The Syrian war is giving a headache to both Azerbaijan and Armenia, with jihadists heading into Syria from Azerbaijan and refugees heading out of Syria into Armenia. Most recently, Azerbaijani news outlets have reported that the leader of an Azerbaijani militant group has been captured by the rebel Al-Nusra Front, which recently took control of the ethnic Armenian town of Kessab, and allegedly sentenced to death.
As often happens, though, details are sparse. The individual in question, Agil Gajiyev, supposedly headed an Azerbaijani Islamist group called Sumgait Jamaat, but some news services say he was embedded with the Syrian rebel group Jund Al-Sham.
Most Azerbaijani Islamist militants travel to Syria to support the rebel forces and it is unclear why Gajiyev was sentenced to death. Facing crackdowns at home, Azerbaijan’s radical Islamists, not believed to be a particularly numerous group, long have heeded the call for jihad in places like Chechnya, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Everyone in the Caucasus has reasons to worry about which direction Crimea’s vote goes this Sunday, but for their own reasons. For the breakaway regions, the conflict may have implications for their own future.
Already, it is affecting their actions. On March 12, the de-facto authorities in Abkhazia detained a Ukrainian TV crew that had come to gauge local reactions to the Crimea crisis. After hours of interrogation, which caused alarm and worry back in their station’s newsroom, the journalists were kicked out of Abkhazia into next-door Russia, the Ukrainian site Censor.net.ua reported.
Two more reporters with the same Ukrainian station, 1+1, have been detained in North Ossetia, the Russian twin of breakaway South Ossetia, on the Georgian side of the Caucasus mountains. The journalists, who were released after five hours of questioning, said that local officials have orders to watch out for sightings of Ukrainians.
Journalists are now asking both regions' de-facto authorities questions about any plans to follow Crimea’s suit and seek merger with Russia.
In South Ossetia specifically, such ideas, linked with the idea of union with North Ossetia, have significant backing. The de-facto administration in Tskhinvali told Russia’s Dozhd’ TV that it needs to wait for a national plebiscite law that would simplify the procedure of joining Russia.
In the cellars of the Yerevan Brandy Company sits a barrel of brandy that has been waiting 13 years for resolution of Armenia’s conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan over the breakaway region of Nagorno Karabakh.
Armenia's favorite drink, brandy became widely popular in Soviet days when the country (and Georgia) ranked as the USSR's alternative to the south of France. For many visitors, touring the Yerevan Brandy Company, now owned by French booze giant Pernod Ricard, remains a must.
It may seem a bold move to ply a Frenchwoman with a beverage Armenians call "cognac," yet Kaas had no reason to complain; the Yerevan Brandy Company sponsored her March 9 concert in Yerevan.
In the company's cellar, she was introduced to the “Barrel of Peace,” a cask containing brandy from 1994, when Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to a (constantly violated) cease-fire. The cask was sealed in 2001, when the US, Russian, and, of course, French chairpersons of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk Group, the body overseeing the Karabakh talks, visited Yerevan and toured the factory. The brandy-makers vowed to open the barrel when the Karabakh conflict is resolved.
Unfortunately for peace and brandy-lovers, the conflict remains a powder keg with occasional deadly escalations, and Armenia and Azerbaijan are not expected to drink themselves to peace anytime soon. The ongoing international conflict over Russia's incursion into Ukraine's Crimea is not expected to improve those chances.
Screenshot from YouTube video from Azerbaijani television showing captivity of alleged Armenian saboteur Mamiko Khojayan.
Two weeks after tensions spiked on the line of contact between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces, much information about what is actually happening there remains unclear. A spokesman for Azerbaijan's defense ministry said on February 3 that "dozens" of Armenian soldiers had been killed, while the Armenian authorities in the de facto Nagorno Karabakh government denied that. And many of the first-reported claims about the upsurge in fighting -- an Armenian vehicle destroyed, attempted incursions by both sides -- remain murky.
One initial report has proven especially embarrassing for the Azerbaijani side. Citing the defense ministry, Azerbaijani media reported that on January 28, an Armenian "saboteur" was captured by Azerbaijani soldiers: "Armed and injured leader of an enemy intelligence-sabotage group Mamiko Khojayan was captured by our soldiers after a brief firefight."
But when Azerbaijani television stations aired footage of Khojayan, the image was not of an elite special ops commando, but of a disheveled, disoriented old man. And soon after, neighbors and relatives of the man in Armenia identified him as a 77-year-old mentally ill man.
The United States intelligence community has released its annual "worldwide threat assessment," which for the first time highlights Central Asia's "unclear political succession plans" and Georgia's prosecutions of former government officials. The 27-page report (pdf) contains three paragraphs on the Caucasus and Central Asia, as it has for the last several years. Last year's report was notable for not even mentioning the possibility of "spillover" of instability from Afghanistan, the favorite bugaboo of regional leaders, Russia, and many parts of the U.S. government. This year's report does mention the possibility, but says that still represents a smaller threat than those generated within Central Asia itself. It also somewhat downplays the threat of interstate conflict compared to last year, the recent flareup of violence on the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border notwithstanding.
Central Asia continues to host US supply lines that support operations in Afghanistan, and its leaders remain concerned about regional instability after the Coalition drawdown in 2014. Central Asian militants fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan will likely continue to pose a threat, but sources of potential internal instability in Central Asia will probably remain more acute than external threats. Unclear political succession plans, endemic corruption, weak economies, ethnic tensions, and political repression are long-term sources of instability in Central Asia. Relations among the Central Asian states remain tense due to personal rivalries and disputes over water, borders, and energy. However, Central Asian leaders’ focus on internal control reduces the risk of interstate conflict in the region.
