It’s always unsettling to learn that a repressive government has sophisticated computer malware. But in the case of Azerbaijan, the good news is that they don’t necessary know how to use it.
In emails leaked Sunday, the employees of Italian cyber-surveillance company Hacking Team exchange both giggles and exasperation as they field questions from Azerbaijan, where interior and national security officials were trying to get the hang of the spyware, Meydan TV reported on July 9.
The information, obtained by unknown hackers, makes up part of 400GB of data released via BitTorrents; a grab one privacy expert deemed the equivalent of Edward Snowden’s handiwork, Wired reported.
According to the conversation with the Azerbaijani officials, the Hacking Team offered help in “infecting targets” with the spyware, which allows remote access to all computer files and the ability to control computers’ cameras and microphones.
The Italian company had denied selling its products to abusive governments. Yet the leaked data showed that the Azerbaijani government had used a California-based company to license Hacking Team’s Remote Control System spyware, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. found. The initial payment was 320,000 euros (about $402,000) with continued annual payments for maintenance.
Separatist Abkhazia has been picked as the venue for the wannabe and stateless nations’ soccer championship in 2016.
It is soccer without borders in a direct sense. Arameans, Laplanders, Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians and all sorts of “sportingly isolated” peoples will be heading down to the Russian-backed, Georgian-claimed Black Sea region for the next installment of the soccer event that debuted in Sweden last year.
Twelve teams, including from Darfur and the Isle of Man, participated in the competition with the County of Nice as the winner.
The enthusiast group behind the event – the Confederation of Independent Football Associations (CONIFA) that some describe as the anti-FIFA – is on a mission to put unrecognized or less-recognized self-declared countries like Abkhazia “on the world map” to have them share “the joy of international soccer.
“We are sure that Abkhazia is a perfect choice to enjoy a perfect football and cultural experience,” CONIFA said in a statement. Although Abkhazia has the reputation of a twilight zone still recovering from the ruins of the early 1990s separatist war with Tbilisi, CONIFA claims that “top-class infrastructure” can be found there.
The US will prime the pump to help fix Ukraine’s corruption-sodden Odessa oblast, now run by former Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, and is looking to California to rev things up a little. The Golden State’s highway police will be coming to Odessa to help create a new generation of cops, meant to replace the legendarily payola-prone, post-Soviet police.
The plans were announced jointly on July 6 by US Ambassador to Kyiv Geoffrey Pyatt and Odessa Governor Mikheil Saakashvili, who has been tasked with a break-it-or-make-it reform mission in struggling Ukraine.
In describing the initiative, Ambassador Pyatt claimed that Ukraine faces two battles: “One is the war with Russia…The other is the war against corruption, the war for the reform, the war to move Ukraine towards the standards of modern European democracy that the Ukrainian people have sought,.” Odessa is the frontline for that second war, he added.
A successful police overhaul is seen as crucial for success in Odessa, where questions had been raised about the region’s allegiance to the government in Kyiv and its ability to shed the ossified system of dubious business interests. Gaishniki or officers of GAI (Russian acronym for State Auto Inspection) is used metonymically for a highway robber in much of the post-Soviet world, their disappearance is expected to make a noticeable difference on Ukrainian roads and symbolize a break with the Soviet and early post-Soviet past.
“You will see that none of it is going to be there by the summer’s end,” Saakashvili vowed in June. “Here will be a new patrol police, which will be very different both in its IQ, manners and quality of service.”
Police on July 6 opened the epicenter of Yerevan’s mass protests, Baghramian Avenue, to traffic and closed it to rallies. They encountered little resistance when clearing the barricades and then cordoning off the perimeter of the avenue, a key thoroughfare blocked by demonstrators for the past two weeks.
For some observers, the July 6 response was not unexpected. The day before, some of the protest leaders had threatened to move their barricade of dumpsters gradually toward President Serzh Sargsyan’s office unless the government reversed a plan to increase electricity prices by 16 percent and punished alleged police abuses during an earlier dispersal of the demonstration, on June 23.
Officials had given no sign of yielding on the prices, though regulators told news outlets earlier in the day that the Russian-owned Electric Networks of Armenia will be fined 75 million drams ($158,388) on July 8 for alleged irregularities in connecting clients to the power grid and billing them.
If that was the carrot, though, the police provided the stick. Citing a supposedly planned “provocation,” they warned on July 5 they would take action to break up the gathering.
The overall police response, witnessed on a live video feed, appeared peaceful, however.
Police told Kavkazky Uzel they arrested 46 people in the cleanup, but released them all. Their earlier crackdown on the demonstration, on June 23, had resulted in some 240 arrests, but failed to end the demonstration, which continued to snowball, spreading to the regions.
“Pecunia non olet (“Money does not smell”),” staff tells you at a museum dedicated to the history of toilets in Kyiv, Ukraine.
