NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen with Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, in Brussels in March.
Armenia has lately been boosting cooperation with both NATO and Russia, prompting questions about how far it can play both sides of the geopolitical conflict.
This fall, Armenia has hosted top NATO officials and the U.S. secretary of the navy, and in September Armenian units trained by the U.S. and NATO countries for deployment in international missions, like that in Afghanistan, conducted an exercise, reported RFE/RL:
[S]ome 600 soldiers of the volunteer unit simulated their participation in a multinational peacekeeping operation in an exercise watched by U.S. military instructors. The exercise also involved what the Armenian Defense Ministry described as a successful “self-appraisal with NATO standards” by the brigade’s Staff Company.
But this fall, Armenia also hosted exercises of the Russia-run Collective Security Treaty Organization and has signed an agreement with Russia on joint arms production, a provision of which requires Armenia to "rely exclusively on Russian-made and supplied weapons," writes analyst Richard Giragosian in a piece at Oxford Analytica:
For the first time, Armenia is being excluded from procuring Western arms, limiting its options and potential partners and, at least in theory, hindering its pursuit of interoperability with NATO standards.
Armenian Scud-B missiles, on display at a 2011 military parade in Yerevan.
Armenia is capable of attacking Azerbaijan's oil facilities in case of a war, and that it just finished military exercises practicing that scenario. a top Armenian general has said, speaking to a press conference at the conclusion of the exercises:
“We simulated strikes against both army units and military facilities of the probable enemy and … economic facilities that influence, in one way or another, the military capacity of its armed forces,” said Major-General Artak Davtian, head of the operational department at the Armenian army’s General Staff.
“There would be no strikes on the civilian population, we are not planning or playing out such a war scenario,” he told journalists. “We do not plan any strikes on cities. Our targets are military and economic facilities that are essential to a particular state.”
“In particular, I can stress that we modeled several strikes on oil and gas infrastructures, energy carriers that would affect the economy,” Davtian added in a clear reference to oil-rich Azerbaijan.
The exercises took place from October 1-13. According to Radio Azatutyun:
The two-week “strategic” exercises, which drew to a close at the weekend, took place in undisclosed locations in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh in a mostly “command-and-staff” format. According to the Armenian military, they involved over 40,000 troops and thousands of pieces of military hardware. The participating personnel included a record-high number of army reservists.
Azerbaijan, naturally, responded quickly. Spokesman for Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry, Colonel Eldar Sabiroglu:
Armenia has ratified a protocol that would allow Russia a veto over any foreign military installations in its country, but not without some grumbling. An agreement reached last year by the Collective Security Treaty Organization allows any CSTO member to have a say in whether another member can host a foreign military base. This week, Armenia's parliament ratified that agreement, but with some lawmakers complaining that it infringed on the country's sovereignty, and the parliament's second-largest bloc abstaining from the vote, reports ArmeniaNow:
On October 4, the Parliament ratified the Protocol on the Location of Military Installations in Collective Security Treaty Organization (OSCE) Member Countries that was signed still in December 2011 and under which Armenia is not entitled to host military forces or other infrastructure of other states without the permission of the CSTO...
Opposition Heritage faction MP Alexander Arzumanyan, who represents the Free Democrats party and served as Armenia’s minister of foreign affairs in the 1990s, said during the debate in the National Assembly that the Protocol limits Armenia’s sovereign rights and humiliates the nation’s dignity. In the end, only five lawmakers in the 131-member body, including Arzumanyan, voted against the ratification. The second largest faction in the Armenian parliament, Prosperous Armenia [which holds 37 seats], opted out of the vote.
Photographer Mari Bastashevski has started an ambitious new investigative project, "State Business," which she calls "an art project about the conflict arms trade." And her first subject is a series of arms shipments which appeared to be headed for Nagorno-Karabakh:
In the spring of 2010 the arms tracking community had picked up on a number of suspicious flights headed for Armenia, 39 in total. The flights continued at even intervals well into February 2011. All of them were Ilyushin IL-76s. The planes left Podgorica [Montenegro] airport for Armenia’s ‘Erebuni’ military airport. It was estimated that the arms were intended for the troubled Nagorno-Karabakh region, which saw a wave of border incidents and heightened tensions at the time.
The flights didn’t simply tip-toe past the guards in the middle of the night. Because… well- not Hollywood. There was obviously a ton of paperwork to get these off the ground. Although airports and aviation authorities keep copies of flight documentation for a period of time, in Montenegro (not exceptionally) such documentation is rather well hidden under the umbrella of “National Security,” which is evoked each time secrecy is convenient.
The world’s top chess-playing country, Armenia, faces a tough gambit. Two upcoming big games will be held right next door in, arguably, the world's most anti-Armenian country, Azerbaijan. Armenian sports officials have threatened to boycott the tournaments.
Azerbaijan’s glittery capital, Baku, was chosen as the venue for the 2015 World Cup and 2016 World Olympiad by the World Chess Federation (FIDE). Armenia, dubbed "the cleverest nation" in the world by the BBC after winning two chess Olympiads in a row (it won this year as well), is not ready to move its players to the enemy’s board.
The animosity has grown stronger still since Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev last month pardoned and honored an army officer convicted of decapitating an Armenian man in Budapest.
It may indeed be a little hard for the Armenian grandmasters to travel to Baku and fix their eyes on the chessboard when there is a convicted axe-murderer walking the streets freely.
