Once again, Azerbaijan, the region's energy giant, led the pack with diagnoses of chronic cases of intolerance for freedom of expression, corruption in the judiciary system and abuse of detainees by police.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s senior political advisor, Ali Hasanov, did temper his response with elaborations about the importance of Baku's strategic partnership with the US, but he could not help noticing an alleged double-standard in the American criticism.
A country that, as he sees it, had no qualms about folding the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York City is in no position to lecture a country that does not want to allow similarly impromptu demonstrations in the heart of its capital, he implied.
Once you try Azerbaijani food, you know that Azerbaijan is a smart country. Take it from French cinema legend and gastronome Gérard Depardieu, who’s got a growing hankering for ex-Soviet countries that like their policies on the tough side.
A recent commercial, brought to you by the Azerbaijani Ministry of Culture and Tourism, features the movie star digging into Azerbaijani food as a local scriptwriter tries to sell him on a movie idea. “I am overwhelmed,” exclaims the rotund Depardieu as the dishes keep coming, and the scriptwriter chatters on.
Not by the script. But by the cooking. “The country who [sic] has that kind of food is obviously a smart country,” he concludes, gesturing with his fork.
Perhaps food quality can indeed testify to IQ (and Azerbaijani cuisine does have its tasty items), but how the Depardieu video will testify to Azerbaijan’s international image remains to be seen. Increasingly, the 64-year-old actor appears to be available for the asking.
Azerbaijan has asked Russia to relocate some of its Caspian Fleet to Baku after Turkmenistan's naval forces fired on some of Azerbaijan's offshore oil drilling facilities. That's according to Russian website OSTKRAFT, and while the chances of this being accurate are probably pretty small, it's too intriguing a rumor to not pass on. According to OSTKRAFT's story:
President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev has appealed to the leadership of Russia to move part of its Caspian Fleet from Astrakhan and Makhachkala to Baku.
The goal of such military assistance would be the defense of offshore oil drilling facilities in the Caspian Sea territorial waters of Azerbaijan. The immediate cause for the appeal of the government of Azerbaijan to Moscow, according to an OSTKRAFT source, is the damage to Azerbaijan's offshore oil refining infrastructure in shooting by the naval forces of Turkmenistan on the Caspian. The Russian reply is not known.
Given the vagueness of the sourcing, it's best to treat this report with a high degree of skepticism. And it seems unlikely that Aliyev would make such a dramatic request to Russia -- in the long term he's more worried about Russia than about Turkmenistan. And inviting the Russians to base themselves in Baku would make it very hard later to get them out.
Still, the nascent naval forces of Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan have clashed in the past and we didn't hear about it until long after the fact (and probably still wouldn't have, if not for WikiLeaks). And Baku has shown that it prefers not to publicize news of its own weakness in the Caspian. So is there at least a kernel of truth to this somewhere, perhaps some sort of naval clash between the two countries? We'll have to wait for more information.
Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvii and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev have been named as owners of companies registered in the offshore tax haven of the British Virgin Islands, according to a 15-month investigation by the Washington, DC-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
The list of such owners, published in an April 3 report called "Secrecy for Sale: Inside the Global Offshore Money Maze," names Ivanishvili as the director of the Bosherton Overseas Corporation, registered in the British Virgin Islands in 2006 and "still in existence," according to the report. Aliyev and his wife, Mehriban, were listed as directors of Rosamund International as of 2003, the year Aliyev first came to power.
Their daughters, Arzu and Leyla, are registered as the director and a shareholder in Arbor Investments, and in LaBelleza Holdings Ltd and Harvard Management Ltd, respectively.
A spokesperson told Georgian media on April 5 that the prime minister had disposed of the shares before his campaign for public office began in 2011, though noted that "in the past" he had had "a business link" with the company." Georgian law forbids public officials to have a controlling stake in companies.
A new mosque will be a bridge between Turkey and Georgia, according to Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoğlu, but, depending on how the matter is handled, the sanctuary could also become a wall between the two countries.
The roles played by regional powers Russia and Turkey in Syria's civil war are well documented, the former on the side of the government of Bashar al-Assad, and the latter on the side of the opposition. But according to a new report by a human rights group, Georgia and Azerbaijan also play bit parts in helping the Syrian government.
The report by the Human Rights First, Enablers of the Syrian Conflict (pdf), attempts to shine light on the international actors fueling the bloodshed in that country. It focuses solely on aid given to the government of Syria, not to the rebels. "Although both sides of the conflict are responsible for atrocities, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad is responsible for the vast majority," the report says.
