There is something about Steven Seagal that really appeals to authoritarian leaders across the former Soviet Union. Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev now has become the latest regional strongman to host the Hollywood b-list action hero and BFF of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Stevan Seagal noted that he was pleased to visit Azerbaijan, saying that he was deeply impressed by what he saw in the county,” announced the presenter of an English-language, government video that showed Seagal chatting away with Aliyev on September 21. The actor, the announcer assured viewers, was impressed by the high-level conduct of the European Games, a continental sports contest hosted by Azerbaijan in June. Aliyev thanked his aikido black-belt master visitor for the kind words and could not help but agree that the Games were, indeed, fabulous.
On a mission to bring the world together through aikido, the actor then took the opportunity to share some tricks with Azerbaijan’s aspiring young fighters. Taking off his shoes and getting on the mat with an aikido class in Baku, he told them that “I was lucky enough to meet with your president… and look forward to working with you as my family.” And then sent one of his new pupils flying with a single move.
Seagal, who said he will be coming back to Azerbaijan to teach his trade, has been giving martial arts workshops in many a post-Soviet place, from Kazakhstan to Russia, and cavorting with local leaders like Chechnya’s redoubtable Ramzan Kadyrov. In 2013 in the Chechen capital, Grozny, he even broke into a frantic dance, with arms wind-milling wildly as a traditional female dancer gracefully glided around him.
After putting yet another journalist in jail, a top official in Azerbaijan advised foreign news companies to comply with the country’s tight media regulations or face the consequences. The warning was addressed, among others, to Voice of America, the foreign broadcasting outlet of the US government.
News operations like Voice of America and the Berlin-based Meydan TV “do not comply with the rules and operate in the country illegally,” mainstream Azerbaijani news outlets cited Ali Hasanov, President Ilham Aliyev’s senior aide for political issues, as saying. Failure to get accreditation from Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry, as required by government regulations, led to the recent detentions of journalists from MeydanTV, he claimed.
Such measures may not be the usual response for bureaucratic lapses, but that didn’t give Hasanov pause. As international criticism of Azerbaijan’s rights-record increases, particularly in the wake of investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova's imprisonment*, Hasanov and other officials show no sign of loosening things up.
Most recently, a 19-year-old reporter with Meydan TV was detained and sentenced to 30 days in jail for allegedly resisting police. Several other journalists from the Internet broadcaster, an outlet critical of President Aliyev’s rule, were summoned to police stations. Meydan TV and international media-rights observers said the company and its director, Emin Milli, have become the target for a government harassment campaign.
A high-court decision in Georgia this week ended more than a year’s worth of pre-trial detention for a major opposition figure, former Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava, but a subsequent trial judgement has sent him back to prison for a four-and-a-half-year-long stretch.
The string of events already has revived a longstanding debate about whether the rule of law does indeed outweigh politics in Georgia.
Ugulava, 40, was released late on September 17 to a hero’s welcome from fellow members of the United National Movement (UNM), former President Mikheil Saakashvili’s party and the largest opposition to the ruling Georgian Dream coalition. The day before, the Constitutional Court, the country's highest judicial body, ruled that the constitution does not allow a defendant to be kept in detention for over nine months.
Many lawyers hailed the decision as “historic” for declaring unconstitutional a criminal law provision that allowed pre-trial detention to be extended beyond nine months if new charges are brought.
Ironically, that “unconstitutional” measure was voted into law by Ugulava’s own UNM party back in 2010.
But Ugalava’s time out of jail proved brief. Late on September 18, the Tbilisi City Court sentenced the ex-mayor, once one of the country’s most powerful political figures, to 4.5 years in prison for the alleged misspending of public funds. He was acquitted on money-laundering charges.
If there was a “little Armenia” in Syria, to borrow Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian’s words, there is also a little Syria in Armenia. The South Caucasus country has taken in 2,500 refugees from Syria just over the summer and continues to hand out visas and Armenian passports to Armenian-Syrians.
Before flooding into the European Union, Syrians, at least those of Armenian heritage, were streaming into Armenia. At 15,500 refugees since the start of the conflict, according to UNHCR and government figures, Armenia ranks as one of the most frequent destinations outside of the European Union for migrant Syrians relative to population, an Economist chart shows.
The mass arrival has been emphatically described as a “homecoming” in Armenia, where national identity is seen as something shared between the country’s residents and its far-flung Diasporas. “There are a 100 small and big Armenias around the world,” Foreign Minister Nalbandian told the BBC’s Russian service in a September 14 interview.
In a setup indicative of the changing economic and, possibly, geopolitical dynamics in the South Caucasus, Armenia hopes China soon will agree to pay for a planned railway to Iran. At the same time, it also is lobbying for a free-trade agreement between Iran and the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union.
Economically and otherwise dependent on the big brother to the north, Russia, and sandwiched between hostile Azerbaijan and Turkey to the east and west, Armenia hopes that things can go south, to Iran. The planned railway could give Iran access to the Black Sea for large-scale shipments of exports and landlocked Armenia a significant role as a transit country.
The state of the railway link is not clear yet. Iranian officials said they are building their portion of it, while Armenia is looking for the means to construct its own. Armenian Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian hopes to scare up investment for the railroad from China during his upcoming September 23-25 visit. Yerevan and Beijing have already been in touch about the railway, according to Abrahamian.
