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."
Armenia and Turkey's periodic efforts to make peace tend to hit a wall, but the nettlesome neighbors seem to be, once again, having another semi-go at rapprochement. Turkey has been invited to attend a Black Sea summit in Yerevan and Ankara is reportedly trying to resuscitate the failed international mediation campaign to end one of the region’s longest-running disputes.
For reasons that remain open to interpretation, Ankara reportedly recently dusted off its foreign-policy master plan, ambitiously billed as "Zero Problems with Neighbors," to call for normalizing with Armenia whatever can be normalized.
Granted, we've been down this road before. Despite all the cheerleading from the US, a 2009 campaign to reconcile the two flopped. Both sides remain hostages to past and present regional conflicts -- namely, the World-War-I-era slaughter of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Armenians in Ottoman Turkey, and the 1988-1994 conflict over breakaway Nagorno Karabakh between Armenia and close Turkish ally Azerbaijan.
But this time, the cease-fire violations between Armenia and Azerbaijan are more frequent, and the international community, arguably, more concerned about a resumption of war.
So, the thinking may go, maybe it's time to shake things up a bit.
This time round, the US, one of the overseers of the Armenian-Azerbaijani negotiations, is keeping its cards to its chest, however.
Nearly every day, the exact same headline pops up in the news feeds of those who follow conflict n the Caucasus: "Armenian Armed Forces violate ceasefire in several directions." And with only slightly less frequency, and only slightly more variation, another headline appears: Azerbaijan Violates Ceasefire over X times Last Week."
The stories -- reprinted press releases from the respective ministries of defense -- follow the same numbing pattern. From the Azerbaijani side, after a couple of paragraphs saying where the alleged shooting took place, the exact same four paragraphs close out the piece:
The conflict between the two South Caucasus countries began in 1988 when Armenia made territorial claims against Azerbaijan.
Armenian armed forces have occupied 20 per cent of Azerbaijan since 1992, including the Nagorno-Karabakh region and seven surrounding districts.
Azerbaijan and Armenia signed a ceasefire agreement in 1994. The co-chairs of the The OSCE Minsk Group, Russia, France and the U.S. are currently holding peace negotiations.
Armenia has not yet implemented the U.N. Security Council's four resolutions on the liberation of the Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding regions.
The Armenian press releases are even more repetitive, not bothering to name the sites of the alleged violation. They all follow this form, nearly verbatim, the only variation being the number of violations over the past week:
The adversary violated the ceasefire, at the line of contact between the Karabakh-Azerbaijani opposing forces, around 200 times past week.
The commander of Russia's troops in Armenia has said those troops could be used in a conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno Karabakh, the first time that a Russian officer has publicly made such a claim. The commander of Russia's 102nd military base, Colonel Andrey Ruzinsky, made the comments in an interview with the Russian military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda (via RFE/RL):
“If Azerbaijan decides to restore jurisdiction over Nagorno-Karabakh by force the [Russian] military base may join in the armed conflict in accordance with the Russian Federation’s obligations within the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)."
It's never been entirely clear how Russia would see the collective security provisions of the CSTO in the event of a conflict over Karabakh. While they would seem to clearly obtain if Azerbaijan attacked Armenia itself, since Karabakh is in de jure Azerbaijani territory, one could easily imagine Russia saying that a conflict restricted to that territory would be none of its business. But there really isn't any room for interpretation there, and this seems like a clear Russian shot across Azerbaijan's bow.
Azerbaijan took a while to respond, prompting the opposition news agency Turan to criticize official Baku for ignoring Col. Ruzinsky's statement. But when Baku finally did respond, it naturally, blamed Armenia:
“No treaty envisages the involvement of the Russian base into the hostilities in Nagorno Karabakh on Armenian part”, MP and political scientist Rasim Musabayov....
Could Azerbaijan be facing encroachments on its territorial integrity by Italian fashion brands? Armenian and Karabakhi media have it that Versace, Armani, Prada and Moschino are considering setting up production lines in breakaway Nagorno Karabakh, a patch of territory that Azerbaijan claims as its own design.
According to the reports, a coterie of Italian businesspeople are visiting Karabakh this week to check out the potential for producing clothes in a decrepit, former textile factory, Gharmetakskombinat. The separatist authorities hope that the abandoned factory could soon start producing Versace outfits, among others, and have joked that perhaps Baku would care to set up a special black list for "prominent international brands and companies."
While this story may sound like something out of The Onion, officials in Baku took it seriously. Azerbaijan, which is trying to isolate Karabakh as part of its policy to regain control of the predominantly ethnic Armenian territory, tasked its embassy in Italy to look into the reports. One nationalist NGO called for a boycott of Versace clothes -- an action that, conceivably, might have put Azerbaijan's reigning fashionista, First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, in a potentially delicate situation.
Soon enough, though, Azerbaijani media distributed alleged comments from Versace that the company has no plans to extend production to the disputed region.
Anna Chapman, the Russian-spy-turned-sex-icon, has been sighted in breakaway Nagorno Karabakh, causing a bit of furor in the region.
