A monument to the legendary Russian arms-designer, creator of the AK-rifle series, Mikhail Kalashnikov, has been erected in Armenia. The full-length statue of the man whose weapons came to epitomize Russian/Soviet military might was placed in the northern town of Gyuimri, the site of Russia’s lone military base in the South Caucasus.
The Kalashnikov monument will be unveiled officially and a museum will open on November 8, according to a press-release from the 102nd military base, cited by RIA Novosti. The base commander, Colonel Andrei Ruzinski, came up with the idea last year, when Kalashnikov passed away, leaving behind the legacy of what Russia says is the world’s most popular rifle.
“Vodka, matrioshkas, balalaikas, and commissars and Cossacks riding bears – all that kitsch can be dismissed as it has nothing to do with Russia,” RIA Novosti wrote in an obituary for Kalashnikov. “But the three-something kilograms of iron from Izhev [firearms manufacturer] put everything in its place, because that is the real Russia, from beginning to the end. This is a symbol that is immediately recognized everywhere, and no more explanations are needed.”
Russian guns are a controversial matter in the South Caucasus, but Armenia still is a willing host to the 102nd military base, seen as a deterrent against any possible assault from neighboring Azerbaijan, which has indicated it’s willing to retake breakaway, predominantly ethnic Armenian Nagorno Karabakh by force, if not by peace.
These days, this question is a subject of passionate debate in Georgia. Many recoiled in distaste to see Moscow this month hosting a so-called Tbilisoba, an annual, Oktoberfest-style festival of Georgian arts, national crafts and cuisine held in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. Some accuse participating Georgian pop stars of selling out to the Kremlin, while others speak of the need of building cultural bridges amid animosity.
In Soviet and early post-Soviet times, Russia was as much of a main outlet for Georgian song and dance as it was for the country’s fruit and vegetables. Given the modest size of Georgia’s show business, many Georgian performers still turn to Russia, with its massive showbiz industry and remnants of nostalgic appreciation for Georgian culture.
After 2008, some Georgian showbiz stars quit on Russia, and Tbilisi discouraged cultural exchange events. That approach changed with the Georgian Dream’s advent to power in 2012, and the lifting of the Russian embargo on Georgian food-products.
Yet, still, part of Georgian society thinks such performances are inappropriate so long as Russian troops remain stationed in breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and help separatists prevent the homecoming of thousands of ethnic Georgians who fled these regions. They see irony in the same pop stars participating in Moscow’s Tbilisoba who previously performed in patriotic, anti-Kremlin concerts in Georgia.
In a move that many Georgians believe bodes ill for their remaining links with breakaway Abkhazia, the region’s new de-facto leader, Raul Khajimba, has stated he wants to eliminate all crossing points but one into Georgian-controlled territory.
“The national border with Georgia on the Enguri River will be reinforced,” RIA Novosti quoted Khajimba as saying in reference to what most of the rest of the world sees as an administrative boundary line between Abkhazia and the Tbilisi-controlled region of Samegrelo.
“There should be only one checkpoint for reasons of national security,” Khajimba told an assembly of his party, the Forum of People’s Unity of Abkhazia.
For now, there are five crossing-points – four pedestrian and one vehicular – operating across the Russian-policed administrative boundary between breakaway Abkhazia and Samegrelo.
Residents of Abkhazia’s ethnic Georgian-dominated Gali region regularly use these so-called official crossings to travel into Samegrelo, the best local place for shopping, and where most have family or friends.
“Russian border guards often turn a blind eye if we show them an Abkhaz or Soviet passport or residency documents provided by the local administration and they let us herd livestock to pastures on the Georgian-controlled side,” one Gali resident told Ekho Kavkaza.
A brand new international travel option is underway for the Russian-annexed Crimean peninsula. An airline based in Russia’s North-Caucasus republic of Chechnya plans to launch direct flights between the Armenian capital, Yerevan, and Crimea’s main city of Simferopol, according to RIA-Novosti.
Grozny Avia, named after Chechnya's capital, Grozny (Russian for fearsome), was ordered into being by the obstreperous province's warlord-turned-president, Ramzan Kadyrov. The air company now conducts domestic flights within the Russian Federation.
