Twenty years after the signing of a Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire agreement, Agdam remains a ghost town, its battle-scarred buildings steadily crumbling, its streets being relentlessly reclaimed by nature. But in an athletic quirk, a football club representing the town has been crowned the champion of Azerbaijan’s Premier League.
When the 2013-14 season concluded in mid-May, FC Karabakh Agdam stood atop the 10-team standings, five points ahead of the second-place finisher Inter Baku. It marked the second regular season championship for Agdam, the first since 1993, the year the town was overrun by Armenian forces during the hottest phase of the Karabakh war.
Agdam is still unable to play home games in its hometown; the area remains under the control of Armenian forces and is used as a buffer zone. Only a few hundred farmers inhabit the surrounding area. Peace talks that could potentially pave the way for the resettlement of Agdam remain stalemated, with no visible chance of a breakthrough in the foreseeable future.
As a team in exile, Agdam to a great extent has been embraced by the Azeri nation, and it now has a nationwide fan base. Currently, it plays most of its home games in the capital Baku at Tofiq Bahramov Stadium, the largest football venue in the country with a 31,000 capacity. The stadium hosts all international football matches, including World Cup qualifiers. On occasion, the club plays a home game at a 2,000-seat facility in Guzanli, a village situated not far from the town of Agdam.
That Agdam’s home field is in Baku makes a political point in Azerbaijan, underscoring the fact that President Ilham Aliyev’s administration has made the recovery of Karabakh, as well as the occupied Azeri lands surrounding the disputed territory, a top priority.
Russia’s defeat to a bearded Austrian transvestite at the annual Eurovision song contest earlier this month has prompted some soul searching among Russia’s horrified, homophobic leaders. Some lawmakers have even called for Russia to stop sending participants to the pop extravaganza.
Russians are sure to find a more wholesome competition at the communist-era Intervision song contest, the Eastern-bloc’s riposte to the decadent mores of Eurovision, which Russian organizers have promised to resurrect this fall. But with the Warsaw Pact rotting in the dustbin of history, organizers have invited Russia’s pals in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a club of Asian autocracies including most of the Central Asian states and China.
Intervision was held between 1977 and 1980 in Sopot, Poland. Soviet pop diva Alla Pugacheva won the competition in 1978. This year Russia's entry will be chosen at a competition for young talent in recently annexed Crimea on June 15, said one of the organizers, Russian singer and producer Igor Matvienko, earlier this week.
In comments carried by pop-culture portal dni.ru, Matvienko said Intervision would be held this October in Sochi with Russia competing alongside China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Other countries may include Japan, South Korea, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, Matvienko said.
Two prominent activists lobbying against Kazakhstan’s membership in the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) – due to be created next week – have been hauled in for interrogation by Kazakhstan’s domestic intelligence service over an alleged plot by Russian nationalists to destabilize the country.
Zhanbolat Mamay and Inga Imanbay were questioned for six hours by National Security Committee agents on May 21 as they were finalizing preparations to hold public hearings into Kazakhstan’s EEU membership.
The spooks questioned Mamay and Imanbay over their links to Russian far-right nationalist Aleksandr Potkin, who – according to unattributed material leaked to Kazakhstani media – went to Kazakhstan in 2012 and trained ethnic Kazakh nationalists to “provoke a confrontation” with “the Slavic community.”
In view of Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine on the pretext of protecting Russian speakers, Astana currently has an eye on its own ethnic Russians, who make up about 22 percent of the population. But it is not clear why Kazakhstan’s intelligence service took two years to launch the Potkin probe.
“This is a total lie and utter nonsense,” Mamay told EurasiaNet.org on the sidelines of the Almaty public hearings, describing the accusations as “a provocation carried out with the aim of discrediting me and those who speak out against joining the EEU.”
At least two people were killed in Tajikistan’s troubled eastern mountain town of Khorog on May 21, local news agencies reported, citing unofficial sources. Murky cases of violence are nothing new in the area: Khorog was the epicenter of a military operation in 2012 that killed dozens, including at least 22 locals, but was never clearly explained by authorities.
In one version of today’s events recounted by the Asia-Plus news agency, a shootout started when police attempted to arrest a brother of local warlord Mamadbokir Mamadbokirov, leaving two supporters dead and a police officer in serious condition. In response to that, and possibly some subsequent arrests, angry residents reportedly burned down the police station. Estimates of the crowd varied from several dozen to 700.
Fergana News cited the head of the regional branch of the opposition Social Democratic Party, Alim Sherzamonov, as saying that riot police opened fire “without warning” when they encountered some sort of unofficial local powerbroker. "Spot checks of tinted[-windowed] cars were underway in the city; a car was stopped. The policemen began arguing with the driver, but then the OMON [riot police] came and opened fire without warning,” Sherzamonov said. “One person was killed on the spot and two injured. They opened fire because the guys in the car had informal power in the city. Weapons were used by one side only – the OMON."
As Russia reasserts itself in its former Soviet backyard, the summit of an obscure Asian bloc in China offered a timely reminder that Beijing also has regional leadership aspirations—and, unlike sanctions-hit Moscow, can boast deep pockets too.
The summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) gathered a motley crew of Asian leaders in Shanghai on May 21st, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and presidents from post-Soviet Central Asia and the Caucasus as well as leaders from diverse countries such as Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Mongolia.
Central Asia was well represented, with four of its five leaders attending. Neutral Turkmenistan stayed away: It is not a member of CICA, a talking shop set up in 1999 at the initiative of Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev—who used this summit to propose rebranding CICA into the Organization for Security and Development in Asia.
