Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev triumphantly joined the torch-relay for the European Games on June 7 in Baku.
Two days after his government booted out the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a smiling Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev ran through the streets of Baku with an Olympic torch. The flame was for the European Games, a presidential pet-project that kicks off on June 12. But its intended symbolism was much broader – Azerbaijan, once again, is playing the big time, and international criticism should be checked at the door.
“Long live President Ilham Aliyev!” cheered a crowd of onlookers in a scene reminiscent of Soviet-era staging as the 53-year-old leader jogged along. “Success for the first European Games!” Beaming broadly, First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, son, Heydar, and daughters Leyla and Arzu later also joined the torch-relay.
Within Azerbaijan these days, state-spread adulation for the Games and panegyrics to Aliyev dominate traditional media. With some of the government’s most outspoken critics, whether journalists or activists, now in jail, critical scrutiny of the “landmark event” from within Azerbaijan is expressed with caution.
On the eve of Baku’s mini-Olympics for Europe, Germany’s body for Olympic sports seems to have become the first major European sports authority to heed calls to take Azerbaijan’s government to task for human-rights abuses.
With a week to go before the European Games kick off, the German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB) on June 4 said it shares international concerns over Azerbaijan’s crackdown against government-critics.
“We support human rights and freedom of the press, and we are going to talk about this in Baku, too,” the confederation’s chairperson, Michael Vasper, said, Frankfurter Allgemeine reported.
Local news reported trapped residents jumping to their death from the burning high-rise in the Binagadi district. Harrowing footage shows friends and families rushing to the scene and arguing with police who blocked access to the building. Scores of apartment-dwellers were hospitalized for burns and smoke-poisoning.
Murisif Makhmudov, the head of the company, Global Construction, which allegedly put the facing on the building, has been charged with the use of low-quality materials and was arrested on May 19, news agencies have reported.
Outrage over the incident, strongly expressed on Facebook, is running strong and building. Five children, including a one-and-a-half-year-old, died in the fire. Sick of rampant corruption, many Azerbaijanis see this tragedy as the result of many officials and businesspeople’s willingness to go cheap on building materials or blind on safety standards. This was the second Baku-fire this year blamed on polyurethane-based sidings.
Top: the photo published by the Azerbaijan Ministry of Defense. Below: from the twitter account of Armenia MFA spokesman Tigran Balayan.
Azerbaijan's Ministry of Defense published a photo of its soldiers in Moscow's May 9 Victory Day parade in which an Armenian flag has been digitally edited out.
Armenia and Azerbaijan were among a number of countries whose soldiers marched in the parade, marking 70 years since the allied victory in World War II. And thanks to the fact that they are next to one another alphabetically, they marched one behind the other in the parade.
While the parade went off without a hitch, the controversy began soon afterwards. Azerbaijan's Ministry of Defense published a photo of its soldiers on its website, which web users quickly identified as an alteration of a previously published photo which was a good shot of the Azerbaijani contingent but -- unfortunately for Azerbaijan military PR -- prominently featured the flag of the Armenian soldiers right behind.
Armenia's government, naturally, leapt. "#Azerbaijan falsifying history, is going far beyond and fabricates reality," tweeted Armenia Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Tigran Balayan.
The episode caused some embarrassment within Azerbaijan, as well. "It's an obvious Photoshop," prominent military analyst Uzeir Jafarov told the BBC Russian service. "Our soldiers are in a ceremonial parade. They have Israeli weapons in their hands, conforming to NATO standards -- and all this for a photo shoot? It's unworthy of us." (The Azerbaijan MoD declined to comment.)
The United States and the European Union have taken renewed interest in constructing a pipeline to take natural gas from Turkmenistan across the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan and westward to Europe. The move is motivated by a desire to further decrease Europe's dependence on Russian gas in the wake of Moscow's newly assertive foreign policy posture, but regional analysts say the pipeline could also increase tensions around the Caspian.
European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic visited Ashgabat this week for talks with energy ministers of Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Turkmenistan. He told Reuters that the EU expects to start receiving gas from Turkmenistan by 2019.
"[W]e discussed all aspects referring to the trans-Caspian pipeline," Sefcovic said. "We made a big step in the strategic direction... Now there is a political decision that Turkmenistan will become part of this project and will feed the European direction."
The possibility of a trans-Caspian pipeline has been long discussed but has been hindered by a number of obstacles, not least of which is the opposition of Russia, which stands to lose market share in Europe were the pipeline to be built. Russia is the single-largest supplier of gas to Europe, holding about 30 percent of the market share (and far more in some Eastern European countries). And the volatility in Moscow has renewed efforts in Brussels and Washington to reduce that dependency.
Known for its penchant for curbing civil liberties, the government of Azerbaijan is now moving to limit gastronomic freedom as well. To popularize the Caspian Sea country’s national cuisine, tourism officials have decided to make a traditional breakfast mandatory for all of the country’s hotels to serve. But first, they decided to "patent" an Azerbaijani breakfast.
