In discussions of Eurasian security, "2014" has become a byword for a turning point in the region. WIth the planned pullout of U.S. and NATO combat troops from Afghanistan, Central Asia (and to a lesser extent the Caucasus) is entering an uncertain future. Predicting the future is obviously a futile endeavor, but for the sake of discussion, here's what The Bug Pit expects to be covering over the next 12 months:
1. Nagorno Karabakh. This is a no-brainer. There were some positive signs toward the end of 2013, with the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan meeting for the first time in two years. Nevertheless, the cross-border skirmishes continued, and the large forces that have made things between the two countries so tense -- like Azerbaijan's rapid military buildup and each country's dehumanization of the people on the other side of the border -- have not abated. So the renewal of conflict seems only a matter of time.
2. The Pamirs. After Tajikistan's central government suffered a humiliating defeat in its attempt to bring the region under its control in the July 2012 military operation in Khorog, it has been the conventional wisdom that the government will eventually try again. Now the presidential elections have passed, and tensions have risen again.
A sale of Turkish howitzers to Azerbaijan seems to be back on after the German company that made the weapon's engine blocked the sale because of restrictions related to its frozen conflict with Armenia.
Deliveries of Turkey's T-155 howitzer to Azerbaijan will start next year, the cannon's manufacturer told Azerbaijan news agency APA. But it's not yet clear who will provide the engine, given that Germany refused. Much speculation has centered around Ukraine, but another interesting possibility is Japan. Last month, a Japanese newspaper reported that Turkey and Japan were cooperating on an engine for Turkey's Altay tank, which had the same Azerbaijan-export problem with the same German enginemaker, MTU.
"[The joint development of defense equipment] is one issue that will be discussed within the relationship between Japan and Turkey," Japan's Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said at a press conference last week, following which Japan's Asahi Shimbun reported, based on anonymous sources, that the cooperation being considered by Japan and Turkey involves a joint venture between Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and a Turkish company to manufacture engines for tanks....
“If Germany wanted to introduce limitations on Turkey's exports regarding the engine, then Turkey may have wished to cooperate with Japan,” Erdoğan Karakuş, a retired three-star general, told Today's Zaman. Noting that the costs of production for Altay would be too high for Turkey if Turkey cannot export the tank, he underlined that the “contribution of the Altay project to the local defense industry would also remain rather limited in such a case.”
When you think of a country with a perfect election law and expertise in putting it into practice, you would not necessarily think of Azerbaijan, the South-Caucasus country rich in hydrocarbons, but, according to international observers, short on democracy. Yet, that is where fellow USSR-surviving countries have gone to seek inspiration for electoral reform.
At a December 16 gathering of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Commonwealth of Independent States in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, Russia's Alexei Sergeyev, head of the group's secretariat, declared that Azerbaijan’s election legislation is outstanding and that the world needs more of it. “We want Azerbaijan’s electoral legislation to be applied in other member states of the CIS, too,” he enthused to Trend news agency.
It is not quite clear what exactly has impressed the delegates, who convened in Baku for a seminar on the "Development of Election Legislation in CIS Countries: The Ways of Perfection and Application." Azerbaijan today is still run by the same Aliyev family which was at Azerbaijan's helm when the CIS members were in the Soviet Union. With presidential term limits essentially scrapped, the people of Azerbaijan have been having the Ground Hog Day-style experience for the last decade with one and the same person -- President Ilham Aliyev, who took over the presidency in 2003 after the death of his father, Heydar Aliyev.
Perhaps what impressed Sergeyev is that Azerbaijan’s Aliyev did not even bother to pull the jack-of-cards-style flip that Russia’s power couple, President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev have been doing. Aliyev simply won three elections in a row, according to official data.
Armenians may have been troubled by Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to their country, as it seemed to be an exhibition of Russia's tightening grip on Yerevan's foreign policy. But in Azerbaijan, the visit occasioned a different sort of fear: that Putin was confirming Russia's military support for Armenia in a potential conflict with Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh.
