An Azerbaijani Coast Guard ship patrols this week in Baku's harbor
As Baku got ready for the highest-profile event in its recent history, hosting the Eurovision Song Contest, there has been a conspicuous presence in the city's Caspian Sea port: two Coast Guard vessels, part of Azerbaijan's heightened security measures as Europe's pop music fans have flocked to the city.
Government officials aren't saying what threat they might be protecting against, and, as close to the water as the Eurovision venue might be, of course an attack from the sea is exceedingly unlikely. Still, Eurovision is taking place in an atmosphere of heightened tension with Iran -- which also happens to be the most significant threat that Azerbaijan's growing naval force is intended to protect against.
Azerbaijan has perhaps been the most secretive of all of the Caspian littoral states about its navy, but the recent purchase of anti-ship missiles from Israel suggests an intention to get more serious about its naval security.
The analysts I spoke to in Baku said that the wakeup call for Azerbaijan's navy was when Iran threatened a BP prospecting ship in 2001. There have been other episodes when Iranian oil rigs entered sea space that Azerbaijan claimed, and that threat is still present. "How will we react if tomorrow Iran decides to install one of their oil wells in some territory that we consider ours?" asks Taleh Ziyadov, an analyst in Baku. "Maybe some crazy guy, because he got frustrated by Azerbaijan-Israeli relations, tomorrow he will declare 'go and install that well over there.' The possibility of serious tension is there, and Azerbaijan will attempt not to allow it."
Russia is letting it be known that it's ready to walk away from the Gabala radar station it operates in Azerbaijan if the government in Baku doesn't moderate its bargaining position. That's what a source in Russia's Ministry of Defense told Russian media today:
“The Russian military is disappointed by the non-constructive approach from the Azerbaijani side concerning the talks on extending the lease of the Gabala missile radar,” the source said, adding that Moscow would likely leave Gabala if the talks did not move ahead...
The source in the Russian Defense Ministry also said that size of the price increase was unreasonable, since the radar needed a full renovation and the sum Baku was demanding for the lease was comparable to the cost of constructing a new radar.
Recall that Azerbaijan has increased its demands from the current $7 million a year, to $100 million and then $300 million. Unlike many of Russia's installations in the former USSR, like in Armenia, Tajikistan or Ukraine, this one doesn't really come with any security guarantees, so Azerbaijan's interest in it is not great. Meanwhile, Russia has a newer radar in the North Caucasus that fulfillls the same role as Gabala, so it has little interest in ponying up to Azerbaijan. So while this leak by the Russian MoD could just be a bargaining position, it looks like this deal is heading for rejection.
When news broke a couple of years ago that Russia was selling S-300 air defense systems to Azerbaijan, the immediate assumption was that this had to do with Armenia. The sale suggested a huge shift in Russia's military policy toward the south Caucasus: Russia has a big military base in Armenia and provides Yerevan with weaponry. So why would it be arming the other side? There were all sorts of theories: it was done to intimidate Armenia into signing a long extension of the base agreement with Russia, or that it was pure mercenary motives. Some noted that the range of the S-300s was enough to cover Nagorno Karabakh (over which a war will presumably be fought) but not Gyumri, Armenia, where the Russian base is.
But what if we were all looking in the wrong direction for the threat, to the west rather than to the south? That's what analyst Anar Valiyev today told The Bug Pit in Baku. He says the S-300 is in fact one of the weapons that Baku has been buying to protect against an Iranian attack. He argues that a war over Karabakh would be fought only on the territory of Karabakh, that Armenia (under pressure from Russia) would not to expand the war into Azerbaijan proper, like an attack on Baku's oil and gas installations (which the S-300s are protecting). Therefore, there's no need to protect Baku from an Armenian attack. So, by process of elimination, it's Iran.
Recent naval exercises by Azerbaijan were conducted against a nominally "terrorist" enemy, but the details of the exercise suggested that Baku was in fact drilling for a naval engagement with another country. The exercises, called “Protection of Oil and Gas Fields, Platforms, and Export Pipelines,” took place last month, as analyst Anar Valiyev recounts in an analysis for Jamestown's Eurasia Daily Monitor. The exercises involved about 1,200 troops, 21 ships, 20 speedboats and eight helicopters, and the Azeri forces involved shot down a terrorist aircraft (?), boarded hostile ships, and most notably, "located and destroyed an enemy submarine":
[T]he nature of Azerbaijani military exercises suggested that actions are directed against an enemy possessing a helicopter, a ship and even a submarine. It is hard to imagine that certain terrorist group would be able to acquire such arms or equipment, especially when taking into consideration the fact that the Caspian Sea does not have direct access to open waters.
Valiyev concludes, reasonably, that the exercise enemy in fact represented Iran, an assumption backed up by the recent purchase of anti-ship missiles from Israel. This recalls the Caspian component last year's exercises of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, in which Russia and Kazakhstan practiced a scenario involving an attack from the south of the sea consisting of exactly the sorts of aircraft that Iran possesses.
It was rainbow flags versus black cassocks in Tbilisi yesterday, the May 17 International Day against Homophobia, when a gay rights march came to blows with an extremist group led by several Georgian Orthodox priests.
“Do you realize what a great crime you are committing by urging small kids… to engage in a wrong sexual lifestyle?” exhorted one priest, who dismissed the marchers’ assurances that the rally was about fighting homophobia. The altercations degenerated into a fistfight after several followers of the Orthodox Parents Union, an ultraconservative group, physically assaulted LGBT rights activists.
Police made arrests on both sides, but reportedly the detainees were released quickly.
