Every time Russia comes to play war in the Caucasus, a sense of alert spreads in the neighborhood. And it does not help if the Russians are running around with guns for two separate war games at the same time.
Azerbaijan is keeping a wary eye on its sworn enemy, Armenia, as it hosts drills for the Collective Security Treaty Organization (Moscow's response to NATO), while Georgia has its vision trained on the Caucasus-2012 training to the north.
Tbilisi is particularly uneasy to see Moscow mobilize 8,000 troops, 200 military vehicles, artillery and military vessels in the Black and Caspian Seas and Russia's southern Krasnodar region just as Georgia is approaching a critical parliamentary election on October 1.
“We all remember the consequences of the 2008 drills, which were much smaller in scale [than Caucasus 2012],” commented Georgian Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze. He claimed that the operations threaten the sovereignty of the three Caucasus countries, and, at least in part, are meant to affect their domestic politics.
Safarov, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in Hungary for the 2004 beheading of Armenian army Lieutenant Gurgen Margaryan at a NATO training program in Budapest, was extradited to and freed in Azerbaijan last month, causing shock and anger in Armenia.
Photos depicting Yerevan city buses bearing posters announcing an “Open Season for Safarov Hunting” are making the rounds online. The posters reportedly appear in various places throughout the city.
Some Armenian commentators say that the poster campaign is just a way for many citizens to vent their anger about the pardon, but, given the relentless propaganda campaigns on both sides, there can always be someone who opts to take the calls to exterminate the enemy literally. Safarov is walking proof of that.
To paraphrase a line from Rudyard Kipling, Iran is no place for spies. In particular, for Azerbaijani poets accused of being spies. After spending about four months in an Iranian prison and causing more tension in the less-than-harmonious ties between the two Shi'a Muslim neighbors, a pair of Azerbaijani poets finally marched home yesterday.
Azerbaijani television carried footage of friends and relatives embracing Shakhriyar Hajizade and Farrid Huseyn at the Azerbaijani-Iranian border. The two were paroled before a court in Tabriz was scheduled to land a verdict in their case on September 10.
The Iranian side said that the poets have “Islamic mercy” to thank for their release, though the poets themselves said they were indebted to the Azerbaijani government.
The release came as an apparent peace-offering to Baku and was timed with Iranian Vice-President for Cultural Affairs Hasan Mousavi's visit to Azerbaijan. The enemies may plot all they want, but “friendly and fraternal relations between Azerbaijan and Iran have always been strong and will be so in the future,” Mousavi said in Baku.
But, no doubt, Tehran is looking to Azerbaijan to release alleged Iranian spies/terrorists of its own to make this sonnet to friendship and brotherhood complete.
In this tough-spoken part of the world, “deep concern” is widely seen as a Western diplomatic term for “This was bad, but we are not going to do anything about it.” And subsequent tweets expressing NATO's appreciation of Azerbaijan's role in the Afghanistan campaign and of Baku's partnership with the Alliance would particularly not correct that impression.
Many Armenians believe that the Alliance bears some responsibility for the 2004 axe murder since it happened at a NATO seminar in Budapest. Rasmussen does not.
Arguably, at a time like this, whatever he said on his Armenia-Azerbaijan tour, the general secretary would be left having to balance on an extremely high wire. But the question is to what extent his presence gave both sides pause amidst their rush of rage or simply directed their anger at another target -- the international community itself.
The new arrivals will be temporary -- the "permanent" troop presence at Gyumri, the northern Armenian site of Russia's 102nd Military Base, will stay at 5,000, according to Colonel Igor Gorbul, a spokesperson for Russia's Southern Military District, RIA Novosti reported -- and will receive a higher salary and undefined benefits to whet their interest in sticking around.
They'll arrive at a base that's been a bit on the bustling side of late. Russian jets have been busy drilling in Armenian airspace, and, in March, Moscow held war games in Gyumri. Earlier on, the head of the Collective Security Treaty Organization -- a Russian response to NATO -- said that the Moscow-led alliance will protect Armenia from enemy attacks. “If unfriendly actions are taken against Armenia, all member states will provide relevant assistance to Armenia,” pledged CSTO Secretary-General Nikolai Bordyuzha.
“If Armenia wants its soldiers to stop dying, it should withdraw from Azerbaijani territories,” Amidst a recent, deadly pickup in ceasefire violations, ending the two countries' 24-year conflict over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh territory is as simple as that for Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov.
