Old Caucasus hands often say that Armenia and Azerbaijan have more in common than they might care to admit. Long united in hatred for each other, the two foes now have a fresh bond to share -- they've both got reason to be thankful to France, albeit for different reasons.
The Armenian government did express regret over France discarding the law, but shied away from making any big, official statements with the horns blaring. “I don’t think it is correct to interfere with the process of decision-making of the French Constitutional Council,” Armenia’s Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian told Austria’s Der Standard newspaper. He and other officials in Yerevan put the development down to the alleged work of Turkish and Azerbaijani lobbyists.
Azerbaijan claims it has again caught some Iranian-sponsored terrorists, but is proving tight-lipped about the details.
On February 21, the country’s state-run AzTV reported that a terrorist cell allegedly operated by Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards had been busted.
Stashing guns and explosives, the group allegedly planned attacks on “foreign nationals.” The report did not specify the nationality of the foreigners, letting the outside world put two and two together.
Speaking to EurasiaNet.org, a spokesperson for Azerbaijan's Ministry of National Security refused either to confirm or to deny the station's report.
Strangely, pro-government and state-run news sites have proven similarly skittish about delving into the AzTV report; no news about the arrests could be found on any of these websites on the morning of February 22.
The South Caucasus appears to be finding itself in a risky front-row seat for the ongoing international campaign against Iran's nuclear ambitions and, in turn, outrage at Israel for its role in the struggle.
On February 13, a bomb was found under the car of a Georgian employee of the Israeli embassy in Tbilisi. Ministry of Internal Affairs spokesperson Shota Utiashvili told EurasiaNet.org that he could not specify if the foiled bomb attack was targeted against the Israeli embassy premises, but noted that the car "was located near the embassy." Police defused the explosive without incident.
In a separate incident today, the wife of an Israeli diplomat was injured in a car bomb explosion in New Delhi.
Obviously feeling the pressure,the Iranian embassy in Baku hinted on January 26 that Tehran may reconsider its commitment to the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan (meaning recognizing breakaway Nagorno Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan) if Azerbaijani officials let outside forces sow discord between the neighbors.
France's approval of a bill making it a crime to deny that Ottoman Turks committed genocide against ethnic Armenians during World War I has not only enraged Turkey, but also proven de trop for Turkey’s regional cousin, Azerbaijan. As a result, an Azerbaijani campaign is now building for the French to stop mediating Azerbaijan’s conflict with Armenia over the breakaway region of Nagorno Karabakh.
Baku, which has long maintained if-you-love-me-you-must-love-Turkey stance, believes that France has undermined its status as an impartial negotiator in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict by passing the bill. France, along with the US and Russia, has long led the effort to resolve the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over the territory through a negotiations mechanism called the Minsk Group.
As of yet, no public sign that President Aliyev also expressed such views during his recent peace pow-wow in Sochi with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, but the remarks no doubt occurred with Aliyev's sanction.
Turkey, now barely on speaking terms with France, says that the massacre was -- to paraphrase a Russian saying -- too long ago to be true.
Azerbaijan, Ankara's longtime pal, shares Turkey's anger over this pro-Armenia move, but it also has reasons to celebrate. On December 26, it signed an agreement with Turkey on a $5 billion pipeline that will bring Azerbaijani gas to eager European customers, and even more cash to its cash-rich coffers.
Respected historian Samvel Karapetian was grocery shopping in a Yerevan supermarket, Hayastan, when he chanced upon packets of the bulbous, pungent emissaries from Azerbaijan, the very country that fought a long and bloody war with Armenia over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region. Since the 1988-1994 war, anything Azerbaijani has been mostly seen in Armenia as unspeakably heinous, and vice versa.
A concerned citizen, Karapetian sounded the alarm, and reporters hurried to the scene. “Garlic of the company based on [President Heydar] Aliyev Street in Baku is gleefully sold in… an Armenian supermarket,” the puzzled historian said.
In the supermarket, reporters found a confused shop assistant and manager, who pled not guilty. “I am beginning to think that somebody wants to frame me,” the director of the Hayastan Supermarket told Emedia.am news service.
