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.
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.