One military expert in Baku, Uzeyir Cafarov, said that Putin's support for Armenia would increase the risk of conflict. "We must be extra careful regarding the situation on the front line in January and February. It is possible that local clashes will take place on the front line. Russia continues to play double games. We must not give in to this and must bring into Russia's attention that its position on the Karabakh conflict is biased," Cafarov told the newspaper Azadliq, according to a BBC Monitoring report.
And member of parliament Zahid Oruc told sia.az (also via BBC Monitoring), "With this visit and by increasing the number of Russian troops in Armenia, Russia is stimulating the regional arms race and pushes others to this. This is a threat to the lasting peace in the region."
The “corrupting influence of the West” is a catchphrase immortalized by the 1969 cult Soviet comedy, The Diamond Arm, in which a busy-body apartment-manager (portrayed by iconic actress Nonna Mordykova) becomes suspicious of the new, supposedly bourgeois ways of a neighbor after he returns from abroad.
You would not expect to hear a post-Soviet government official repeat this line today. Unless, that is, you happen to be in the oil-soaked Caucasus country of Azerbaijan.
In a December 2 speech in Baku, Ali Hasanov, a senior political aide to President Ilham Aliyev and a tireless guardian of public loyalty to his boss, called on all and sundry to fight back against the pernicious effects of Western influence that supposedly are pitting Azerbaijani young people and the media against their own people and the state.
“Each of us has a duty to protect youth from the corrupting influence of the West,” he instructed his audience, the APA news agency reported. “We can’t allow certain young men to engage in an anti-Azerbaijani activity for some 2 or 3,000 manats" via Western donor grants, he argued.
By "anti-Azerbaijani activity," Hasanov presumably means any action seen as presenting a challenge to the Aliyev family, in power for most of the past 44 years. Western grants meant to help democratize Azerbaijan inevitably translate into challenges to that status quo, in Hasanov's mind.
But, never fear, President Aliyev and his youth fund are here. In a bid to preserve Azerbaijan's "integrity," the fund is dishing out grants to match civil-society funding by Western democratization groups.
Police in Azerbaijan have arrested an Iranian and accused him of planning an attack on the Israeli embassy in Baku. In many places this would be big news, but it's become somewhat dog-bites-man in Baku, the government claims evincing more skepticism than alarm.
In the latest incident, Baku police arrested 31-year-old Hassan Faraji after he was seen near the Israeli embassy exhibiting "suspicious behavior." Israeli media have reported that "Faraji is a part of the Iranian Quds Forces, a special unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard that, among other roles, is tasked with planning and executing terrorist attacks against Israeli targets overseas." Iran has denied that, while accusing Azerbaijani authorities of torturing Faraji, which Baku denies.
Anyway, this is the latest of a long string of plots that Azerbaijan has accused Iran of fomenting in Baku. The Bug Pit asked Anar Valiyev, a Baku-based analyst who as far back as 2007 was writing that the regularity with which Baku accuses Tehran of plotting attacks. Valiyev noted that this recent accusation is especially hard to believe, given that Iran is finally managing to work its way out of international isolation:
Though you wouldn’t know it looking at how Russia treats activists who protest oil drilling in the fragile Arctic, Moscow has a soft spot for the environment – when it’s politically expedient.
Days after a European Union representative said Brussels is moving forward with plans to build a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan across the bottom of the Caspian Sea, a senior Russian official said Moscow is concerned about the effect on the Caspian’s “extremely sensitive ecosystem.”
Igor Bratchikov, the Russian president's special envoy for the delimitation and demarcation of borders with CIS states, also told Russia's RIA Novosti news agency on November 22 that the EU plans are an "interference in Caspian affairs.”
Bratchikov said that while constructing a trans-Caspian pipeline "it would be thoughtless and ruinous not to take environmental factors into account."
"The consequences of any incident would be catastrophic for the extremely sensitive ecosystem of the Caspian Sea," Bratchikov said. "Moreover, it is not Europeans or Americans, but the littoral states that would have to solve [problems] in case of a disaster."
