The Iran-Azerbaijan border in Nakhcivan (photo: The Bug Pit)
A shooting on the Iran-Azerbaijan border has led to the border being closed for several days, the latest episode of tension between the two countries. The controversy began last week, when an unidentified gunman (in military uniforms, according to Azerbaijan) fired shots at a tractor working on the shore of the Araz River that forms the border between the two countries.
No one was injured, but in response, "The Azerbaijani side accused the Iranian military of the fire and demanded an explanation. Not having received them, the Azerbaijani authorities closed the nearest border crossing point Shahtakhti," near the site of the incident in Azerbaijan's Nakhcivan exclave. And then Iran retaliated by closing off the other two border crossings in Nakhvican, citing "Baku's refusal to negotiate over the issue." From Press TV:
[Iranian embassy in Baku press secretary Mohammad] Ayatollahi said Azerbaijan sealed the border crossing in an “unconventional move” on Wednesday after an unidentified assailant opened fire on a tractor in the border region without causing any casualties.
He stated that the border closure has created serious problems for Iranian passengers and drivers....
He stated that an Iranian border guard was killed by Azeri security forces in Bileh-Savar two years ago, but Iran did not close the border and pursued the issue through the relevant authorities.
Nearly every day, the exact same headline pops up in the news feeds of those who follow conflict n the Caucasus: "Armenian Armed Forces violate ceasefire in several directions." And with only slightly less frequency, and only slightly more variation, another headline appears: Azerbaijan Violates Ceasefire over X times Last Week."
The stories -- reprinted press releases from the respective ministries of defense -- follow the same numbing pattern. From the Azerbaijani side, after a couple of paragraphs saying where the alleged shooting took place, the exact same four paragraphs close out the piece:
The conflict between the two South Caucasus countries began in 1988 when Armenia made territorial claims against Azerbaijan.
Armenian armed forces have occupied 20 per cent of Azerbaijan since 1992, including the Nagorno-Karabakh region and seven surrounding districts.
Azerbaijan and Armenia signed a ceasefire agreement in 1994. The co-chairs of the The OSCE Minsk Group, Russia, France and the U.S. are currently holding peace negotiations.
Armenia has not yet implemented the U.N. Security Council's four resolutions on the liberation of the Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding regions.
The Armenian press releases are even more repetitive, not bothering to name the sites of the alleged violation. They all follow this form, nearly verbatim, the only variation being the number of violations over the past week:
The adversary violated the ceasefire, at the line of contact between the Karabakh-Azerbaijani opposing forces, around 200 times past week.
The commander of Russia's troops in Armenia has said those troops could be used in a conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno Karabakh, the first time that a Russian officer has publicly made such a claim. The commander of Russia's 102nd military base, Colonel Andrey Ruzinsky, made the comments in an interview with the Russian military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda (via RFE/RL):
“If Azerbaijan decides to restore jurisdiction over Nagorno-Karabakh by force the [Russian] military base may join in the armed conflict in accordance with the Russian Federation’s obligations within the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)."
It's never been entirely clear how Russia would see the collective security provisions of the CSTO in the event of a conflict over Karabakh. While they would seem to clearly obtain if Azerbaijan attacked Armenia itself, since Karabakh is in de jure Azerbaijani territory, one could easily imagine Russia saying that a conflict restricted to that territory would be none of its business. But there really isn't any room for interpretation there, and this seems like a clear Russian shot across Azerbaijan's bow.
Azerbaijan took a while to respond, prompting the opposition news agency Turan to criticize official Baku for ignoring Col. Ruzinsky's statement. But when Baku finally did respond, it naturally, blamed Armenia:
“No treaty envisages the involvement of the Russian base into the hostilities in Nagorno Karabakh on Armenian part”, MP and political scientist Rasim Musabayov....
As part of an overhaul of reproductive-health policies, Azerbaijanis facing the double whammy of low incomes and infertility may soon be entitled to state-sponsored in-vitro fertilization.
With a population of just under 9.6 million, the largest in the South Caucasus, Azerbaijan already boasts the region's highest birth rate (an estimated 17.7 births per 1,000 people), but, apparently, more needs to be done.
If the law is adopted, "we want to conduct artificial insemination with public funds . . . for those who are in need of social support," said Musa Guliyev, deputy chairperson of parliament’s social policy committee and the bill's main sponsor, Azernews.az reported. Others may be eligible via mandatory health-insurance, he added.
Under a draft law on reproductive health, an Azerbaijani citizen will be considered legally infertile after a year of solid attempts to conceive prove futile, Biznesinfo.az reported.
The bill is being fine-tuned before it hits parliament for debate later this fall, added Guliyev, who represents the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party.
Artificial insemination has been practiced in Azerbaijan since 2004 with a 40-45-percent success rate, higher than the European average, Azernews reported. Azerbaijani Muslim groups opposed the draft law earlier this year.
But artificial insemination is not the only reproductive area Guliyev, a neurologist by background, intends to target.
Zakir Hasanov, Azerbaijan's new defense minister (photo: Azerbaijan Ministry of Internal Affairs)
Azerbaijan's newly re-elected president Ilham Aliyev has announced his new cabinet, and it contains one surprise: long-serving Defense Minister Safar Abiyev has been let go. Abiyev was a controversial figure, holding his post since 1995 and widely seen as the source of much corruption in the MoD. The conventional wisdom for some time has held that if Abiyev were replaced, that would be a signal that Azerbaijan was getting ready to move to try to take back the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh. So is that what's happening?
Yerevan-based analyst Richard Giragosian says so; he posted on his social media sites that "the risk of war over Karabakh has just increased three-fold, as this move may signal the start of real defense reform and adoption of serious offensive posture, as well as a possible end to corruption within the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense."