The summit took place against a backdrop of heightened Russo-US tensions over the Ukraine crisis and Sino-US sparring over a military-hacking affair and, more broadly, over China’s geopolitical aspirations in Southeast Asia. All that fueled expectations that mutual antagonism with Washington would cement closer Sino-Russian ties.
“For Russia, China is today a natural geopolitical ally in the formation of a world order in line with China’s interests,” Aydar Amrebayev of the Almaty-based Institute of World Economy and Politics told EurasiaNet.org.
The Azerbaijani government has never been celebrated for its sense of irony. Yet even as it settles into its chair at the Council of Europe's Commission of Ministers and assures the world that it's got that democracy thing down pat, Baku appears to be busy cracking the whip.
Most recently, with a demand for lengthy prison sentences for three imprisoned civil-rights activists -- deemed political prisoners by international human-rights groups -- and by the May 19 arrest of three Jehovah's Witnesses.
But perhaps Council of Europe Secretary-General Thorbjørn Jagland got the full story. Jagland spent May 20-21 in Baku for the official kickoff of an "action plan" intended to help Azerbaijan meet its CoE obligations and "address some fundamental human rights and rule of law issues," as the document states.
On May 21, prosecutors addressed those issues in their own way -- by requesting prison sentences of between six to nine years for civil-society activists Anar Mammadli, Bashir Suleymanli and Elnur Mammadov, charged, after critical monitoring of the 2013 presidential election, with alleged violation of NGO-registration rules and abuse of their official duties.
Activists in Kyrgyzstan say they lost another battle against creeping authoritarianism this weekend when President Almazbek Atambayev signed a so-called “False Accusation Law.” The US Embassy says the law could “suppress legitimate news stories, as well as intimidate or punish journalists reporting on matters of public interest."
The new law, which Atambayev signed on May 17, makes intentional defamation a criminal offense punishable by up to three years in prison. Kyrgyzstan decriminalized libel in 2011.
The author says the law – which passed parliament on April 16 with a vote of 85-8 – does not violate freedom of speech, but will stop the publication of slanderous reports.
“Freedom of speech [does not include] making false reports about a crime. The key word here is a crime … there is the presumption of innocence. No one can be accused of a crime unless his guilt is proven in a lawful manner,” Deputy Eristina Kochkarova told EurasiaNet.org. If a journalist has published a report incorrectly charging someone with a crime, she argues, it’s not the journalist who would be punished, but his source. “The rights of a person end where the rights of others’ begin. Freedom of speech is not the only part of democracy,” said Kochkarova.
But the law is vague enough, civil society activists fear, for it to be selectively enforced should, for example, a politician not like the work of a muckraking journalist.
Nashville, Tennessee has apparently become another unlikely proxy battleground for a war going on a world away -- between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which both are busy building strategic alliances in the United States.
In an investigative piece, the CBS-affiliate claimed that Towns, a Memphis Democrat, allegedly had accepted $10,000 in campaign donations from seven supposedly Azerbaijan-linked sources. When confronted by the station's chief investigative reporter, Phil Williams, Towns could not coherently explain what motivated him to lobby for Baku-Nashville friendship or who were the alleged campaign contributors.
Williams implied that Representative Towns’ story was a case of Azerbaijan buying lawmakers in Tennessee to promote questionable policies.
The reporter's sole commentator, Barry Barsoumian, identified as an Armenian immigrant and activist, pointed at the suspicious link between the “strange” resolution, which eventually flopped, and the murky donors. The concerned Barsoumian also presented the channel with the Armenian version of the decades-long confrontation between the Caucasus nations over the breakaway territory of Nagorno Karabakh.
Rainbow-colors represent "invisible" LGBT-Georgians at this downtown Tbilisi stairway, near the city's Freedom-Square subway station.
Opting against a public protest, Georgia’s gay community instead staged a “invisible” rally in the capital, Tbilisi, on May 17, the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia. Passers-by on May 18 found downtown stairs emblazoned with rainbow colors, while, the day before, dozens of shoes appeared in a nearby park. “This art installation is for the invisible people, for those who are not seen, are not heard, and whose existence is not recognized,” read a poster.
Gay-rights have become a major civil-rights issue in this conservative city after an angry mob last May 17 chased LGBT-rights supporters from the streets. This year, the powerful Georgian Orthodox Church declared May 17 a “family day” and mobilized thousands of believers, many of whom vowed to prevent any repeat demonstration by LGBT activists.
But Georgia’s embattled LGBT community still tried to leave a footprint in Tbilisi through the “invisible” rallies. While a conservative group collected signatures on May 19 against a recently passed anti-discrimination law, just steps away the rainbow-colored stairs maintained their mute presence.
Iran is going to launch a Chinese-built submarine into the Caspian Sea by the middle of 2015, Azerbaijan's APA news agency has reported, citing military sources. APA said the sub is now being built at Iran's Anzali shipyard "with the participation of a Chinese company" and will be 50 meters long.
The sub will reportedly be part of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps navy (separate from Iran's regular navy) which Iran announced last year would be taking more responsibility for the Caspian, a suggestion that Tehran was elevating the importance of Caspian security.
Those are all the details APA gives, and there is ample reason for skepticism. Iran usually inflates its own military capacity, so it's not clear why they would have been scooped by the Azerbaijani media. Secondly, It's not the most reliable source; APA recently reported that Azerbaijan's Baku Shipyard would be building the country's first warship, but shipyard officials told The Bug Pit that they had no plans to build any warships.
Earlier this year Iran announced that it would soon launch its first destroyer into the Caspian. This despite the fact that Iran held a televised ceremony last year to celebrate the launching of the first destroyer in the Caspian. So it's hard to say what's going on with Iran's Caspian fleet. But they may, or may not, be getting a Chinese-built submarine next year.