Russian gunboats during a 2011 exercise on the Caspian Sea. (photo: mil.ru)
The foreign ministers of the countries surrounding the Caspian Sea met in Moscow on Tuesday, in preparation for a summit this fall. Diplomatic activity around the sea is not new, and the major dispute -- how to divide up the sea between the five countries -- remains unresolved. But as with everything else in the post-Soviet space, the crisis in Ukraine has changed the calculations in the Caspian, making for an unusual amount of turbulence in the normally stagnant diplomatic waters.
The most interesting potential storyline of the meeting was that Russia had convinced the other four countries -- Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan -- to agree to forbid the military presence of any other country on the sea. This was based on a report in Russian newspaper Kommersant, which quoted a "diplomatic source from one of the Caspian countries" saying that "Moscow managed to convince its partners that no outside power should influence decisions about the Caspian. In particular, the issue is about limiting the deployment of military forces of third countries, especially the U.S., to the Caspian."
It's not clear to what extent the issue came up at the meeting. At a press conference afterwards, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was asked about "the intention of some non-Caspian countries to gain a presence, including military, without taking into account the interests of the countries in the region?" Lavrov answered: "Responsibility for the state of affairs in the Caspian region rests with the Caspian countries... We are open to cooperation with outside countries, if they are ready to do so on the basis of the rules and principles that the five Caspian countries agree on among themselves."
Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev meets his Iranian counterpart, Hasan Rouhani, in Tehran. (photo: president.az)
Tensions between Azerbaijan and Iran have been tense over the past few months, with border skirmishes, Tehran accusing Baku of being in cahoots with Israel and Baku claiming to break up Tehran-linked terror plots. In spite of this rocky patch, top Azerbaijani officials have visited Tehran, with President Ilham Aliyev meeting with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and Azerbaijan's Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov meeting with top Iranian military officials.
Aliyev's visit "created an opportunity for rapid development of relations between the two countries in various spheres," said General Hassan Firuzabadi, chief of staff of Iran's armed forces. Firuzabadi also reportedly said that "We have today discussed the issues on organization of military trainings, friendly meetings, provision of techniques and weapons for the Azerbaijani Army."
Hasanov, for his part, reiterated Baku's promise that it would not allow any other country (read: Israel) to attack Iran from its territory.
Iran's president is apparently planning a trip to Baku in the next month. The visits are part of a general pivot toward Central Asia, said the Iranian Fars News Agency. "Iran has recently enhanced efforts to boost political, economic and cultural ties and cooperation with the regional and neighboring countries, specially the Central Asian states."
All three South Caucasus countries and Kazakhstan have doubled their military spending since 2004, among only 23 countries around the with that distinction, according to a new report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Neighboring Afghanistan, Belarus, China, and Russia also made the list, confirming again the Eurasia region as a particularly tense place.
Azerbaijan, unsurprisingly, was the region's leader, with defense expenditure nearly quintupling over the last decade. And that was the second-greatest increase in the world over that period, beaten only by Afghanistan, which obviously started from a relatively low level in 2004. The data from the Caucasus and Central Asia:
Armenia: $427 million in 2013, up 115 percent since 2004.
Azerbaijan: $3.44 billion in 2013, up 493 percent since 2004
Georgia: $443 million in 2013, up 230 percent since 2004
Kazakhstan: $2.8 billion in 2013, up 248 percent since 2004
Among the report's other findings:
-- Over the last year, Russia’s military spending increased by 4.8 per cent, "and for the ﬁrst time since 2003 it spent a bigger share of its GDP on the military than the USA."
-- Over the same period, Kazakhstan saw among the biggest defense spending increases in the Asia-Pacific region, with a ten percent increase, despite enjoying what SIPRI called an "essentially peaceful security environment."
-- Turkey entered the list of 15 top defense spenders worldwide, spending $19.1 billion in 2013.
-- China's defense spending in 2013 increased 7.4 percent over the previous year.
NATO is planning to increase its cooperation with Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Moldova as a result of the crisis in Ukraine. But regional experts say that NATO is nevertheless likely to remain a marginal factor in the security and geopolitics of the Caucasus.
The German newspaper Der Spiegel originally reported NATO's plans, which then were largely confirmed by NATO's special representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia James Appathurai in an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (available only in Azeri and Romanian). They include boosting training with all three countries, increasing the interoperability of the countries' militaries with NATO, and, in the case of Azerbaijan, helping to protect oil and gas fields in the Caspian Sea.
Armenia's government appreciates its cooperation with NATO both as a balance against Russia and as a way to improve its armed forces, but it's skeptical that the cooperation will amount to much, said Yerevan-based analyst Sergey Minasyan. "After the Ukrainian events ... Armenia should be worried that closer cooperation with NATO would anger Russia, especially if the West-East tensions continue," he said in an email interview with The Bug Pit. "At least in the South Caucasus the West, including NATO, is too far while the 'angry Russians' are already here," he said. "If Brussels think it can offer Armenia something more serious as a real addition to the current level of security cooperation, that would be very welcomed by Yerevan, but it seems too unrealistic from here."
The new leadership in Azerbaijan's Ministry of Defense has been undertaking a thorough housecleaning of the ministry in the months since the new minister, Zakir Hasanov, took over.
Earlier this month, it was reported that several senior officers were "sent to reserve," meaning they were removed from active duty service. Among those number were former Defense Minister Safar Abiyev and at least seven other high-ranking officers. Jasur Mammadov Sumerinli, a Baku-based defense analyst, told The Bug Pit that the way this usually works is that because many high-ranking officers formally serve only in a temporary capacity, they are not formally fired. In the case of these several generals, they were all removed from their posts in November and December 2013, and just now moved to the reserve.
