Once again, Azerbaijan, the region's energy giant, led the pack with diagnoses of chronic cases of intolerance for freedom of expression, corruption in the judiciary system and abuse of detainees by police.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s senior political advisor, Ali Hasanov, did temper his response with elaborations about the importance of Baku's strategic partnership with the US, but he could not help noticing an alleged double-standard in the American criticism.
A country that, as he sees it, had no qualms about folding the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York City is in no position to lecture a country that does not want to allow similarly impromptu demonstrations in the heart of its capital, he implied.
Armenian forces take part in CSTO exercises in Armenia in September 2012.
Most of the focus on the Collective Security Treaty Organization has been its Central Asian activities, as Russia has positioned the new political-military bloc as its primary tool for preventing the spread of instability from Afghanistan toward its borders. But as Sergei Minasyan points out in a good piece for Russia in Global Affairs, it is in fact Armenia for whom the CSTO really holds strategic value. As he points out, among CSTO members (which include Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) only Armenia faces a threat of interstate conflict. (One might quibble with that, looking at increasing tensions between Uzbekistan and its neighbors Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, but certainly the threat of serious military conflict is much smaller there than between Azerbaijan and Armenia.) And the collective security requirements of the CSTO effectively make it impossible for Azerbaijan, in the event that it decides to try to take back its breakaway territory of Nagorno Karabakh, to widen the conflict into Armenia. And that would allow Armenia, if Azerbaijan attacks Karabakh, to use the latter's territory for missile strikes against oil and infrastructure facilities while remaining "unpunishable":
As a result, Azerbaijan is in a military and political zugzwang, which effectively prevents a resumption of war. A direct involvement of the CSTO (or even Russia alone) would make the likely outcome of combat operations in Nagorno-Karabakh more than predictable. Starting a war in Karabakh without spreading it to the territory of the Republic of Armenia (so as to provide no reasons for the CSTO mechanisms and bilateral Armenian-Russian obligations taking effect) would contradict military logic and put Baku in disadvantageous military strategic conditions.
A group of Iranian lawmakers has begun drafting a bill on reattaching Azerbaijan to Iran by updating the terms and conditions of a 19th century treaty that ceded part of modern-day Azerbaijan and most of Armenia to Russian control.
The 1828 Turkmenchay Treaty ended the last war between Russia and Persia and paved the way for St. Petersburg to establish suzerainty over the South Caucasus. (Tehran already had given up its claims on Georgia in the 1813 Treaty of Gulistan.)
But the Iranians now argue that there was a critical detail in the fine print.
The treaty, they say, was valid only for 100 years and, therefore, the lawmakers’ logic goes,“re-annexing” Azerbaijan, Iran's northern next-door neighbor, is in order, Iran's government-run FARS news agency reported. Cities "lost" to the Russian Empire were supposed to be returned to Tehran just like "the British-Chinese deal over Hong Kong," the agency claimed.
Politicians in Baku were quick to counter that it is actually Iran that needs to hand over a chunk of its territory to Azerbaijan -- specifically, the northwestern border areas whose primarily ethnic Azeri residents make up about a quarter of Iran's population of roughly 74.8 million.
"Persians have always been in our bondage," asserted ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party Executive Secretary Siyavush Novruzov, APA news agency reported.
Now that the Roman Catholic Church has smoked out a new pope, everyone is looking for a local angle in the news from the Vatican. Armenia seems to have found one.
The Armenian Apostolic Church may be an introverted, exclusive club, much smaller than the Catholic Church, but, conceivably, backing from the Vatican could help the Armenian cause worldwide. The global, well-organized Armenian Diaspora has pointed out that Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, the newly crowned Pope Francis, has been a friend of the Armenian community in Argentina. The community hopes that the pontiff will take this friendship to his new home in the Vatican.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported that Bergoglio often attended liturgies dedicated to the ethnic Armenians massacred in Ottoman Turkey in the early 20th century. As an archbishop, he reportedly called on Turkey to own up to the atrocities against Armenians, which Turkey insists was collateral damage of World War I.
Along with building support for its refusal to recognize breakaway Nagorno Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan, achieving recognition of the 1915 massacre as genocide is an end that Armenia is pushing worldwide.
The Vatican is not immune to lobbying, and many ethnic Armenians, especially those in Argentina, hope that Bergoglio will stick to his alleged position on the massacre.
But Yerevan is not just leaving it to the Diaspora to advocate Armenian causes in the Holy See. Earlier this month, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan appointed his son-in-law Mikael Minasian as the country’s first-ever ambassador to the Vatican.
Supporters of Armenian presidential candidate Raffi Hovannisian are gathering this evening in central Yerevan for what Hovannisian called a "celebration of victory", but more questions than answers exist about the claim.
The official returns for the February 18 vote placed the American-born Heritage Party leader far behind incumbent President Serzh Sargsyan, but Hovannisian claims this is a result of his votes being stolen. Sargsyan failed to convince his challenger otherwise during a tête-à-tête yesterday in the presidential residence, and Hovannisian emerged from the talks insisting that he would press on.
“My dear compatriots . . . we are defending our Constitution, our rights,” he declared to protesters in Liberty Square. “This is not about the fight between Raffi and Serzh, but about the future of the Republic of Armenia and its citizens.”
Mindful of the ten deaths that followed the last time there was a presidential election fight, both sides appear to be approaching the conflict with some degree of caution.
The presidential administration released a little video teaser of the closed meeting between the two men. “You look kind of sad,” Sargsyan told Hovannisian with a disarming smile -- an observation which his rival denied, also with a smile.