The director said he cannot trace every food product all the way to its source, unless it is a sausage. He claimed that the garlic penetration must have been an unfortunate mistake, but local journalists are not buying this.
It was not us, but even if it was us, we still blame Armenia, said Azerbaijan about a fire exchange over the weekend that left two Armenian soldiers dead. Earlier on, Armenia ominously threatened a “disproportionate” retaliation for these latest deaths on the face-off line between Azerbaijani and Armenian and separatist Karabakhi forces.
Both Baku and Yerevan keep repeating the same “they started it” mantra, so the response from Azerbaijan was fairly predictable. “We only respond to the fire from the opposing side,” claimed Azerbaijani Defense Ministry spokesperson Teimur Abdulayev, and advised the Armenians to look for the fire starters amongst their own number, rather than blame Azerbaijan.
Meanwhile, the de facto military authorities in separatist Nagorno Karabakh are making similar, eye-for-an-eye threats.
One Armenian commentator argues that the gunfire exchanges are not sporadic and tend to coincide with developments in internationally mediated efforts to resolve the Karabakh conflict. One Azerbaijani analyst, however, has noted that the real problem goes far beyond international mediators -- even after years of talks, Baku and Yerevan remain too far apart on the central issue at hand, the status of Nagorno Karabakh. That means look for the blame game to continue.
Recently, one of Iran’s key turbaned bosses threatened that Azerbaijanis may soon take the noncommittally Muslim leader of neighboring Azerbaijan, President Ilham Aliyev, “by the scuff of his neck and kick him out of his seat.” Now, Baku is again hearing an angry rumble from its hardcore Islamist neighbor over its attempts to keep Azerbaijan walking the straight and secular.
“We regret that the criminal, anti-Islamic work of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev is part of [the] official policies of Baku,” opined scholars, clerics and students in a joint statement issued at a gathering in the Iranian city of Tabriz, which contains a large ethnic Azeri population.
Azerbaijan has just agreed to export gas to Iran and is also keen to talk business with its neighbor, but Baku and Tehran find it increasingly hard to hide their differences behind a neighborly veneer. Azerbaijan’s efforts to restrain Islam by allowing an informal ban on Muslim headdresses in public schools and restraining the publication of certain Islamic literature, have long had Iran’s spiritual leaders hot under their collars. Influential Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi recently even came close to threatening jihad on the Azerbaijani authorities.
“The day will come when they [the people of Azerbaijan]…will drag you down from your seats,” he said. “Learn the lessons from the events in the region,” Ayatollah said in reference to the Arab uprisings, which he apparently sees as signs of an Islamic revival. In an earlier fatwa, Shirazi said that he may declare a holy war on Azerbaijani officials if they continue closing down mosques.
And if Baku can make it there, it can make it anywhere . . . that's the tune Azerbaijani media are playing in an unabashed celebration of the country’s becoming a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council this week.
Azerbaijan’s debut on the council is “a victory for the Azerbaijani people,” declared Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov. But more than a symbolic victory, the membership placed Baku in a better position to shape the international debate about its long-running conflict with Armenia and separatists over breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh.
Ali Hasanov, a senior presidential administration official, indicated that Baku will use its new position to bring Nagorno-Karabakh-related issues to the UN floor. “Capitalizing on the [two]-year-long membership of the UN Security Council, Azerbaijan will demand restoring norms of international law,” he said, without elaboration, Regnum reported.
Mammadyarov said that Baku will seek support for such initiatives from the main international negotiators in the conflict -- the US, France and Russia, all permanent members of the Security Council.
Some Azerbaijani politicians could not help but gloat at sour faces in Armenia, Baku’s arch-rival in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. “Armenia is seriously upset,” asserted independent parliament member Rasim Musambekov.
It probably is, but the Armenians are trying not to show it. Yerevan did not make an official statement about Azerbaijan’s promotion, but one official claimed that the Security Council would not be swayed by Azerbaijan. The country’s membership, he reasoned, will only damage the council’s reputation.