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.
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.