The defense ministers of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey visit an Azerbaijani military unit in Nakhchivan, Azerbaijan. (photo: mod.gov.az)
The nascent alliance between Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey took a big step forward this week when the defense ministers of the three countries met trilaterally for the first time and promised to carry out joint military exercises.
The three ministers, meeting in the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan on August 19, agreed to work on "tripartite exercises to enhance the combat capability of the armed forces of the three countries and the achievement of mutual understanding during joint military operations, including the organization of joint seminars and conferences, cooperation in military education, development of military technology, the exercises for the protection of oil and gas pipelines," said Azerbaijani Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov after the meeting.
While the specific results of the meeting may have had to do with protecting joint infrastructure like the pipelines and railroad projects that the three countries work on together, the geopolitical import of the meeting was undeniable. With Russia's new assertiveness and the recent spike in tensions in Nagorno Karabakh, Georgia and Azerbaijan are keen to get support wherever they can. "Georgia is very fortunate to have such great neighbors and strategic allies like Azerbaijan and Turkey," said Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania. "And these challenging times from the security standpoint in the wider region we need to cooperate more closely and we need to be very tightly in touch with each other to defend the critical infrastructure that is very integral to our development."
The breakaway territory of Nagorno Karabakh, always on the lookout for ways to boost its population, has offered to shelter Yazidis fleeing from Islamic-State terrorists in Iraq.
“The Armenian people cannot be indifferent to what is now being done to the Yazidi people,” David Babaian, spokesperson for Karabakh’s de-facto president, Bako Sahakian, commented to RFE/RL’s Armenian service on August 19. “The Yazidis are the only people who have become an integral part of the Armenian people.”
According to local news outlets, Armenia is estimated to have a Yazidi population of about 40,000. Data is not available for how many Yazidis live in Karabakh, a predominantly ethnic Armenian region claimed by Azerbaijan.
Babaian skirted discussions of how the region’s de-facto officials would provide for any Yazidi arrivals, however — a sensitive question, given Azerbaijan’s claims that Karabakh and its main champion, Armenia, want to rework the territory’s ethnic makeup.
Armenia’s foreign ministry told RFE/RL that no Yazidis from Iraq have requested asylum or fled to Armenia as yet.
Rallies, though, were held on August 13 in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, to show support for Iraq’s Yazidis, and in neighboring Georgia, which has been estimated to have a Yazidi community of about 20,000.
The Putin-Aliyev-Sargsyan meeting in Sochi was held against the backdrop of the fiercest fighting in years over the remote, mountainous area. That sense of heightened conflict extended to the summit. Before attending the wrestling match, the Azerbaijani and Armenian presidents had a bout of words between themselves. The two accused one another of ignoring UN Security Council resolutions on Karabakh.
That left it to Putin to step in with calls for wisdom and temperance. “[T]here is no bigger tragedy than the deaths of people,” observed the Russian leader.
Perhaps he was speaking from experience, if not from a sense of irony. The international community has widely blamed Moscow for encouraging the fighting in eastern Ukraine between Kyiv and pro-Russian separatists that already has led to the deaths of hundreds, including the downing of Malaysian Airways Flight MH17.
With police cordons and security everywhere, Tbilisi’s Locomotive Stadium looked like the venue of an international summit on the night of August 7. In fact, it was a soccer game of modest significance between Azerbaijan’s Neftchi and Georgia’s Chikhura, a team from the small provincial town of Sachkhere that recently rose to prominence thanks as much to its wins as to its rowdy fans’ hostility toward Georgia’s Muslim neighbors.
At a previous, goalless game in Baku on August 1 between these same two teams, Chikhura’s fans rolled out a large map of Georgia with bits of Azerbaijani land depicted as Georgian territories. The map and the catcalls provoked a mass brawl between Georgian and Azerbaijani fans.
Worse things have happened on soccer fields, but in this region, where all countries believe that their neighbors owe them a piece of land and ethnic conflict is often just a brawl away, the authorities hurried to prevent a possible escalation. Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili denounced the violence as a “provocation,” while President Giorgi Margvelashvili and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev pledged by phone that such unpleasantness will not derail the two countries’ friendship.
Earlier, on July 24, another incident occurred in Tbilisi when Chikhura played another qualifying match for UEFA’s Europe League against Turkey’s Buraspor. Purportedly the same group of fans made a Nazi salute and sported Nazi symbols during the match, while one Chikhura player made a crude gesture at Turkish fans. At a post-game press conference, Georgian and Turkish sports journalists came to blows.
Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev visits frontline troops August 6. (photo: president.az)
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev made a morale-raising visit to troops along the front lines of fighting with Armenia, escalating the rhetoric around the recent conflict even while the shooting appears to have died down.
On Wednesday, Aliyev visited troops near the Aghdam region (which overeager Azerbaijani media had reported that its forces had already won back) and, in a military uniform, delivered a stemwinder of a speech, which he the next day summarized on twitter.
