On the cusp of what appears a new era of unpredictability in international affairs, countries in the Caucasus, that sensitive borderland between East and West, are wondering what to expect from Donald Trump, the United States’ choice for president.
In what many see as schadenfreude, Moscow is the only place in the larger region where politicians unabashedly hail Trump. The State Duma, in fact, met the news of Trump’s victory with a standing ovation.
“Man to man, I don’t envy Bill Clinton because his old lady, for whom he trailed around all the states like a threadbare backpack, will be going through the roof over losing,” predicted Sergei Mironov, leader of the social-democratic Fair Russia.
“Our dear Trump, congratulations on your victory,” chimed in the Liberal Democratic Party’s Vladimir Zhirinovsky, an ultranationalist known for his ebullient pre-election endorsement of Trump. “Babushka Hillary should go have a rest,” he advised.
Germany this week took its turn to appease and assure the South Caucasus about the European Union’s integration intentions by sending its top diplomat to the topsy-turvy region. Given Germany’s standing within the European Union and its structures, Frank-Walter Steinmeier came to the region not just as German foreign minister, but also as a key decision-maker for EU-South Caucasus ties.
As is par for the course with high-profile Western visitors to the region, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s visit was a triple-header. He zigzagged from Yerevan to Baku, and from Baku to Tbilisi on June 29, 30 and July 1, respectively. As also is usually the case with visiting Western diplomats, Steinmeier urged restraint on warring Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone, and patience on Euro-Atlantic-community hopeful Georgia.
On both of these counts, Germany holds a special role. Germany’s imprimatur is seen as decisive for granting Georgians much-desired visa-free access to the EU. Germany now holds the rotating presidency of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the continent’s top security and democracy-assurance body involved in negotiations and the monitoring of a ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Steinmeier urged a greater role for the OSCE in the conflict-resolution effort, which Russia has pretty much dominated in the wake of April’s Four Day War, the deadliest flare-up of Armenian-Azerbaijani hostilities since the 1994 ceasefire.
Russia’s plans to keep selling guns to both Armenia and Azerbaijan, no matter if the Caucasus’ two irascible neighbors use them against each other, is feeding growing Armenian frustration with their only strategic ally.
Azerbaijan was welcomed at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC on March 30 as an international energy security and counterterrorism asset, while the country’s repressive ways gained only a faint mention.
US Secretary of State John Kerry thanked Aliyev for making it to the March 31-April 1 summit and praised Azerbaijan’s role in helping Europe meet its energy needs. “Azerbaijan is located in a complex region right now and I think President Aliyev has been very studious and thoughtful about how to respond to some of those needs, particularly with his leadership on the Southern Gas Corridor,” Kerry said.
In his public remarks, Kerry skipped the controversial matter of Azerbaijan’s political prisoners. Only a post-meeting press release took note of Azerbaijan’s “recent positive steps” and urged “further progress” on the human-rights front.
Pounded with threats and sanctions from Russia, Turkey on December 4 went to its Turkic cousin Azerbaijan to get some much-needed love and economic reassurance. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu received not only an ardent, mi-casa-es-su-casa welcome in Baku, but also promises of more business and energy supplies just as Russia is trying to starve Turkey of both of those things.
Sitting next to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, the Turkish prime minister melted into a lengthy toast to kinship between Azerbaijan and Turkey; one country that fate divided in two, he said. Azerbaijan is Turkey’s “soul,” “spiritual homeland,” and Turkey’s ministers are Azerbaijan’s ministers, in Davutoğlu's telling.
For Azerbaijan, which relies on heavily on Turkey for energy transit projects and efforts to reclaimed breakaway Nagorno Karabakh, this means, in theory, that Turkey’s problems are Azerbaijan’s problems. “Turkish-Azerbaijani unity and politics have a stabilizing effect on the region,” said Azerbaijan’s Aliyev.
Yet, mindful of Moscow, Azerbaijan's Soviet-era overlord and still the region's traditional mover-and-shaker, Aliyev avoided calling Russia by name. After all, of late, Baku and the Kremlin have been making nice. Instead, Aliyev noted, diplomatically broadly, that “stability in the region has been regrettably disturbed, with new risks and threats taking shape.”
