The presidents of Azerbaijan and Iran, Ilham Aliyev and Hasan Rouhani, at an official dinner in Baku. (photo: president.az)
Iran President Hasan Rouhani completed a visit to Baku, and while the two sides didn't announce anything too newsworthy, the visit underlined how tension between the two countries has considerably diminished over the course of this year.
Rouhani visited Baku November 12-13, and his delegation also included senior presidential aides and ministers of oil, foreign affairs, roads, communications and information technology and economy, as well as the governor of the Central Bank of Iran. And it followed a visit by Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev to Tehran in April. "Indeed, the fact that the two presidents met four times over a period of nine months was a milestone in the history of the two countries’ ties," wrote the Iranian website mehrnews.com in an analysis of Rouhani's trip.
That analysis dated the decline in the two countries' relations to what it called "the Eurovision 2012 misunderstandings," when Baku hosted the European song contest, there were rumors that a gay parade would be held in connection with that, and Iran withdrew its ambassador from Baku.
It is no secret that Russian leader Vladimir Putin aspires to be a poster boy of virility, and that he scorns those who are not macho men.
Putin has set such a tone in Russia that citizens felt compelled to move quickly to dismantle a monument in St. Petersburg to Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Jobs soon after the company’s current CEO, Tim Cook, came out of the closet recently.
But before Putin and Russians become so contemptuous, it might be worthwhile to keep in mind one simple fact: Apple’s market capitalization currently exceeds that of all the publicly held companies in Russia combined, according to Bloomberg.
As of November 12, the total market capitalization of all public companies in the Russian Federation has fallen $234 billion to $531 billion in 2014, while Apple gained $147 billion to $652 billion, Bloomberg reported. According to the Russian government news agency TASS, as of November 14, the situation was even gloomier for Russia, with the Russian stock exchange value slumping to $498 billion, while Apple Inc. reached the record capitalization of $668 billion.
“If you owned Apple Inc., and sold it, you could purchase the entire stock market of Russia, and still have enough change to buy every Russian an iPhone 6 Plus,” a Bloomberg commentary noted, wryly.
Roughly one out of every five adults in Uzbekistan was coerced into picking cotton during the just-completed harvest season, according to a November 14 statement distributed by the Cotton Campaign, an activist coalition seeking to put an end to the government’s use of forced labor.
Cotton Campaign researchers estimate that about 4 million adults, many of them state employees, were pressed into gathering cotton this harvest season in Uzbekistan. According to the CIA’s most recent estimate, Uzbekistan has an overall population of almost 29 million, a quarter of which is under the age of 14. An additional 21 percent is between the ages of 15 and 24. Those estimates, along with the Cotton Campaign figure, would suggest that at least 20 percent of the over-18 population spent time in the cotton fields this fall against their will.
The Uzbek government has faced international condemnation for its widespread use of forced child labor in cotton harvesting. In recent years, however, authorities have shifted the burden, reducing the number of children compelled to leave school and pick cotton, and replacing them with fresh legions of adults.
“Reducing the number of children in the fields by forcing even more adults to work against their will is not sufficient. The government needs to dismantle the forced labor system,” a Cotton Campaign statement quoted Umida Niyazova, the director of the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, which prepared a preliminary report on the harvest.
Georgia’s beloved and hated economic guru Kakha Bendukidze has died at the age of 58 in a London hotel, leaving behind a legacy of both accomplishments and controversy.
A man of many epithets, Bendukidze was an oligarch, a scientist, a chef, an educator and a capitalist to his bones; an individual credited with helping bring the Georgian economy out of the post-Soviet pell-mell. Once one of the largest — in every sense of the word — figures in Georgian politics, Bendukidze was nabbed in 2004 by then President Mikheil Saakashvili to return from Russia, where he had run mega-heavy-machinery producer OMZ, to help overhaul the Georgian economy.
Bendukidze’s privatize-it-all philosophy, sometimes described as Bendunomics, earned him as many fans as it did ardent critics, but neither group doubted his intellect.
“Georgia should sell everything that can be sold, but its conscience,” Bendukidze was wont to say. The privatization campaign and dramatic slashing of bureaucracy did result in official double-digit economic growth rates and praise from global economic-watchdogs, but also criticism from social equality advocates.
Though a flaming libertarian, Bendukidze was bigger than just a skilled multi-millionaire, however. He was a media personality who even acted as Georgia’s Donald Trump in the Georgian version of the Apprentice show. A food enthusiast, he ran an agriculture school with cooking classes.
Azerbaijan wrapped up its chairmanship on November 13 of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, one of the continent’s leading human rights organizations. Civil society activists used the occasion to lob verbal brickbats at Baku, assailing the Azerbaijani government for accelerating a domestic crackdown on dissent during its tenure at the helm in Strasbourg.
Azerbaijan took over as chair of the Committee of Ministers, the Council of Europe’s executive arm and decision-making body, back in May. Over the course of its six-month term, authorities in Baku bullied and imprisoned scores of local journalists and rights advocates, jailing some of the country’s most prominent civil society figures, including Leyla and Arif Yunus, on what watchdog groups contend are trumped-up, politically motivated charges.
Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov attended a ceremony in Strasbourg on November 13 marking the transfer of the chairmanship from Azerbaijan to Belgium. He also presented an assessment of Azerbaijan’s performance as the committee chair. A document posted on the Council of Europe’s website, titled “Stocktaking of the Azerbaijani Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe,” said that “Azerbaijan deployed considerable efforts in furthering the objectives of the Council of Europe around its three key pillars – human rights, rule of law and democracy.”