"We are not living in peace, we are living in a state of war. Everyone must know this," he said. "The war is not over. Only the first stage of it is. But the second stage may start too."
He also seemed to support the theory that the uptick in fighting was intended to sharpen international attention on the conflict. "Azerbaijani citizens are not pleased with the activity of mediators because the main mission of mediators is to settle the conflict, not to keep it in a frozen state and conduct confidence building measures," he said. "The Azerbaijani army is showing its strength, which is having an impact on the talks... If the Azerbaijani army starts an offensive, the enemy will find itself in a very difficult situation. This is known to us, the enemy and the mediators. Therefore, I believe that the developments of recent days will prompt mediators to take some action."
Nevertheless, fighting appears to have died down and Aliyev is scheduled to meet with his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sargsyan in Sochi, Russia, on Friday and Saturday.
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.
The death toll in fighting between Armenians and Azerbaijanis continued to rise, reaching at least 18 as the two sides blamed each other for the escalation and Russia began efforts to try to defuse the crisis.
As sporadic fighting continued through the weekend, Azerbaijan's losses grew to 13, by Baku's count, while Armenia's grew to five by their count. Both sides said the others' losses were greater than reported; Armenia said 25 Azerbaijanis had been killed since July 28, when the fighting flared up, while Azerbaijan claims that 70 Armenians died just August 1-2.
In an interview with state television, the defense minister of the de facto Nagorno Karabakh Republic, Movses Hakopyan, blamed the Azerbaijani defense minister, Zakir Hasanov, for provoking the conflict in order to "prove himself" after being recently appointed. And he expressed confidence in his forces: "Ignorant and shortsighted acts by the enemy have shown that he is capable of anything, however if large-scale military activity begins, the armed forces of Karabakh have nothing to worry about," he said. "I think that after the recent events the people of Azerbaijan have to understand toward what its leadership's adventurism is leading. The number of losses will only increase and our borders won't change, and if some change happens it will come at the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan."
At least eight Azerbaijani soldiers and two Armenian soldiers have been killed in three days of battle, the largest number of fatalities since 1994 when the two sides signed a ceasefire over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh -- a ceasefire that appears to be growing increasingly untenable.
Azerbaijan's Defense Ministry said that eight of its soldiers had been killed over three days of fighting. According to the Azerbaijani side, "Armenian reconnaissance and sabotage groups attempted to cross contact line along the border line. Azerbaijani Armed Forces defeated all attacks of the enemy. As a result of fights, the Armenians gave casualties and retreated," APA reported. "Defense Ministry reports that the contact line is fully under the control of Azerbaijani servicemen and their blood will be avenged."
Armenia says that Azerbaijan's casualties may have even been greater: an anonymous senior defense ministry official told AFP that Azerbaijan had lost 14 troops in the fighting. "Azerbaijani subversive groups were ambushed," the official said. "As a result, they have 14 dead and lots of wounded. There are no casualties or wounded on the Armenian side." And the Defense Ministry of the de facto Nagorno Karabakh republic said the day before that two of its soldiers were killed as a result of an attempted incursion by Azerbaijan.
The blog CommonSpace.eu said that while there is "atill no clear information about the latest incidents" the number of killed represented "the most serious incident on the line of contact since the cease-fire came into affect in 1994." James Warlick, the United States representative to the OSCE's Minsk Group which is dealing with the conflict,
Distractions like a full-on rebellion and raging jihad somehow did not prevent Syria from holding an international cartoon festival this month. And from prizes going to artists from Azerbaijan, better known for supplying recruits for Syria’s Islamic insurgency than for providing the war-torn country with pictorial talent.
The contest’s website does not shed great light on its origins; at least, not for the non-Arabic-speaker. According to Azerbaijan's government-friendly website Azernews, it attracted entrants ranging from France and Morocco to Peru and Thailand.
But the background on Azerbaijan’s two medalists is clear.
In a perceived nod to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Azerbaijan on June 18 shut down a school network associated with the influential Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, Erdoğan's bête noire.
Erdoğan has accused the US-based religious leader and his followers of conspiring against his government — a charge viewed by outsiders as largely entangled with the ruling Justice and Development Party’s own domestic political struggles — and earlier urged ally Azerbaijan to help him in this fight. Looks like he didn't have to ask twice.
Azerbaijan's energy giant, the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijani Republic, already had taken over 11 high schools, 13 university-exam preparation centers and a private university believed to be linked to the Gülen movement.
As in Turkey, the facilities enjoyed a good academic reputation, and had a nationwide presence. Experts earlier interviewed by EurasiaNet.org about the takeover generally saw political motivations for the takeover.
But the schools’ parent company, the Azerbaijan International Education Company, in which SOCAR holds shares, claims its eye is just on the bottom line. The schools, the company claimed, were not financially viable.