“We should be ready and we are ready for these challenges," he added, without elaboration.
Azerbaijan plans to take French public television channel France 2 to court for an investigative program that called the Azerbaijani government a “dictatorship” and its leader, President Ilham Aliyev, a “despot.”
"We wondered if, during lunch with the dictator from the Caucasus, one was able to speak of oil and human rights without anyone around the table choking," the voiceover explained.
Nationally broadcast TV programs that question Azerbaijan’s rights record do not arrive at an auspicious time for the country. After hosting the European Games this July and agreeing to take on other mega-sports events, it now is considering whether or not to bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics. The deadline is September 15.
Arguably, Cash Investigation's nearly two-hour-long report would do little to enhance any application Baku chooses to submit. Hinging on a 2014 trip to Baku by French President François Hollande, the story includes footage of police crackdowns on protesters and interviews with recently sentenced human-rights advocate Leyla Yunus and investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova.*
Following an earlier theme, Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry said that the upbraiding by US, British and EU officials, and international human rights groups is nothing but meddling in a sovereign country’s home affairs.
"We categorically condemn and deem unacceptable interference in the trial of Khadija Ismayilova, the attempts to politicize the court decision and also reactions in the form of political statements to what in essense is a purely a matter of law," Report.az quoted foreign ministry spokesperson Hikmet Hajiyev as saying.
The US State Department had said it was "deeply troubled" by the seven-plus-year-long jail sentence handed down to Ismayilova, a freelance investigative journalist who has exposed various questionable business schemes tied to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s family and political circles.
"This case is another example in a broad pattern of increasing restrictions on human rights in Azerbaijan, including curtailing the freedom of the press," the State Department said in a statement, which called for the corruption-busting journalist's release.
Step aside, CNN, and make room, Al Jazeera: an international news network is coming to break the current "monopoly" on news and promote a Turkic point of view.
Media scholars like John Merrill may welcome a diversity of perspectives in the global news flow as a counterbalance to Western news companies and their takes. The caveat is that the latest new channel is a brainchild of four autocracy-prone governments; primarily of Kazakhstan's president-for-life, Nursultan Nazarbayev.
The idea of a pan-Turkic news has been in the can for a while, but on August 18 information ministers signed a memorandum of understanding about the project in the Kazakh capital of Astana.
Kazakh communication officials said that Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkey have reached a conceptual agreement on the network, which will broadcast "Turkic cultural values" in the four countries' languages and English. It is unclear when the channel goes live.
But, already, Ali Hasanov, a senior aide of Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev and the longtime presidential point-man for media matters, has his ideas.
Looking back to this summer’s European Games, he complained that “the great strides” made by his country “are hardly highlighted by some leading global media resources.” Rather, as the country’s star has risen, the “ media attacks based on preconceived, false accusations” only have increased, he claimed, the pro-government Trend news agency reported.
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 . . ."
The closer it gets to the European Union’s May 21-22 summit in Riga, the clearer it becomes that the post-Soviet countries grouped together under the EU’s Eastern Partnership Program will not be making any big steps toward the EU.
Speaking from Brussels with reporters via a video-link, one senior EU official laid out priorities for the summit that likely will prove a disappointment to Georgia. The EU’s biggest fan in the South Caucasus is not going to get the much-touted visa-free arrangement with the EU this time around. Nor is it clear when Georgia, which signed an EU Association Agreement last June, should expect to get it.
Armenia and the EU will be weighing cooperation options that are limited by Armenia’s membership in the Moscow-led EU alternative, the Eurasian Economic Union. The EU official, who declined to be named, said that much of the future economic dealings between the EU and Armenia, will actually be dealings between the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union, rather than with Armenia per se.
Freewheeling Azerbaijan is essentially going to Riga to bargain on energy supplies to Europe. At the summit, EU is like to emphasize the importance of Azerbaijan as an energy partner. Not unpredictably.
Many observers see a slow-down in the EU’s interest in the region, as Russia becomes more aggressive in Ukraine and tries harder to keep the former Soviet area in its sphere of political and economic influence.