Turkey is promoting its eastern cities of Trabzon and Erzurum as potential transit hubs for U.S. and NATO military cargo being shipped out of Afghanistan. With its proposal, coordinated with Georgia and Azerbaijan, Turkey joins a crowdedfield of competitors for the potentially lucrative reverse transit business -- at least $6 billion -- as coalition forces start pulling out of Afghanistan.
At a conference on Afghanistan military transit and broader Eurasian transportation prospects in Riga this week, the head of the Turkish Foreign Ministry’s Department of Relations with Caucasus and Central Asian countries, Yavuz Kül, said that Turkey was opening its territory to both lethal and non-lethal equipment. Trabzon, he said, is about 1,750 miles from Kabul and has good air- and seaport facilities. Erzurum, meanwhile, is only 1,400 miles from Kabul and "at the center of the Turkish rail network," Kül said. With the completion of the Baku-Kars railway project, cargo flown or shipped into Baku will be able to travel by rail to Turkey. "We hope that this will be a hub in the future for reverse transit," he said.
The Baku-Kars project has been consistently delayed: this news story from 2007 said it was supposed to be completed by 2008. But Kül spun it differently: "We are planning to finish by the end of this year. Of course, the initial project was for 2015. However, taking into consideration the reverse transit process, we wanted to accelerate the process," he said, adding that they will "coordinate with our Georgian and Azerbaijani friends."
Georgia and Azerbaijan have been publicly cooperating a lot lately, with presidential meetings and news of co-producing military jets and armored personnel carriers. That military cooperation, in particular, is projected to grow, writes Azerbaijani analyst Zaur Shiriyev. In a two-part series in Today's Zaman, Shiriyev looks at some of the details of the increasing cooperation, in particular in the military-industrial sphere. Shiriyev traces the increased cooperation to the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia:
[S]ince 2008, new opportunities have arisen. Prior to 2008, Baku had long demanded that Tbilisi stop letting Armenia repair its battle tanks and other armored techniques at a Russian munitions factory in Tbilisi. Once Georgia cut ties with Moscow and agreed, high level ministry of defense visits from Azerbaijan to Georgia commenced and both sides reached a compromise. This stimulated the development of their defense industry cooperation.
Azerbaijan doesn't have aspirations to join either NATO or the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a top government official said on a visit to Germany. "We envision our future security model within the framework of the Nonaligned Movement,” said Ali Hasanov, head of the presidential department for socio-political issues, said at a forum dedicated to “Azerbaijan’s European Path: Achievements and Potentialities.” Hasanov added: “Therefore Azerbaijan will neither be a member of NATO nor the CSTO, while cooperating with both.”
“It does not mean that Azerbaijan will not or can not change its choice. The choice can change anytime. Azerbaijan’s national interest is the decisive factor, if the national security interests require that it is necessary to join NATO, then it will be so. If national interests require reconsidering Azerbaijan’s participation in CSTO, this issue will be reconsidered. Our security, energy, economic, political and social interests arise from and are based on the needs, interests of the Azerbaijani people,” he said.
Given that Azerbaijan hasn't been doing anything to indicate that it intends to join either alliance, it's not exactly news that Hasanov said this. But it's an interesting statement in the context of Azerbaijan's recent rocky relations with Russia. President Ilham Aliyev has been palling around with his Georgian counterpart and Kremlin bugaboo Mikheil Saakashvili, and there has been talk of an "emerging alliance" between Georgia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan. And that was before the great Eurovision scandal.
Uneasy neighbors: An Armenian flag provides the backdrop for a bust to the late Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev in downtown Tbilisi.
Tbilisi’s Old Town has long been an area where ethnic Armenians, Azeris, Jews, Kurds, and Georgians intermingle.
There’s the Azeri teahouse run by ethnic Armenians on one street, and, on another, one run by ethnic Azeris, where an ethnic Armenian waitress serves customers.
A mosque frequented mainly by ethnic Azeri Muslims sits atop a hill just a few minutes away from an Armenian church where Sayat Nova, the 18th century troubadour who wrote songs and poetry mainly in Azeri, is buried.
