doubt planned well in advance. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu visited Tehran in January and on the agenda was more naval port calls.