Azerbaijani sports officials, for their part, have vowed to ensure the safety of the Armenian players. Sports Minister Azad Ragimov noted that Armenia has participated in boxing competitions in Baku before, with no untoward incidents.
A Kazakhstan soldier takes part in the CSTO exercises in Armenia
The Collective Security Treaty Organization has wrapped up its annual military exercises, held this year in Armenia, with the group's general secretary saying the group needs to create its own military forces, including air forces, in Central Asia. But at a time of heightened tensions in the Caucasus, the drills took a relatively low profile.
Not much has been said about the scenario of the exercises, called "Interaction-2012," the first of the CSTO to be held in the Caucasus. The scale of these exercises was much smaller than last year's -- about 2,000 troops, compared to 24,000 last year spread out over several countries, half in Central Asia and the other half in Belarus. (The CSTO is led by Russia and also includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.)
It was an interesting time for the exercises to be held in Armenia, just after tensions spiked as a result of the extradition and pardon of Ramil Safarov, the Azerbaijani soldier who killed an Armenian colleague at a NATO event in Hungary. There has been a lot of speculation about whether the CSTO would come to the aid of Armenia in the event of a war over Nagorno Karabakh. Armenia actually postponed the start of the exercises a week, from September 8 to September 15. No explanation for the delay was given, other than that it was due to "technical reasons," but it's no small matter to reschedule, at the last minute, a multi-country military exercise. The announcement of the delay was August 30 -- and the next day, Safarov was released. Was there a connection?
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and the President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev on their way to the joint press conference
NATO's Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen took a quick trip through all three south Caucasus countries this week, where he criticized Azerbaijan's pardon of a soldier who killed an Armenian while on a joint NATO exercise in Hungary. Rasmussen also voiced strong support for Georgia's (eventual) alliance membership.
Rasmussen's trip took place at a time of heightened tensions in the Caucasus, especially between Armenia and Azerbaijan, over the pardon of Lieutenant -- now Major -- Ramil Safarov. At a speech in Baku, he pretty strongly condemned the move:
I am deeply concerned by the Azerbaijani decision to pardon Ramil Safarov. The act he committed in 2004 was a crime which should not be glorified, as this damages trust and does not contribute to the peace process.
At a joint press conference with President Ilham Aliyev, Rasmussen was asked about the issue, and Aliyev answered too, defending the pardon as in line with the Constitution, which must have been a bit of an awkward moment.
Rasmussen used identical words at a speech in Yerevan, and they apparently weren't strong enough for a number of protesters at his speech.
The reception was warmer in Tbilisi, of course, where President Mikheil Saakashvili said that Rasmussen deserved to be named an "honorary Georgian." Rasmussen gave a fairly strong endorsement of the concept, at least, of Georgian membership in NATO:
Armenia may be a bitter enemy and all for Azerbaijan, but the reaction to this murder, an act worthy of the Hostel horror film series, shows just how deeply seeded the raging propaganda against Armenia (and, in turn, Armenia's angry denunciations of Azerbaijan) has become in the minds of many. The gruesome crimes committed by Armenians against Azerbaijanis during the Nagorno-Karabakh war are cited as a justification of sorts for both Safarov’s acts and his release.
The Collective Security Treaty Organization is taking on emergency management as one of its priorities, the group's secretary general, Nikolay Bordyuzha, announced during a CSTO meeting in Minsk last week:
Cooperation in prevention and mitigation of emergencies should become a priority in the CSTO, Nikolai Bordyuzha, CSTO Secretary General told media in Minsk following the fifth meeting of the CSTO Coordination Council on Emergencies.
“The issues regarding emergency response and mitigation should make a priority in the CSTO. In December we will submit the relevant proposals to the Presidents,” Nikolai Bordyuzha said.
Also at the Minsk meeting, it was announced that the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations, under the auspices of the CSTO, would set up a "regional humanitarian center" in Armenia. The center would open next year.
The CSTO has lately been taking on -- at least rhetorically -- a whole bunch of new priorities, including cybersecurity, quashing color revolutions, creating a unified foreign policy, even drone manufacture. It's not clear what has actually been concretely achieved with any of these, so who knows how seriously we should take this newest "priority."
The CSTO will hold its annual military exercises in September in Armenia, and attention will likely be focused less on emergency management than for hints on how the CSTO might act in case of a conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Surveys show that Armenians tend to believe that the man has to be the principal moneymaker in a family. But looks like the country's presidential family is bucking that trend. Judging by official income disclosures, President Serzh Sargsyan lives, financially speaking, in the shadow of his richer wife, Rita.
While the president was scrimping together a modest annual income in drams of some $34,900 (salary plus accruals on loans) in 2011, Rita Sargsyan was busy making the dram equivalent of $41,000, reported the investigative news service Hetq. Perhaps because of his modest revenue, the Armenian president did not do any large-scale shopping or investment in 2011, if we go by his income declaration.
In neighboring Georgia, President Mikheil Saakashvili seems to be the breadwinner in his family. President Saakashvili’s annual salary in laris is just $1,000 higher than that of his Armenian counterpart, while his wife, Sandra Roelofs, has not disclosed any earned wages for 2011. Saakashvili owns more property than his wife, but the his and her bank accounts seem to be about the same size in that family. As of May 16, 2012, the president reported about $85,000 in his bank accounts (in dollars, euros and laris), while the first lady has above $86,000 worth of euros and laris.