Azerbaijan and Armenia are both seeking to strengthen their ties with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, applying to be formal observers of the organization, the SCO's chief has said.
The China-led economic and security bloc is in expansion mode: in the upcoming summit in Ufa this summer India and Pakistan are expected to become full members. And according to SCO Secretary General Dimitriy Mezentsev, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Maldives, Nepal, and Syria are applying to become observers.
Mezentsev, speaking at a press conference February 10, also put Iran in the same category of applicants as India and Pakistan, and said that there are "no legal obstacles" to them becoming members. So might Iran, too, be slated to join this summer?
Currently the SCO has six members: China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. India, Iran, Pakistan, Mongolia, and Afghanistan are observers, while Belarus, Sri Lanka, and Turkey are "dialog partners."
Neither Baku nor Yerevan has confirmed Mezentsev's statement. Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan mooted the idea of becoming an SCO observer in 2013, but nothing came of it then.
It does seem like there is some real interest in Azerbaijan in becoming an observer. Independent member of parliament Rasim Musabekov said in an interview that "the SCO is a quite authoritative international forum, located not too far from Azerbaijan. Countries close to Azerbaijan like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyyrgyzstan are in it. So we're interested in being part of this forum." He added, though, that "this will in no way affect the resolution of the Karabakh problem."
For a landlocked country, Turkmenistan is getting into the seafaring spirit: Ashgabat’s new showpiece ferry Berkarar has been shuttling its way around the Caspian Sea – defined by geographers as an inland lake – making trips to both Azerbaijan and Russia so far this year.
The ferry was built in the Uljanik Shipyard in Pula, Croatia – which has produced ferries for the Caspian littoral states since communist times – and delivered to the reclusive Central Asian country in December. Ashgabat has also commissioned a second, smaller ship, Bagtiyar, which is scheduled to arrive this summer. They carry both freight and passengers.
Azerbaijani newswire Trend.az gushed about Berkarar’s latest voyage, from Turkmenbashi to the Azerbaijani capital: “The ferry impresses with its dimensions; it has a length of 155.8 meters, width of 17.5 meters, and height of 12.2 meters,” Trend reported on January 14.
Berkarar can carry “56 trucks loaded with 40-foot containers,” according to News Central Asia’s detailed report on the vessel.
So, provided there are enough goods to fill them, the ferries could help expand regional trade across the contested waters of the Caspian.
A Turkish company is currently modernizing Turkmenistan’s Turkmenbashi port, a commission that is expected to finish in 2017.
Armenia has already retaliated against Azerbaijan for the downing of a military helicopter last month, Armenia's defense minister has said, without saying what the retaliation amounted to.
The Mi-24 helicopter was shot down November 12 near the line of contact between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh; Armenia says it was on a training flight, Azerbaijan says it had crossed the line of contact and was planning an attack.
Armenia immediately promised to retaliate, but it wasn't clear how. And on December 23, Armenian Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian said it has already happened: "A disproportionate response to the Azerbaijani side has been given, part of the information about the operation was given to the public. However, it wasn't appropriate to release all of the information."
The most significant military incident since the shootdown that was partially reported was a heavy exchange of fire, including relatively rare mortar attacks, in early December. The de facto Nagorno Karabakh government claimed that five to seven Azerbaijani soldiers were killed, though that wasn't independently confirmed. Still, even that would seem to not meet the standard of retaliation that Armenia had been promising.
Nettlesome neighbors Armenia and Azerbaijan are in a tug-of-war over pretty much everything, from disputed lands to, most recently, a loaf of bread. Armenia says it has succeeded in claiming something of a cultural copyright to lavash, a regionally popular thin bread, while Azerbaijan’s fierce attempts to thwart Armenian claims to the flatbread have fallen, well, flat.
Over Azerbaijani objections, UNESCO late last week did grant the bread a spot on its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage as an expression of Armenian culture. But the UN agency did so with a disclaimer that lavash is shared by communities in the region and beyond” and that “the inscription does not imply exclusivity.”
One Armenian media outlet claims that UNESCO committee purportedly chose the careful wording after Azerbaijan raised objections during UNESCO’s November 24-28 meeting in Paris. But the wording was enough for both countries to celebrate victory.
Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism announced that it has prevented Armenia from claiming the bread as its own. “Justice has prevailed in this matter,” said Culture and Tourism Minister Abulfas Garayev. “ UNESCO’s decision says that lavash is made all across the region and is not an exclusively Armenian bread.”
Russia's Grad Slavyansk corvette, to be used for the first time in joint exercises on the Caspian Sea next year. (photo: mil.ru)
The Caspian Sea will see its first -- and probably the world's first -- naval biathlon next summer, with all five littoral states taking part, the Russian Defense Ministry has announced.
The naval biathlon appears to be a spin-off of the tank biathlon that Russia inaugurated in 2013 and expanded into a blockbuster event this year. And the principle will be the same, with ships racing and shooting at targets. Missing a target will result in a penalty lap.
"Such a naval competition is unparalleled in the world," said Russian Caspian Flotilla Commander, Captain 1st Class Ildar Akhmerov, according to TASS.
Each country will compete with one ship and one reserve vessel. Armored personnel carriers will also be part of the competition (it's not clear how) and there will be an athletic portion of the contest, as well, with sailors competing in rowing, weightlifting, swimming, and tug-of-war. The competition will take place over several months, starting in March and ending in August.