A statue to Sergei Paradjanov, the surrealist ethnic Armenian filmmaker whose last film was shot in Azerbaijan, stands just meters away from a shisha café, staffed by ethnic Armenians from the Middle East and often frequented by customers from Azerbaijan.
Home to sizable ethnic Azeri and Armenian populations, Georgia is well-accustomed to such coexistence. But, nonetheless, that doesn’t mean that awkward situations cannot occur.
Recently, for example, an Armenian flag appeared flying outside a privately owned, neighborhood bathhouse that adjoins a park featuring a bust of Heydar Aliyev, the late Azerbaijani president.
The flag was still flying until the eve of Azerbaijan’s May 10 Flower Day celebration, an event to mark the birthday of the late president. On the day itself, the flag reportedly disappeared. A day later, it reappeared.
The juxtaposition, needless to say, is unusual. Aliyev, in office from 1993 until 2003, was Azerbaijan’s president when the war with Armenia and Karabakhi separatists over the breakaway region of Nagorno Karabakh ended with a cease-fire in 1994.
Precise reasons for the flag’s appearance, disappearance, and reappearance could not be confirmed. The management of the bathhouse that displays the flags was not available for comment. “They just chose some international flags from somewhere,” an employee commented, with a shrug.
A United Nations report has implicated Azerbaijan and a Kazakhstan airline executive in violations of arms embargos against North Korea. The Associated Press acquired the report, to the U.N. Security Council committee monitoring sanctions against North Korea.
Among the violators was Azerbaijan, for trying to buy anti-aircraft missiles from North Korea:
The panel... recommended sanctions against the Hesong Trading Corporation, a subsidiary of the Korea Mining Development Trading Corp., which was involved in trying to sell 70 North Korean portable anti-aircraft missiles to Azerbaijan. British arms dealer Michael Ranger was convicted in July 2012 of attempting to sell the missiles.
The court heard that in email correspondence with his arms supplier in North Korea, Ranger boasted that he had been a guest of the Azerbaijani government and was driven round in a Lexus limousine whilst on business there to discuss the supply of Man-Portable Infrared Homing Surface to Air Missiles. It also heard how he told the US manufacturers of Berettas pistols that he had secured orders from the Azerbaijani Ministry of Emergency Situations following a meeting with ‘two people directly under the President’ in February 2010. The jury agreed that the evidence clearly demonstrated Ranger’s intention to disregard the embargos and duly delivered a conviction.
The U.N. report also named a citizen of Kazakhstan it says was involved in shipping arms to North Korea:
Georgia is in discussions with Azerbaijan to jointly produce Su-25 close air support jets, Azerbaijani military sources have told the news agency APA:
Military sources told APA that Georgia plans to produce the modernized versions of SU-25 aircrafts at the Tbilisi Aerospace Manufacturing Company (TAM). Tbilisi has addressed Azerbaijan for financing the project and establishing joint production. The Azerbaijani military circles welcomed the proposal, but the government will make a final decision.
If the project is implemented, certain part of the aircrafts may be produced at the military plants of Azerbaijan.
There doesn't seem to be any news on this from any Georgian sources. (The last reports about Georgia-Azerbaijan defense deals, about Azerbaijan possibly buying Georgian APCs, came only from Georgian sources, for what it's worth.)
TAM was renationalized by the Georgian government in 2010 after having been privatized in 2004. And it was the original manufacturer of the Su-25 during the Soviet era.
This news, of course, comes as a number of reports suggest that Moscow may be stopping the sale of military aircraft that Azerbaijan had been trying to buy from Russia. But those deals were for Su-27, Su-30 and MiG-31s, and the Su-25 carries out a different mission than those. And it's also not made clear here whether or not Azerbaijan is the intended customer or not. So it may or may not be connected. But it does seem evidence of slowly growing ties between Azerbaijan and Georgia.