Its twice-weekly Yerevan-Simferopol flights are tentatively expected to start on October 28, but may get pushed over into November, the carrier told the agency Crimea Media.
Grozny Avia operated its first international flight out of Simferopol to Istanbul in July, when Crimea was already under Russian control. Regular flights were cancelled thereafter for "political reasons," the official story goes. Some news reports claimed that the cancellation was a result of Turkey siding with Ukraine and its Western partners in the dispute with Russia over Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
Earlier this year, the International Civil Aviation Organization called on international carriers to avoid the Crimean airspace, which Russia hijacked from Ukraine, along with the land below it. Currently, all regular international flights to Crimea are mainly by Russia’s Aeroflot.
With Azerbaijan’s prisons increasingly full of government-detractors, it might have seemed to many only a matter of time before Azerbaijani prosecutors would again focus on Khadija Ismayilova, a prominent journalist known for her exposés of government corruption. Speaking from Strasbourg, Ismayilova told EurasiaNet.org that she expects to be arrested on October 3, upon her return home to Baku from a trip to Europe.
Ismayilova received a court summons on charges of criminal libel during this trip, travel intended to relay what is widely seen as a wholesale crackdown on civil society in the energy-rich, ex-Soviet republic. An award-winning RFE/RL reporter who also has worked for EurasiaNet.org, Ismayilova needs to appear in court the day she returns to Baku.
“I will be arriving with a lawyer and my main lawyer will be waiting [in Baku],” she said.
Her trip was closely watched in Baku. At one human-rights talk in Warsaw, hosted by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Ismayilova and several other participants, wearing t-shirts with the photos of Azerbaijani political prisoners, turned their backs on a presentation on human-rights issues, which, they charged, lacquered over ongoing repressions. Azerbaijan’s government-linked media was quick to attack Ismayilova, claiming she was commanding a group of people from Armenia, the country’s longtime foe.
Authorities in Azerbaijan are seeing red after a democracy-watchdog activist they jailed received an international award from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Granting the Vaclav Havel prize for civil society activism to Anar Mammadli constitutes outside pressure on an independent state, Ali Hasanov, a key aide to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, declared on September 30.
In a familiar line, Hasanov attributed the award to contrivances by Azerbaijan’s enemies. He said that such steps serve to “support the fifth column underwritten by certain foreign forces” [a frequent euphemism for enemy-neighbor Armenia] and that Azerbaijan is free to arrest those who violate the law. “It is quite obvious that certain organizations, acting behind the façade of human-rights advocacy, are not at all independent and follow very concrete instructions,” he declared, the pro-government APA news agency reported.
Azerbaijan, however, currently chairs a committee within one of the "certain organizations," the Council of Europe, the continent ’s main human-rights body, and the award put the CoE in an awkward place. (Azerbaijan holds the seat until November.) Many critics argue that the 47-nation forum is not the place for Azerbaijan, which recently has detained scores of journalists, civil-society leaders and activists who criticize the government.
Many would guess Russia, but it is actually Argentina. Data on direct foreign investment shows that Argentina now ranks as the largest foreign spender in this South Caucasus country, better known for its politically prohibitive economic reliance on Moscow.
The official stats, reported by Hetq Online, suggest that Armenia’s trade, development, and even foreign policy options may not be as limited as its long dependence on Russia may suggest.
For years, Russia has been the single largest foreign investor in Armenia until France took over the title in 2012. A year later, Russia got pushed further down the list, below France and Argentina, which is now in the lead with just just under $118 million.
One man could be behind the seemingly unlikely Armenian-Argentinian connection. The full detail of Argentina’s investment projects in Armenia is not readily available, but Argentinian billionaire Eduardo Eurnekian, an ethnic Armenian by descent, could be behind the hike.
Argentina’s second richest man, Eurnekian is committed to turning Armenia into paradise on earth and has called on fellow members of the far-flung Armenian Diaspora to shoulder the task. The octogenarian airport and investment magnate has invested in upgrading and expanding Yerevan’s international airport, Zvartnots, and gifted an airplane to the new airport in Nagorno-Karabkh, the ethnic-Armenian-controlled breakaway territory.
