When the American company ContourGlobal, purchased a hydropower complex in Armenia earlier this summer, it probably did not know it would end up helping avert a major crisis in that country. Or providing the money to fix a mess allegedly caused, at least in part, by a Russian-owned firm with close ties to the Kremlin.
Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian announced this weekend that the government plans to use the money from the sale to subsidize a controversial, 16-percent increase in electricity fees, which went into effect on August 1.
He did not specify exactly how much the government would use from the $180-million nest egg.
Yerevan had agreed to cover the increase (pending an audit) after massive street demonstrations erupted in June in the capital, Yerevan, over the hike. Tagged by jittery Russian media as a revolution, the protests expressed longstanding frustration with perceived government collusion with its corporate pals' financial abuses.
Pro-Putin Russian bikers, known for their politically incorrect expeditions, have now caused concern in Azerbaijan, after they announced plans to descend on Nagorno Karabakh on July 31, in breach of an Azerbaijan-imposed travel ban on the breakaway territory.
This is not the first time that the infamous, Kremlin-funded motorcycle club, the Night Wolves, has sparked controversy. Earlier this year, with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s blessing, this Russian nationalism-on-wheels tried to retrace the Soviet Army’s route to Berlin to commemorate the 1945 victory over Nazi Germany.
Several European countries like Poland, Lithuania and the Czech Republic refused to offer passage to this new red army, both because of their controversial trajectory and for their support for pro-Russia fighters in Ukraine. Only a small group of club members made it to Germany; most of them in a rental car.
A pack of Night Wolves then headed to Georgia, much to the outrage of many Georgians angry over the continued Russian occupation of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia. After all, the country’s biggest bête noire, Putin, is an honorary member of the gang.
In Georgia, the group’s leader, Alexander Zaldastanov, aka Surgeon, added fuel to the fire by expressing regret that he had to use an international passport to cross from Russia to Georgia.
“What is this? I even have to fill out forms in Sevastopol, Ukraine, where I spent my childhood,” he complained to Georgian media. “It is a tragedy that we all don’t live in one country anymore.”
“As long as you’re going to be thinking anyway, think big,” goes an old line from headline-grabbing US presidential candidate Donald Trump. And in Azerbaijan, Trump, the mega-real-estate mogul, has done just that, in terms of both project and partner.
But the deal also raises big questions about how well he grasps the lay of the land in Azerbaijan.
Trump lent his name and management know-how to an upcoming, sail-shaped skyscraper in Baku that is owned by billionaire Anar Mammadov, Mother Jones magazine reported on July 29. Mammadov is a son of the country’s powerful transportation minister, Ziya Mammadov, a man whose family has been long accused of battening on privileged access to government contracts for infrastructure development.
The deal and Mammadov’s role as a champion of Azerbaijani interests in the US — he heads the Azerbaijan America Alliance — exemplify the two parallel worlds of US-Azerbaijani relations. Baku now bitterly rebukes Washington’s criticism of its dismal human rights records, even as its insiders actively lobby and sweet-talk US politicians.
Always with an eye out for international investment, Georgia had a national cringe moment last week when one lawmaker confused the acronym for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) with a crude Russian word for sex, telling a startled parliament that he “could never screw around” ["could never do the EBRD"] since he is “a faithful husband.”
Fifty-eight-year-old Soso Jachvliani, a Georgian film-star-turned-legislator, decided to make a clean breast of it in response to accusations that his majoritarian Georgian Dream bloc is nostalgic for the Soviet era, when some Georgian men traveled on cheap flights to Moscow for informal sex tours. The parliamentary opposition, the United National Movement Party, routinely accuses the Georgian Dream of flirting with Russia, and Mr. Jachvliani took it quite literally.
“I have never been to prostitutes,” he declared on July 22 to the assembly. “It was demeaning for me to pay 10 rubles [apparently, the Soviet-era prostitute rate]. I have handled those matters without the 10-ruble thing.”
“For your information,” Jachvliani went on, warming to the subject, “if there was any pretty lady in the Soviet cinema, I have had a relationship with all of them without paying those 10 rubles.”
In vain did Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Manana Kobakidze, a fellow member of the Georgian Dream bloc, try to stop this stream of consciousness. “Batono [Mr.] Soso, I beg you, this is parliament,” she began.
After a period of estrangement, Baku has laid out its terms for getting back on friendly terms with Washington. The suggestions may have come in the form of commentaries from local news outlets, but the medium is the message in Azerbaijan, where most mainstream media is under the government's thumb.
Ultimately, Baku's demands boil down to being accepted for what it is; an increasingly authoritarian regime, by estimates of any international human rights watchdog, and that the US should quit trying to change it.
APA, for instance, in a July 14 piece, construed a meeting between the Azerbaijani armed forces’ Chief of Staff Colonel General Nejmeddin Sadikov and the unnamed US embassy defense attaché as a mutual attempt to mend fences — despite what other outlets, in a copy-and-paste brief, termed the allegedly “destructive” policies of the State Department.