An Armenian Mi-24 helicopter hit by Azerbaijani fire November 12, in a photo released by the Azerbaijan Ministry of Defense.
After Azerbaijani armed forces shot down an Armenian helicopter, probably the most significant military incident between the two sides in two decades, Armenian military and political figures have promised to retaliate.
The helicopter was shot down on November 12, near the line of contact between the two armed forces. Azerbaijan said the Mi-24 helicopter had crossed the line of contact and was planning to attack, Armenia said the aircraft remained on its side and was moreover unarmed. At least two of the helicopter's crew were killed (and some reports said all three crew members died).
The warnings of retaliation came almost immediately. "The consequences of this unprecedented escalation will be very painful for the Azerbaijani side," a spokesman for the Armenian Ministry of Defense said that day.
One small act of retaliation already took place: on November 13, the day after the helicopter was shot down and Azerbaijan declared the airspace over Karabakh "closed," Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan flew there anyway on a helicopter.
Karabakh's airspace "really is closed, but only to the Azerbaijan air forces, and they should have had the courage to finish the sentence," David Babayan, an adviser to the territory's de facto president, told RFE/RL.
Fast-food giant McDonald's will open its first restaurant in the oil-rich Central Asian state of Kazakhstan next year, in partnership with an energy tycoon related by marriage to President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
The company will open its first burger bar at an unspecified location in Kazakhstan in the second half of 2015, with more to follow, it announced on November 12.
McDonald’s is heading into Kazakhstan with good connections guaranteed: It will be partnering with prominent gas tycoon Kairat Boranbayev, whose daughter Alima is married to Nazarbayev’s grandson, Aysultan Nazarbayev.
“Our agreement with Kairat will enable us to continue to build our brand,” Doug Goare, president of McDonald’s Europe, said of the foray into Kazakhstan, where insiders say that the key to business success is often not what you know but who you know.
The Kazakhstan launch comes as McDonald’s comes under massive pressure in neighboring Russia, where more than half of its 440 locations are under investigation over alleged health and safety violations (which the company denies) and nine outlets have been temporarily closed.
Kazakhstan is a close economic partner of Russia’s, but has been keen to distance itself from Moscow as Western sanctions bite, making it abundantly clear that its doors are always open to foreign investors.
In an act with potentially perilous consequences for the South Caucasus' longest running military conflict, Azerbaijan on November 12 shot down a MI-24 helicopter that it claims belongs to Armenian forces stationed near the Nagorno-Karabakh frontline. Armenia, however, asserts that the helicopter belongs to breakaway Karabakh’s military forces.
Additional information, for now, is scarce. The Azerbaijani defense ministry alleged that the helicopter “violated the country’s airspace,” and had “attempted to attack positions of the Azerbaijani army near Agdam district.,” the pro-government news agency Trend reported.
In a statement posted only in Azeri, the defense ministry claimed that three crew members were killed. A second helicopter “managed to get away” from the line of fire, it alleged.
The commander who oversaw the operation, one “M. Muradov,” has been “awarded with valuable prizes and awards” by Azerbaijani Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov, the ministry said.
Armenian defense ministry spokesperson Artsrun Hovhannisian has refused to confirm reports that three crew members were killed, a Karabakhi news outlet reported.
In a statement, Armenia’s defense ministry claimed only that the helicopter was downed while taking part in a regular training exercise, and that Azerbaijan had continued with “intensive fire . . . in the direction of the event.” Details are still being determined, it said.
Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made his first visit to Central Asia since becoming president earlier this year, to Turkmenistan. And while the headline news from the visit was a deal to supply Turkmenistan natural gas to Turkey, boosting military cooperation likely was on the agenda as well, regional analysts say.
During Erdogan's visit, he signed an agreement with his counterpart, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, to supply gas to the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP) project. That project, which is scheduled to be completed in 2018, would take gas from the Caspian shore of Azerbaijan to Turkey's western border. How Turkmenistan would get its gas to the pipeline was left unsaid, but Russia has expressed strong opposition to the idea of a pipeline being built across the Caspian, and should such a pipeline be constructed it would really ramp up tensions on the sea. From a Reuters story on the visit:
[T]o join the pipeline Turkmenistan will have to lay another pipeline across the Caspian Sea.
Asked how Turkmenistan could join the TANAP project, Atagas head Osman Saim Dinc told Reuters: "We are working on all alternative routes." He did not elaborate.
The United States embassy in Baku has categorically denied a report in The Times which claimed that Washington and Tehran will conduct “secret talks” in Baku this week about restoring some form of ties between the United States and Iran after an almost 35-year break.
Citing an anonymous Iranian government advisor, The Times’ Hugh Tomlinson reported on November 10 that the supposed talks would cover setting up in Tehran “an umbrella office for US trade” or, possibly, “a cultural office, purely for academic exchanges.”
The Times wrote that Mohammad Reza Sabzalipour, head of Iran’s World Trade Center, would lead the alleged talks with the US side in Baku. Azerbaijani officials so far have not made any comments.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is set to visit the Azerbaijani capital on November 12 for a state visit, but no public indication has been made that Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev intends to play intermediary for the US.
In a statement to the pro-government Azerbaijani news agency Trend, however, the US embassy to Baku rejected The Times story as “completely untrue.”
“[W]e have had no conversations, and have no plans to engage in conversations, in trade talks or any talks similar to those described in this misleading news story,” read the statement, published on November 11.
Sabzalipour, however, had his own take. On November 11, he remarked that “reciprocal visits by the Iranian and the US economic delegations” are "on the agenda" of Tehran's World Trade Center. Details will be forthcoming "when the grounds are prepared," he added.