Separately, President Ilham Aliyev dismissed the commander of Azerbaijan's navy, Vice Admiral Shahin Sultanov and replaced him with Captain 1st Rank Yunus Mammadov, who had been serving as Chief of Naval Operations. (Not long before, interestingly, there were media reports that Sultanov had been arrested, though the MoD denied them)
In the cellars of the Yerevan Brandy Company sits a barrel of brandy that has been waiting 13 years for resolution of Armenia’s conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan over the breakaway region of Nagorno Karabakh.
Armenia's favorite drink, brandy became widely popular in Soviet days when the country (and Georgia) ranked as the USSR's alternative to the south of France. For many visitors, touring the Yerevan Brandy Company, now owned by French booze giant Pernod Ricard, remains a must.
It may seem a bold move to ply a Frenchwoman with a beverage Armenians call "cognac," yet Kaas had no reason to complain; the Yerevan Brandy Company sponsored her March 9 concert in Yerevan.
In the company's cellar, she was introduced to the “Barrel of Peace,” a cask containing brandy from 1994, when Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to a (constantly violated) cease-fire. The cask was sealed in 2001, when the US, Russian, and, of course, French chairpersons of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk Group, the body overseeing the Karabakh talks, visited Yerevan and toured the factory. The brandy-makers vowed to open the barrel when the Karabakh conflict is resolved.
Unfortunately for peace and brandy-lovers, the conflict remains a powder keg with occasional deadly escalations, and Armenia and Azerbaijan are not expected to drink themselves to peace anytime soon. The ongoing international conflict over Russia's incursion into Ukraine's Crimea is not expected to improve those chances.
Four days after Crimean Tatars sent an SOS to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, nothing has been heard from Baku but silence. For all its grievances with Moscow, chances are slim that Azerbaijan, the Tatars' rich South-Caucasus cousin, will stick its neck out over Crimea.
But Crimean Tatar community leader Mustafa Dzhemilyev, a Ukrainian parliamentarian, gave it his best shot in a March 6 interview with the news site Haqqin. “Do not leave your Crimean brothers and sisters at this difficult time,” Dzhemilyev implored Aliyev.
Recalling repressions by Tsarist and Soviet Russia, he underlined that the Tatars will never put up with a Russian takeover of the Crimean peninsula, and asked Aliyev to use his influence with Russian President Vladimir Putin to prevent such an event.
The request was cc-ed to Turkish President Abdullah Gül and another Turkic leader, Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Turkey has so far weighed in the strongest on the issue, while Aliyev and Nazarbayev have been slow to provide even a non-binding, thinking-of-you response.
Azerbaijani officials routinely emphasize Azerbaijan's emergence as a regional power, but don’t expect Aliyev to snap his fingers in Putin’s face over Crimea. Through its economic and political involvement in the region and its many conflicts, Nagorno-Karabakh included, Russia could hurt Azerbaijan.
EurasiaNet.org spoke with Zeynallov in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, where he is now living.
What stands behind your deportation? Is it the next step by [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan’s government to silence the media?
This is the first time in Turkish history since World War II that an elected government has that much influence on the Turkish media and putting [a] tremendous amount of pressure on media bosses to fire critical journalists while co-opting others. My deportation is part of this troubling trend, no doubt about that. It has resonated around the world because the deportation came over a pair of tweets, which the government of Erdoğan claimed to be portraying his administration as . . .one protecting al-Qaeda. My English account is followed by foreign journalists, activists, academics, politicians and other public figures. Erdoğan was disturbed to see I was spreading a news report that he didn't want to be displayed.
After years of close cooperation with Ankara, Baku has decided that it wants to help its big Turkic cousin make sure there is only one Atatürk ("Father of the Turks") out there. As it stands, Azerbaijan has 18 of them; several born within the past few years, according to the country's State Terminology Commission, Russia's Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported.
Commission Chairperson Sayaly Sadigova claimed that the decision to ban "unofficially" the use of Atatürk was made at Turkey's own request, the Russian daily said. The Turkish foreign ministry did not respond to requests from EurasiaNet.org to confirm the report.
But Azerbaijan’s linguistic authoritarianism does not end there. The name-regulators say parents also cannot call their baby Samovar even if they are convinced that the little darling totally looks like the Russian tea boiler. All such requests have been denied, Sadigova underlined to APA news agency. Perhaps fortunately for the children concerned.
For several years now, Azerbaijani citizens have needed government approval for their children's names, turning the onomastics commission into something of a national copy-editing service.
Apart from providing guidelines for translations, the commission has created an advisory system on proper names, categorizing them essentially as good, bad and funny.
Screenshot from YouTube video from Azerbaijani television showing captivity of alleged Armenian saboteur Mamiko Khojayan.
Two weeks after tensions spiked on the line of contact between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces, much information about what is actually happening there remains unclear. A spokesman for Azerbaijan's defense ministry said on February 3 that "dozens" of Armenian soldiers had been killed, while the Armenian authorities in the de facto Nagorno Karabakh government denied that. And many of the first-reported claims about the upsurge in fighting -- an Armenian vehicle destroyed, attempted incursions by both sides -- remain murky.
One initial report has proven especially embarrassing for the Azerbaijani side. Citing the defense ministry, Azerbaijani media reported that on January 28, an Armenian "saboteur" was captured by Azerbaijani soldiers: "Armed and injured leader of an enemy intelligence-sabotage group Mamiko Khojayan was captured by our soldiers after a brief firefight."
But when Azerbaijani television stations aired footage of Khojayan, the image was not of an elite special ops commando, but of a disheveled, disoriented old man. And soon after, neighbors and relatives of the man in Armenia identified him as a 77-year-old mentally ill man.