Also not yet clear: which ships will be used and what they will shoot with. The naval capabilities of the five countries on the Caspian -- Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan -- vary widely. In the tank biathlon almost all participating countries used Russian-provided tanks, but that wouldn't seem to be a workable solution here; it's unlikely the Russian navy would just hand over the keys of one of its ships to Turkmenistan, for example.
Armenian military officials say they have carried out a special operation to recover the bodies of three crewmembers of a helicopter shot down by Azerbaijan more than a week before. But their Azerbaijani counterparts say that the reports of a rescue operation were a disinformation operation.
The Armenian Mi-24 was shot down November 12 by Azerbaijani anti-aircraft fire; Armenia says it was conducting a training mission and Azerbaijan said it was preparing to attack.
The bodies had remained near the crash site, in no man's land near the line of contact between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces. Earlier this week, international monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe tried to visit the site and were unable.
On November 22, the de facto ministry of defense of Nagorno Karabakh announced that a special operation had recovered the bodies: "Taking into account official statements from the Azerbaijani side and the complete lack of reason from that side, the armed forces of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic were forced to carry out a special operation with the aim of ascertaining the fate of the helicopter's crew," the ministry said in a statement. Two Azerbaijani soldiers were killed in the operation, while the Armenian side suffered no losses, the statement said.
Russia and Iran, comrades-in-sanctions from the West, are connecting with each other . . . through a railway. And Azerbaijan intends to be the crucial middle link.
The Russian State Railroads Company earlier this week announced plans to build a railway link from Russia, across Azerbaijan, to Iran. An intergovernmental agreement on building the railway is expected to be signed in July next year and the Russian firm said it will foot the bill for the project.
Azerbaijan has its reasons to be suspicious of both countries, but, so far, has given no sign of skittishness about the deal.
How successful Azerbaijan will be in juxtaposing an Eastern train project with a Western one is unclear, however. The idea is not likely to earn warm support in the West, with which Baku already has a relatively schizophrenic relationship — chummy when it comes to energy and assistance for NATO in Afghanistan; far cooler when it comes to reported Azerbaijani abuses of civil rights.
Perhaps that last factor, at least to some degree, contributeAzerbaijan to think it's time to explore what it has in common with Russia and Iran, and express it through rail.
Russian Duma Speaker Sergei Narishkin, in Tehran from November 16-17, made no bones about the project being a slapback at the West.
A senior European diplomat has visited the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh to try to reduce tensions after Azerbaijani armed forces shot down an Armenian helicopter there last week.
Andrzej Kasprzyk, the Special Representative of the OSCE Chairperson in Office, visited the de facto Karabakh capital of Stepanakert on November 17. Kasprzyk seems not to have made any public comments, but Armenian officials used the occasion of his visit to complain about what they called a muted international reaction and perceived "impunity" for Azerbaijan.
And Kasprzyk's visit itself became another point of contention between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Armenian officials said he would visit the site of the shootdown during his visit, but Azerbaijan's Ministry of Defense said that was "another lie and speculation of the Armenian side." And indeed, when Kasprzyk visited the line of contact for a planned monitoring mission on November 18, he appears not to have gone to the crash site.
The site has remained closed to Armenian forces since the helicopter was downed on November 12; it still has not been ascertained whether all three of the aircraft's crew died in the crash. Likewise, there has yet to be any outside assessment of the claims of the opposing sides that the helicopter had crossed the line of contact and was preparing to attack Azerbaijani positions (as Baku says) or was on the Karabakh side of the line and was unarmed (as Yerevan and Stepanakert say).
The presidents of Azerbaijan and Iran, Ilham Aliyev and Hasan Rouhani, at an official dinner in Baku. (photo: president.az)
Iran President Hasan Rouhani completed a visit to Baku, and while the two sides didn't announce anything too newsworthy, the visit underlined how tension between the two countries has considerably diminished over the course of this year.
Rouhani visited Baku November 12-13, and his delegation also included senior presidential aides and ministers of oil, foreign affairs, roads, communications and information technology and economy, as well as the governor of the Central Bank of Iran. And it followed a visit by Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev to Tehran in April. "Indeed, the fact that the two presidents met four times over a period of nine months was a milestone in the history of the two countries’ ties," wrote the Iranian website mehrnews.com in an analysis of Rouhani's trip.
That analysis dated the decline in the two countries' relations to what it called "the Eurovision 2012 misunderstandings," when Baku hosted the European song contest, there were rumors that a gay parade would be held in connection with that, and Iran withdrew its ambassador from Baku.
An Armenian Mi-24 helicopter hit by Azerbaijani fire November 12, in a photo released by the Azerbaijan Ministry of Defense.
After Azerbaijani armed forces shot down an Armenian helicopter, probably the most significant military incident between the two sides in two decades, Armenian military and political figures have promised to retaliate.
The helicopter was shot down on November 12, near the line of contact between the two armed forces. Azerbaijan said the Mi-24 helicopter had crossed the line of contact and was planning to attack, Armenia said the aircraft remained on its side and was moreover unarmed. At least two of the helicopter's crew were killed (and some reports said all three crew members died).
The warnings of retaliation came almost immediately. "The consequences of this unprecedented escalation will be very painful for the Azerbaijani side," a spokesman for the Armenian Ministry of Defense said that day.
One small act of retaliation already took place: on November 13, the day after the helicopter was shot down and Azerbaijan declared the airspace over Karabakh "closed," Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan flew there anyway on a helicopter.
Karabakh's airspace "really is closed, but only to the Azerbaijan air forces, and they should have had the courage to finish the sentence," David Babayan, an adviser to the territory's de facto president, told RFE/RL.