But the motto, which Roman Emperor Vespasian supposedly said after imposing a tax on public urinals, is only another part of the toilet trivia and bathroom paraphernalia on display at this unusual exhibit.
Many eyes, especially in Moscow, are on Yerevan for hints that the resistance to higher electricity prices will turn into another post-Soviet revolution with geopolitical implications. But the wait for Molotov cocktails to start flying is proving meaningless.
Rather, now that the risk of police intervention has faded, the mass protests are again looking like a national festival, with the mostly young demonstrators breaking into song and dance on Yerevan’s central Bahgramian Avenue that they have blocked for days now.
The choice of weapons includes the traditional Armenian circle dance, Kochari, performed to the pounding of drums and shrieks of the zurna, a folk oboe. Others do a bit of sports. One morning earlier, protesters used the space between a line of police and a barricade of recycling bins as a soccer pitch. The demonstrators also worked together to keep the avenue clean.
The government, in some ways, also appears to be performing a circle dance of its own. Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian on June 30 said that the state would use extrabudgetary funds to cover the August 1 price-hike for consumers, but claimed the explanation would come later, RFE/RL's Armenian service reported.
The European Games and its implicit race between hydrocarbon dollars and human rights have come to an end after a grandiose closing show on June 28 in Baku and divergent opinions about what the Olympics-style event has done for Azerbaijan.
Officials in the oil capital of the Caucasus say, all puns aside, that the event has been a gas. Government-influenced media (in other words, mainstream Azerbaijani media) is busy cultivating a sense of achievement and President Ilham Aliyev’s government is promising to host more sporting events that raise Azerbaijan’s international profile.
But some critics question the need for the Games. The Guardian wrote that Baku 2015 left the impression of “ghost games;” that “there is no real need for in a crowded calendar and willed into existence by the endless expansionism of the Olympics movement and an authoritarian state.”
Sports Minister Azad Rahimov was a bit on the defensive amid reports of excessive spending. He claimed that the alleged 960 million manats ($914.55 million) price-tag for the Games was within range of initial estimates, but there are reports of much higher spending.
But that’s not all – it’s co-hosting the European soccer championship in 2020 and has set its sights on perhaps even the Summer Olympic Games in 2024.
Baku’s earlier Olympics bids failed, but the European Games left the city with some new, glittering sports infrastructure and the authorities are bent on making the most of it.
Azerbaijan’s big decision about going for the 2024 Olympics won’t come until September, however, and rests with President Ilham Aliyev, who also doubles as the chair of the Azerbaijani National Olympics Committee, Sports Minister Azad Rahimov specified on June 26.
Rahimov, though, believes that the European Games have put Baku on the right road. Holding large-scale sports events puts Azerbaijan "on the road leading to the Olympics,” the minister said.
When a Russian TV reporter went live from the Yerevan protests last night, a poster behind her read “Russia 24: Go to hell,” to use a mellow translation of the original choice of words.
The crowd gathered around the journalist was angry that Russian media draws parallels between their protest against higher electricity fees from a Russian-owned power company and Ukraine’s pro-Western uprising in 2013.
“People here do not want the word Yerevan to be used in the same sentence with Kyiv,” the LifeNews journalist explained.
Igor Morozov, a member of Russia’s legislative upper house, the Federation Council, opined on June 24 that Yerevan’s protests carbon-copy the build-up to EuroMaidan, and will end in a coup if “the nation’s President Serzh Sargsyan does not learn lessons from Ukraine’s Maidan and does not draw the right conclusions," RIA Novosti reported.
And, in the time-honored fashion of Russian politicians, Morozov is eager to make sure he does. Morozov and his colleague in the lower house, the State Duma, Valery Rishkin, advised Sargsyan to boot US Ambassador Richard Mills out of Armenia.
In Russian political folklore, US embassies in Ukraine, Armenia and elsewhere in the post-Soviet world work as regional headquarters of an anti-Kremlin conspiracy thought up in Washington, DC.
As the tense standoff between protesters and police in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, continues, Moscow is keeping a cautious eye on events. Armenia is Russia’s only sure ally in the South Caucasus, and, the Kremlin, no doubt with Ukraine on its mind, wants to be sure of its friend.
“Armenia is our closest partner… Of course, we closely follow the developments and hope the situation will be settled in the near future in strict accordance with the law,” Public Radio of Armenia quoted Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov as saying.
Russian media continues to look at the “Maidan-ability” of the demonstrations; in other words, if the protests against a 16-percent hike in electricity prices can become a real threat to Armenia’s government and its close alliance with Moscow.
Although some anti-Moscow (and anti-Putin) notes were sounded at the Electric Yerevan protest, protesters do not appear to be calling for grand shifts in Armenia’s geo-strategy.