Armenia’s second-largest city of Gyumri is becoming a Potemkin -- or rather a Putin -- Village for a two-day visit this December by Russian President Vladimir Putin. In the best Soviet tradition, when the South Caucasus would tidy up and put on a show for a Communist big wig visiting from Moscow, Gyumri is having a long-overdue face-lift to look good for Putin, who himself is said to have a soft spot for facials.
Potholed roads are being fixed, facades are being painted, garbage is being carted away on a scale that Gyumri residents have not seen since communism. “If Putin comes to town twice a year, Gyumri will become a great city,” joked municipal council member Levon Barsegian in comments to the Tert.am news service. “It is shameful that it takes a visit of a head of foreign state to renovate the city,” he added.
Gyumri Mayor Samvel Balasanian said he is not even sure what Putin’s itinerary is going to be during the December 2-3 visit. Some expect the Kremlin boss to skip the capital Yerevan and head straight to Gyumri's Russian military base, a major strategic foothold for Russia in the Caucasus.
The city will also be hosting an Armenian-Russian economic forum and its venue, a local drama theatre, is covered in scaffolding after 10 years of neglect. The forum is now more important than ever after Yerevan opted this September to go with the Russian-led Customs Union, a decision that put the kibosh on accelerated integration with the European Union.
Armenia and Kazakhstan do not have much in common other than their Soviet Union past and Eurasian-Union future. So, if Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev accepts a recent invite to visit Armenia, the two countries are likely to talk about their new, Moscow-led customs club.
Granted, when Armenia’s new ambassador to Kazakhstan, Ara Saakian, conveyed Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan’s invitation, he put it in terms of relying on Kazakhstan, as a member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), to take a balanced position in the OSCE-led attempts to resolve the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Yet Kazakhstan, like anyone else in the post-Soviet world, is unlikely to take any dramatic step on the dispute, lest it angers one of its across-the-Caspian Sea neighbors. Nazarbayev’s visit, therefore, is not expected to mark any changes in the Karabakh status quo.
But what needs some discussion is the membership rules in the Eurasian Union that Moscow hopes will be a new and better USSR. Nazarbayev has long been a Eurasian Union enthusiast and is pushing for his views about formation of a supranational body to govern the alliance. The current bureaucracy of the Eurasian Union is led by Russian officials, which some Kazakh experts believe shows who will be calling the shots in the Union.
Could Azerbaijan be facing encroachments on its territorial integrity by Italian fashion brands? Armenian and Karabakhi media have it that Versace, Armani, Prada and Moschino are considering setting up production lines in breakaway Nagorno Karabakh, a patch of territory that Azerbaijan claims as its own design.
According to the reports, a coterie of Italian businesspeople are visiting Karabakh this week to check out the potential for producing clothes in a decrepit, former textile factory, Gharmetakskombinat. The separatist authorities hope that the abandoned factory could soon start producing Versace outfits, among others, and have joked that perhaps Baku would care to set up a special black list for "prominent international brands and companies."
While this story may sound like something out of The Onion, officials in Baku took it seriously. Azerbaijan, which is trying to isolate Karabakh as part of its policy to regain control of the predominantly ethnic Armenian territory, tasked its embassy in Italy to look into the reports. One nationalist NGO called for a boycott of Versace clothes -- an action that, conceivably, might have put Azerbaijan's reigning fashionista, First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, in a potentially delicate situation.
Soon enough, though, Azerbaijani media distributed alleged comments from Versace that the company has no plans to extend production to the disputed region.
Some Armenian officials would have you believe that Yerevan's surprise decision to join the Russia-led Customs Union all came down to economic moxie. And, in a way, perhaps it did. But in gaseous form.
Armenian Energy and Natural Resources Minister Armen Movsisian told parliament on September 11 that the question of how to grapple with the higher prices Russia's state-owned Gazprom is now charging for natural gas would be decided within the framework of the Customs Union.
"The decision already has been found, and soon [everything] will be resolved," Movsisian said, expressing his support for the trade deal, Lragir.am reported.
Announced this summer, the 18-percent price hike by Gazprom, Armenia's chief provider of natural gas, had fueled not only further worries for the country's hard-pressed economy, but, also, predictions of widespread opposition to the government.
President Serzh Sargsyan had made no mention of gas when announcing on September 3 the plan to form a trade pact with Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus -- an unexpected decision that has ruined (at least for now) Armenia's chances of an Association Agreement with the European Union.
Officials since have scrambled to make it seem that the Customs Union was the only choice going.
Anna Chapman, the Russian-spy-turned-sex-icon, has been sighted in breakaway Nagorno Karabakh, causing a bit of furor in the region.
Chapman, who since her scandalous arrest and deportation from the US in 2010 became a reporter with Russia's REN-TV news channel, arrived in Karabakh on August 26 with a gaggle of Russian journalists to discuss separatist officials' take on the chances for resolving their Armenia-backed conflict with Baku over the territory. She is also reportedly there to work on her TV show series “Mysteries of the World.”
It is unclear what a Russian femme fatale can do to enlighten the world about the decades-long dispute, but now Azerbaijan is likely to become another country where she won’t be welcome anymore.
Azerbaijan, which routinely blacklists those who visit Karabakh without its permission, is unhappy to see any celebrity visitors there, including celebrity spies. Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry said that Chapman and other Russian journalists, who visited Karabakh and met with separatist officials, will be regarded as personae-non-gratae, a status to which Chapman must be growing accustomed by now.
With elections around the corner, incumbent Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s candidacy has gotten a surprise endorsement from the enemy's leader, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan.
