They blame the opposition. Or “religious radicals.” Or even poachers. But whatever they do, even as oil prices dip to record lows, officials in energy-rich Azerbaijan are not blaming a recent string of regional protests on the economy.
Azerbaijani police on January 14 reported making 55 arrests connected to protests over the last two days in towns to the north, south and east of the capital, Baku.
Protesters in Siyazan, a town 115 kilometers north of Baku, clashed with riot police equipped with tear gas and rubber bullets. The Kavkazsky Uzel news service reported that some 300-400 residents rallied in front of Siyazan’s town hall on January 12 and 13 against continued inflation and a massive recent depreciation of the manat, the national currency. The Azerbaijani service of RFE/RL carried footage of what appeared to be military trucks entering Siyazan.
In the opposite corner of the country, protesters on January 12 blocked a highway in the town of Liman, about 215 kilometers south of Baku. Regional officials met the demonstrators to hear their concerns over growing consumer prices and a ban on cash-sales of tobacco and alcohol (since “temporarily” lifted).
Official suspicion for the disruptions has fallen on alleged activists from the opposition Popular Front of Azerbaijan and Musavat Parties — one young Popular Front activist, Turan Ibrahim, has been arrested for seven days — as well as “various radical and religious extremist forces.”
Citing police sources, the pro-government news site APA claimed that “more than 60” people had been detained, and 50 subsequently released. An exact tally was not immediately available. The government itself has not released an official statement.
Scores of arrests appear to have been made in Nardaran, located about 30 kilometers northeast of the capital, Baku, since a raid last November that left at least six dead. Among others, the head of the town’s council of elders, Natig Karimov, was detained last week on charges of treason and espionage. Local spiritual leader Taleh Bagirzade was arrested in November.
Authorities claim that the town’s residents harbored plans for an armed coup and colluded with an unnamed foreign power — believed to mean Azerbaijan’s southern neighbor, Iran -- against Azerbaijani security interests. Claims long have run rampant in Azerbaijan, a predominantly Shi'a country, that Iran’s Shi’ite government tries to influence or stir up trouble in Nardaran.
As Iran expressed an interest in monitoring the actions taken in Nardaran, Baku started to pull back from recent expressions of chumminess over potential joint energy-export projects.
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.