The world’s top chess-playing country, Armenia, faces a tough gambit. Two upcoming big games will be held right next door in, arguably, the world's most anti-Armenian country, Azerbaijan. Armenian sports officials have threatened to boycott the tournaments.
Azerbaijan’s glittery capital, Baku, was chosen as the venue for the 2015 World Cup and 2016 World Olympiad by the World Chess Federation (FIDE). Armenia, dubbed "the cleverest nation" in the world by the BBC after winning two chess Olympiads in a row (it won this year as well), is not ready to move its players to the enemy’s board.
The animosity has grown stronger still since Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev last month pardoned and honored an army officer convicted of decapitating an Armenian man in Budapest.
It may indeed be a little hard for the Armenian grandmasters to travel to Baku and fix their eyes on the chessboard when there is a convicted axe-murderer walking the streets freely.
Azerbaijani sports officials, for their part, have vowed to ensure the safety of the Armenian players. Sports Minister Azad Ragimov noted that Armenia has participated in boxing competitions in Baku before, with no untoward incidents.
A Kazakhstan soldier takes part in the CSTO exercises in Armenia
The Collective Security Treaty Organization has wrapped up its annual military exercises, held this year in Armenia, with the group's general secretary saying the group needs to create its own military forces, including air forces, in Central Asia. But at a time of heightened tensions in the Caucasus, the drills took a relatively low profile.
Not much has been said about the scenario of the exercises, called "Interaction-2012," the first of the CSTO to be held in the Caucasus. The scale of these exercises was much smaller than last year's -- about 2,000 troops, compared to 24,000 last year spread out over several countries, half in Central Asia and the other half in Belarus. (The CSTO is led by Russia and also includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.)
It was an interesting time for the exercises to be held in Armenia, just after tensions spiked as a result of the extradition and pardon of Ramil Safarov, the Azerbaijani soldier who killed an Armenian colleague at a NATO event in Hungary. There has been a lot of speculation about whether the CSTO would come to the aid of Armenia in the event of a war over Nagorno Karabakh. Armenia actually postponed the start of the exercises a week, from September 8 to September 15. No explanation for the delay was given, other than that it was due to "technical reasons," but it's no small matter to reschedule, at the last minute, a multi-country military exercise. The announcement of the delay was August 30 -- and the next day, Safarov was released. Was there a connection?
Turkmenistan held its first ever naval exercise on Wednesday, and it was a rare attempt for the foreign press to get a glimpse of what's going on there. All the big wire services carried reports on the exercise, and AFP's was the most detailed:
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov observed the exercises through binoculars from atop a two-story structure built on the deserted Caspian Sea coast about 60 kilometres (40 miles) from the nearest city of Turkmenbashi.
In the war games, the aggressor was given the name of the “blue” state while Turkmenistan was the “green” nation.
“A ship from the ‘blue’ country penetrated Turkmenistan waters to seize a Turkmen tanker...and the coastal city with its oil refinery,” a pamphlet with the exercise scenario said.
Observers — who included various diplomats from Western states — witnessed a staged hijacking, the burning of a refinery and moves by Turkmen airforce and navy on a screen.
By pushing back the enemy, “the ‘green’ state (Turkmenistan) made the ‘blue’ state abandon their aggressive intentions, reinstalling control of the state border,” the military commentator declaimed to the audience.
Berdymukhamedov, who arrived at the exercises in a helicopter and was welcomed with a chorus and orchestra, told diplomats that “Turkmenistan’s military doctrine is defensive but we must protect our border as we are a maritime state.”
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and the President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev on their way to the joint press conference
NATO's Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen took a quick trip through all three south Caucasus countries this week, where he criticized Azerbaijan's pardon of a soldier who killed an Armenian while on a joint NATO exercise in Hungary. Rasmussen also voiced strong support for Georgia's (eventual) alliance membership.
Rasmussen's trip took place at a time of heightened tensions in the Caucasus, especially between Armenia and Azerbaijan, over the pardon of Lieutenant -- now Major -- Ramil Safarov. At a speech in Baku, he pretty strongly condemned the move:
I am deeply concerned by the Azerbaijani decision to pardon Ramil Safarov. The act he committed in 2004 was a crime which should not be glorified, as this damages trust and does not contribute to the peace process.
At a joint press conference with President Ilham Aliyev, Rasmussen was asked about the issue, and Aliyev answered too, defending the pardon as in line with the Constitution, which must have been a bit of an awkward moment.
Rasmussen used identical words at a speech in Yerevan, and they apparently weren't strong enough for a number of protesters at his speech.
The reception was warmer in Tbilisi, of course, where President Mikheil Saakashvili said that Rasmussen deserved to be named an "honorary Georgian." Rasmussen gave a fairly strong endorsement of the concept, at least, of Georgian membership in NATO:
Armenia may be a bitter enemy and all for Azerbaijan, but the reaction to this murder, an act worthy of the Hostel horror film series, shows just how deeply seeded the raging propaganda against Armenia (and, in turn, Armenia's angry denunciations of Azerbaijan) has become in the minds of many. The gruesome crimes committed by Armenians against Azerbaijanis during the Nagorno-Karabakh war are cited as a justification of sorts for both Safarov’s acts and his release.