Azerbaijan's air force on display. Re-equipping could be in jeopardy if Russia cuts off sales to Baku. (Photo: Ministry of Defense of Azerbaijan)
For some time now, there have been unofficial reports that Russia has cut off arms sales to Azerbaijan, in particular of military aircraft that Baku has been seeking. There has been no comment from Moscow, either formally or via anonymous sources, and it's not clear why Russia would have made this move. Possible motives include Azerbaijan's hard bargaining over the Gabala radar station or a more general desire to punish Baku for refusing to take part in its various post-Soviet integration schemes. But a new report in Azerbaijan's APA news service simultaneously provides some compelling evidence that the reports are true and proposes the most unlikely motive: the machinations of the Armenian lobby in Russia. From APA:
Persons of Armenian descent, who lead the Russian aviation industry, have impeded the negotiations between Azerbaijan and Russia on the purchase of combat aircrafts, military sources told APA.
According to the information obtained by the Azerbaijani side, as a result of the efforts made by the persons of Armenian descent in the leadership of Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation, as well as MIG and Sukhoi companies, the negotiations with Russia on the purchase of combat aircrafts Su-27, Su-30 and MiG-31 have not produced results. Except for YaK-130 advanced training aircraft, Russia refused to sell warplanes to Azerbaijan.
Once again, Azerbaijan, the region's energy giant, led the pack with diagnoses of chronic cases of intolerance for freedom of expression, corruption in the judiciary system and abuse of detainees by police.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s senior political advisor, Ali Hasanov, did temper his response with elaborations about the importance of Baku's strategic partnership with the US, but he could not help noticing an alleged double-standard in the American criticism.
A country that, as he sees it, had no qualms about folding the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York City is in no position to lecture a country that does not want to allow similarly impromptu demonstrations in the heart of its capital, he implied.
Once you try Azerbaijani food, you know that Azerbaijan is a smart country. Take it from French cinema legend and gastronome Gérard Depardieu, who’s got a growing hankering for ex-Soviet countries that like their policies on the tough side.
A recent commercial, brought to you by the Azerbaijani Ministry of Culture and Tourism, features the movie star digging into Azerbaijani food as a local scriptwriter tries to sell him on a movie idea. “I am overwhelmed,” exclaims the rotund Depardieu as the dishes keep coming, and the scriptwriter chatters on.
Not by the script. But by the cooking. “The country who [sic] has that kind of food is obviously a smart country,” he concludes, gesturing with his fork.
Perhaps food quality can indeed testify to IQ (and Azerbaijani cuisine does have its tasty items), but how the Depardieu video will testify to Azerbaijan’s international image remains to be seen. Increasingly, the 64-year-old actor appears to be available for the asking.
Azerbaijan has asked Russia to relocate some of its Caspian Fleet to Baku after Turkmenistan's naval forces fired on some of Azerbaijan's offshore oil drilling facilities. That's according to Russian website OSTKRAFT, and while the chances of this being accurate are probably pretty small, it's too intriguing a rumor to not pass on. According to OSTKRAFT's story:
President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev has appealed to the leadership of Russia to move part of its Caspian Fleet from Astrakhan and Makhachkala to Baku.
The goal of such military assistance would be the defense of offshore oil drilling facilities in the Caspian Sea territorial waters of Azerbaijan. The immediate cause for the appeal of the government of Azerbaijan to Moscow, according to an OSTKRAFT source, is the damage to Azerbaijan's offshore oil refining infrastructure in shooting by the naval forces of Turkmenistan on the Caspian. The Russian reply is not known.
Given the vagueness of the sourcing, it's best to treat this report with a high degree of skepticism. And it seems unlikely that Aliyev would make such a dramatic request to Russia -- in the long term he's more worried about Russia than about Turkmenistan. And inviting the Russians to base themselves in Baku would make it very hard later to get them out.
Still, the nascent naval forces of Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan have clashed in the past and we didn't hear about it until long after the fact (and probably still wouldn't have, if not for WikiLeaks). And Baku has shown that it prefers not to publicize news of its own weakness in the Caspian. So is there at least a kernel of truth to this somewhere, perhaps some sort of naval clash between the two countries? We'll have to wait for more information.