When you think caviar, you don’t necessarily think of breakaway Nagorno Karabakh, a remote South-Caucasus region over which Azerbaijan has been warring with separatists and Armenia for years. But that is about to change. Karabakh claims it has just entered into the caviar industry and, potentially, in a big way.
The region’s de-facto prime minister, Ara Arutiunian, believes that Karabakh is destined to become a global player in the caviar industry by dint of a new fishery business in the village of Magatis set up in part by Armenian Diaspora investments, Armenian and Russian news sites reported, citing a Karabakhi media outlet. The first batch of black caviar is expected to be produced as early as this December.
Aqua-farming may seem a peculiar economic-development choice for the landlocked region, but Arutiunian insists production levels will hit 30 tons annually in seven years — a level that appears to be a drop in the bucket compared with Azerbaijan or Russia, both caviar-majors.
How exactly Karabakh ("black garden" in Turkish and Persian) would get its caviar to outside markets is a larger question. The only way out of the region for ordinary vehicles is via Armenia, the region’s protector, but Armenia has just joined the Eurasian Economic Union, a Moscow-led trade club that, in theory, would require it to set up a customs post with Karabakh, as the internationally recognized property of Azerbaijan.
That little detail, though, was brushed to one side during Armenia’s October 10 signing of the Union treaty. To hear officials (de-jure or de-facto) in Armenia and Karabakh tell it, no customs post will be built.
There still might be room for a substantial partnership between the European Union and Armenia, says Brussels, but it will depend on how exclusive the Caucasus country’s relationship is going to be with the Eurasian Union, Russia’s planned alternative trade bloc.
But, ever the jealous lover, Russia wants exclusivity. If Armenia cold-shoulders the bloc, that could mean a Ukrainian-like upheaval, a Russian envoy warned this week.
In the year since it spurned the first EU's advances for those of the second EU, Armenia, putting its chess prowess into practice, has tried to keep its options still open. But things are getting confusing.
“For [a] broad and new definition or redefinition of our relations, we need to have a complete overview and idea from the Armenian side as to what they can do in the new circumstance created by Armenia’s membership in the Customs Union,” Peter Stano, spokesperson for the EU Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle, told RFE/RL on September 24.
Armenia itself would like to know these details. It is not yet a member of the Customs Union, the core of the planned Eurasian Union. The specifics of Armenia’s likely terms of engagement with the bloc remain unclear and a subject of dispute among the current Customs-Union members, Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus.
Armenia also has some hesitation. For one, about what the Customs-Union deal will mean for ethnic Armenian, breakaway Nagorno Karabakh, which depends on Armenia to keep it de-facto apart from Azerbaijan. There is also a dose of homegrown backlash among pro-Western circles against Armenia alienating the European Union.
But Moscow does not want to be dumped. Particularly, not again.
The renewed ruckus between Armenia and Azerbaijan has prompted calls for rehashing the international approach to finding a peaceful resolution to the 26-year-long Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. But, so far, it appears to be only Russian President Vladimir Putin who's planning to meet with the two countries' leaders.
The reasons for reviving the half-dormant ex-Soviet conflict remain moot. For years now, gusts of fighting have occasionally disrupted the 1994 ceasefire agreement, which ended a full-blown war over breakaway Karabakh. To quote Armenian Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian, Karabakh ever since has been a place of “no war, no peace.”
But with a record number dead in recent weeks, a real threat of another ex-Soviet war is in the air.
With reports of casualties coming in daily, Azerbaijani military officials have claimed that volunteers have been stepping forward to help national forces with the “liberation of the occupied lands.”
In Armenia, Defense Minister Ohanian said on August 5 that, so far, there is no need for mobilization or the deployment of an international peacekeeping force. “Karabakh is the only conflict zone in the world where relative peace is maintained through a balance between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces,” Ohanian declared at an August-6 press-conference.
Armenia’s planned participation in this second Union has experienced repeated delays; according to some observers, because of the lack of consensus among the bloc’s members (Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia) about Yerevan’s political and economic requests.
The official line is that this merger still will happen. Nonetheless, Armenia clearly doesn’t want to miss out on all the easier access to Paris, Rome and beyond that three more EU-enthusiastic members of the Eastern Partnership Program are having (Moldova) or soon could be having (Georgia, Ukraine) .
The EU’s thoughts about Nalbandian’s petition do not appear to have been released yet. To enhance Yerevan’s chances on this front, the foreign minister also spoke about the possibility for stronger ties with Brussels and stressed the EU’s role in Armenia’s democratization reforms.
Taking its Eurasian-Union dreams into the Western Hemisphere, Armenia has offered itself to Argentina as a conduit for trade with the Russia-led economic club, even though Yerevan is still knocking on the Union’s door for entry.