The bloodshed, coinciding with US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's June 4-6 visit to the South Caucasus, has set off a fresh flurry of expressions of concern from world leaders.
“The cycle of violence must stop,” said Ireland’s Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore at a joint news conference in Baku with his Azerbaijani counterpart. Gilmore, chairperson-in-office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which oversees negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, called on both sides to remove snipers from the line of contact and set up a mechanism for investigating the conflict zone incidents.
Mammadyarov said that frontline snipers will have no targets if Yerevan pulls back its forces. He also expressed Baku’s conditional support for incident-investigation mechanism. “But this will work only if Armenian forces withdraw from the occupied territories of Azerbaijan,” he said. “If the mechanism is put to work now, it would mean consolidating the status quo, which is unacceptable.”
Azerbaijan made the trip to the May 20-21 Euro-Atlantic defense pow-wow in Chicago, and Georgia all but rode a rocket there. But Armenia stayed home.
And not because -- to borrow the dating excuse of an earlier generation of Americans -- it needed to wash its hair.
Armenia is Russia’s economic and military protégé in the Caucasus, and some Armenian wonks believe that President Serzh Sargsyan was a no-show in Chicago as a courtesy move to the Kremlin.
But Yerevan says that the real turn-off for Sargsyan was the gathering’s reiteration of the alliance’s commitment to the territorial integrity of nations. In plain words and as far as Armenia is concerned, this means it should let Azerbaijan take back Sargsyan's native land of breakaway Nagorno Karabakh.
“We remain committed in our support of the territorial integrity, independence, and sovereignty of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Republic of Moldova,” the 28-member bloc said. The declaration does not mention the right of self-determination which Armenia advocates in the Karabakh conflict resolution talks. The right to self-determination and the right to territorial integrity -- contradictory though at times they may seem -- are both principles that guide the internationally-mediated discussions.
Call it Godwin’s law in action; the longer an online debate goes on, the higher the probability becomes that one side will compare the other to Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. Hence, it took only so much German criticism of Azerbaijan's human rights record ahead of next month's Eurovision show in Baku before the country's ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party compared the Germans to the Nazis.
Like many Azerbaijani critics, many German officials and journalists have been thinking out loud that the continent’s major song contest should be used to push for an end to crackdowns on political dissent, free media and basic property rights, among other problem areas.
Two big news topics involving Azerbaijan recently have been a report about its alleged military cooperation with Israel against Iran and, of course, the ongoing saga of its preparations for next month's Eurovision in Baku. It didn't take long before the two topics merged.
A senior Azerbaijani government official has announced that Baku will neither help Israel attack Iran, nor will it need Israeli assistance to provide security for the international pop singers who will be in town for the Eurovision Song Contest. In response to media reports that claimed Mossad will be lending a hand at Eurovision, Ali Hasanov, the presidential administration's front-man for matters political, clarified that “Azerbaijan does not need the help of foreign special services, including the special services of Israel."
He went on to repeat denials that Azerbaijan is collaborating with Israel against Iran, saying that "Mossad does not have any secret or special chapter in Azerbaijan . . . "
"All of Azerbaijan's relations with other countries are transparent, and they are not and will not be directed against some other country, especially Iran,” he claimed.
When they were signed in late 2009, the protocols between Turkey and Armenia -- designed to restore diplomatic relations between the two countries and create a vehicle for discussing their painful shared history -- were hailed as a major breakthrough and as an important victory for Ankara's new "zero problems with neighbors" policy.
Still, despite the applause, it was fairly clear already at the signing -- which was delayed by three hours because of a dispute between Ankara and Yerevan over their respective statements -- that the protocols had a rough road ahead of them. Indeed, not much longer after they were signed, the agreement was as good as dead, killed off by a combination of Turkish buyer's remorse, Azeri bullying and Armenian naiveté.
Just how did things fall apart so quickly? In a new report issued by Columbia University's Institute for the Study of Human Rights, David Phillips, who has been involved in previous Turkish-Armenian reconciliation efforts, goes a long way towards answering that question by providing an extremely detailed diplomatic history of the protocols.
As Phillips writes, "The Protocols represented an unprecedented advancement in relations between Turkey and Armenia. However, failure to ratify them was a significant bilateral, regional, and international setback." As he sees it, the protocols are dead in their current form and cannot be revived, while Ankara, busy with other, more pressing regional concerns, is not likely to return to the Armenia file for now.
Phillips's report, filled with candid observations from many of the diplomats involved in getting the protocols ratified, makes for fascinating and highly-instructive reading.