Private companies in Georgia and Lebanon have supplied Syria with diesel fuel, the report notes:
[S]mall vessels carrying diesel from Georgia have also sailed into Syria.The United States provides foreign assistance to both Lebanon and Georgia. This assistance, and close bilateral relations, affords the United States an opportunity to exercise diplomatic and political action to have the Lebanese and Georgian governments investigate these reports and stop actors within those countries from fueling the crisis in Syria.
For its part, Azerbaijan allows Russia to use its airspace for shipments of weapons and cash:
Some lethal provisions to Syria by air initially involved transit through Turkey; however, after Turkey took steps to inspect suspected arms flights to Syria, Russia, Iran, and North Korea have all attempted to instead use Iraq as an arms corridor, with Russian transfers also traveling through Azerbaijan and Iran....
Azerbaijan may now be busy celebrating the arrival of spring with the traditional holiday of Novruz, but local police tempers do not appear to be growing any sunnier.
On March 19, an outspoken former Azerbaijani defense minister, Rahim Gaziyev, claims he was on his way to the Azeri-language service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Baku to broadcast his criticism of President Ilham Aliyev’s government, when unknown men allegedly hooded him with a bag and hustled him into a car. Gaziyev, who served as defense minister from 1992 to 1993, soon found himself in the captivating company of anti-organized crime police officials.
The policemen did not charge Gaziyev; just reportedly gave him a piece of avuncular advice -- to bag it. “’You’ve been writing quite a bit of letters here and there, we notice. You should try lying low,’ they told me,” Gaziyev recounted to the Kavkazsky Uzel news site. He was released the next morning, on March 20.
One letter which apparently particularly disappointed the police recently appeared in the pro-opposition Azadliq (Freedom) newspaper. In his letter, the ex-minister slammed President Aliyev for having corrupt officials under his wing, cracking down on political dissent, turning a blind eye to abuse and violence in the army, and what have you.
A top Iranian official has made waves in the Caucasus by claiming that Iran secretly helped Azerbaijan during the latter's war with Armenia over Nagorno Karabakh in the 1990s. The official, Mohsen Rezaee, is in a position to know: he was the commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards at the time. He told Sahar TV (translation by Oye Times):
“I personally issued an order … for the Republic of Azerbaijan army to be equipped appropriately and for it to receive the necessary training,” he said. “Many Iranians died in the Karabakh War. In addition to the wounded, who were transported to [Iran], many of the Iranian martyrs of the Karabakh War are buried in Baku.”
“Karabakh is a part of Islamic lands and the Republic of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity must be guaranteed through peaceful means.”
Georgian President MIkheil Saakashvili visits Martyrs Alley in Baku, honoring victims of the Nagorno Karabakh war.
When Georgian President MIkheil Saakashvili made an official visit to Azerbaijan last week, he took with him a bit of his unique brand of anti-Russia rhetoric, saying that Baku today faces a similar threat from Russia as has Tbilisi. From Civil.ge:
After visiting Baku, President Saakashvili said that Russia was preparing the same "scenario" for Azerbaijan, which was applied against Georgia in last year's parliamentary elections when, as he put it, "oligarchs, Russian funds, blackmailing and provocations" were used.
In particular, Saakashvili mentioned the establishment of a diaspora organization in Russia made up of rich businessmen of Azeri origin, which he said posed the same sort of threat as did Bidzina Ivanishvili, the Georgian-born businessman who made billions in Russia and then became prime minister of Georgia on a platform of improving ties with Russia. Saakashvili also noted that Ivanishvili's government pardoned an ethnic Armenian activist, which he said was done "to please" Russia.
Azerbaijan has traditionally been very careful not to provoke Russia; while it similarly feels a threat to its sovereignty from Moscow, it has followed a somewhat more multi-vectored approach than has Georgia, maintaining good relations with Russia, alongside its ties to Turkey, Europe, the U.S, Israel. and others. And Russia, for its part, has not taken an aggressive position against Baku, seeming more interested in maintaining a regional balance of power between Armenia and Azerbaijan. So it's not surprising, as the opposition news site Contact.az notes, that officials in Baku publicly ignored Saakashvili's comments.
After sashaying to a folk dance with a dictator in Russia's North Caucasus, French cinema legend Gérard Depardieu may next appear in Azerbaijan for a film . . . and, perhaps, more dancing.
The larger-than-life French actor, who often goes on junkets to ex-Soviet spots these days, plans a “big movie” about sports in the young republic of Azerbaijan, said French film producer Arnau Frille, Russian and Azerbaijani media report.
Storyline details are not known, but, no doubt, First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, head of Azerbaijan's 2015 European Olympics preparation committee, and President Ilham Aliyev, head of its Olympics committee, could make a few suggestions.