It has been a Caucasian weekend for the Clooney couple. The Hollywood-star husband went to Armenia for an anti-genocide forum, while the human-rights-lawyer-star wife went to Washington to rally support for her Azerbaijani client, jailed investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova.
George Clooney, who deems it “ridiculous” to deny that Ottoman Turkey committed genocide against ethnic Armenians, joined Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan in Yerevan on April 24 for a commemorative ceremony of the massacre, and then presented a peace award to Burundi humanitarian Marguerite Barankitse in commemoration of the survivors of the 1915 slaughter.
Clooney said that his wife, Amal, could not join him in Yerevan because she was making a case in Washington for her client, Khadija Ismayilova.* “She is visiting the White House today and then will meet with Senator [John] McCain and others,” the actor elaborated in an interview with Armenian TV stations, local outlets reported. “She’s there trying to find ways to gets this incredible, brilliant reporter free.”
He quipped that because of his wife taking up cases like Ismayilova’s, they are “starting to run out of places we can go.”
Azerbaijan is certainly shaping up as one such place.
The Azerbaijani government has taken aim at Meydan TV, one of the few independent Azeri-language news outlets, after the station alleged that Baku under-reported the number of Azerbaijani deaths in this month’s fighting in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone, the station says.
The Azerbaijani prosecutor’s office has not released any public information about its investigation, but a lawyer for Meydan, Elchin Sadigov, stated that 15 Azerbaijanis have been named in a government investigation into supposed tax evasion and illegal business activity; the usual charges against journalists and those who refuse to toe the government’s line.
“We consider this as a declaration of war against independent journalism in Azerbaijan,” Meydan’s founder, activist Emin Milli, commented to EurasiaNet.org.
None of the individuals has yet been charged, though the station reports that the government banned “a number of journalists” from leaving Azerbaijan as well as searched their residences and took work equipment without a warrant.
The government has not responded to these reports. Prosecutors could not be reached for comment.
Earlier, Meydan TV had come under attack from mainstream, pro-government news outlets and officials alike for its critical coverage of the so-called Four-Day War, the April 2-5 flare-up in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over separatist Nagorno Karabakh. Amidst the fighting, all sides – Azerbaijan, Armenia and the Karabakhi separatists – made grand claims of losses inflicted on their respective enemies.
“War is over, beware of peace” goes a phrase from the Caucasian Chalk Circle, a play by Bertolt Brecht. It rings true today when peace in the Caucasus is brought by Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who is initiating a new phase of the roughly 24-year-long talks between Azerbaijan and Armenia to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
After brokering a shaky April 5 ceasefire between the two, Moscow now has hit on “intensive negotiations,” a familiar prescription, as the way forward. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov traveled to Yerevan on April 21 to talk about the Karabakh negotiations.
As yet, however, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk Group, the tripartite body headed by Russia, the US and France, which has overseen the Karabakh talks since 1992, is not in the picture.
“It was the initiative of Russian President Vladimir Putin,” said Ali Hasanov, a senior aide to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. “He addressed the presidents of both countries [Armenia and Azerbaijan] and preparations are underway now for the negotiations process.”
“We have activated all necessary diplomatic mechanisms to place the sides at the negotiations table,” Russia’s Kommersant newspaper quoted an unnamed Kremlin official as saying.
The official said that Moscow attaches top importance to finding peace in Karabakh, but, then, whether in South Ossetia, Ukraine or Syria, it always does, supposedly.
Some farmers in the South Caucasus country of Georgia want to channel Winnie the Pooh: eager to put their country’s free-trade deal with the European Union to good use, they believe honey is “a very good thing to do.”
Russia’s plans to keep selling guns to both Armenia and Azerbaijan, no matter if the Caucasus’ two irascible neighbors use them against each other, is feeding growing Armenian frustration with their only strategic ally.
With a potentially game-changing cabinet reshuffle underway in Ukraine, ex-Georgian President-Turned-Odessa-Governor Mikheil Saakashvili is having a déjà- vu moment. Today’s Ukraine, with its government in limbo and much in want for change, reminds him of pre-Rose Revolution Georgia, when, as a young and cheeky justice minister, he took on the late President Eduard Shevardnadze.
Back in 2001, Saakashvili, then justice minister, upbraided Shevardnadze for not doing anything to fix Georgia’s helter-skelter, corruption-infused governance system, and quit. Now, the former Georgian leader is back in controversial stride, calling out Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on political cronyism and stasis in Ukraine, and failure to meet popular expectations for change. Saakashvili has threatened to cross over into the opposition against Poroshenko, a former university classmate, and take his team along.
At an April 11 press-conference, Saakashvili, flanked by his staff and supporters, accused Poroshenko and Ukraine’s central authorities of undermining his efforts to stomp out graft, red tape and the reign of oligarchs in the Odessa region, a promised petri-dish for nationwide reform. “Reforms delayed are reforms denied,” he said. “Not a single promise given after Maidan [the 2014 revolution also known as Euromaidan] . . . has been fulfilled.”
“If you cannot help, at least don’t hinder,” Saakashvili said, addressing Poroshenko, who, he claimed, is obstructing regional reforms by opting to maintain a balance among rivalling forces.
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.