The roles played by regional powers Russia and Turkey in Syria's civil war are well documented, the former on the side of the government of Bashar al-Assad, and the latter on the side of the opposition. But according to a new report by a human rights group, Georgia and Azerbaijan also play bit parts in helping the Syrian government.
The report by the Human Rights First, Enablers of the Syrian Conflict (pdf), attempts to shine light on the international actors fueling the bloodshed in that country. It focuses solely on aid given to the government of Syria, not to the rebels. "Although both sides of the conflict are responsible for atrocities, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad is responsible for the vast majority," the report says.
Private companies in Georgia and Lebanon have supplied Syria with diesel fuel, the report notes:
[S]mall vessels carrying diesel from Georgia have also sailed into Syria.The United States provides foreign assistance to both Lebanon and Georgia. This assistance, and close bilateral relations, affords the United States an opportunity to exercise diplomatic and political action to have the Lebanese and Georgian governments investigate these reports and stop actors within those countries from fueling the crisis in Syria.
For its part, Azerbaijan allows Russia to use its airspace for shipments of weapons and cash:
Some lethal provisions to Syria by air initially involved transit through Turkey; however, after Turkey took steps to inspect suspected arms flights to Syria, Russia, Iran, and North Korea have all attempted to instead use Iraq as an arms corridor, with Russian transfers also traveling through Azerbaijan and Iran....
Azerbaijan may now be busy celebrating the arrival of spring with the traditional holiday of Novruz, but local police tempers do not appear to be growing any sunnier.
On March 19, an outspoken former Azerbaijani defense minister, Rahim Gaziyev, claims he was on his way to the Azeri-language service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Baku to broadcast his criticism of President Ilham Aliyev’s government, when unknown men allegedly hooded him with a bag and hustled him into a car. Gaziyev, who served as defense minister from 1992 to 1993, soon found himself in the captivating company of anti-organized crime police officials.
The policemen did not charge Gaziyev; just reportedly gave him a piece of avuncular advice -- to bag it. “’You’ve been writing quite a bit of letters here and there, we notice. You should try lying low,’ they told me,” Gaziyev recounted to the Kavkazsky Uzel news site. He was released the next morning, on March 20.
One letter which apparently particularly disappointed the police recently appeared in the pro-opposition Azadliq (Freedom) newspaper. In his letter, the ex-minister slammed President Aliyev for having corrupt officials under his wing, cracking down on political dissent, turning a blind eye to abuse and violence in the army, and what have you.
A top Iranian official has made waves in the Caucasus by claiming that Iran secretly helped Azerbaijan during the latter's war with Armenia over Nagorno Karabakh in the 1990s. The official, Mohsen Rezaee, is in a position to know: he was the commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards at the time. He told Sahar TV (translation by Oye Times):
“I personally issued an order … for the Republic of Azerbaijan army to be equipped appropriately and for it to receive the necessary training,” he said. “Many Iranians died in the Karabakh War. In addition to the wounded, who were transported to [Iran], many of the Iranian martyrs of the Karabakh War are buried in Baku.”
“Karabakh is a part of Islamic lands and the Republic of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity must be guaranteed through peaceful means.”
Georgian President MIkheil Saakashvili visits Martyrs Alley in Baku, honoring victims of the Nagorno Karabakh war.
When Georgian President MIkheil Saakashvili made an official visit to Azerbaijan last week, he took with him a bit of his unique brand of anti-Russia rhetoric, saying that Baku today faces a similar threat from Russia as has Tbilisi. From Civil.ge:
After visiting Baku, President Saakashvili said that Russia was preparing the same "scenario" for Azerbaijan, which was applied against Georgia in last year's parliamentary elections when, as he put it, "oligarchs, Russian funds, blackmailing and provocations" were used.
In particular, Saakashvili mentioned the establishment of a diaspora organization in Russia made up of rich businessmen of Azeri origin, which he said posed the same sort of threat as did Bidzina Ivanishvili, the Georgian-born businessman who made billions in Russia and then became prime minister of Georgia on a platform of improving ties with Russia. Saakashvili also noted that Ivanishvili's government pardoned an ethnic Armenian activist, which he said was done "to please" Russia.
Azerbaijan has traditionally been very careful not to provoke Russia; while it similarly feels a threat to its sovereignty from Moscow, it has followed a somewhat more multi-vectored approach than has Georgia, maintaining good relations with Russia, alongside its ties to Turkey, Europe, the U.S, Israel. and others. And Russia, for its part, has not taken an aggressive position against Baku, seeming more interested in maintaining a regional balance of power between Armenia and Azerbaijan. So it's not surprising, as the opposition news site Contact.az notes, that officials in Baku publicly ignored Saakashvili's comments.
After sashaying to a folk dance with a dictator in Russia's North Caucasus, French cinema legend Gérard Depardieu may next appear in Azerbaijan for a film . . . and, perhaps, more dancing.
The larger-than-life French actor, who often goes on junkets to ex-Soviet spots these days, plans a “big movie” about sports in the young republic of Azerbaijan, said French film producer Arnau Frille, Russian and Azerbaijani media report.