Georgian defense officials say they would not welcome a potential request from Russia to use Georgian airspace for military and humanitarian overflights to Syria. “If such a request is made, the position of the Georgian Ministry of Defense . . . will be negative,” the ministry emailed EurasiaNet.org on September 14.
Last week, EurasiaNet.org examined the possibility that US pressure to block Russian flights to Syria via Bulgaria and Greece could prompt Moscow to consider the Caucasus as a possible alternative route for these air shipments. Russia regularly airlifts military supplies to Armenia, where it has an army base, and the two countries, longtime strategic allies, plan to share an air defense system.
Air navigation authorities in both Armenia and neighboring Georgia underlined that Russian military planes currently do not use their countries' airspace for transit to Syria and that, in Georgia’s case, such transit would require the foreign ministry’s consent.
The Georgian foreign ministry only responded to questions on the topic after EurasiaNet.org’s report was published on September 11. “Russia has not been in touch with requests to use Georgian airspace for Syria-bound flights, neither now, nor at any stage of the conflict” in Syria, the ministry stated in a September 14 email.
The ministry noted that Georgia is engaged in a “general dialogue and coordination on security issues with the US, Georgia’s strategic partner,” but said that there has not been any discussion with Washington about Russian flights to Syria.
The US embassy in Tbilisi commented that it has "encouraged our allies and partners to ask tough questions" about Russia's deployment to Syria, but declined to go into details.
Azerbaijan has moved to end a major parliamentary dialogue with the European Union in retaliation for EU criticism of its rights record. The tit-for-tat between Brussels and Baku again pits the push for democratization against the desire for Azerbaijan’s Caspian Sea gas.
Aside from the September 14 vote to suspend the country’s participation in Euronest, a parliamentary forum of the European Union and its eastern neighbors, Azerbaijani legislators also called for a broader revision of Baku’s cooperation with Brussels through the EU’s Eastern Partnership Program.
Azerbaijan already had told a delegation from the EU’s executive body, the European Commission, not to bother to visit Baku as had been planned.
The diplomatic brownout began with the European Parliament’s September 10 resolution that admonished Azerbaijan for “unprecedented repression against civil society” and for jailing domestic critics of the ruling elite; most recently, investigative freelance journalist Khadija Ismayilova. The resolution called for the “immediate and unconditional release” of Ismayilova and scores of jailed rights activists and other critics.
Azerbaijani lawmakers were having none of that. “They malign Azerbaijan, try to harm the image of our country and isolate it,” they said in the passed resolution.
A fresh scuffle between police and demonstrators in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, suggests that widespread complaints about officials' handling of a 16.5-percent increase in electricity prices could still have legs.
The latest rally, scattered by police on September 12, did not boast the numbers comparable to the “high-voltage rallies,” a series of sit-ins in the city center in June known as Electric Yerevan. It was a much smaller crowd, made up mainly of activists from the No to Plunder group, which claims that the government, counter to its earlier promises, has not entirely covered the cost of the higher power prices.
Most businesses, the group alleges, have been left out.
At first glance, to many outsiders, paying roughly ten cents (48.78 drams) per kilowatt hour of daytime energy use may not seem high. But protesters claim the real issue relates to the practice of officials handing out special favors for the government's corporate chums -- a longtime complaint in Armenia. The government, they charge, always covers up accordingly.
No to Plunder has demanded that the new prices, seen as the result of government collusion with the Russian-owned Electricity Networks of Armenia (ENA), be scrapped entirely. “We will go to the end,” the protesters told Interfax.
The duel between the West and Russia for the Caucasus might just be becoming a truel. In its continued fervor to embrace China and attract Chinese hunger for global investment and exports, Georgia has launched talks on free trade with Beijing.
“Our main goal is to make the most prudent use of our strategic location,” said Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili on September 10 at the World Economic Forum in the Chinese city of Dalian, where the Georgian leader met his Chinese counterpart, Li Kepiang.
Dalian is on the ancient East-West trade route known as the Silk Road, which China is looking to bring back to life by investing in transportation and energy infrastructure along the way.
“Georgia is Europe’s natural gateway to Asia, as it is Europe’s eastern most [syc] point both by land and sea,” Gharibashvili elaborated in a September 10 op-ed in the English-language China Daily, seen as a Beijing mouthpiece.
In his commentary Gharibashvili went through the selling points for Georgia as a critical hub in the Chinese government’s transnational project for integrating Chinese and Eurasian trade and investment.
With its economy still struggling for a breather, Tbilisi hopes that Georgia’s investment-friendly tax policy and free-trade agreement with the European Union will encourage more Chinese business to provide a much-needed financial boost. Gharibashvili’s office said that Chinese officials will visit Tbilisi in mid-October for a Silk Road conference.
As tensions again flare up between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Moscow has agreed to lend Yerevan $200 million for weaponry purchases at reduced rates.
In a September 7 statement after meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at his Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside of Moscow, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan claimed the preferential credit will facilitate “upgrading” the Armenian military’s stockpile of arms. Financial details were not available.
With a base in Armenia, Russia long has served as Armenia’s primary source of arms, even as it co-chairs peace talks between the two countries. The Kremlin has long used both hands to maintain influence in the South Caucasus, but the aid to Armenia left observers wondering what Putin's current game in the region is.
Moscow had been believed to be trying to pull Baku closer in, but the announcement of the gun deal will only chafe Baku. Media reports suggested that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was dispatched to Baku last week with the goal of coaxing Azerbaijan into a closer alliance with Moscow amidst the chill with the West over Azerbaijan’s dismal human rights record.