At a July 7 lunch-reception in Buenos Aires, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan raised a glass to the Argentine city, “the world capital of tango, [a city] filled with the melody and spirit of that dance,” and thanked Argentina, home to one of the world’s largest Armenian Diasporas, for supporting the pan-Armenian cause of international recognition of Ottoman Turkey’s World-War-I-era massacre of ethnic Armenians as genocide. A day later, he attended the opening of an Armenian Genocide Museum in Buenos Aires.
Sargsyan, though, had more than 1915 and tangos on his mind. In a pointed nod to Argentina’s status as Armenia’s fifth-largest foreign direct investor, Armenia encouraged this “football superpower” to pass some trade via Armenia into the Eurasian-Union-market of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Argentina’s official response could not be found.
But President Sargsyan could be getting ahead of himself here. Armenia’s own entrance into the Eurasian Union has been repeatedly delayed, with the latest prospective join-date now “by the end of the year,” according to Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian.
The April 19 arrest of prominent Azerbaijani newspaper correspondent and political analyst Rauf Mirkadirov could put an end to efforts by Azerbaijani and Armenian civil society activists and journalists to maintain some form of contact, and bury their so-called “citizen diplomacy.”
The Azerbaijani government has never welcomed such exchanges, but previously never seriously harassed those few Azerbaijanis who took part in them, either. But the espionage charge against Mirkadirov, who had traveled occasionally to Yerevan for conferences, could strongly discourage their continuing. The charge carries a potential life prison sentence.
Rauf Mirkadirov, 53, had worked as the Ankara correspondent of the Baku-based Russian-language Zerkalo (Mirror) daily for the last three years. His articles and op-eds were often critical of both the Azerbaijani authorities and the Turkish government. He was detained on April 19 and deported to Azerbaijan after his press accreditation was suddenly canceled. In Baku, he was arrested upon arrival.
The fact that Mirkadirov was deported just a few days after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Baku made many in Azerbaijan, including Mirkadirov’s lawyer, Fuad Agayev, believe that the journalist’s arrest is the result of an agreement between Ankara and Baku.
Mirkadirov’s family – his wife and daughter – has also left Turkey and is now in another country.
Azerbaijani prosecutors state that Mirkadirov is suspected of having transferred to Armenian intelligence between 2008 and 2009 classified information about Azerbaijan’s political and military sectors, “including photos and schemes to be used against Azerbaijan.” They claim that these supposed meetings occurred in Armenia, Georgia and Turkey.
Mirkadirov’s attorney, Agayev, stresses that his client did not have access to classified information and that, therefore, these charges are groundless.
Azerbaijan has arrested and charged prominent newspaper correspondent Rauf Mirkadirov, a political analyst critical of its policies, with alleged espionage for Armenia.
On April 19, Turkish police yanked Mirkadirov, an Ankara-based journalist for Azerbaijan's Russian-language Zerkalo (Mirror) daily, off a bus as he was preparing to return to Azerbaijan via neighbouring Georgia. Mirkadirov's press accreditation earlier had been canceled.*
Zerkalo wrote that it had initially assumed that a "misunderstanding" or "technical" reasons had caused the accreditation-snag; issues which, "with fraternal Turkey," would soon be sorted out, it said.
That notion soon went out the window.
Word of Mirkadirov's deportation from Turkey became public this weekend, but Azerbaijan's interior ministry and border-control officials initially denied any knowledge about his deportation, Zerkalo reported.
On April 21, the prosecutor's office stated briefly that he had been charged with treason; specifically, with espionage, under аrticle 274 of Azerbaijan's criminal code.
Elaborating at a briefing later that day, Mirkadirov's lawyer, Fuad Agayev, told reporters that prosecutors claim Mirkadirov, who has visited Yerevan in the past for various conferences, allegedly passed on information describing Azerbaijan's military situation and "strategic objects" to Armenian agents.
Armenian journalist Laura Bagdasarian, who ran a joint online publication with Azerbaijani human rights activist Leyla Yunus, also was mentioned in the charges, Agayev said.
After first trying to look the other way when Russia mugged Ukraine, Azerbaijan now has joined the international show of hands against the conquest of Crimea.
Aside from hitting its yes button in the United Nations on March 27 to declare Crimea's referendum on joining Russia invalid, Azerbaijan’s embassy in Kyiv issued a statement supporting the inviolability of Ukraine's borders. “Azerbaijan condemns extremism, radicalism and separatism in its every manifestation and once again confirms its adherence to the principles of sovereignty, independence and support of the territorial integrity of Ukraine,” the embassy said.
Until this point, Baku has treaded the ground carefully on Crimea. Moscow, along with the US and France, is one of three mediators for the critical Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.
But within Armenia, many believe that Yerevan, under Russia’s thumb for both energy and homeland security, was just doing Moscow’s bidding. Earlier on, President Serzh Sargsyan pretty much congratulated Russia’s Putin on a happy annexation, according to an official release. These moves prompted a diplomatic slap from Kyiv, though Ukraine has refrained from severing ties with Armenia.
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.