Gold mines for Azerbaijan’s presidential offspring, an ex-Georgian leader’s offshore company, a key Armenian official’s questionable income, the grounds for a clamoring public outcry in the South Caucasus over the Panama Papers were all there. But, so far, it hasn’t come.
Details about the Azerbaijani presidential family’s alleged control over Azerbaijan’s goldmines and its supposed business alliance with Tax Minister Fazil Mammadov hit on April 4, a day before a ceasefire which more or less ended three days of fighting with Armenian and separatist Karabakhi forces.
A 2012 report by RFE/RL, an OCCRP partner, had found that Aliyev’s daughters had stake in the goldmines; a revelation that OCCRP believes cost RFE/RL investigative journalist Khadija Ismyailova her freedom.*
Russia on April 7 swiftly took charge as a conciliator in the Armenia-Azerbaijan fight, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the ground in Baku, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on his way to Yerevan and President Vladimir Putin sending his “warmest greetings.”
“At every level, from president to prime minister, to foreign ministry, to defense ministry, to joint chiefs of staff, we did everything to help the sides arrive at a ceasefire agreement,” Lavrov said on April 7, as he met Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in the Azerbaijani capital. The trip was announced in March, before the latest violence began.
While calling for a lasting Armenia-Azerbaijan peace, Lavrov used the opportunity to emphasize Moscow's special role in the affairs of its former Soviet republics and to draw lines for the West's involvment. Russia, “as a country with close ties to both” Armenia and Azerbaijan will stay involved to make sure that the truce holds in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Lavrov said.
Although saying that Moscow is supportive of peace initiatives of the conflict's two other international mediators, the United States and France, Lavrov claimed than Russia is more interested in a peaceful resolution of the 28-year-old Caucasus conflict than anybody in the West.
The hostilities between Azerbaijan and Armenia between April 2 and April 5 have not just been on the military front; hackers from Armenia and close Azerbaijani ally Turkey have been exchanging deadly cyber-fire over the past few days, too.
Declaring that it had “sided with Azerbaijan against Armenia, the aggressor,” HackRead reported, a group with the nom de guerre of Turk Hack Team claimed on April 3 to have shut off access to sites for Armenia’s government administration and the National Security Service, National Bank and Ministry of Economy. Another band, Aslan Neverler Tim, alleged that it knocked offline the websites for Armenia’s defense, agriculture, energy ministries.
Some Armenian observers confirmed DDOS (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks, a targeted congestion of service, on gov.am sites. Cyber-security expert Samvel Martirosian told Armenian media that the attackers failed, though, to hack into the websites.
Turk Hack Team is known for anti-Armenian cyber-attacks. The group claimed responsibility for taking down the Vatican’s website a year ago in retaliation for Pope Francis’ description of Ottoman Turkey’s 1915 killings of ethnic Armenians as genocide, a term modern-day Turkey rejects.
Despite the ceasefires issued by Azerbaijan, Armenia and Armenia-backed separatist forces on April 5, questions still persist within the South Caucasus about what happens if the resurge of violence over breakaway Nagorno Karabakh and surrounding Armenian-occupied territories gets completely out of hand.
Azerbaijan’s defense ministry described its own ceasefire, its second since hard-core fighting broke out on April 2, as “mutual” with Armenia’s military. Baku does not deal directly with Karabakh’s separatist government, but later in the day, an unidentified Karabakhi de facto official told Reuters that the region’s forces also had been ordered to stop firing.
How long these ceasefires will last is anyone’s guess. During Baku's earlier ceasefire, Azerbaijani bombardments of Armenian and Karabakhi positions continued nonetheless, local media reported.
With the risk that a continued Armenia-Azerbaijani confrontation could prove explosive in this strategic region, a vital oil-and-gas corridor, global powers have begun making moves to bring an end to the risk for what Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan terms “all-out war.” But with what result remains unclear.
Longtime mediators in the Karabakh conflict, Russia, the United States and France, convened for an ad-hoc meeting in Vienna on April 5. The group will visit Yerevan, Baku and Karabakh “in the near future,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault announced, Russia’s state-run TASS news service reported.
Yerevan already has fixed a date for these guests -- April 9, when the envoys will meet with Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian.
Disturbing reports of atrocities, and official claims and counterclaims continue to stream from the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict zone as fighting enters its third day. With no international media or conflict-monitoring mission apparently yet on the ground in the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region, it is next to impossible to glean frontline facts from the ongoing information war.
That lack of objective information could become even more critical in the coming days. Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, a Karabakh native, pledged on April 4 that escalation of the fighting, the worst since the signing of a 1994 ceasefire, would prompt Yerevan to recognize Nagorno Karabakh as an independent state.
An Armenian investigative news service, Hetq.am, on April 4 published photos of two elderly residents they claim were killed and maimed by Azerbaijani troops when they overran the village of Talish in northeastern Karabakh on April 2. (Warning: graphic image) The Armenian government and the Karabakhi separatist forces it supports claimed they swiftly recaptured the village and nearby heights. Hetq.am said that their photographer, Hakob Poghosian, had then gained access to the village.
This week’s breakup of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition has turned Georgia’s political scene into a Star Wars bar, with a slew of political forces of every description set to compete in the parliamentary election this fall.
