Amidst ongoing attempts by Tehran to hobnob with its neighbors and defy international censure for its nuclear ambitions, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is bound for Baku next week for a November 18-20 summit of Caspian Sea littoral states.
While in the Azerbaijani capital, Ahmadinejad will spend his time again discussing with Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan ways to divvy up the disputed hydrocarbon-rich sea. The Iranian leader will also hold talks with his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev "and other senior officials, " the Iranian Student News Agency reported on November 9. It is unknown whether, apart from demarcation talks, Ahmadinejad will also try to push for closer economic ties with Baku -- an area that has sparked US concern.
Another proxy battle between Azerbaijanis and Armenians is playing out in the US as the Azerbaijani Diaspora community tries to put the kibosh on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) plans to air an Armenian-made documentary on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
In an October 20 letter to the network's management and ombudsman, two American-Azerbaijani groups charged that the film, "A Story of People in War and Peace" by Armenian journalist Vardan Hovhanisyan, offers a slanted take on the 1988-1994 Azerbaijani-Armenian war over Karabakh.
“[T]his documentary about the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict … would present a rather perverted interpretation of controversial history to the PBS viewer[s],” wrote the Azerbaijani-American Council and Azerbaijan Society of America.
The film tells the post-conflict story of Karabakh via the retrospective of Hovhanisyan’s own experiences as a war reporter and prisoner. The Azerbaijani Diaspora groups claim the film ignores the plight of ethnic Azeri victims of the conflict and is meant to sway public opinion in the US. “As PBS is a publically [sic] funded service based on taxpayer contributions, we appeal for your common sense to cancel the broadcast of this documentary,” the letter reads.
The tussle marks an increase in Azerbaijani attempts to match the political and PR efforts of well-oiled Armenian Diaspora lobbies in the US. In the past, Azerbaijani groups have pressured such US corporate heavyweights as Google and Microsoft on Karabakh-related issues.
Amidst a growing US push to lock Iran and its nuclear ambitions out of the international financial system, the White House sent a senior emissary to Azerbaijan to press the region’s major energy economy to give a cold shoulder to its southern neighbor.
The visit is part of an attempt to try and ostracize Iran within its own neighborhood. Levey requested Baku to help block Iran’s access to international financing. “We want to protect the global financial system from the dangers posed by Iran, to help maintain the high image of the financial sector in Azerbaijan and help increase investment,”
News.az reported Levey as saying.
Both Azerbaijan and Turkey have strong trade and energy ties with the country, which, it is feared, could mean a more tolerant attitude on sanctions. Azerbaijan has further ties to Tehran through the large ethnic Azeri population that makes up roughly a quarter of Iran's population.
Baku has not yet publicly responded to the American request.
Armenia, the military and political guardian of the breakaway enclave of Nagorno Karabakh, is debating an idea to user its protégé into independent statehood. The Heritage Party-sponsored bill on recognition of the de facto state as an independent country arrived on the National Assembly floor on October 5, much to the chagrin of neighboring Azerbaijan, which claims authority over the ethnic Armenian-dominated territory.
Wary of international reaction, Armenian lawmakers are thought likely to kill the bill. Deputy Foreign Minister Shavarsh Kocharian asked lawmakers to take things in stride, saying that any precipitous move on Karabakh would harm peace talks and the eventual international recognition of the enclave. “Recognition [by Armenia] may be considered only in the context of its ultimate expediency so the general process [of international recognition] benefits from it,” said Kocharian.
The Prosperous Armenia Party, part of Armenia's ruling coalition, shared this view. “This would pit Armenia against the world centers of power,” said Prosperous Armenia MP Aram Safarian adding that his party would vote against the bill. The dominant Republican Party also sounded unenthusiastic and even the authors of the bill, the Heritage Party, hinted that they realize that their initiative has little more than ceremonial value.
The White House’s embattled nominee for ambassador to Azerbaijan, Matthew Bryza, has stumbled into another hurdle in his odyssey from Washington, DC to Baku. Despite a 17-2 vote in his favor from the US Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, two Democrats on the Committee -- Barbara Boxer of California (most Armenian US state) and Robert Menendez of New Jersey -- have placed a hold on his nomination going before the full Senate for a vote. Bryza may garner enough senatorial support to defeat the hold with a cloture, but this means that the final denouement to the ongoing send-an-ambassador-to-Azerbaijan saga has been postponed.