Storyline details are not known, but, no doubt, First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, head of Azerbaijan's 2015 European Olympics preparation committee, and President Ilham Aliyev, head of its Olympics committee, could make a few suggestions.
Ten days ago, Azerbaijan slung into space its first-ever satellite as an apotheosis of the country’s hydrocarbon-fueled progress. And what better way to celebrate the joy and the glory of the moment than to burst into song?
“Our first national satellite went into orbit. How can I not be happy, oh, motherland?” elated, shiny-eyed opera singer Ramil Qasimov bellows out in a handsome, optimism-infused tenor. “And now that our voice comes from the cosmos, nothing can restrain my joy,” he continues, gesturing dramatically in an online video recently posted in the Azerbaijani Studies Digest listserv.
A festively dressed choir, each woman holding a single flower, then kicks in with the politically correct chorus: “With Ilham, we march toward happy tomorrows . . . !”
The folk dancers kick and jump, the choir croons, the conductor waves her hands and the Azerbaijani satellite flies high in the sky.
If you feel like you've seen this somewhere before, you would not be far wrong.
Reminiscent of Soviet-era hymns to the proletariat, space exploration or young communists, the panegyric to the 3.2-ton, $230-million piece of national pride has sparked much eye-rolling among many Azerbaijani Facebook users.
But those Azerbaijanis weary of the country's Aliyev personality cult may see more space singing soon.
President Ilham Aliyev, so dearly mentioned in the song, has pledged that the February 8 satellite launch is just the first step in his country’s space ambitions. Lease fees are expected to recoup the cost of the US-made satellite and oil-and-gas dollars will help sponsor future projects and, perhaps . . . even accompanying soundtracks?
In tightly ruled Azerbaijan, people are not usually pampered by dismissals of failing government officials, but President Iham Aliyev has gone the distance this time to tackle a recent outpouring of popular anger in the region of Ismayilli by firing its governor, Nizami Alakbarov.
The governor's nephew, Vugar Alakbarov, son of Labor and Social Welfare Minister Fizuli Alakbarov, reportedly became the cause of car-burning riots and clashes with police in the region's main city after a January 23 car accident involving his luxury sports car and a local taxi. Alakbarov the younger allegedly beat the taxi driver, with no interference from police. The Alakbarov family is reputed to have wide-ranging economic interests in the region, and resentment at their impunity from the law runs strong.
The central government’s first response followed the standard steps in its crisis management playbook: send in riot police, arrest reporters, and civil rights activists and politicians, who expressed solidarity with the protesters, and, of course, blame external foes for everything.
“If I hear again that a member of some family acts like a hooligan, does not know who to behave himself, this person will be arrested and his father will be dismissed,” declared Aliyev at a recent meeting.
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.
At 1:35 am this morning, Azerbaijan became a member of yet another elite circle -- the world's “space club;" its membership secured with the successful launch of the South Caucasus country's first telecommunications satellite.
For President Ilham Aliyev, on hand with First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva to monitor the operation from a newly built satellite-management center near Baku, the 3.2-ton satellite, dubbed AzerSpace-1, is “another great victory showing" Azerbaijan's "success," and the start of a trek into outer space.
But unlike for another victory – Azerbaijan’s 2011 Eurovision Song Contest win -- this time there were no street celebrations, and no sign that ordinary Baku residents had stayed up late for the event. Still, the vibe was positive.
Though AzerSpace-1 may have depended more on Azerbaijan’s ready cash ($230 million for the US-made satellite plus insurance and two management centers) than on its own astronomical know-how, the government means for that to change.
Currently, it’s paying for about 200 Azerbaijani students to study the space sciences at leading universities in Ukraine, the US and France. Upon return, these students will make up the core of an Azerbaijani space industry, the Ministry of Communications announced. To help matters along, Baku’s State Technical University opened a relevant faculty last year.
The government also roped in as an advisor on its space odyssey a former director of the Soviet Academy of Sciences’ Space Research Institute, physicist Roald Sagadeev.
Azerbaijan never had any intention of shooting down flights to Karabakh, the country's deputy foreign minister has said, in what appears to be an effort to back away from previous statements threatening to do just that. From AZE.az:
[Deputy Foreign Minister Araz] Azimov said that Azerbaijan was not ready to shoot down civilian airplanes, as Armenians and their supporters are constantly crying.
"In accordance with the Chicago convention, specific rules exist which are recognized by the Azerbaijani side, which provide for the prevention of illegal flights and forcing them to land in specific airports. So it is not true, when someone earlier tried to speculate that 'Azerbaijan will shoot down civilian flights," Azimov reported.
"The Armenian side, speculating on these questions, attempts to put pressure on Azerbaijan by conducting these flights to the Khojaly airport. Recall that these territories are occupied and opening an illegal air corridor means an occupation of airspace," he said.
A number of Azerbaijani officials have threatened to shoot down flights landing in Karabakh, from the military to the civil aviation authority to the cabinet of ministers. While they may not have specified that they would shoot down civilian flights, given that the primary purpose of the Karabakh airport is for civilian use, the message Azerbaijan was attempting to send was clear.