The arrest of 26 Azerbaijanis for allegedly joining armed Islamic groups in Syria and the wider region may help Azerbaijan place its strategic importance to the United States above criticism of its growing autocratic reputation.
The September-23 detentions mark this Caspian-Sea country’s largest operation against alleged Islamic extremist fighters since reports began to circulate over the past year about a steady flow of recruits from Azerbaijan for the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Azerbaijan’s Ministry of National Security said that the detainees have joined several paramilitary groups in Pakistan, Iraq and Syria. Some were alleged members of Azeri Jamaaty, a jihad group in Syria made up of Azerbaijani nationals.
In short profiles of the suspects, the ministry claimed that one of the detainees, Taleh Soltanov, allegedly led Taifa al-Mansoura, a jihadist group affiliated with the Pakistani Taliban movement. En route to Syria, Soltanov was detained in Iran and deported to Azerbaijan. His wife and mother-in-law, though, made it to Syria with the help of local fighters, the ministry reported.
Another arrested individual, Vyugar Dursunaliyev, is accused of sending his juvenile son, Elvin, to Syria to join the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the terrorist group commonly known as ISIS.
The arrests were reported on the same day that US President Barack Obama mentioned Azerbaijan among the countries notorious for crackdowns on civil society.
That gives an opening to Russia, one of three countries (along with the US and France) charged with keeping negotiations afloat between Baku and Yerevan. Russian President Vladimir Putin this week will meet in Sochi separately with Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev and Armenia’s Serzh Sargsyan, Moscow has announced. A chat which, “when they all appear in the same place and at the same time,” doubtlessly will get down to Karabakh, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the ITAR-TASS news agency.
As have the US and EU, Moscow has called for restraint. And — wink-wink — underscored the need for cooperation with the West to keep Armenia and Azerbaijan from coming to still more deadly blows.
“For many years, we have seen periodic flare-ups, but this time [the topic] is being perceived and will be taken up particularly strongly,” Lavrov commented.
The dates for these chats have been set for August 8-9, Armenian Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian told reporters, according to RFE/RL.
There are controversies at both ends of the roughly 3,800-kilometer-long pipeline project, which involves three sections; first, stretching from Azerbaijan to Turkey; the second, from Turkey to Greece; and the final leg, from Greece to Italy. Tony Blair is advising this final segment, the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP).
In southern Italy, where TAP, is expected to make its landing, worries persist that the project will interfere with olive-growing and the mating of seals, as well as cause damage to the area’s rich cultural heritage, The Guardian has reported.
At the Azerbaijani start of the line, critics charge that Blair's helping hand for TAP will only further enable Baku to crackdown on civil rights without fear of the international consequences.
Never a pinup for democratic reform, Azerbaijan has seen its human rights situation go from bad to worse of late with the authorities arresting critics right and left, and non-government flows of information feeling the pinch.
Georgia on July 18 legislatively cemented its European aspirations, while Armenia set a new date for a trip in the opposite direction— integration with the Russian-centric Eurasian Economic Union. The last but not least in the South Caucasus trio, Azerbaijan, remains content with its status as the region’s geopolitical maverick, but wants more appreciation from the European Union.
With EU officials on hand in Tbilisi, the Georgian parliament unanimously ratified the signed association and free-trade agreements with the European Union, and Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili declared, in case there was any doubt, that the country’s European path is "irreversible."
For one thing, they’ve drunk on it. “The ratification of this agreement will not be valid if we don’t chase it with a glass of wine,” observed Parliamentary Speaker Davit Usupashvili, inviting all to move on to the reception.
The session opened with the Georgian national anthem and closed with the EU anthem
Moldova, a fellow EU-enthusiast (and serious wine-producer), ratified the agreements earlier this month, while Ukraine is expected to do the same shortly.
But, as often happens in the South Caucasus, Armenia and Azerbaijan had their own tales to tell as well.
After missing a few earlier targets, Armenia set October as its date for entering the Eurasian Economic Union, Moscow’s response to the European Union. Speculation runs rife about the reasons for the repeated delays, but Yerevan says the deadline's for real this time, and the necessary
Moscow and Brussels have gone courting Azerbaijan, the last nonaligned place in the South Caucasus, where Russia and the European Union increasingly compete for influence.
Over the next week, two top officials from Russia and one from the European Union will be descending upon Azerbaijan to chat up Baku, which, unlike neighboring Armenia and Georgia, says it is not ready to commit to a serious relationship with anyone, be it the Brussels-based EU or the Moscow-led EU (Eurasian Union). But neither of the energy-rich country's big suitors seem to take no for an answer.
José Manuel Barroso, president of the EU's executive arm, the European Commission, will be visiting Baku on June 12 as a part of his tour of several ex-Soviet republics that Brussels corralled together to prime for integration with the EU. Two of these countries -- Moldova and Georgia -- will be signing association agreements, which include free-trade deals, with the EU in two weeks. Barroso will be checking on both countries to make sure all's set for the big day.
Breaking with the tradition of European leaders binge-visiting all three South Caucasus countries in one fell swoop, Barroso is conspicuously skipping Armenia. Brussels is still disgruntled about Yerevan discarding an association-agreement at the last minute to hop on a train headed in the opposite direction -- toward the Eurasian Union, and economic integration with Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus.
