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.
A rapid arms buildup, botched peace talks and a pick-up in fatal frontline clashes. If this sounds to you like a recipe for potential disaster in the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh, chances are the Brussels-based International Crisis Group would say you're right.
In a February 8 report on the dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the territory, the ICG warned that there is an "urgent" need to prevent the chance of a renewed, full-scale war over Karabakh.
While the report finds that neither Baku nor Yerevan "is planning an all-out offensive in the near-term," it underlines that the current situation "could easily spin out of control."
The ICG puts a large part of the emphasis for change on existing international negotiation mechanisms. After nearly 19 years of talks and no real breakthrough in sight, some might question the practicality of that suggestion, but a lack of viable alternative options makes criticism difficult.
(Editor's Note: The ICG receives funding from the Open Society Institute. EurasiaNet.org is financed through OSI's Central Eurasia Project.)
To some Azerbaijanis (and many Georgians), the news might be equivalent to saying that the Eagle has landed. On February 6, Matthew Bryza, Washington's first ambassador to Azerbaijan since 2009, finally arrived in Baku, after a drawn-out congressional campaign to block his appointment that soured ties between Azerbaijan and the US.
Speaking to reporters in the airport, the beaming Bryza, who enjoys near-celebrity status in much of the South Caucasus, simply expressed pleasure at the "honor" of being named ambassador and presenting "my credentials to President Aliyev."
But while the battle against Bryza's ambassadorial post may be lost, his opponents insist that the war has just begun. The Washington Times' Embassy Row reported on February 6 that the Armenian National Committee of Armenia is gearing up for a fresh anti-Bryza campaign. The lobby group claims that the longtime US diplomat's allegedly close ties to Azerbaijani officials should disqualify him from the post.
Barring a Senate confirmation, Bryza's appointment is only good for a year.
"We look to senators to stand up for US interests, American values and our nation's diplomacy credibility by doing everything in their power to prevent the confirmation of this candidate," declared ANCA Executive Director Aram Hamparian.
“The relevant agencies of our country…maintain control of the developing situation on the ground,” Babayev was quoted on January 31 by APA news agency as saying.
The Americans and the British, and basically anyone with the clear look of a Western foreigner, are advised to exercise vigilance in expat hangouts, “maintain an unpredictable daily schedule” and vary their daily travel routes.
In other words, all Western oil men in Baku should try a different pub.
Armenia's WikiLeak sensation came in the form of allegations about arms transfers to Iran. Azerbaijan took a knock on relations with Iran, Turkey and Russia. Never one to be left behind, Georgia has also jumped on the WikiLeaks bandwagon with alleged US embassy cables that blame the 2008 war with Russia on breakaway South Ossetia.
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.