The Persian Empire at its greatest extent, including -- yes -- territory of today's Armenia, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan.
A minor diplomatic kerfuffle has arisen over an Iranian presidential candidate's campaign promise to "return" Armenia, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan if he is elected. The candidate, Ayatollah Sayyid Mohammed Bokiri Kherrozi, promised that:
“If I am elected as president, I will return the lands of Tajikistan, Armenia and Azerbaijan, which were separated from Iran...
He said the return of the territories separated from Iran will be the major program of his pre-election campaign.
“I will get back these lands without any bloodshed.”
Naturally, this was not well received in Baku, Dushanbe or Yerevan.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Tajikistan responded with a statement calling Kherrozi an "intriguer, an ignoramus and an unaware person" (according to BBC Monitoring's translation). Asked about Kherrozi's claim, Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry spokesman Elman Abdullayev said that he "doesn’t comment on absurd and groundless statements."
And Iran's ambassador to Yerevan had to clarify that Kherrozi's remarks did not reflect official policy:
Speaking about the mentioned remark, Ambassador Mohammad Raiesi said Kherrozi is not an official but religious figure, thus he cannot express the position of the state.
When Azerbaijan threatened in 2011 to shoot down flights to the newly built airport in Nagorno Karabakh, swift international condemnation forced them to back down. Now, with the long-delayed airport apparently close to opening, Baku has reiterated those threats. Reports News.az:
Azerbaijan’s Missile Defense Forces are keeping under control the entire airspace, including the occupied regions, a senior official of the Military Air Forces and Missile Defense Forces told APA exclusively on condition of anonymity.
He said the airspace is kept under control through the radar systems. Azerbaijani Army has been placed on alert in order to prevent any attempt of the opposite side.
“We record even the drones launched by Armenians in Karabakh airspace. Armenians’ attempts to operate unpermitted flights in this territory will be prevented. We are keeping under control all the processes and ready to prevent them. It is possible through various methods, the opposite side knows it very well,” he said.
The Armenian authorities who control the disputed territory of Karabakh hope that the establishment of flights in and out of the self-proclaimed republic will help mitigate their isolation; it's now only possible to reach the territory by a long drive through the mountains from Armenia.
Cleaning days are rarely happy times. Even less so when you've got to fight over who cleans where and with what.
For years, Armenians and Greeks have been battling over who has the right to polish a step or dust a lamp in one of the world's oldest churches -- Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, a 1,687-year-old structure built to commemorate the supposed birthplace of Jesus Christ.
Windows, walls, the roof -- you name it, there's been conflict. In December 2011, the scuffles required police intervention when Greek and Armenian priests furiously battled each other with brooms and blows over a "new" approach to cleaning. (The Franciscans, for their part, get to give "the general cleaning" a miss.)
But, finally, hopes are surfacing that 2013 might prove the year of a ceasefire.
A year ago, The Bug Pit predicted that the two most likely conflicts in the Caucasus and Central Asia would be between Azerbaijan and Armenia, or in Tajikistan. The region did escape full-blown conflict in 2012, but those two situations did get significantly tenser: Azerbaijan/Armenia over Baku's pardoning of Ramil Safarov, and Tajikistan during heavy fighting in Khorog over the summer. If we look ahead at 2013, those would still seem to be the most likely conflicts, in the still unlikely event that one were to break out in the region. (The third most likely conflict scenario from a year ago, an interstate conflict between Uzbekistan and either Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan, didn't come to pass, and 2012 did seem to see a decrease in the number of border skirmishes, troop movements, etc. that raised tension in 2011.)
A year ago, there seemed to be some possibility of civil unrest, or worse, in Georgia over the hotly contested elections there in the fall of 2012. That didn't come to pass and there, too, conflict seems less likely than it was a year ago, given that the country proved it could carry out a peaceful transition of political power, and that the potentially erratic President MIkheil Saakashvili will be kept in check by an opposition government.
Like anyone else, Armenian government officials like to look and feel their best. But how much should taxpayers spend to keep them in toothpaste, shampoo and toilet paper?
According to Ministry of Finance data cited on December 9 by online TV outlet CivilNet, state bodies spent nearly one-third of a million dollars ($325,775 or 132.3 million drams) on personal-hygiene and cleaning supplies over the past year, with toilet paper alone costing taxpayers roughly 7.8 million drams (about $19,165).
The Ministry of Justice’s Penitentiary Department, apparently quite desirous of a clean shave, spent a whopping $41,000, or over 16.6 million drams, to buy 175,000 razors – more than 36 times the size of Armenia’s 2011 prison population of 4,812 people.
But personal hygiene is not the only area in which the government seems eager to spend. The apparently house-proud National Security Service, the country’s intelligence agency, spent over 2 million drams, about $5,000, on supplies of scrubbing powder between September 2011 and August 2012, nearly $2,000 (750,000 drams) on kitchen cutting boards and a puzzling $850 (340,000 drams) on matches and gloves.
The presidential administration, which paid the dram-equivalent of roughly $1,700 for 800 rolls of $2-plus toilet paper -- about double the price of the most expensive retail variety -- declined to respond to a query from EurasiaNet.org about its purchases of shampoo, toothbrushes, toothpaste and other personal hygiene items.
The report also provided some telling consumer comparisons; while the National Security Service spent 150 drams (37 cents) per toothbrush, the presidential administration favored the 850-dram (about $2.09) variety.