The killing of an 18-year-old Georgian fighter in Syria has displayed Georgia’s homegrown radical Islam issue, just as this South-Caucasus country tries to contribute to the US-led efforts against Islamic-State terrorists.
Beso Kushtanashvili reportedly became the sixth Georgian to die fighting in Syria. Like all others, Kushtanashvili was from the largely Muslim Pankisi Gorge, an isolated area to the northeast of the capital, Tbilisi.
Whether or not he was fighting for ISIS is not clear. Villagers from the Pankisi Gorge told Georgian television channels that they last saw Kushtanashvili at a summer high-school graduation party before he left for neighboring Turkey. Friends and relatives say they are clueless about how he ended up in Syria.
Earlier on, one Pankisi resident Leila Achishvili lost two of her sons in the Syria war. She told Rustavi2 TV that she had travelled all the way to Syria to beg her sons to come back.
“I was telling them that this is not our war,” Achishvili told Rustavi2. She said that she even met Tarkhan Batirashvili, the Pankisi native who, under the name of Omar al-Shishani, commands a unit within the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The US recently placed Al-Shishani on its black list of terrorists.
No official information has been released about the number of men who have gone from Pankisi to fight for the so-called Islamic State or other radical Islamic groups.
There still might be room for a substantial partnership between the European Union and Armenia, says Brussels, but it will depend on how exclusive the Caucasus country’s relationship is going to be with the Eurasian Union, Russia’s planned alternative trade bloc.
But, ever the jealous lover, Russia wants exclusivity. If Armenia cold-shoulders the bloc, that could mean a Ukrainian-like upheaval, a Russian envoy warned this week.
In the year since it spurned the first EU's advances for those of the second EU, Armenia, putting its chess prowess into practice, has tried to keep its options still open. But things are getting confusing.
“For [a] broad and new definition or redefinition of our relations, we need to have a complete overview and idea from the Armenian side as to what they can do in the new circumstance created by Armenia’s membership in the Customs Union,” Peter Stano, spokesperson for the EU Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle, told RFE/RL on September 24.
Armenia itself would like to know these details. It is not yet a member of the Customs Union, the core of the planned Eurasian Union. The specifics of Armenia’s likely terms of engagement with the bloc remain unclear and a subject of dispute among the current Customs-Union members, Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus.
Armenia also has some hesitation. For one, about what the Customs-Union deal will mean for ethnic Armenian, breakaway Nagorno Karabakh, which depends on Armenia to keep it de-facto apart from Azerbaijan. There is also a dose of homegrown backlash among pro-Western circles against Armenia alienating the European Union.
But Moscow does not want to be dumped. Particularly, not again.
The arrest of 26 Azerbaijanis for allegedly joining armed Islamic groups in Syria and the wider region may help Azerbaijan place its strategic importance to the United States above criticism of its growing autocratic reputation.
The September-23 detentions mark this Caspian-Sea country’s largest operation against alleged Islamic extremist fighters since reports began to circulate over the past year about a steady flow of recruits from Azerbaijan for the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Azerbaijan’s Ministry of National Security said that the detainees have joined several paramilitary groups in Pakistan, Iraq and Syria. Some were alleged members of Azeri Jamaaty, a jihad group in Syria made up of Azerbaijani nationals.
In short profiles of the suspects, the ministry claimed that one of the detainees, Taleh Soltanov, allegedly led Taifa al-Mansoura, a jihadist group affiliated with the Pakistani Taliban movement. En route to Syria, Soltanov was detained in Iran and deported to Azerbaijan. His wife and mother-in-law, though, made it to Syria with the help of local fighters, the ministry reported.
Another arrested individual, Vyugar Dursunaliyev, is accused of sending his juvenile son, Elvin, to Syria to join the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the terrorist group commonly known as ISIS.
The arrests were reported on the same day that US President Barack Obama mentioned Azerbaijan among the countries notorious for crackdowns on civil society.