The prospect of thousands of hungry athletes and spectators descending on Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, this summer for the June 12-28 European Games, no doubt prompted the decision. The former Soviet republic is hosting and financing the event, a Europe-only Olympics, to promote itself, and its culture internationally.
Cuisine, of course, is part of that mission, and breakfast, after all, is the most important meal of the day.
But what exactly goes into a trademarked "Azerbaijan Breakfast"?
Despite its enthusiasm for the idea, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, as yet, has not gotten around to elaborating. Nor has the state patent office.
It might be difficult to make the claim that an Azerbaijani breakfast is so unusual as to be patent-worthy, however. Generally, the meal can include sheep-cheese, honey, yogurt, a variety of fruit, scrambled eggs with tomato, bread, and tea, tea, tea — a combination not too dissimilar from other places in the region.
Azerbaijan was the second-largest arms importer in Europe over the past five years, according to a new report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, an arms trade research group.
Azerbaijan accounted for fully 13 percent of all of Europe's arms imports over the last five years, SIPRI reported, behind only the U.K. (The report doesn't list dollar values for the imports.)
While overall arms imports have been decreasing across Europe, Azerbaijan is bucking the trend: its imports of weaponry increased 249 percent in the period 2010-2014 when compared to the previous five-year period, 2005-2009.
SIPRI also tabulated the world trade in drones ("unmanned aerial vehicles" in military-speak) and Azerbaijan also ended up near the top of that list, as the fourth-largest importer of drones in the world since 1985, trailing only the U.K., India, and Italy. It also scored impressively in another SIPRI survey from last year, tallying the second-largest increase in defense budgets in the world over the past ten years.
Recent reports that Russian military vehicles were appearing in Georgia have raised complaints in neighboring Azerbaijan that Tbilisi is “betraying” Baku by allowing the Russian military to ship military supplies into Armenia via its territory or airspace.
The story of the Russian vehicles in Georgia is almost certainly a tempest in a teapot – after footage surfaced of Russian-made ZIL 131 military trucks on Georgian streets, various theories quickly emerged. Georgia's opposition claimed the trucks were evidence that the current government was in cahoots with Moscow, while some suggested they may be on the way to Armenia, where Russia both has its own large military base and provides substantial military aid to the armed forces there. But it didn't take long for another, more banal explanation to come out: the vehicles were decommissioned in Russia and are being sold on the commercial market.
There's no indication that the Russian trucks were in fact destined for Armenia, but the question of how Russia supplies its base in Armenia, as well as delivers military aid there, has long been a secretive and contentious one. Armenia is separated from Russia by Azerbaijan and Turkey, which are hostile to Armenia, and Georgia, which is hostile to Russia. Georgia nevertheless did allow overflights of Russian military shipments to Armenia until 2011, when it publicly annulled the agreement with Russia allowing for that transit. The status of that transit is now unclear, though there have been various unconfirmed reports that it was reinstated even while former president Mikheil Saakashvili was in power.
Call it Azerbaijan's interpretation of traditional Caucasian hospitality. Its citizens may be facing a bad currency-crunch, brought on by devaluation and depressed oil prices, but that’s not gonna stop this South Caucasus country from footing the bill for travel and accommodation for the “more than 6,000” athletes competing in this June’s European Olympic Games in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku.
But the European Olympic Committee, which is running the Baku games, claims that covering athletes’ costs is standard for Olympic-host countries.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s government does, however, have a thing for “spectacular shows.” In 2012, almost $80 million was spent on Eurovision, a continental pop music extravaganza. Baku plans to foot a $8 billion bill for the European Olympic Games, even though its manat can buy 33.5 percent less per dollar now and fears persist that the nation’s hydrocarbon-supported revenues may halve this year.
Offline, the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh may be outside of Baku’s control, but, online, Azerbaijan seems to have reclaimed the disputed land. Azerbaijani officials are boasting of allegedly having convinced Facebook to strip the separatist territory’s page of its verified status, which denotes that the page is authentic.
This reported victory, preceded by an avalanche of complaints from Azerbaijani users, is nothing to sneeze at in the South Caucasus, where Facebook is by far the most popular social network. It is also often the prime online venue for social activism and political debate.
And yet, Baku’s victory was not complete. Though the "Nagorno-Karabakh Republic" page is not accessible, pages using the region’s Armenian name (Artsakh) and calling for recognition of its independence remain intact.
Facebook, which has faced flak before over its page-decisions, has not yet commented officially on the downgrading of the breakaway region's page.
But Facebook is not the only part of the virtual world in which Azerbaijan has been asserting its internationally recognized right to Karabakh. In the past, the country engaged in toponymic arguments with Google for using “pro-Armenian” place-names in its maps, and with MSN for describing Karabakh as an independent entity in its weather listings.