“Azerbaijani Defense Ministry restores ties with Pentagon” read APA’s headline; a bit of a surprise to those not aware that they had ever been severed.
Two days later, in a long and laborious review of US-Azerbaijan relations, Azernews.az announced that "Azerbaijan says yes to the USA`s peace gesture, but . . ."
As anger builds in Georgia over Russia’s latest alleged attempt to redesign the country’s borders, Tbilisi is urging Georgians
not to let their emotions get in the way of attempts at rapprochement with Moscow.
“Let’s not be naïve and expect that some meeting will convince Russia to change its policy toward Georgia, toward neighboring countries,” commented Zurab Abashidze, Georgia’s envoy to talks with Russia, after meeting with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin in Prague on July 15.
The ever concerned Karasin had a few tips of his own.
“We have to do our utmost to make sure emotional explosions like this do not disrupt the process of normalization of Georgian-Russian relations,” RIA Novosti reported him as saying.
The calls for calm are easy for Karasin to make, many Georgians believe. His country’s borders and the de-facto frontiers of its separatist proteges are only expanding, while the space Moscow has allotted to neighbors Georgia and Ukraine is getting smaller.
In response to this latest land grab, various rallies have been staged, with a larger-scale event planned for downtown Tbilisi on July 18 in front of the government chancellory.
To many, the nuclear deal with Iran spells security. But to Azerbaijan, Iran's northern neighbor, it also spells a business opportunity.
Already, the energy-rich South Caucasus state is positioning itself to export not only its own natural gas to Europe, but Iran’s as well. And though international sanctions still remain in place, Tehran sounds willing to consider the idea.
The Azerbaijani and Iranian governments, according to Iranian Ambassador Pakayin, are getting ready to start bargaining over joint supply options.
The prospect opens some potentially interesting scenarios in the region’s high-stakes energy-chess game; particularly for Russia, the world’s largest gas producer, on which Europe depends.
Iran boasts about 18 percent of the world’s natural gas supplies, according to Fitch Ratings.
He had a flat in downtown New York and a castle in Burgundy, but gave it all up for a hayseed village life; most recently, in disputed Nagorno Karabakh. He is German Sterligov, the founder of Russia’s first commodity exchange, and he recently came out of his hermitage in the breakaway territory to face enemies and possibly prosecution back in Moscow.
One of post-Soviet Russia’s first millionaires, 48-year-old Sterligov, who advocates a return to the old Russian alphabet, tsarism and living off the land, earlier this month fled the blandishments of the Moscow region to set up operations in bucolic Karabakh, the longtime battlefield between Armenians and Azerbaijanis.
In a July 13 press-conference, he called the accusations “a lie.”
One of his aides has linked the campaign against Sterligov in Russia to his historical opus, “From Adam to Putin,” in which he wishes that the Russian president would become a Christian. Sterligov accuses the Russian Orthodox Church of heresy.
Continuing its game of redrawing borders, Russia has grabbed a 1.5-kilometer-long slice of a critical oil export pipeline in Georgia for the separatist territory of South Ossetia, leaving Tbilisi, once again, calling for the international community to come to the rescue.
Russian troops, who, since the 2008 war with Georgia, have been drawing lines as they find fit between Georgian-controlled territory and breakaway South Ossetia, on July 10 marked off another section of land, leaving a small section of a key, Azerbaijan-Georgia oil pipeline out of Tbilisi’s reach. “With this illegal action[,] a certain portion of the pipeline next to the village of Orchosani fell within the occupied territory,” Georgia’s interior ministry said in a statement.
After Russia recognized South Ossetia’s independence from Georgia in 2008, Russian troops guarding the tiny land’s claim to sovereignty and, by extension, its allegiance to Moscow, have been putting up fences and demarcation signage in the area. Tbilisi has protested against the continued “creeping annexation” as barbed-wire or metal-bar fences have cut through the properties of Georgian villagers, often separating houses from their orchards across what South Ossetia and Russia claim is an international border.
It’s always unsettling to learn that a repressive government has sophisticated computer malware. But in the case of Azerbaijan, the good news is that they don’t necessary know how to use it.
In emails leaked Sunday, the employees of Italian cyber-surveillance company Hacking Team exchange both giggles and exasperation as they field questions from Azerbaijan, where interior and national security officials were trying to get the hang of the spyware, Meydan TV reported on July 9.
The information, obtained by unknown hackers, makes up part of 400GB of data released via BitTorrents; a grab one privacy expert deemed the equivalent of Edward Snowden’s handiwork, Wired reported.
According to the conversation with the Azerbaijani officials, the Hacking Team offered help in “infecting targets” with the spyware, which allows remote access to all computer files and the ability to control computers’ cameras and microphones.
The Italian company had denied selling its products to abusive governments. Yet the leaked data showed that the Azerbaijani government had used a California-based company to license Hacking Team’s Remote Control System spyware, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. found. The initial payment was 320,000 euros (about $402,000) with continued annual payments for maintenance.