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.”
One of the more interesting story lines from the recent Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Russia was the addition of new "dialogue partners": Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, and Nepal.
The role of a dialogue partner is not clear, and seems to vary: Belarus had been a dialogue partner, and played an active role in the organization. President Alexander Lukashenko went to the summit earlier this month and Belarus was upgraded to an SCO observer. Turkey, meanwhile, became a dialogue partner in 2013 and since then both the SCO and Ankara, by all public appearances, seem to have completely ignored one another.
But that caveat aside, becoming part of the SCO is nevertheless a statement of some sort of geopolitical intention. Armenia's accession is not too surprising: it is Russia which is clearly interested in pushing SCO expansion in order to boost its own international status, and Yerevan is highly susceptible to Moscow's wishes.
Azerbaijan's entrance, however, is more interesting. What does Azerbaijan have to gain from being part of the SCO?
For one, the SCO's focus on weakening Western norms of human rights is clearly attractive given its accelerating feud with the United States and European countries over what Baku says is unfair criticism of its political and human rights practices.
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.
Armenians hold complex, at times contradictory views toward the Russian military base in their country, a new opinion poll has found.
When asked whether it was "acceptable for a foreign state or institution to ensure Armenia’s national security," only 17 percent of Armenians found it acceptable. But then, asked if they "find the presence of any other state’s or structure’s military bases in Armenia acceptable or unacceptable?" 55 percent found it acceptable. Of those that found the presence of a foreign base acceptable, the greatest number of respondents (38 percent) said it was justified to protect against attack by Azerbaijan or Turkey, while 25 percent said "security guarantees" -- probably a broader version of the same answer.
Those responses are hard to reconcile with one another, but probably represent the ambivalence many Armenians feel toward the Russian military presence in their country as a necessary evil.
Russia operates the 102nd military base in Gyumri, Armenia's second city, and has about 5,000 soldiers stationed there. In 2010 Armenia agreed to allow the base to stay until 2044 and while Armenians have generally acquiesced to the base's presence, unprecedented protests against the base broke out in January after a Russian soldier abandoned the base and killed seven members of a local family in their home.
Offline, the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh may be outside of Baku’s control, but, online, Azerbaijan seems to have reclaimed the disputed land. Azerbaijani officials are boasting of allegedly having convinced Facebook to strip the separatist territory’s page of its verified status, which denotes that the page is authentic.
This reported victory, preceded by an avalanche of complaints from Azerbaijani users, is nothing to sneeze at in the South Caucasus, where Facebook is by far the most popular social network. It is also often the prime online venue for social activism and political debate.
And yet, Baku’s victory was not complete. Though the "Nagorno-Karabakh Republic" page is not accessible, pages using the region’s Armenian name (Artsakh) and calling for recognition of its independence remain intact.
Facebook, which has faced flak before over its page-decisions, has not yet commented officially on the downgrading of the breakaway region's page.
But Facebook is not the only part of the virtual world in which Azerbaijan has been asserting its internationally recognized right to Karabakh. In the past, the country engaged in toponymic arguments with Google for using “pro-Armenian” place-names in its maps, and with MSN for describing Karabakh as an independent entity in its weather listings.
In a television-drama project likely to create a stir in the Caucasus, Russian film-industry tsar Nikita Mikhalkov plans to revisit the life and, most controversially, the death of the famous 19th century Russian writer and diplomat, Alexander Griboyedov.
The story of Griboyedov, best known for his pasquinade of Moscow’s aristocracy, Woe from Wit, makes for a perfect plot for a period-drama. His literary defiance of imperial Russia’s calcified upper crust, his marriage to a beautiful Georgian princess in Tiflis (Tbilisi) and his brutal murder in Tehran were all set during the tectonic geopolitical shifts of the early 19th century.
In Mikhalkov’s version of the story, Griboyedov, the tsar’s emissary to Tehran, is not killed by a lynch mob of Persians which, as is widely believed, massacred the entire staff of the Russian embassy to Persia in 1829. Mikhalkov claims he has it on good authority that the hero of his film fell prey to intrigues of the British as they strove to hem in Russia’s regional clout.