The police seem to have stayed neutral during the confrontation, but the bigger human rights test for Georgia is whether the prosecutor’s office will act on LGBT activists’ complaints against their attackers. This would mean taking on priests in a country where the Georgian Orthodox Church is the most trusted institution.
Given the Caucasus' long record of ethnic and religious violence, alarm bells are ready to go off any time there is a quarrel over borders or churches in this neck of the woods. Both items made headlines this week in a dispute between Georgia and Azerbaijan, perhaps the friendliest countries in a region where it’s all but de rigueur not to be on speaking terms with at least one neighbor.
Rich with ancient Georgian frescoes and writings, the monastery is a major cultural and spiritual hub for Georgians, but some Azerbaijani officials and historians claim that the monastery was created by ancient Albanians, reputed ancestors of the Azerbaijanis.
Georgian politicos, keen to seize a prime PR opportunity ahead of the October parliamentary elections, hurried to the site to deliver some fiery speeches, while disputes raged online and in the media.
The Georgian government has urged restraint, but it also admitted that the Soviet-era demarcation of the then Soviet republics' borders left some two percent of the complex on Azerbaijan’s territory -- a fact duly noted by some Azerbaijani news outlets.
TeliaSonera's is a familiar logo in Central Asia and the Caucasus
Traveling to the Eurovision Song Contest in Baku this month? You might think twice before picking up an Azercell SIM card for your mobile phone, even though the company is one of the event's main sponsors.
An investigation by the Swedish public broadcaster, Sveriges Television (SVT), last month alleges that TeliaSonera, the Swedish-Finnish telecommunications giant, is helping authoritarian regimes in the former Soviet Union spy on their own citizens, making the company complicit in human rights abuses.
TeliaSonera has given dictatorships like Azerbaijan, Belarus and Uzbekistan – which rank among the world's worst human rights abusers – access to its systems in exchange for lucrative contracts, says the hour-long report, which aired on April 17 and is available online with English-language subtitles.
A former executive from the company said on condition of anonymity that TeliaSonera – which is 37 percent owned by the Swedish government – has granted security services in these countries real-time access to all telephone calls, data and text messages, which has facilitated the arrest of opposition members in Belarus and a savage attack on an Azerbaijani journalist.
In Azerbaijan, the security agency even has an office of its own in the Azercell building, said the report. TeliaSonera operates Azercell in Azerbaijan, Geocell in Georgia, Kcell in Kazakhstan, Tcell in Tajikistan and Ucell in Uzbekistan, among others. It also holds a major stake in Turkey's Turkcell.
“If there was a glitch [with monitoring calls], the security agency called. They’d want us to shut down the network until the problem was solved,” the former TeliaSonera executive said of his experience dealing with the Belarusian KGB.
Iranian media have reported that Azerbaijani tanks (made in Israel, naturally) have massed on the border with Iran, which Azerbaijan has called a "provocation." This comes as tensions between the two neighbors are high due to Azerbaijan's close relationship with Israel, which seems to be contemplating an attack on Iran.
Iranian television apparently started reporting the buildup of about 30 tanks in the middle of April, and residents of Imishli, on the Azerbaijan side of the border, started contacting media in Baku to see if the reports were true. One told Vesti.az, "We hear this news every day. This information has been repeated so often that we necessarily have to believe in it."
Vesti.az contacted the Azerbaijan Ministry of Defense spokesman Eldar Sabiroglu, who said it was a baseless provocation, and naturally brought Armenia into it:
"This is nonsense and stupidity. Naturally, the Armenian media immediately picked up the 'information' and raised such a howl, as if, Azerbaijan was 'going to war' not with Iran, but Armenia. They should worry that this day is not too far."
Now, the commander of the Iranian Army's Ground Forces, Brig. Gen Ahmad Reza Purdastan, has said that if there are Azerbaijani tanks on the border, they pose no threat to Iran, reports Mehr News (via BBC Monitoring):
In an interview with the agency, Purdastan noted that "I have no information about this issue. However, even if so, it is the usual thing and we do not have problems with our neighbours".
"We do not think that this move of the Republic of Azerbaijan poses threat to us," he said, adding that the movement of tanks was probably part of military drills.
So, that's settled. But as long as Israel is threatening war with Iran, we can probably expect regular attempts to drag Azerbaijan into it.
Political forces across party lines, several NGOs and media companies issued a letter that warned organizers that there would be consequences in Vanadzor, too, and that the festival organizers would bear the responsibility.
A previous attempt to screen Azerbaijani films in Armenia also fell through in 2010. The organizers said they will keep trying to promote free thinking and help audiences on both sides of the 24-year-long Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan see through the veil of propaganda.
Politicians, who, in both countries, would rather leave unchallenged the image of a national enemy, exploded in anger at the “treasonous” event (sponsored, in part, by the British and American embassies), and the organizers found themselves stranded in a Gyumri press club surrounded by raging demonstrators. Claims were made that the films were all about Azerbaijan-centric propaganda on the two countries' 24-year-long conflict over the breakaway territory of Nagorno Karabakh.
In reality, these were short, “human-interest” stories that had little to do with the war. Previous attempts at cinematic exchanges between Azerbaijan and Armenia were foiled amid similar, politically fed outpourings of public anger.
This time, the authorities in Gyumri tried to pull the plug quite literally on the festival (called, ironically, Stop) by shutting off electricity in the entire area. Saying that security could not be guaranteed, city government and police officials pressured the organizers to cancel the event. The festival’s director, peace activist Georgi Vanyan, who has been the previous target of death threats and a campaign of vilification, was beaten during altercations with anti-festival protesters.