The antenna confiscation spree is part of an across-the-board campaign against the supposed corrupting power of Western satellite channels. In Tehran's telling, the satellite dishes radiate evil. And evil can take many forms such as the BBC, Voice of America, Nickelodeon . . . .
“The satellite channels… have one objective only – to attack Islam, our Islamic government and [the] great people of Iran,” one cleric is shown preaching in a BBC report on the launch of the anti-satellite-dish campaign. Instead, Tehran aims to keep viewers' channels resolutely turned to the broadcasts of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting.
There is an extra dimension to the campaign in northwestern Iran, an area allegedly susceptible to irredentism by that nettlesome neighbor, Azerbaijan. Baku has many bones to pick with Tehran, ranging from terrorism allegations to meddling in domestic affairs and the recent arrest of Azerbaijani poets. Iranian officials keep telling their angered counterparts in Baku that the poets committed a crime, but have not specified its exact nature.
This is the fifth de-facto election in the separatist history of Karabakh and the fifth time the international community has shrugged its shoulders at the territory’s claims that it is an independent country with on-the-level elections.
Azerbaijan says that without the ousted ethnic Azeri population, no vote can be legitimate in Karabakh. Most of the world concurs.
But the de-facto election matters for the impoverished, ethnic Armenian population of Karabakh. They face a choice between five more years of the same with incumbent Bako Saakian, the onetime head of the region's de-facto security servicesl, or a new broom with his two challengers, one ex-military and one academician.
Saakian’s main challenger, former de-facto Deputy Defense Minister Vitaly Balasian, a veteran of Karabakh’s war for de-facto independence from Azerbaijan, takes a hard-line stance toward both Enemy Number One, Azerbaijan, and Friend Number One, Armenia. As a de-facto parliament member, he opposed surrendering any war-won Azerbaijani lands, a critical theme in talks over the territory’s status, and criticized Armenia for conducting international negotiations on the enclave’s status without the participation of de-facto Karabakh officials.
All three candidates are pushing for Karabakh's re-inclusion in the internationally mediated talks. Where the three differ is the economy and allegations of corruption.
Larry King was in Azerbaijan today to talk about a subject with which he is quite familiar -- women. At a Baku event staged by the Crans Montana Forum, a Swiss organization in search of "a more humane and impartial world," the legendary American talk-show host, known for his revolving-door love life, addressed the rights and the role of women "in tomorrow's world."
A map showing the approximate location of Iran's new oil discovery in the Caspian
Iran recently announced that it has discovered a substantial oil deposit -- about 10 billion barrels -- in the Caspian Sea. That would be about seven percent of Iran's total reserves, and the country's first discovery in the Caspian in over a century. That in itself is pretty remarkable; Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said it will "change the energy and political balance of the region."
But the situation could get a lot more complicated, according to regional analyst Alex Jackson. In a recent presentation, which he provided to The Bug Pit, Jackson noted that the discovery appears to actually be in waters claimed by Azerbaijan. Iran hasn't provided a precise location, but has said it is 188km north of Roudsar in Gilan province and 250 km northwest of Neka. See the map here, from Jackson's presentation, where the white dotted line is what Azerbaijan considers to be the southern boundary of its waters, while the brown dotted line represents what Iran considers to be the northen extent of its waters. And right in the middle of that is this new discovery (actually two separate, though connected, fields, called Sardar Jangal and Sardar Milli). In addition to the 10 billion barrels of oil, it also holds 50 trillion cubic feet of gas, according to Iran.
Surveys show that Armenians tend to believe that the man has to be the principal moneymaker in a family. But looks like the country's presidential family is bucking that trend. Judging by official income disclosures, President Serzh Sargsyan lives, financially speaking, in the shadow of his richer wife, Rita.
While the president was scrimping together a modest annual income in drams of some $34,900 (salary plus accruals on loans) in 2011, Rita Sargsyan was busy making the dram equivalent of $41,000, reported the investigative news service Hetq. Perhaps because of his modest revenue, the Armenian president did not do any large-scale shopping or investment in 2011, if we go by his income declaration.
In neighboring Georgia, President Mikheil Saakashvili seems to be the breadwinner in his family. President Saakashvili’s annual salary in laris is just $1,000 higher than that of his Armenian counterpart, while his wife, Sandra Roelofs, has not disclosed any earned wages for 2011. Saakashvili owns more property than his wife, but the his and her bank accounts seem to be about the same size in that family. As of May 16, 2012, the president reported about $85,000 in his bank accounts (in dollars, euros and laris), while the first lady has above $86,000 worth of euros and laris.