Amid nail-biting by Caucasus watchers, the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan landed in the Russian city of Kazan today for another round of conflict-resolution talks over breakaway Nagorno Karabakh. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev is emceeing this fifth joint appearance by Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev. Hopes are that, this time, it could be the real thing.
The cautious optimism from some diplomats and analysts that accompanied previous Sargsyan-Aliyev meetings has been upgraded to cautious-optimism-plus. Alongside dire warnings about what could be the outcome if the talks, once again, go awry. The key expectation for the two-day summit is that it will produce some sort of agreement in three key areas: the return of Karabkh-adjacent lands to Azerbaijan, allowing Azerbaijani Internally Displaced Persons back into Karabakh and a loose agreement to negotiate the region’s status in the future.
Citing an unnamed Russian foreign ministry official, Kommersant, Russia’s weighty daily, claimed today that the two leaders could even be close to committing to a non-use-of-force agreement as part of the efforts to resolve the Karabakh conflict . Azerbaijan has long maintained that it will keep the military solution on the table as an option to restore its authority over Karabakh and surrounding territories. Given its heavy troop presence in the area, Armenia is likely to respond in kind.
With Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's much-anticipated Kazan pow-wow with Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan just days away, one senior Azerbaijani politician has a message he's eager to share with you: Might makes right.
And let's not forget economic muscle. Armenia can invest all it wants in its economy, Gurbanli claimed, but it will never compare with hydrocarbon-rich Azerbaijan. Why? As News.az paraphrased it: "The reason is the dynamic development of Azerbaijan and the economic strength of our country."
The timing of Gurbanli's observations is not accidental. The Army Day display comes a day after the Kazan summit, an event at which Azerbaijan, conceivably, intends to parade its diplomatic might as well. Some analysts have gone into orbit over expectations for the summit, characterized as everything from a last chance for Karabakh peacemaking to a chance for a mega-breakthrough.
But in this macho match, Armenia has its own words of warning. Last week, the deputy commander of Armenia's air force announced that Armenia has manufactured its own "quite serious unmanned aerial vehicles" that will let it, "like developed NATO countries," make "targeted strikes on any enemy target, economic facility and the like."
While Georgia is busy removing Stalin monuments and scrubbing Soviet memorabilia off streets and minds, neighboring Azerbaijan prefer to keep its urban décor policies more focused on current events. Azerbaijani news outlets reported on June 8 that a monument to ex-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has been demolished in the town of Khirdalan, 25 kilometers north of Baku.
In late January, weeks before street protests toppled Mubarak, Azerbaijani officials resisted calls to scrap the statue. But now, with Mubarak gone, Baku wants to keep the good vibrations going with his successor government.
Photos posted on News.az suggested that Mubarak will be replaced by a more ancient Egyptian figure. Perhaps Tutankhamun?
So far, the late Azerbaijani President Heydar Alyev is expected to retain his own pedestal in Khirdalan's Egyptian sister city of El-Kalubia.
May 9 is a post-Soviet family holiday. And, with that in mind, Russian President Dmitri ("Dima") Medvedev did not forget today to send out greeting cards to the heads of state of all of Russia’s World-War-II-era cousins (minus the black sheep, Georgia) to congratulate them on the 66th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany.
He also had a few words of advice.
“Our duty is to prevent any attempts to rewrite history and foster in the young generation the sense of patriotism and pride for our common history,” Medvedev wrote to Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, who was commended for resisting attempts to “reassess the outcome of World War II.”
Azerbaijan indeed celebrated May 9 in a traditional way. But its neighbor and sworn enemy Armenia chose to focus on Armenian soldiers' and Karabakhi separatists' May 8-9, 1991 seizure of the town of Shusha from Azerbaijan in the war over the disputed region of Nagorno Karabakh.
Matters went much further afield in Georgia. Just as Medvedev feared, many Georgians are busy reconsidering the May 9 observance.
Staying true to his vow to never-ever-speak-to-Saakashvili-again, the Russian leader passed on his good wishes to the Georgian people, but not to their president. Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze's response was succinct: “There are many ways to be a clown," he observed.
While the killing of Osama bin Laden echoed around the world, the official responses so far from Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia are congratulatory, reserved and silent, respectively.
Congratulations predictably came from Georgia, always the region's head cheerleader for Team America. Tbilisi, which contributes troops to the US-led campaign in Afghanistan and is a diehard Washington ally, called the news a shared success for everyone involved in the fight against terrorism. “[W]e believe that terrorism is the biggest problem faced by the world,” Deputy Foreign Minister Nino Kalandadze stressed. “We hope this success will lead to other successes by the anti-terrorism movement.”
Azerbaijan and Armenia, which, unlike Georgia, try to maintain balance in their diplomatic friendships, were less vocal.
