Riling his Armenian hosts, the organization’s Russian deputy general secretary, General Valery Semerikov, made it abundantly clear on September 30 that the latest deadly escalation between the two countries is Armenia’s, not the security bloc’s, problem. In media comments in Yerevan, Semerikov said that the fast spiral of violence between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces is nothing that Armenia can’t handle on its own.
Armenian Army Chief of Staff Yuri Khachaturov did not conceal his frustration with these remarks in the middle of drills billed “Unbreakable Brotherhood 2015.” Khachaturov claimed that Armenia is, indeed, more than capable of handling the confrontation with Azerbaijan, but said that he would like to see some form of support from fellow members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) — Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
“After all we are in one organism, in one security system, so this [support] should be voiced,” RFE/RL's Armenian service quoted Khachaturov as saying. “We are not asking for help quite yet, but support, purely human support, we would like to hear.”
Georgia plays no small role in Europe’s efforts to diversify away from Russian natural gas, but the South-Caucasus country itself could find it needs to diversify back toward its enemy’s energy. Late last week, Russia and Georgia held talks on gas shipments, but have offered only scant details about the negotiations.
Observers in Georgia pricked up their ears when Gazprom’s Chief Executive Officer Alexei Miller met Georgian Energy Minister Kakha Kaladze on September 25 in Brussels. Gazprom said that exports to and through Georgia were discussed, prompting some local concern over the chance that Georgia would take on additional volumes of Russian gas, which for Moscow is as much a foreign policy instrument as it an export commodity. In comments to Georgian media, Gia Volski, chairperson of Georgia’s ruling Georgian Dream parliamentary faction, suggested that Tbilisi treads carefully on the topic of Russian gas imports.
Granted, most of Gazprom supplies to Georgia only go through the country to reach neighboring Armenia, which relies on Russia for most of its energy needs. Georgia retains 10 percent of shipments to Armenia as a transit fee. Last year, Georgia received 200 million cubic meters of Russia gas, which accounted for only nine percent of the gas consumed by Georgia in 2014, the energy ministry told EurasiaNet.org. Gazprom puts the figure at 300 million cubic meters.
In a Tbilisi restaurant this week, 16 contestants from the Miss Chinese Cosmos Pageant waited expectantly for a dish of pelamushi, a grape-juice pudding and traditional Georgian dessert. The 12 who were served it made it to the semifinal. In compensation, the remaining four were presented with plates of jewelry and got — who could resist this? — a photo memento with Georgian government officials.
Google, Bing, Yahoo, all move aside. In a first for the South Caucasus, Azerbaijan is working on its own web-search service. Officials in the tightly controlled energy-exporter say that both national security and commercial considerations prompted the idea.
Under the guidance of the Ministry of Communications, the government body that oversaw the launch of the world’s first Azerbaijani satellite, Azerbaijani coders have already developed a web crawler and are now working on a software application, Trend news agency reported on September 23.
A government-run technology developer, Dilmanc, said that the national search engine will bring more information security to Azerbaijan. The ministry has not elaborated about perceived threats, but some rights activists likely would surmise that government critics are among the ministry’s main concerns.
The government, however, already has a reputation for pressing for netizen loyalty. Democracy-watchdog Freedom House reports that online activists and bloggers have faced growing harassment over the past few years.
On the other hand, Dilmanc’s director, Abulfat Fatulayev, claims the national search engine offers attractive money-making opportunities -- always a consideration amidst low oil prices and an economy heavily dependent on hydrocarbons.
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.