A 2012 Georgian postage stamp celebrating the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The new deadline for a new railway line that would connect the Caspian Sea to Turkey appears to be delayed yet again, making it highly unlikely that Georgia and Azerbaijan will profit much from U.S. military transportation business.
The presidents of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey met in Tbilisi on Wednesday, and the focus was "joint energy and transportation projects, among them Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway." This is the railroad that last year the three countries had been promoting as the centerpiece of their proposal to gain a significant share of the "retrograde" transit of U.S. military equipment out of Afghanistan and back to Europe and the U.S. The idea would be to ship equipment through Central Asia, over the Caspian Sea, and through the South Caucasus. The railroad was "the vital missing link which will be operational soon," said Batu Kutelia, deputy secretary in the office of national security, said at the time. A senior Turkish official said the railroad would be operational by the end of 2013 and that "taking into consideration the reverse transit process, we wanted to accelerate the process."
This would be a geopolitical winner from the Pentagon's perspective, as it would decrease the U.S.'s reliance on the mercurial Pakistan and the new enemy, Russia. As an analyst at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation wrote this week:
In coordination with the Kremlin, Russian activists plan an ex-USSR-wide distribution of black-and-orange ribbons meant to commemorate the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. The caveat is that the St. George’s ribbon has evolved to embody Russian power and nostalgia for the USSR; concepts that many in the Caucasus are not willing to wear on their sleeves.
The state-run Russian Information Agency (RIA Novosti), a champion of the annual St.-George's-ribbon campaign, has announced that on May 9, the 69th anniversary of the 1945 Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, millions of ribbons will rain down on ex-Soviet countries, the South Caucasus included.
In an April 29 talk show, headlined “St. George’s Ribbon Struts across the Planet,” RIA Novosti claimed that a massive ribbon-handout rally would be held in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku. The ribbons, talk-show participants said, also would be up for grabs at the Russian embassies in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Moldova. In the case of Georgia, which severed diplomatic ties with Russia after the two countries' 2008 war, the Russian consulate at the Swiss embassy would provide the ribbons.
Many pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine are wearing these ribbons, and the show host made sure to take a swipe at Ukrainian “nationalists” and their alleged attempts to “erase the historic memory" of the war.
But it looks like the show and its claims of a post-Soviet team spirit may have been ultimately meant for a domestic, Russian audience.
The U.S. State Department is skeptical about how Central Asian governments perceive the threat of terrorism in their countries, according to the department's annual review of terrorism around the globe.
In language similar to last year's report, the State Department said that "The effectiveness of some Central Asian countries’ efforts to reduce their vulnerability to perceived terrorist threats was difficult to discern in some cases, however, due to failure to distinguish clearly between terrorism and violent extremism on one hand and political opposition, or non-traditional religious practices, on the other." But this year it added a bit of texture with a mention of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan: "[T]errorist groups with ties to Central Asia – notably the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Islamic Jihad Union – continued to be an issue even as they operated outside of the Central Asian states." (For some serious analysis of what threat the IMU poses, see this post at the Afghan Analysts Network.)
Russia's April 21 offer to turn into Russians anyone who has lived on the territory of the former Soviet Union or Russian Empire and speaks Russian fluently has got the South Caucasus on edge.
The law on simplifying access to citizenship for Russian-speakers across the former Soviet Union is ostensibly meant to replenish the thinning numbers of Russians, who, even at over 142.47 million people ( the world's tenth largest country), apparently just don’t reproduce like they used to. Azerbaijan, and especially Armenia and Georgia, which do not exactly boast high birth rates, are worried that Russia could annex many of their citizens to make up the difference.
Knowledge of Russian may have weakened of late in the South Caucasus, but widespread poverty still makes the region a prime place for creating born-again Russians. Armenia, which lacks Azerbaijan's natural resources and Georgia's status as a regional trade conduit, is particularly vulnerable to a citizenship drain. Russia also tightened its migrant- worker laws, which may prompt many Armenians, who travel to Russia for work, to opt for citizenship.
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.