But a source in Baku, who asked not to be named, said that internal considerations may be more at play in Abiyev's removal. For one, he was the target of recent protests over poor conditions for Azerbaijani soldiers. Secondly, he was at the center of a dispute this month between the U.S. embassy in Baku and the Azerbaijani government over criticism of the presidential vote. And Abiyev reportedly had a bad reputation among allies.
The monitoring mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe had to suspend its activities last week because of an as-yet unexplained shooting:
Following the usual exchange of security guarantees by local commanders on both sides of the Line of Contact, members of both OSCE teams heard shooting as they approached their observation points. It was not possible to determine from where the shots were fired. Safety and security concerns prompted the Personal Representative to abandon the exercise.
Naturally, both sides blamed the other. Azerbaijan's APA reported:
The Armenians violated ceasefire while the contact line was being monitored by the Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairman-in-Office.
Defense Ministry Spokesman Eldar Sabiroghlu told APA that today the Armenian Army units violated ceasefire..
A planned monitoring of the Line of Contact between the armed forces of Nagorno Karabakh and Azerbaijan to be conducted by the OSCE Mission in the Hadrut direction, scheduled for October 17, was stopped because of the submachine gun shots from the Azerbaijani side towards the positions of the NKR Defense Army.
The risk of conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is increasing and international meditors need to step up efforts to make sure that conflict doesn't arise in the "coming weeks and months," says the International Crisis Group in a new report.
The report (pdf), Armenia and Azerbaijan: A Season of Risks, argues that internal tension in both Baku and Yerevan could cause a small conflict on the border -- which occur nearly constantly -- to spiral into a full-fledged war. In Azerbaijan, presidential elections will be held next month, and Armenia's recent abrupt announcement that it is joining Russia's Customs Union has thrown that country's political scene into turmoil, the report argues. This, combined with the arms both sides (but especially Azerbaijan) have been acquiring, could be a deadly mixture, the ICG argues: "Confrontation, low-intensity but volatile, between Azerbaijan and Armenia has entered a period of heightened sensitivity. The ICG "does not predict a second war is either imminent or more likely than not. It does suggest the near-term threats to stability are becoming more acute... Vigorous international engagement is needed to lessen chances of violent escalation during coming weeks and months."
Could Azerbaijan be facing encroachments on its territorial integrity by Italian fashion brands? Armenian and Karabakhi media have it that Versace, Armani, Prada and Moschino are considering setting up production lines in breakaway Nagorno Karabakh, a patch of territory that Azerbaijan claims as its own design.
According to the reports, a coterie of Italian businesspeople are visiting Karabakh this week to check out the potential for producing clothes in a decrepit, former textile factory, Gharmetakskombinat. The separatist authorities hope that the abandoned factory could soon start producing Versace outfits, among others, and have joked that perhaps Baku would care to set up a special black list for "prominent international brands and companies."
While this story may sound like something out of The Onion, officials in Baku took it seriously. Azerbaijan, which is trying to isolate Karabakh as part of its policy to regain control of the predominantly ethnic Armenian territory, tasked its embassy in Italy to look into the reports. One nationalist NGO called for a boycott of Versace clothes -- an action that, conceivably, might have put Azerbaijan's reigning fashionista, First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, in a potentially delicate situation.
Soon enough, though, Azerbaijani media distributed alleged comments from Versace that the company has no plans to extend production to the disputed region.
A defector from Azerbaijan's security services says that his government has secretly been funneling arms and ammunition to Kurdish rebels in Turkey, renewing attention to long-rumored ties between Azerbaijan and the biggest enemy of its closest friend.
The allegations were made by Ibragim Musayev, a former National Security Ministry official now living in Russia, in an interview with the website Caucasian Knot -- which, with a bit of hyperbole, calls Musayev "the Azerbaijani Snowden," referring to the American security official who has also taken up residence in Russia. (Unlike the American Snowden, however, Russia appears to be getting ready to extradite Musayev back to his home country.)
In the interview, Musayev claims that a colleague discovered evidence that the Azerbaijani armed force were shipping arms to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) -- a group that Azerbaijan officially recognizes as a terrorist organization. Shortly thereafter, the colleague was arrested and then died under mysterious circumstances while in jail; Musayev says he was killed. Musayev also describes seducing Zeynalov's wife -- on orders from his superiors -- so that it could be filmed to shame her into silence.
The impending attack by the U.S. on Syria has dominated the world's attention for the last week or so. And the powers surrounding the Caucasus and Central Asia -- notably Russia, Turkey, and Iran -- have been among the most active in discussing Syria, with Russia and Iran backing the government of Bashar al-Assad and Turkey one of the strongest supporters of the rebels. In spite of, or perhaps as a result, of that, the countries in between have taken a cautious approach to the possibility of U.S. military involvement in Syria.
Befitting its strong attachment to the U.S., Georgia's foreign ministry made a statement that appeared to endorse the American position that Assad's government should be punished for the use of chemical weapons:
“Georgia welcomes and supports readiness of the international community to play more active role in resolving humanitarian crisis in Syria and to hold the regime that committed this crime accountable for violating the fundamental international humanitarian norm."
Georgia's position is largely a factor of its ties to Turkey and the U.S., Michael Cecire, a Washington-based analyst of Georgia and the Caucasus, told The Bug Pit:
The Georgian government is happy to defer to their partners in the West and in nearby Turkey to take the lead on the issue. When it comes to Syria, Tbilisi's primary geopolitical concerns would be to ensure that the consequences from an intervention did not lead to destabilization in the South Caucasus. The Assad regime's closeness to Hezbollah and Iran, which both operate in the Caucasus to varying extents, makes this at least a possibility -- particularly in light of Hezbollah's alleged role in an early 2012 disarmed bombing attempt in Tbilisi.