Azerbaijan's ships compete in the inaugural Caspian Cup naval skills competition. (photo: MoD Russia)
The first-ever "Caspian Cup" naval skills competition has ended with Russia, unsurprisingly, the winner. But it was Azerbaijan's performance that garnered the most headlines, for all the wrong reasons.
In the final tally, Russia won with 65 points, Kazakhstan came in second with 48, and Azerbaijan brought up the rear with 33 points. The other two Caspian naval states, Iran and Turkmenistan, chose not to compete.
Reporting on the event was spotty, and it's not entirely clear what happened. But from what can be gleaned from the reporting out there, at the first stage of the contest Azerbaijan's entry, Patrol Cutter G-122, had some kind of problem. "Not everything worked out for the Azerbaijani team, their equipment and weapons let them down," said Dmitry Gorbatenko, the chief judge of the competition, on August 6. "They will change the ship and on August 7 Azerbaijan will be able to perform and show off their mastery in this contest."
The same day, though, Azerbaijan's Defense Ministry responded, saying that "Russian websites" were spreading information "that does not fully reflect the reality of the situation."
"The press service of the Ministry of Defense officially reports that minor problems were quickly solved on the scene by our sailors," the ministry said in a statement. "At the current time the warships taking part in the competition are successfully continuing to compete in the crew skills and equipment capabilities [competitions]. Contrary to the published information, our soldiers have successfully carried out all tasks which have been assigned up to now, have destroyed all sea and air targets, achieving an excellent result."
NATO could get involved in protecting a potential trans-Caspian gas pipeline, which Russia strongly opposes, an alliance official has said.
The idea of building a pipeline across the Caspian Sea to carry natural gas from Turkmenistan's massive reserves to Azerbaijan and then further on to Europe has been on the drawing board for a long time, but has been held back for a number of reasons, not least Russia's strong opposition.
In May, a senior EU official said on a visit to Ashgabat that a "political decision" had been made to build the pipeline and that the EU expects to start receiving gas from it by 2019. It's still not clear who would build the pipeline, however.
But now a NATO official has said that the alliance would play a part in protecting it. In an interview with Azerbaijani news website AzVision, NATO's South Caucasus Liaison Officer William Lahue weighed in on the pipeline and made some surprisingly bold endorsements of it:
“It is important that countries have multiple sources of supply in order to protect themselves from fluctuations in available sources of supply,” he said. “In this process Azerbaijan is going to be important, and its importance is growing.”
“Technically, it is possible to build Trans-Caspian Pipeline as I was told by businessmen from different countries,” said Lahue, adding that the politics is lining up the way that it is eventually going to happen....
“What NATO will be able to do is to pull partners looking for protection of critical energy infrastructure and in that way, we can help facilitate trainings, education for the national organizations working in this sphere for protection of infrastructure,” said Lahue.
It may not have been a civil-rights campaign, but it was a push for tolerance.
Though practices vary country to country, traditional views in the South Caucasus, regardless of religion, hold that real men do not wear shorts and show their legs like skirt-wearing women. At least, not off the beach.
“If you walk in them on the beach, that is considered normal, but if you show up in the city, then you can’t help but notice the curious glances of passers-by….” read an editorial in Day.az. “Curiously, if a girl wears shorts, and very short ones, it does not cause a similar reaction.”
At best, shorts are considered by many as something a teenage boy could wear, woefully observed the news service.
But in seaside Baku, the setting for Eurovision, the European Games, and fraternization with all sorts of shorts-wearing countries, many young people are ready for change. Summer temperatures are hitting 40 degrees Celsius (103 F), after all.
The shorts pride event was organized via Facebook by the youth group Flashmob Azerbaijan, which has been at the forefront of turning Baku into a regional flashmob hub. They specified that participants should wear “Not breeches or short slacks or shorts longer than the knee.”
The opening ceremony of the Caspian Cup naval competition, in Kaspiysk, Russia. (photo: MoD Russia)
Russia has kicked off its inaugural "International Army Games," an Olympic-style competition for militaries, with 2,000 soldiers from 17 countries competing in 13 disciplines from a tank biathlon to naval games on the Caspian to a military cooking contest.
The biggest event by far will be the tank biathlon, in which 13 countries will compete. The tank biathlon was first held two years ago under the auspices of Russia's nascent military bloc the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and last year with an expanded guest list that also included China and India.
All the rest of the events are brand-new and only Belarus and China are competing in most of them (the Russian Ministry of Defense has an extensive English-language guide to the games here, with detailed explanations of the rules for each contest).
From the Bug Pit's coverage area, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Russia, and Tajikistan are all competing in the tank biathlon. Kazakhstan also is competing in the "Aviadarts" air force skills challenge, and both Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan are in the "Caspian Cup." The other participating countries are Angola, Venezuela, Egypt, India, Kuwait, Nicaragua, Pakistan, and Serbia.
Pro-Putin Russian bikers, known for their politically incorrect expeditions, have now caused concern in Azerbaijan, after they announced plans to descend on Nagorno Karabakh on July 31, in breach of an Azerbaijan-imposed travel ban on the breakaway territory.
This is not the first time that the infamous, Kremlin-funded motorcycle club, the Night Wolves, has sparked controversy. Earlier this year, with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s blessing, this Russian nationalism-on-wheels tried to retrace the Soviet Army’s route to Berlin to commemorate the 1945 victory over Nazi Germany.
Several European countries like Poland, Lithuania and the Czech Republic refused to offer passage to this new red army, both because of their controversial trajectory and for their support for pro-Russia fighters in Ukraine. Only a small group of club members made it to Germany; most of them in a rental car.