The EU official, Denis Daniilidis, said the draft agreement, which he expects Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan to sign later this year, ensures that any pipeline adheres to the "highest environmental standards."
Azerbaijan naval vessels on parade in 2011. (photo: Wikimedia commons)
Azerbaijan will start building a warship next year, military sources told the news agency APA. No details were given, including what sort of ships were under consideration, or who Azerbaijan might be partnering with. Just: "Baku Shipbuilding Plant has already submitted the projects of some ships for Navy for different purposes and the ships will be constructed after the projects are agreed."
While Azerbaijan has been the relative laggard in the Caspian Sea arms race (instead prioritizing equipment oriented toward war with Armenia over Nagorno Karabakh), recently it has evinced a bit more interest in its navy. As part of the blockbuster arms deal with Israel it is buying Gabriel anti-ship missiles, and just last month it said it would soon start receiving Uran-E naval missiles from Russia.
Azerbaijan has never before produced a military vessel, so it's safe to assume that it's not doing this by itself. So the big question is, who's the partner? I asked several sources in Baku and Moscow, and no one knew (or would say). The most likely partner would seem to be Turkey, which has been fairly active in helping Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan build up their navies from scratch. And the news came out as Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev was visiting Turkey (though the only defense contractor Aliyev seems to have visited was Turkish Aerospace Industries, where he looked at helicopters and training aircraft). I happened to meet Turkey's top government defense industry official, Murad Bayar, this week and asked him if Turkey was participating, and he answered noncommittally, saying the two sides had "had some consultations, but there is nothing definite."
The Iran-Azerbaijan border in Nakhcivan (photo: The Bug Pit)
A shooting on the Iran-Azerbaijan border has led to the border being closed for several days, the latest episode of tension between the two countries. The controversy began last week, when an unidentified gunman (in military uniforms, according to Azerbaijan) fired shots at a tractor working on the shore of the Araz River that forms the border between the two countries.
No one was injured, but in response, "The Azerbaijani side accused the Iranian military of the fire and demanded an explanation. Not having received them, the Azerbaijani authorities closed the nearest border crossing point Shahtakhti," near the site of the incident in Azerbaijan's Nakhcivan exclave. And then Iran retaliated by closing off the other two border crossings in Nakhvican, citing "Baku's refusal to negotiate over the issue." From Press TV:
[Iranian embassy in Baku press secretary Mohammad] Ayatollahi said Azerbaijan sealed the border crossing in an “unconventional move” on Wednesday after an unidentified assailant opened fire on a tractor in the border region without causing any casualties.
He stated that the border closure has created serious problems for Iranian passengers and drivers....
He stated that an Iranian border guard was killed by Azeri security forces in Bileh-Savar two years ago, but Iran did not close the border and pursued the issue through the relevant authorities.
Nearly every day, the exact same headline pops up in the news feeds of those who follow conflict n the Caucasus: "Armenian Armed Forces violate ceasefire in several directions." And with only slightly less frequency, and only slightly more variation, another headline appears: Azerbaijan Violates Ceasefire over X times Last Week."
The stories -- reprinted press releases from the respective ministries of defense -- follow the same numbing pattern. From the Azerbaijani side, after a couple of paragraphs saying where the alleged shooting took place, the exact same four paragraphs close out the piece:
The conflict between the two South Caucasus countries began in 1988 when Armenia made territorial claims against Azerbaijan.
Armenian armed forces have occupied 20 per cent of Azerbaijan since 1992, including the Nagorno-Karabakh region and seven surrounding districts.
Azerbaijan and Armenia signed a ceasefire agreement in 1994. The co-chairs of the The OSCE Minsk Group, Russia, France and the U.S. are currently holding peace negotiations.
Armenia has not yet implemented the U.N. Security Council's four resolutions on the liberation of the Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding regions.
The Armenian press releases are even more repetitive, not bothering to name the sites of the alleged violation. They all follow this form, nearly verbatim, the only variation being the number of violations over the past week:
The adversary violated the ceasefire, at the line of contact between the Karabakh-Azerbaijani opposing forces, around 200 times past week.