Conflict along the front line between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces has escalated dramatically over the last two days, with Azerbaijani air forces crossing into the air space of the self-declared Nagorno Karabakh republic. Azerbaijan also claims to have destroyed an Armenian vehicle and to have repelled an atempted Armenian incursion across the line of contact. And the Azerbaijani defense ministry has claimed that they overheard commands being given to Armenian forces in a language other than Armenian, suggesting a foreign hand (though what the language was was not specified.) Meanwhile, there are reported civilian casualties on both sides.
All of this has occurred as the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan prepare to meet in Paris, the latest such meeting in a recent renewal of diplomatic efforts between the two sides.
Most of the news from this recent escalation has been coming from Azerbaijani sources, and Armenia has been quiet about the Azerbaijani claims. And Defense Minister Seyran Ohanyan on Friday played down the threat of war between the two sides, “I find it less likely as the Azerbaijani leadership has once again got convinced of Armenian soldier’s invincibility and clearly understands that Armenian Armed Forces are always ready to overcome the challenges they face," Ohanyan said.
In discussions of Eurasian security, "2014" has become a byword for a turning point in the region. WIth the planned pullout of U.S. and NATO combat troops from Afghanistan, Central Asia (and to a lesser extent the Caucasus) is entering an uncertain future. Predicting the future is obviously a futile endeavor, but for the sake of discussion, here's what The Bug Pit expects to be covering over the next 12 months:
1. Nagorno Karabakh. This is a no-brainer. There were some positive signs toward the end of 2013, with the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan meeting for the first time in two years. Nevertheless, the cross-border skirmishes continued, and the large forces that have made things between the two countries so tense -- like Azerbaijan's rapid military buildup and each country's dehumanization of the people on the other side of the border -- have not abated. So the renewal of conflict seems only a matter of time.
2. The Pamirs. After Tajikistan's central government suffered a humiliating defeat in its attempt to bring the region under its control in the July 2012 military operation in Khorog, it has been the conventional wisdom that the government will eventually try again. Now the presidential elections have passed, and tensions have risen again.
The U.S.'s foreign policy panjandrums have determined what are the most likely global crises facing the U.S. in 2014 and have found that the Caucasus and Central Asia pose almost no threat to U.S. interests.
The Council on Foreign Relations, the U.S.'s most prestigious foreign policy think tank, has released its annual Preventative Priorities Survey for 2014. The survey, CFR says, "seeks to help policymakers choose among competing conflict prevention demands by offering what is essentially a risk assessment of the United States’ geopolitical environment over the next twelve months." It does so by first crowdsourcing a list of 30 potential crisis scenarios, then polling experts and policymakers as to how likely the threat of a crisis is, and how much of a threat to U.S. interests the crisis would be. The only Eurasian scenario to make the top 30 is "an outbreak of military conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh," and that was ranked in the lowest possible tier as both a low risk of happening and posing a minor threat to U.S. interests.
The survey also asked the respondents to suggest other possible scenarios, and of the handful that CFR said were mentioned more than others included some more Eurasian scenarios: "rising political instability in Russia," "possible Russian intervention in Georgia, Ukraine, and other former Soviet states," and "rising political instability in Kyrgyzstan."
Armenia has made its choice between the two EUs -- the European Union and the Eurasian Union-- but will it bring its de-facto addendum, the breakaway territory of Nagorno Karabakh along with it into the Russia-plus trade space? Some analysts believe that Karabakh will indirectly end up enjoying the benefits of the Kremlin’s economic promised land.
Bent on taking the territory back, Azerbaijan poses a stumbling block for the predominantly ethnic Armenian territory to reach out to the outside world; meaning that Armenia is essentially the only friend and trade partner Karabakh has.
In turn, since Russia is the main economic partner for semi-boycotted Armenia, Karabakh by default is expected to gain access to the economic zone coalesced around Moscow, some Armenians believe.
“Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh form one economic space,” Alexander Iskanderian, director of the Yerevan-based Caucasus Institute, told Russia’s Gazeta.ru. “Armenian money works in Stepanakert, the banking system and laws are closely integrated."
Officially, of course, it will not be a union of Russia, Belarus Kazakhstan, Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh. Not even Armenia has recognized Karabakh as an independent state.
Nor, with all members of the union, Russia included, wary of angering Azerbaijan, the formation of the Eurasian Union is not going to change the diplomatic status quo for Karabakh.
But, as often happens in the Caucasus, it's what happens apart from what's written that counts. Some observers expect that Karabakh's produce, be it mulberry brandy or construction materials, could be sold customs-free within the union as products of Armenia.
Armenians may have been troubled by Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to their country, as it seemed to be an exhibition of Russia's tightening grip on Yerevan's foreign policy. But in Azerbaijan, the visit occasioned a different sort of fear: that Putin was confirming Russia's military support for Armenia in a potential conflict with Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh.
One military expert in Baku, Uzeyir Cafarov, said that Putin's support for Armenia would increase the risk of conflict. "We must be extra careful regarding the situation on the front line in January and February. It is possible that local clashes will take place on the front line. Russia continues to play double games. We must not give in to this and must bring into Russia's attention that its position on the Karabakh conflict is biased," Cafarov told the newspaper Azadliq, according to a BBC Monitoring report.
And member of parliament Zahid Oruc told sia.az (also via BBC Monitoring), "With this visit and by increasing the number of Russian troops in Armenia, Russia is stimulating the regional arms race and pushes others to this. This is a threat to the lasting peace in the region."