Armenia's chief prosecutor has formally asked his Russian counterpart to hand over a Russian soldier accused of killing seven members of a family outside Russia's military base in Armenia. The request was made just after the two sides apparently had agreed to try the soldier in a Russian military court at the base.
The Russian soldier, Valery Permyakov, is accused of killing seven members of the Avetsiyan family just after deserting his guard post at the 102nd military base in Gyumri, Armenia's second city, on January 12. Shortly afterwards the Armenian authorities announced that Permyakov would be tried under the Russian justice system, in spite of the fact that the base agreement seems to suggest he should be tried under Armenian jurisdiction. That sparked unprecedented protests in Gyumri and Yerevan by Armenians unhappy about how the case was being handled.
More than three weeks later, the back-and-forth jockeying between Russia and Armenia over the case continues, indicating that it remains the subject of delicate negotiations, with serious implications for Armenia's government stability and Armenia-Russia relations.
A signboard welcoming travellers into breakaway Nagorno Karabakh proclaims a “Free Artsakh” (the traditional Armenian name for the region), but on Saturday a group of Armenian activists learned the limit to that freedom.
The topic is controversial, and, apparently, not one that Karabakh’s de-facto leader, Bako Sahakian, a onetime KGB employee, is eager to debate publicly. Particularly amidst an uptick in security-concerns, as fatal clashes with Azerbaijani forces continue.
Sahakian earlier had warned that the motorcade could bring undesired consequences to Karabakh.
But participants charge it was the Karabakhi police who did that.
As the motorcade on January 31 drove toward Karabakh, video footage filmed by Founding Parliament activists showed uniformed police demanding documents (claiming they were “checking for a raid”), and then starting to attack both the cars and their occupants.
On an overhead ridge, masked men with automatic rifles closely watched the clash, while various men in civilian clothes surfaced to join in. One of the witnesses, Aram Hakobian, claimed to Aravot.am that gunshots had been fired, and that the uniformed men had thrown the Armenian flags on the ground and stomped on them.
Armenia has already retaliated against Azerbaijan for the downing of a military helicopter last month, Armenia's defense minister has said, without saying what the retaliation amounted to.
The Mi-24 helicopter was shot down November 12 near the line of contact between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh; Armenia says it was on a training flight, Azerbaijan says it had crossed the line of contact and was planning an attack.
Armenia immediately promised to retaliate, but it wasn't clear how. And on December 23, Armenian Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian said it has already happened: "A disproportionate response to the Azerbaijani side has been given, part of the information about the operation was given to the public. However, it wasn't appropriate to release all of the information."
The most significant military incident since the shootdown that was partially reported was a heavy exchange of fire, including relatively rare mortar attacks, in early December. The de facto Nagorno Karabakh government claimed that five to seven Azerbaijani soldiers were killed, though that wasn't independently confirmed. Still, even that would seem to not meet the standard of retaliation that Armenia had been promising.
Armenia ranks third after Israel and Singapore as the world’s most militarized country relative to population and economy-size, according to a report released this week by a German-government-financed think-tank, the Bonn International Center for Conversion.
The Center’s Global Militarisation Index 2014 claims that the small Caucasus country of just under three million is the European continent’s most militarized nation. It measures militarization as the “weight of [a] military apparatus” “in relation to its society as a whole” — a standard that puts Armenia, given its small population, relatively weak economy and strong security concerns, at a potential statistical disadvantage.
Locked in a bitter land dispute with neighbor Azerbaijan over breakaway Nagorno Karabakh, Armenia spent $247 million on arms purchases in 2013. Its next-door arch-nemesis, oil-and-gas power Azerbaijan, has far outspent Armenia, forking out $3.4 billion on defense last year. But because of its larger economy (nearly eight times the size of Armenia’s) and more than threefold larger population, Azerbaijan landed in tenth place.
In terms of the volume and sophistication of its military gear, Azerbaijan may also be far in the lead, but Armenia has 17.9 soldiers and paramilitaries per 1,000 inhabitants, while Azerbaijan has 8.9, the report found.
Russia, with an economy and population that dwarf both Armenia and Azerbaijan, finished in fifth place, after Syria.
The study did not apparently take into account the effect of military alliances with other countries. Russia, which sells arms to both Armenia and Azerbaijan, has its only base in the South Caucasus in the northern Armenian town of Gyumri.