It’s been a surprise that this unlikely alliance of ideologically strange bedfellows made it this far. Billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili’s successful plan to build an opposition army to bring down ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili’s team in 2012 united groups and individuals with wildly incongruous philosophies and IQs. Western integration activists joined hands with Russia-nostalgic traditionalists, liberal erudites like philologist Levan Berdzenishvili sat next to actor Soso Jachvliani, who can’t tell the difference between a development bank's acronym and a Russian vulgarity for sex.
Occasional public bickering, grumblings over distribution of executive government seats and a persistent failure to speak in one voice on national issues long betrayed deep-seeded divisions in this coalition.
The Free Democrats were the first to split away in 2014 after Ivanishvili felt he could not keep in line their ambitious leader, ex-Defense Minister Irakli Alasania. Now, the biggest news is the Republican Party, pro-Western moderates, announcing on March 31 that it will run in the fall election independently from the Georgian Dream coalition.
Azerbaijan was welcomed at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC on March 30 as an international energy security and counterterrorism asset, while the country’s repressive ways gained only a faint mention.
US Secretary of State John Kerry thanked Aliyev for making it to the March 31-April 1 summit and praised Azerbaijan’s role in helping Europe meet its energy needs. “Azerbaijan is located in a complex region right now and I think President Aliyev has been very studious and thoughtful about how to respond to some of those needs, particularly with his leadership on the Southern Gas Corridor,” Kerry said.
In his public remarks, Kerry skipped the controversial matter of Azerbaijan’s political prisoners. Only a post-meeting press release took note of Azerbaijan’s “recent positive steps” and urged “further progress” on the human-rights front.
Sixty-one Armenia-bound monkeys were seized in Tanzania last week in the latest manifestation of the South Caucasus country’s role in the exotic-animals trade.
The monkeys were about to take a flight from the Kilimanjaro International Airport on March 25, when local authorities prevented what they described as a large-scale wildlife theft – despite a ban on such exports, plans existed to whisk out of Tanzania a total of 450 monkeys, according to the country’s Minister for Natural Resources and Tourism Jumanne Maghembe, the local Daily News reported. Maghembe has fired several senior officials over the scandal.
The Yerevan-based Zoo Fauna Art company told News.am that it had ordered the 61 monkeys and did so in full compliance with Tanzanian law, but it did not claim ownership of the other would-be travelers. The company’s director, Artur Khachatrian, claimed that the two Dutch nationals of Armenian origin whom police arrested in connection with the incident were just friends of his who had decided to use the flight to send some “luggage” to Armenia.
Brothers Artyom and Edward Nalbandian were arrested on smuggling charges. In 2013, Artyom Nalbandian, who owns a private zoo in Armenia, was embroiled in another wildlife scandal, when an investigative report by Hetq.am alleged that he had illegally acquired an endangered bonobo primate.
Separatist Abkhazia wants to have a boat link to no less separatist Crimea to ship tourists and trade across the Black Sea.
A Crimea-based ferry company, which suspended commutes to Turkey out of supposed patriotic considerations in the wake of the hostility between Turkey and Russia, now plans to send its ferry shuttling to and from Abkhazia. De-facto officials on the peninsula, which Russia wrested away from Ukraine in 2014, hope that this water link with Abkhazia, another Moscow protégé, can help mitigate the economic impact of the diplomatic chill and severed trade ties between Russia and Turkey.
“[The Crimean capital of] Sevastopol is mainly interested in bringing food products – vegetables and fruits -- from Abkhazia to replace imports from Turkey,” said Kiril Moskalenko, spokesperson for the Sevastopol Governor’s Office, the Russian-government-financed Sputnik news service reported. He said he is not quite sure what products Crimea can offer Abkhazia in return. Some, especially Abkhazia’s de-facto government, hope that one such commodity could be tourists.
Russia-endowed Abkhazia reportedly is now a shell of its former Soviet Riviera self. Russian tourists often complain about the lack of infrastructure and basic services, but many are still drawn by the palm trees and mountain vistas, and Abkhazia’s former reputation as the most desirable seaside resort in the USSR.
For Crimeans, as for many Russians, Abkhazia likely appears as an affordably exotic vacation destination. The peninsula’s tour companies say that the West’s sanctions and refusal to call Crimea part of Russia made it harder for Crimean residents to travel abroad.
They lay a kilometer-long, underground pipeline to leach into the British Petroleum-operated, more than 800-kilometer-long Western Route Export Pipeline, which carries 100,000 barrels of oil daily from Azerbaijan’s Caspian Sea coast to Georgia’s Black Sea coast. Known as the Baku-Supsa pipeline for the terminals at both ends, the conduit was the first link in the country’s energy-export network.
The suspects built their own terminal in Ruisi, about a 20-minute drive west of Joseph Stalin’s birthplace, Gori, and created a parallel world of shipping, processing and retailing the Caspian Sea oil. A police video showed rows of large tanks used to collect the stolen oil. A makeshift tap was installed on the body of the Baku-Supsa pipeline to turn off and on the flow into its new, mini- branch.
From Ruisi, the oil was loaded onto trucks and camouflaged as vegetables – cabbage, to be exact, police said – and driven about 90 minutes east to the capital, Tbilisi. A makeshift refinery there then turned the cabbage-concealed crude into petroleum products.