A pack of Night Wolves then headed to Georgia, much to the outrage of many Georgians angry over the continued Russian occupation of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia. After all, the country’s biggest bête noire, Putin, is an honorary member of the gang.
In Georgia, the group’s leader, Alexander Zaldastanov, aka Surgeon, added fuel to the fire by expressing regret that he had to use an international passport to cross from Russia to Georgia.
“What is this? I even have to fill out forms in Sevastopol, Ukraine, where I spent my childhood,” he complained to Georgian media. “It is a tragedy that we all don’t live in one country anymore.”
“As long as you’re going to be thinking anyway, think big,” goes an old line from headline-grabbing US presidential candidate Donald Trump. And in Azerbaijan, Trump, the mega-real-estate mogul, has done just that, in terms of both project and partner.
But the deal also raises big questions about how well he grasps the lay of the land in Azerbaijan.
Trump lent his name and management know-how to an upcoming, sail-shaped skyscraper in Baku that is owned by billionaire Anar Mammadov, Mother Jones magazine reported on July 29. Mammadov is a son of the country’s powerful transportation minister, Ziya Mammadov, a man whose family has been long accused of battening on privileged access to government contracts for infrastructure development.
The deal and Mammadov’s role as a champion of Azerbaijani interests in the US — he heads the Azerbaijan America Alliance — exemplify the two parallel worlds of US-Azerbaijani relations. Baku now bitterly rebukes Washington’s criticism of its dismal human rights records, even as its insiders actively lobby and sweet-talk US politicians.
Azerbaijan reportedly has arrested for supposed narcotics peddling the brother-in-law of the director of Meydan TV, an online television station that has become a widely cited source of information about alleged abuses within President Ilham Aliyev’s administration .
In a July 27 Facebook statement, the Berlin-based station’s director, Emin Milli, claimed that the detention of his brother-in-law, Nazim Agabeyov, an IT professional, is intended to punish “relatives, family members and take them as hostages” for his station’s reporting. He dismissed the allegations as “bogus and absurd.”
Azerbaijan’s interior ministry has not commented on the report about Agabeyov’s arrest, Contact.az reported Turan news agency as saying. Agabeyov’s father, Mais, told the agency on July 27 that the family has had no contact with his son, nor with investigators since Nazim Agabeyov’s detention “several days ago.”
Drug charges are routinely filed against critics of the Aliyev government and their relatives.On July 22, a similar accusation was placed against Rufat Zakhidov, a nephew of the editor-in-chief of the opposition Azadliq (Freedom) newspaper, Ganimat Zakhidov, now living in self-imposed exile abroad. Another nephew and a cousin of Zakhidov were arrested a few days previously on minor charges.
Since the conclusion of the European Games this month, reports about officials taking an interest in Meydan TV also have increased.
After a period of estrangement, Baku has laid out its terms for getting back on friendly terms with Washington. The suggestions may have come in the form of commentaries from local news outlets, but the medium is the message in Azerbaijan, where most mainstream media is under the government's thumb.
Ultimately, Baku's demands boil down to being accepted for what it is; an increasingly authoritarian regime, by estimates of any international human rights watchdog, and that the US should quit trying to change it.
APA, for instance, in a July 14 piece, construed a meeting between the Azerbaijani armed forces’ Chief of Staff Colonel General Nejmeddin Sadikov and the unnamed US embassy defense attaché as a mutual attempt to mend fences — despite what other outlets, in a copy-and-paste brief, termed the allegedly “destructive” policies of the State Department.
“Azerbaijani Defense Ministry restores ties with Pentagon” read APA’s headline; a bit of a surprise to those not aware that they had ever been severed.
Two days later, in a long and laborious review of US-Azerbaijan relations, Azernews.az announced that "Azerbaijan says yes to the USA`s peace gesture, but . . ."
One of the more interesting story lines from the recent Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Russia was the addition of new "dialogue partners": Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, and Nepal.
The role of a dialogue partner is not clear, and seems to vary: Belarus had been a dialogue partner, and played an active role in the organization. President Alexander Lukashenko went to the summit earlier this month and Belarus was upgraded to an SCO observer. Turkey, meanwhile, became a dialogue partner in 2013 and since then both the SCO and Ankara, by all public appearances, seem to have completely ignored one another.
But that caveat aside, becoming part of the SCO is nevertheless a statement of some sort of geopolitical intention. Armenia's accession is not too surprising: it is Russia which is clearly interested in pushing SCO expansion in order to boost its own international status, and Yerevan is highly susceptible to Moscow's wishes.
Azerbaijan's entrance, however, is more interesting. What does Azerbaijan have to gain from being part of the SCO?
For one, the SCO's focus on weakening Western norms of human rights is clearly attractive given its accelerating feud with the United States and European countries over what Baku says is unfair criticism of its political and human rights practices.
He had a flat in downtown New York and a castle in Burgundy, but gave it all up for a hayseed village life; most recently, in disputed Nagorno Karabakh. He is German Sterligov, the founder of Russia’s first commodity exchange, and he recently came out of his hermitage in the breakaway territory to face enemies and possibly prosecution back in Moscow.
One of post-Soviet Russia’s first millionaires, 48-year-old Sterligov, who advocates a return to the old Russian alphabet, tsarism and living off the land, earlier this month fled the blandishments of the Moscow region to set up operations in bucolic Karabakh, the longtime battlefield between Armenians and Azerbaijanis.
In a July 13 press-conference, he called the accusations “a lie.”
One of his aides has linked the campaign against Sterligov in Russia to his historical opus, “From Adam to Putin,” in which he wishes that the Russian president would become a Christian. Sterligov accuses the Russian Orthodox Church of heresy.