Now that the US debt ceiling drama has ended, can Washington start mulling the truly pressing economic question; i.e. how much money to dish out in aid to the Caucasus' legendary foes, Armenia and Azerbaijan?
Colossal foreign debt may be encouraging congressional parsimony, but one big Armenian Diaspora lobbyist, the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), still hopes to cut as large a slice as possible for Armenia from a trimmed-down 2012 foreign aid package. The ANCA recently called on Armenian-Americans to lobby for approval of $60 million in economic aid instead of the recently approved $40 million and for “at least” $10 million in military assistance.
Rival Azerbaijan should get nada in economic aid, the organization argued, because, first off, it is rich anyway, spoilt by hydrocarbon wealth, and, secondly, because it (allegedly) threatens Armenia and the Armenia-dependent breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Azerbaijan, for its part, does not often display the Diaspora lobbying muscle which its rival enjoys (Azerbaijan's strategic location and energy resources tend to be active lobbyists by themselves), but it has praised a congressional panel for not including Nagorno Karabakh among the recipients of American foreign aid for the prospective 2012 foreign aid bill.
Iran and Turkey’s competing requests for visa-free access to Azerbaijan increasingly smack of a scene from a romance novel, where a beauty in period dress faces a choice between two debonaire wooers.
Enchanted by Azerbaijan's various strategic charms, both suitors have cancelled short-term visas for Azerbaijani visitors, but Azerbaijan is taking its time to reciprocate, trying to mete out its graces sparingly and equitably to the two fellow Muslim countries.
Baku, though, is increasingly pressured by both sides to make a decision between its attraction for longtime ally and cultural soul mate Turkey and its complicated relationship with Iran.
Azerbaijan even had to offer explanations today after the Turkish daily Today’s Zaman, citing senior Azerbaijani presidential aide Ali Hasanov, reported that pressure from Iran is preventing Baku from proceeding with a visa-cancellation deal with Ankara.
The story claimed that Iran threatened to block Azerbaijan’s access to its exclave of Nakhchivan should Baku cancel its visa requirement for Turkey.
Hasanov, though, protested that “I only meant to say that canceling the visa regime with Turkey can only happen in sync with canceling the visa regime with Iran,” 1news.az reported.
“At this stage, the simultaneous cancellation of visa regimes with either country brings us to issues related to national security, immigration and other issues that we are not ready to deal with right now,” he elaborated.
Sound familiar? Quite plainly, Baku is just not ready to commit.
Azerbaijan has impounded mine removal equipment for Afghanistan supplied by the international mine clearance organization The HALO Trust. Baku has long had a spat with the UK-based charity for conducting mine clearance operations in the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh without its imprimatur.
Azerbaijan, which provides a corridor for about a quarter of NATO's supplies for Afghanistan, has indicated in the past that its cooperation with the alliance is contingent on respect of its national interests. In Baku's eyes, The Halo Trust does not meet that requirement.
“[T]his organization should have ceased its work in the occupied territories [Nagorno-Karabakh] and should have offered apologies to Baku,” Nazim Ismailov, director of Azerbaijan’s National Agency for Mine Actions, said on July 8, APA news agency reported. “But they have not done it.” Azerbaijan has dispatched the equipment to neighboring Georgia instead of to Afghanistan, he added.
The Halo Trust began work in Nagorno Karabakh right after Baku's bitter and protracted war over the region with Karabakh separatists and Armenia ended in 1994. The organization says that mines and unexploded ordinance are a persistent problem in the territory and that it could take up to five years of intense work to clear the area entirely.
Committed to bringing the territory back under its fold, Baku tries to make sure that all ties between Nagorno-Karabakh and the outside world go through Azerbaijan.
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.