Chapman, who since her scandalous arrest and deportation from the US in 2010 became a reporter with Russia's REN-TV news channel, arrived in Karabakh on August 26 with a gaggle of Russian journalists to discuss separatist officials' take on the chances for resolving their Armenia-backed conflict with Baku over the territory. She is also reportedly there to work on her TV show series “Mysteries of the World.”
It is unclear what a Russian femme fatale can do to enlighten the world about the decades-long dispute, but now Azerbaijan is likely to become another country where she won’t be welcome anymore.
Azerbaijan, which routinely blacklists those who visit Karabakh without its permission, is unhappy to see any celebrity visitors there, including celebrity spies. Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry said that Chapman and other Russian journalists, who visited Karabakh and met with separatist officials, will be regarded as personae-non-gratae, a status to which Chapman must be growing accustomed by now.
With elections around the corner, incumbent Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s candidacy has gotten a surprise endorsement from the enemy's leader, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan.
Aliyev may have spent the better part of his two terms as Azerbaijan's president making public threats toward Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh, but his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sargsyan, still thinks that it is "perhaps best" to see Aliyev win a third term in October.
Better the devil you know than the devil you don't? Maybe so, yet, despite the endless fatal exchanges of sniper fire and threats between the two countries, the Armenian president’s words, uttered at a youth-group meeting, suggest that he does not expect Azerbaijan under Aliyev actually to go to war with Armenia to reclaim Karabakh.
The comment carries even further interest since Sargsyan himself is a native of Karabakh and once served as the separatist territory's chief of military operations against Azerbaijani forces.
But despite more than 20 years of talks with Baku with scant results, Sargsyan appears to believe that the two heads of state together have come a long way toward negotiating a settlement for the conflict.
“The road map to a solution has almost been drafted,” Sargsyan stressed, while conceding that the talks now are not "going actively."
If a deal is reached, and Aliyev "finds in himself the willpower to rise above his mania for Armenia-phobia," the 51-year-old Azerbaijani leader "would be the most acceptable and preferable option for us."
Nagorno Karabakh's armed forces have been substantially strengthened by large deliveries of weaponry over the past two years, said the head of the armed forces of the breakaway territory, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty:
"We have never had a situation which we have now in terms of obtaining concrete weapons and military hardware,” their top commander, General Movses Hakobian, told a news conference in Stepanakert.
Hakobian said the arms acquisitions have been so extensive that the Karabakh Armenian military has difficulty storing them and plans to build a new arms depot for that purpose. He declined to specify the types of new weaponry delivered to it.
Providing no details is standard practice. Armenians, both in Yerevan and in Karabakh (which broke away from Azerbaijan after the collapse of the Soviet Union), tend to talk big about their military might but provide few details. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, loves to tout its weapons purchases, probably to the point of exaggeration.
(Incidentally, the most authoritative source of real data on arms sales and transfers is the database of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which does a pretty complete (or, as complete as you can get) accounting of arms deals around the world. But remarkably, the database has absolutely no information on Karabakh, or the other ex-Soviet breakaway republics of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transniester, underscoring again what a black hole this part of the world is for verifiable information.)
The frozen conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is being flavored with some Cold-War spice, namely a space race.
Readers will recall that earlier this year Azerbaijan succeeded in flinging a satellite into orbit. Not to be outdone, Armenia is now making plans to place its own satellite in space.
The estimated cost of Armenia’s space ambitions – $250 million – should raise some eyebrows given that the country’s GDP (based on purchasing power parity) is roughly $19 billion, and it already has $4.37 billion in sovereign debt. But the economic practicality of the venture probably isn’t the most important consideration for Yerevan. With the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict still stalemated, Armenian leaders don’t want to give their Azerbaijani counterparts any idea that they can’t keep up in any type of arms race.
Azerbaijan used its oil and gas wealth to underwrite its satellite project. Armenian telecommunications officials are saying they will scrape together funds from private investors for their satellite. To succeed, the country may put to use its key natural resource, the Armenian diaspora. Remittances from Armenians abroad make up a significant share of Armenia’s national income. Meanwhile, Russia, Armenia’s main regional ally and a space-exploration heavyweight, may lend money for the venture and help manufacture the satellite.
California’s Fresno County has become entangled in a conflict from another world.
Late last month, on the eve of the April 24 anniversary of the 1915 slaughter of ethnic Armenians in Ottoman Turkey, the county government felt the urge to weigh in on the decades-long dispute over the predominantly ethnic-Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh region and recognize Karabakh's independence from Azerbaijan. Soon enough, angry Azerbaijan, which has vowed to reclaim the territory, came knocking on the county’s door.
The Fresno Bee has the story:“The resolution [supporting Karabakh's independence], even if symbolic and from a seemingly irrelevant county government, undermines Azerbaijan’s sovereignty, wrote the nation’s officials in a recent letter to the county. The [county] supervisors’ support, they wrote, contradicts even the US government’s official position that Nagorno-Karabakh is rightfully part of Azerbaijan.”
But Fresno has snapped its fingers back at Azerbaijan, saying the energy power picked the wrong guy. “We will not be muscled by a well-funded lobbying effort by the Azerbaijanis," Supervisor Andreas Borgeas, who penned the Karabakh resolution, proudly commented to The Fresno Bee.