If the weather and Azerbaijan cooperate, we're repeatedly told, passenger planes will soon take off from the separatist airstrip of Nagorno-Karabakh. Any passengers, though, will probably be uneasily shifting in their seats with every shake or rattle, trying to figure out whether their plane has encountered turbulence or is dodging Azerbaijani missiles.
If it’s any reassurance for those prospective passengers, a top Russian general thinks that Azerbaijan is just kidding about its threats to knock down the planned flights from the breakaway territory. “It is either an unsuccessful articulation of thoughts or an unfortunate joke,” asserted Nikolai Bordyuzha, the secretary general of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Russia's response to NATO, while on a trip to Yerevan. “I don’t take this information seriously."
Committed to reclaiming Karabakh and the adjoining occupied territories, and returning tens of thousands of IDPs, Baku threatened to gun down any planes from the newly renovated airport outside the Karabakhi capital Stepanakert (known to Azerbaijanis as Khankendi), and said it has the full right to do so. Armenia threatened to respond in kind, and the Caucasus again got filled with the threat of war.
Cue Russia. Armenia is part of the CSTO, which vowed to protect, honor and cherish its members in good times and bad.
But the Azerbaijanis told Bordyuzha that they can match words with intentions, and again accused Moscow of siding with Armenia in the conflict over breakaway Karabakh. “Azerbaijan is not joking,” said Azerbaijani defense ministry spokesperson Eldar Sabiroglu, 1news.az reported.
After bouts of haggling over the rent, Russia has abandoned a Soviet-era, early-warning radar in Azerbaijan that essentially served as the Kremlin’s security camera for the Caucasus, Middle East and South Asia.
The official cause is cost: Baku had asked for $300 million per year for a renewal on Russia's lease on the station; a hefty hike from the heretofore $7 million per year.
With Moscow planning to build its own radar stations with similar coverage areas (the Armavir radar station north of the Caucasus mountain range, already partly overlaps Gabala's range), the new rent was not worth it for Russia, officials said.
Earlier, Moscow had offered Washington a share on the station as a possible substitute for US plans, opposed by Moscow, to deploy a missile shield system in Poland and the Czech Republic to defend Eastern Europe from potential attacks from Iran and North Korea, but the idea went nowhere.
A Russian military expert, though, told Azerbaijan's APA news agency that quitting Gabala was not a prudent move since the station could always have doubled for Moscow as a backup if Armavir is down for maintenance.
So, how will US troops come home from Afghanistan? According to Baku officials, by catching a train in Azerbaijan.
To borrow from American journalist H.L. Mencken’s line, war, like love, is easy to begin, but hard to end, and the 2014 NATO pullout from Afghanistan is likely to be a logistical nightmare, with thousands of troops to transport and scads of guns to pack and ship.
But worry not: Azerbaijan, NATO’s Caspian-Sea chum, is offering a cheap ticket home for American and other troops via the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, scheduled for completion in 2014.
If it all goes as planned, troops from Georgia, the largest non-member troop contributor to the NATO campaign, can get off midway.
To date, 35 percent of the “non-lethal” military supplies for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan went through Azerbaijan, Mammadyarov stated.
The Baku-Tbilisi-Kars Railroad, constructed by NATO-friendly Azerbaijan, NATO-aspiring Georgia and NATO member Turkey, was presented to the Alliance last month by envoys of the three countries. The presentation included other existing and upcoming sea, air and land transport infrastructure.
What does a national border mean for a man and his cows on the quest for better grazing land? That's the question that, in the run-up to next week's OSCE meeting in Dublin, illustrates both the absurdities and the dangers of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict for both Azerbaijan and Armenia.
The decades-long row between Azerbaijan and Armenia about Karabakh has been increasingly playing out in Latin America, with Yerevan seeking supporters for the territory’s independence from Azerbaijan, and Baku working to nip such ideas in the bud.
Uruguay, with one of Latin America's largest Armenian Diasporas and a track record of having already recognized as genocide the Ottoman Empire's slaughter of ethnic Armenians, has now found itself in the middle of this tug-of-war.
After arriving in Yerevan early last week, Uruguayan House of Representatives Speaker Jorge Orrico and other delegates hopped over to Karabakh to meet de-facto leader Bako Sahakian and other local officials.
In comments similar to an earlier statement by Uruguay’s foreign minister, Luis Almagro, Orrico expressed support for Karabakh, but stopped short of making unequivocal promises to recognize the territory.
Last week, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan said his country would respond with an all-out military attack should Azerbaijan attempt to reclaim by force the predominantly ethnic Armenian breakaway region of Nagorno Karabakh. Sargsyan cited recent war games as proof of Armenia’s capabilities, but the drills did not envision a scenario of invasion by cowherd and cows.
To hear some media tell it, Armenia experienced a wanton breach of its national border on November 12 after an Azerbaijani cowherd and his squadron of cows supposedly stormed across the line of contact for the Karabakh conflict, and into Armenia.
Herdsman Telman Aliyev, who shares a last name with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, is now being questioned by Armenian military officials. As one Armenian news outlet put it, "Azerbaijan now has one fewer Aliyev . . ."
The whereabouts of his charges are unknown; if in captivity, they're no doubt maintaining a stoic silence.
But work is underway to bring back Aliyev the herder, according to Azerbaijan’s State Commission for War Prisoners, Hostages and Missing Citizens Secretary Shahin Sailov, who argues that Armenia has "taken [him] hostage."
Baku quickly alerted international organizations about the incident, and cited a search for greener pastures amidst heavy fog and what they describe as Aliyev's difficulties with speaking and hearing as mitigating circumstances.
Yet, after 23-plus years of conflict, don't expect Armenia to take Azerbaijan's word for it. Armenian military officials said they are testing Aliyev's speech skills and hearing.
Mexico may be far away from the Caucasus' territorial conflicts, but it is offering a venue for another staring-down match between gun-slinging neighbors Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The Armenian-Azerbaijani diplomatic face-off over the breakaway territory of Nagorno Karabakh mostly plays out in the US, Russia and Europe, but (as with Georgia and its fight with Russia over separatist Abkhazia and South Ossetia) lately has expanded to the Latino world, with each side on the prowl for supporters.
On October 22, Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian arrived in Mexico City to convey his nation’s“bewilderment” at Mexico allegedly taking sides in the 24-year Armenian-Azerbaijani feud. He reproached Mexico's senadores and deputados for passing supposedly anti-Armenian resolutions in the past, and proposed an Armenian embassy in Mexico City as the way to help set things right.
In fact, a stroll through the streets and parks of Mexico City would leave any dutiful Armenian official bewildered.
Last week, The New York Times' travel section offered a tip to other explorers about how to visit Karabakh and still be able to hop over to Azerbaijani-controlled territory later -- namely, just “ask for the visa to be put on a separate piece of paper that can be removed from your passport.”
The trick is hardly a secret. And one that prudent visitors quickly learn, with or without a how-to in the American "newspaper of record."
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.