Aliyev may have spent the better part of his two terms as Azerbaijan's president making public threats toward Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh, but his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sargsyan, still thinks that it is "perhaps best" to see Aliyev win a third term in October.
Better the devil you know than the devil you don't? Maybe so, yet, despite the endless fatal exchanges of sniper fire and threats between the two countries, the Armenian president’s words, uttered at a youth-group meeting, suggest that he does not expect Azerbaijan under Aliyev actually to go to war with Armenia to reclaim Karabakh.
The comment carries even further interest since Sargsyan himself is a native of Karabakh and once served as the separatist territory's chief of military operations against Azerbaijani forces.
But despite more than 20 years of talks with Baku with scant results, Sargsyan appears to believe that the two heads of state together have come a long way toward negotiating a settlement for the conflict.
“The road map to a solution has almost been drafted,” Sargsyan stressed, while conceding that the talks now are not "going actively."
If a deal is reached, and Aliyev "finds in himself the willpower to rise above his mania for Armenia-phobia," the 51-year-old Azerbaijani leader "would be the most acceptable and preferable option for us."
Armenia of late has gotten involved helping Diaspora Armenian communities caught in the crossfire of civil war in Syria. Now, some Armenian citizens want Yerevan to offer the same kind of help to their kin in another regional hot spot, Iraq.
The Yezidis, a Kurdish-speaking people who are Armenia’s largest minority, hope that Yerevan will raise the awareness of the plight of Iraq’s Yezidis around the world. Iraqi Yezidis now face violent attacks for selling alcohol. Iraqi laws only allow non-Muslims to sell alcoholic beverages and the country has witnessed a series of deadly militia attacks on liquor stores run by Christians and Yezidis.
Sasha Sultanian, head of Armenia's Yezidi National Committee, has announced that the group plans to ask the Armenian foreign affairs and Diaspora ministries to promote awareness of the Iraqi Yezidis' situation "in international organizations and [help] prevent the massacres," Armradio reported.
“Our brothers are being killed in Iraq,” Armenpress reported Sultanian as saying on August 14 “The governments of Kurdistan and Iraq aim to destroy the Yezidis living in Iraq and take over their lands."
Several hundred thousand Yezidis are estimated to live around the world; the largest number in Iraq. Their religion is a blend of Zoroastrian, Muslim, Christian and other religious traditions. The central figure in the faith is a peacock angel Malek Taus, who dispenses both blessings and misfortunes as he finds fit.
Armenia may be Moscow’s best bet for a sovereign friend south of the Caucasus mountains, but careful political maneuvering by Yerevan suggests that Armenia is committed to maintaining personal space in this relationship and to keeping its options open.
New Russian ballistic missiles were reportedly moved to the Gyumri base, the only remaining military outpost for Russia in the undisputed part of the South Caucasus. Armenia also lets the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) -- Russia’s response to NATO -- hold war games, move troops and set up training facilities on its territory. Plans are reportedly also underway to set up the CSTO’s joint air force headquarters in Armenia.
All of this prompts internal complaints that Armenia is becoming little more than a Russian garrison, with national security, economy and culture all tied to Moscow.
California’s Fresno County has become entangled in a conflict from another world.
Late last month, on the eve of the April 24 anniversary of the 1915 slaughter of ethnic Armenians in Ottoman Turkey, the county government felt the urge to weigh in on the decades-long dispute over the predominantly ethnic-Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh region and recognize Karabakh's independence from Azerbaijan. Soon enough, angry Azerbaijan, which has vowed to reclaim the territory, came knocking on the county’s door.
The Fresno Bee has the story:“The resolution [supporting Karabakh's independence], even if symbolic and from a seemingly irrelevant county government, undermines Azerbaijan’s sovereignty, wrote the nation’s officials in a recent letter to the county. The [county] supervisors’ support, they wrote, contradicts even the US government’s official position that Nagorno-Karabakh is rightfully part of Azerbaijan.”
But Fresno has snapped its fingers back at Azerbaijan, saying the energy power picked the wrong guy. “We will not be muscled by a well-funded lobbying effort by the Azerbaijanis," Supervisor Andreas Borgeas, who penned the Karabakh resolution, proudly commented to The Fresno Bee.
If the weather and Azerbaijan cooperate, we're repeatedly told, passenger planes will soon take off from the separatist airstrip of Nagorno-Karabakh. Any passengers, though, will probably be uneasily shifting in their seats with every shake or rattle, trying to figure out whether their plane has encountered turbulence or is dodging Azerbaijani missiles.
If it’s any reassurance for those prospective passengers, a top Russian general thinks that Azerbaijan is just kidding about its threats to knock down the planned flights from the breakaway territory. “It is either an unsuccessful articulation of thoughts or an unfortunate joke,” asserted Nikolai Bordyuzha, the secretary general of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Russia's response to NATO, while on a trip to Yerevan. “I don’t take this information seriously."
Committed to reclaiming Karabakh and the adjoining occupied territories, and returning tens of thousands of IDPs, Baku threatened to gun down any planes from the newly renovated airport outside the Karabakhi capital Stepanakert (known to Azerbaijanis as Khankendi), and said it has the full right to do so. Armenia threatened to respond in kind, and the Caucasus again got filled with the threat of war.
Cue Russia. Armenia is part of the CSTO, which vowed to protect, honor and cherish its members in good times and bad.
But the Azerbaijanis told Bordyuzha that they can match words with intentions, and again accused Moscow of siding with Armenia in the conflict over breakaway Karabakh. “Azerbaijan is not joking,” said Azerbaijani defense ministry spokesperson Eldar Sabiroglu, 1news.az reported.