Lagging behind a former Soviet republic in caviar production is one thing. But now the US, that champion of capitalism, has to face the news that the World Bank and International Finance Corporation believe that autocratic Azerbaijan contains fewer bureaucratic hurdles for starting a business.
The latest installment of the duo's Doing Business series claims that it takes three bureaucratic procedures and one percent of per-capita income to get a business going in Azerbaijan, whereas in the US it takes twice as much red tape, and 1.5 percent of per-capita income.
But before entrepreneurs start packing for Baku, some divination of these findings is due.
The speed and the cost of starting a business are just two out of a slew of yardsticks used to gauge countries' business friendliness. Overall, the US is perched far above Azerbaijan as a place to do business -- #4 out of 188 countries, compared with #70.
In those sub-categories where Azerbaijan outperformed the US, a lot might be lost between the numbers.
The report looks at laws and regulations, but does little to look behind them and gauge informal business practices; an area in which Azerbaijan has something of a reputation.
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.
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.
In what appears to be the latest sign of an ongoing informal campaign in Russia against minorities from the Caucasus and Central Asia, a prominent member of the Azerbaijani Diaspora in Russia has been shot and wounded.
Mais Kurbanov, deputy president of the Russian Federation of Migrants, was attacked by an unidentified group near his Moscow apartment in the early hours of November 12, APA reported. Russian news outlets report that a nearby CCTV camera caught a “young blonde woman” firing a gun at Kurbanov. Wounded, Kurbanov reportedly ran to a nearby café, while his attackers swiftly left the scene. He survived and remains in the hospital.
The motives of the attack are not yet known, but some Azerbaijanis will see a connection to the outpouring of Russian nationalism in the wake of last month's killing of 25-year-old Russian Yegor Shcherbakov, a crime blamed on an Azerbaijani labor migrant, Orhan Zeynalov.
Crime may not be a rare occurrence in Moscow, but South-Caucasus residents often get the impression that, for many Russians these days, crimes committed by a dark-haired person from the Caucasus are worse than others. The violence against migrant workers that followed Schcherbakov's death, the police manhandling of Zeynalov and the arrests and deportations of Azerbaijanis that followed Shcherbakov's murder have fueled anger in Azerbaijan.
Meanwhile, the violence against ethnic Azeris in Moscow continues. On November 13, APA reported about the death of an Azerbaijani flower seller, apparently knifed to death. Possible reasons for the attack have not been released.
Staying true to its foreign policy principle that if you love me, you must love my late leader’s monument, Azerbaijan has halted billions of dollars’ worth of planned investments in Mexico.
At a November 8 lecture to Universidad Iberoamericana students, Azerbaijan’s ambassador to Mexico, Ilgar Mukhtarov, claimed that Mexico City’s January decision to remove the statue of the late Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev from its downtown cost the country $3.8 billion in supposedly planned Azerbaijani investments in the oil-refinery business and other sectors. “All these funds have been put on hold,” Mukhtarov was quoted by the Voice of America as saying.
Reactions from Mexican officials have not surfaced in the non-Spanish-language press. The statue, part of a global network of statues to Heydar-Aliyev, was disassembled after reporters and activists looked up who that bronze man was sitting near the Paseo de la Reforma, and decided that you can take a country out of the USSR, but you can't take the USSR out of a country.
Mukhtarov, however, defended Aliyev, saying that the late leader was “not a dictator,” and pointing to his abolition of the death sentence as proof that the president, who died in 2003, cared as much about human rights as the next guy. He also again blamed the apparently omnipresent Armenian Diaspora for causing trouble over the monument.
It's difficult to know sometimes what gift to get for a close friend. But Azerbaijan -- or, to be specific, President Ilham Aliyev's elder daughter, Leyla Aliyeva -- has hit on an answer for Georgia. Ten gazelles.
Azerbaijan may be better known for oil and gas wealth and for being a family-run country than for its green activism, but the nation’s First Daughter styles herself as an environmental enthusiast.
She launched her IDEA (International Dialogue for Environmental Action) initiative through the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, a less-than-transparently financed organization named after her much-revered grandfather, the late President Heydar Aliyev. Her mother, First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, is the president of the foundation, which also has doled out many a gift to France and Pakistan in recent years, in what often appear to be soft-power drives.
But back to the gazelles. Competition from sheep and cows, as the World Wildlife Fund puts it, and human meddling allegedly drove the animals away from the Caucasus. And now, we are told, under the 28-year-old Aliyeva’s initiative, gazelles are being returned to their historic habitat. The first homecoming occurred in 2010 on Azerbaijan’s Absheron Peninsula; now it's the turn of Georgia, Baku's only South-Caucasus chum.
The Azerbaijan America Alliance, a Washington, DC-based group chaired by a former Indiana congressman that describes its mission as “[p]romoting a lasting partnership between Azerbaijan and America," played an unspecified role in making contributions, whether in money or in kind, to the $60-million memorial to United Flight 93.
The organization was founded by 36-year-old Anar Mammadov, the son of Azerbaijani Transportation Minister Ziya Mammadov; its board is chaired by Dan Burton, the former longtime Indiana Republican
congressman and chairperson of the House of Representatives’
Subcommittee for Europe and Eurasia Affairs.
Neither the Alliance’s website nor the National Park Service website detail the Alliance's contribution to the project. The memorial , located outside Stoystown, Pennsylvia, features a 6,800-foot visitor’s center and a so-called Tower of Voices with 40 wind chimes to represent the 40 people killed in the flight's 2001 crash.
But whatever the contribution, it prompted Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to express “special thanks” at the September 10 opening to the Alliance, Mammadov, and “the nation of Azerbaijan” for their “tremendous support to this project and to its construction . . .”
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.
Energy-rich Baku could end up lending a helping hand to next-door enemy, Armenia, via a World Bank program which gives loans to the world’s neediest nations, including Armenia.
Last week, Azerbaijan's Central Bank Governor Elman Rustamov told World Bank Vice President Joachim von Amsberg that the South Caucasus state is interested in contributing as a donor, Azerbaijani news outlets reported.
Azerbaijan this year shed all of its $300 million debt to the International Development Association (IDA), a World Bank mechanism offering the poor a chance to borrow their way to prosperity via low or no-interest loans. Armenia along with fellow Soviet alumni Georgia, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are on the list of IDA aid recipients.
Just yesterday, Azerbaijan, too, was one of that crowd, but it has now gone middle-class with a per-capita GDP of $10,700, an indicator far above it ex-Soviet comrades in the neighborhood, bar Russia.
Among the various signs of its newfound wealth, Azerbaijan has contributed $5 million to a fund-raising project for the Palestinian territories, purchases weapons from Israel, and is witnessing the make-over of Baku into a glittering, skyscraper-studded metropolis.
When it comes to a long-distance relationship, it's always good to know what attracts the other side. And, as shown at a shindig in Baku this week to mark 21 years of official ties with the US, Azerbaijan has its attractions for Washington down pat.
They number four: a supply corridor for NATO's military campaign in Afghanistan; a foothold for American interests in regional stability (Iran is just next-door) and fighting terrorism; and, finally, oil and gas for Europe.
This is no co-dependent relationship, however. Aliyev made clear that, as a return for its attractions, Azerbaijan expects Washington to support its efforts to reclaim breakaway Nagorno Karabakh from Armenian and separatist control. Armenia's American Diaspora runs a well-organized lobbying operation across the US to make sure that many US politicians view Armenia's problems as their own.