Azerbaijan, where newly arrived US Ambassador Matthew Bryza is busy massaging Washington-Baku ties, focused on the potential security problems to come. As Washington advised its diplomats and citizens to stay alert for possible retaliatory attacks from terrorist groups, Azerbaijani Interior Ministry spokesperson Orkhan Mansurzade underlined that the American and other Western embassies are carefully guarded in Baku. “The areas where these embassies… are located remain in the center of our attention,” Mansurzade said. “Security measures are being taken at a very high level.”
Two Caucasus neighbors, Georgia and Azerbaijan, once spoke Russian as a second language. Now, Georgia is busy recruiting English teachers to become an English-speaking nation, while neighboring Azerbaijan seems to be banking on Chinese as the next hip language to speak.
A chapter of the Confucius Institute, a government-funded sinology network, opened at Baku State University on April 22. China’s Anhui University will supply textbooks and other teaching materials through the institute to help popularize the Chinese language and culture among presumably eager Azerbaijanis.
Sometimes described as similar to Germany’s Goethe-Institut or France’s Alliance Française, the Confucius Institute has faced criticism for allegedly being a propaganda vehicle for the Chinese government. Some scholars claim that Beijing uses the institute and household name of the philosopher Confucius as tools to promote its cultural and economic reach to a number of countries, now including Azerbaijan.
Now, how many times has this happened to you? You've arranged for a romantic vacation in the oil-rich country of Azerbaijan. You're thinking handmade rugs, fire temples, bathing in oil (literally), but then it turns out that getting a visa is a bit of a pain in the neck.
Azerbaijan’s decision last year to stop issuing visitor visas at the airport has complicated matters for all travelers other than visitors from the country's onetime Soviet peers. At the time, the decision, coming on the eve of parliamentary elections, was seen by many as an attempt to restrict Western visitors' access to the tightly managed Caucasus country.
But Baku, which announced that 2011 would be the year of tourism, now needs to fling Azerbaijan's doors wide open. Or wider open, at least.
So, it plans to take its visa application process online.
According to a new draft bill, tour agencies can submit visa applications electronically to Azerbaijani consulates, which will email back the visas, to be presented with passports at border control points.
No doubt buoyed by the Azerbaijani government's newfound digital enthusiasm, Culture and Tourism Minister Abulfaz Garayev has predicted that Azerbaijan will see some 3.5 million tourists per year over the next five years.
Fasten your seat belts, put your seat backs in a full, upright position and please mind the Azerbaijani guns pointed at us. Soon we'll be landing in the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh.
Azerbaijan’s aviation authorities warned on March 16 that flights from Yerevan to Karabakh’s newly refurbished airport, expected to start in May, are not authorized and may be shot down. “[T]he airspace over Karabakh is closed,” said Arif Mammadov, director of Azerbaijan’s Civil Aviation Administration. “According to the law on aviation, airplanes landing in that territory may be destroyed."
Some regional commentators think that Baku’s warning may be little more than a bugaboo meant to disrupt Karabakh's connections with the outside world. But that is still not too comforting for those of us with a fear of flying.
Azerbaijan's ambassador to Georgia, Namik Aliyev, offered a little public service announcement the other day. It went something like this:
"People of Georgia be warned! THEY are here! They are snapping up lands and property on your coast, they are singing and dancing in your beachfront bars and restaurants. But one day soon, they will organize themselves into a force, wipe out other ethnic groups, claim your country as their historic homeland, and set up an empire that will stretch from sea to sea (the Black and Caspian Seas, to be specific)."
In Ambassador Aliyev's telling, these are, of course, the Armenians.
Georgia may respond with an awkward laugh to such wild prophecies, and try to change the subject, but Azerbaijan is, in fact, pressing the Caucasus’ hottest button.
All three Caucasus countries tend to long for those episodes in their histories, however brief they may have been, when they dominated their surrounding area. While a frequent subject of jokes within Georgia, any mention of a "Great Armenia" can spark no-holds-barred debates between Georgians and Armenians over which majority-Christian nation has the right to what land. And a history debate can go a long way in the Caucasus.
The Azerbaijanis know that. Which begs the question . . . why try to set one off now?
In the nationalist Caucasus, many people often view the term "peace activist" as a synonym for "traitor." But, in the case of Armenian theater actor/director Georgi Vanyan, promoting peace is all about promoting ordinary well-being. Vanyan plans to set up a peace village in Georgia, where the Caucasus’ most implacable foes -- Armenians and Azerbaijanis -- can interact free of government restrictions.
The free communication zone would be established in the Georgian village of Tekalo, located not far from the Armenian and Azerbaijani borders. Vanyan, who has also tried to stage Azerbaijani film festivals in Yerevan, hopes that the site would become the venue for all confidence-building projects involving the two countries, Global Voices South Caucasus Editor Onnik Krikorian reports. The project proposes capitalizing on the precedent of peaceful coexistence between ethnic Azeris and Armenians in Georgia.