Nashville, Tennessee has apparently become another unlikely proxy battleground for a war going on a world away -- between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which both are busy building strategic alliances in the United States.
In an investigative piece, the CBS-affiliate claimed that Towns, a Memphis Democrat, allegedly had accepted $10,000 in campaign donations from seven supposedly Azerbaijan-linked sources. When confronted by the station's chief investigative reporter, Phil Williams, Towns could not coherently explain what motivated him to lobby for Baku-Nashville friendship or who were the alleged campaign contributors.
Williams implied that Representative Towns’ story was a case of Azerbaijan buying lawmakers in Tennessee to promote questionable policies.
The reporter's sole commentator, Barry Barsoumian, identified as an Armenian immigrant and activist, pointed at the suspicious link between the “strange” resolution, which eventually flopped, and the murky donors. The concerned Barsoumian also presented the channel with the Armenian version of the decades-long confrontation between the Caucasus nations over the breakaway territory of Nagorno Karabakh.
Not to underestimate the power of social media, but officials in Azerbaijan believe it takes more than active tweeting to resolve an ethnic conflict; especially if it's the longest-running conflict to come out of the Soviet Union.
In a swipe at James Warlick, Washington's point-man for negotiations between Baku and Yerevan on the 26-year Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, a senior Azerbaijani presidential administration official commented on May 1 that he would like to see the US mediator's tweets matched by actions.
“Sometimes it seems to me that Mr. Warlick seeks to resolve the #NagornoKarabakh conflict through his tweets,” tweeted Novruz Mammadov, deputy chief of staff to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.
Twitter debates with the ambassador about certain events in the Karabakh
conflict are not possible, Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov added in an interview with APA news agency, since a tweet "must
consist of only 120 letters."
Azimov went still further, charging that the US envoy is pro-Armenian, and "spreading rumors about a possible escalation of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan." Baku has "every reason" to demand his recall, he said.
Ambassador Warlick, who recently attended an Azerbaijani gala dinner in Washington, has not yet responded. But he is, indeed, a prolific Twitter user.
Many of his tweets provide relatively innocuous progress reports about the Karabakh peace talks led by the US, France and Russia (the so-called Minsk Group), but one tweet in particular already has encountered Baku's ire -- an
observation that he had been "corrected" (presumably by
Armenia) that the conflict is between Azerbaijan and Karabakh; a
The April 19 arrest of prominent Azerbaijani newspaper correspondent and political analyst Rauf Mirkadirov could put an end to efforts by Azerbaijani and Armenian civil society activists and journalists to maintain some form of contact, and bury their so-called “citizen diplomacy.”
The Azerbaijani government has never welcomed such exchanges, but previously never seriously harassed those few Azerbaijanis who took part in them, either. But the espionage charge against Mirkadirov, who had traveled occasionally to Yerevan for conferences, could strongly discourage their continuing. The charge carries a potential life prison sentence.
Rauf Mirkadirov, 53, had worked as the Ankara correspondent of the Baku-based Russian-language Zerkalo (Mirror) daily for the last three years. His articles and op-eds were often critical of both the Azerbaijani authorities and the Turkish government. He was detained on April 19 and deported to Azerbaijan after his press accreditation was suddenly canceled. In Baku, he was arrested upon arrival.
The fact that Mirkadirov was deported just a few days after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Baku made many in Azerbaijan, including Mirkadirov’s lawyer, Fuad Agayev, believe that the journalist’s arrest is the result of an agreement between Ankara and Baku.
Mirkadirov’s family – his wife and daughter – has also left Turkey and is now in another country.
Azerbaijani prosecutors state that Mirkadirov is suspected of having transferred to Armenian intelligence between 2008 and 2009 classified information about Azerbaijan’s political and military sectors, “including photos and schemes to be used against Azerbaijan.” They claim that these supposed meetings occurred in Armenia, Georgia and Turkey.
Mirkadirov’s attorney, Agayev, stresses that his client did not have access to classified information and that, therefore, these charges are groundless.
After first trying to look the other way when Russia mugged Ukraine, Azerbaijan now has joined the international show of hands against the conquest of Crimea.
Aside from hitting its yes button in the United Nations on March 27 to declare Crimea's referendum on joining Russia invalid, Azerbaijan’s embassy in Kyiv issued a statement supporting the inviolability of Ukraine's borders. “Azerbaijan condemns extremism, radicalism and separatism in its every manifestation and once again confirms its adherence to the principles of sovereignty, independence and support of the territorial integrity of Ukraine,” the embassy said.
Until this point, Baku has treaded the ground carefully on Crimea. Moscow, along with the US and France, is one of three mediators for the critical Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.
But within Armenia, many believe that Yerevan, under Russia’s thumb for both energy and homeland security, was just doing Moscow’s bidding. Earlier on, President Serzh Sargsyan pretty much congratulated Russia’s Putin on a happy annexation, according to an official release. These moves prompted a diplomatic slap from Kyiv, though Ukraine has refrained from severing ties with Armenia.
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.