In the previous episodes: Capitol Hill became the stage for an Armenian-Azerbaijani tug-of-war over the nomination. The Armenian-American lobby unleashed its full rage against Bryza, whom Armenians believe demonstrated a pro-Azerbaijani bias during his term as the Bush administration’s point man in the Caucasus. Azerbaijanis, meanwhile, caught in a Montagues-versus-Capulets-style feud with Armenia, have been angered by Washington failing to send an ambassador to their country for more than a year now.
Stay tuned for more exciting episodes in the weeks to come.
Strange the difference a few years can make. Under President George W. Bush, Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili often appeared the favored son of the Caucasus on his visits to the US. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, meanwhile, had to wait three years after his 2003 election to secure Oval Office time.
Several days earlier, Armenia and Azerbaijan's neighbor, Georgia, secured UN support for a similar resolution that called for the return of ethnic Georgians expelled by separatists from the disputed Abkhaz and South Ossetian territories.
Baku said it decided to postpone discussion of the resolution in response to the trio's intention to field an international fact-finding mission to the territory, now occupied by Armenian troops. Armenia, in turn, responded that the Azerbaijani explanation holds no water since the mission was agreed months ago.
The US, French and Russian chairpersons of the Minsk Group, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe body tasked with mediating the talks, will lead the expedition to inspect the humanitarian situation in areas that border Karabakh.
Last year, the South Caucasus's self-styled sheriff, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, came to town (in Sochi) with a message for the region's gun-slinging hombres: Russian bases in breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia are a “signal to those, who get the itching and who have idiotic ideas visit their head every once in a while.”
The message may have been meant for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, but Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev might also take note. Medvedev is expected to sign in Yerevan this month an agreement on keeping Russian troops in Armenia for half a century, and maybe more, to “protect” Armenia. And, of course, it is Azerbaijan that Armenia sees as enemy number one.
Yerevan sees the Russian guard as the main deterrent against Azerbaijan’s potential attempt to reclaim the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region by force. But the news of Russia’s plans left an unpleasant aftertaste behind for many Americans. Some see it as a threat to Armenia's independence.
Similar opinions also reportedly exist beneath the surface within breakaway Abkhazia, where Russian protection is sometimes seen as both vital and overbearing.
Armenian National Security Secretary Artur Bagdasarian was quick to assert that the move is not going to limit the nation’s ability of independent decision-making.
But critics say that in making decisions, Caucasians must stay mindful of the man with a gun.
The pending return of Washington’s Bush-era Caucasus man, Matthew Bryza, has touched off so much buzz in the region that one might as well turn his last name into a verb.
Following the 2008 Georgian-Russian war, critics both inside and outside the Caucasus charged that Tbilisi, emboldened by an easy bonhomie with the White House Caucasus envoy, ended up challenging Moscow. Now, Armenia is concerned that Baku may be "Bryza'd" as well.
With his appointment as US ambassador to Azerbaijan up for a vote in the US Senate's Foreign Relations Committee on July 22, Azerbaijan and Armenia have headed to Capitol Hill to lobby for and against, respectively, Bryza’s Caucasus homecoming.
The Armenians worry that Bryza, who co-chaired the US-France-Russia mediatory group on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, puts territorial integrity above a nation’s right to self-determination; two conflicting directions that shape the Karabakh peace talks.
Describing Bryza as biased against Armenia and overly positive about Baku, an influential Armenian Diaspora group in the US called for a careful review of the diplomat's credentials. Armenian lobby groups, in particulary, believe that the man got a little too chummy with Turkish and Azerbaijani officials while pushing for US-backed energy projects in the region. For this camp, the fact that Bryza’s wife is an ethnic Turk also does not help matters.
Members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) face a delicate task late next month when they meet in Yerevan for one of their regular pow-wows -- how to explain why the CSTO declined to send forces to member-state Kyrgyzstan in June to quell ethnic bloodshed.
The refusal sparked accusations that the organization, intended as an FSU version of NATO, is useless.
Speaking at a July 21 press-conference in Yerevan, the CSTO's Russian secretary-general, Nikolai Bordyuzha, had a ready response to that one: “We have all deemed it inexpedient to invade another state as it would only aggravate tensions,” Bordyuzha explained.
Such considerations, however, did not stop Russia from invading non-CSTO member Georgia in 2008.
But not only Georgia will be keeping a cautious eye on the CSTO shindig to its south.