This is the fifth de-facto election in the separatist history of Karabakh and the fifth time the international community has shrugged its shoulders at the territory’s claims that it is an independent country with on-the-level elections.
Azerbaijan says that without the ousted ethnic Azeri population, no vote can be legitimate in Karabakh. Most of the world concurs.
But the de-facto election matters for the impoverished, ethnic Armenian population of Karabakh. They face a choice between five more years of the same with incumbent Bako Saakian, the onetime head of the region's de-facto security servicesl, or a new broom with his two challengers, one ex-military and one academician.
Saakian’s main challenger, former de-facto Deputy Defense Minister Vitaly Balasian, a veteran of Karabakh’s war for de-facto independence from Azerbaijan, takes a hard-line stance toward both Enemy Number One, Azerbaijan, and Friend Number One, Armenia. As a de-facto parliament member, he opposed surrendering any war-won Azerbaijani lands, a critical theme in talks over the territory’s status, and criticized Armenia for conducting international negotiations on the enclave’s status without the participation of de-facto Karabakh officials.
All three candidates are pushing for Karabakh's re-inclusion in the internationally mediated talks. Where the three differ is the economy and allegations of corruption.
Larry King was in Azerbaijan today to talk about a subject with which he is quite familiar -- women. At a Baku event staged by the Crans Montana Forum, a Swiss organization in search of "a more humane and impartial world," the legendary American talk-show host, known for his revolving-door love life, addressed the rights and the role of women "in tomorrow's world."
A map showing the approximate location of Iran's new oil discovery in the Caspian
Iran recently announced that it has discovered a substantial oil deposit -- about 10 billion barrels -- in the Caspian Sea. That would be about seven percent of Iran's total reserves, and the country's first discovery in the Caspian in over a century. That in itself is pretty remarkable; Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said it will "change the energy and political balance of the region."
But the situation could get a lot more complicated, according to regional analyst Alex Jackson. In a recent presentation, which he provided to The Bug Pit, Jackson noted that the discovery appears to actually be in waters claimed by Azerbaijan. Iran hasn't provided a precise location, but has said it is 188km north of Roudsar in Gilan province and 250 km northwest of Neka. See the map here, from Jackson's presentation, where the white dotted line is what Azerbaijan considers to be the southern boundary of its waters, while the brown dotted line represents what Iran considers to be the northen extent of its waters. And right in the middle of that is this new discovery (actually two separate, though connected, fields, called Sardar Jangal and Sardar Milli). In addition to the 10 billion barrels of oil, it also holds 50 trillion cubic feet of gas, according to Iran.
Surveys show that Armenians tend to believe that the man has to be the principal moneymaker in a family. But looks like the country's presidential family is bucking that trend. Judging by official income disclosures, President Serzh Sargsyan lives, financially speaking, in the shadow of his richer wife, Rita.
While the president was scrimping together a modest annual income in drams of some $34,900 (salary plus accruals on loans) in 2011, Rita Sargsyan was busy making the dram equivalent of $41,000, reported the investigative news service Hetq. Perhaps because of his modest revenue, the Armenian president did not do any large-scale shopping or investment in 2011, if we go by his income declaration.
In neighboring Georgia, President Mikheil Saakashvili seems to be the breadwinner in his family. President Saakashvili’s annual salary in laris is just $1,000 higher than that of his Armenian counterpart, while his wife, Sandra Roelofs, has not disclosed any earned wages for 2011. Saakashvili owns more property than his wife, but the his and her bank accounts seem to be about the same size in that family. As of May 16, 2012, the president reported about $85,000 in his bank accounts (in dollars, euros and laris), while the first lady has above $86,000 worth of euros and laris.
President Ilham Aliyev admires the fruits of the domestic weapons industry; will an indigenous armored vehicle be next?
Azerbaijan is producing its own armored vehicles, which will be "100 percent locally produced," according to news agency APA. The report gives little information about the vehicle, not even a name, other than to say it will be first produced in reconnaissance and "combat" models.
But it does include an amusing bit of South Caucasus oneupmanship:
These cars will have the advantages over Georgia-based “Didgori” and Armenia-based “Ayk” vehicles for its maneuver possibilities, ballistic protection, sustainability, as well as the other features.
Azerbaijan has already been producing armored vehicles in cooperation with a South African firm. And as we learned from the embarrassing tale of Georgia's "homemade" drone, it's easy to say something is "100 percent local" without that meaning very much. It's more an issue of national pride than anything else.
Residents of Baku, a handsome city awash in petrodollars, have been given something new to worry about by earthquake forecasters from the Massachusetts Institute for Technology.
While buildings in the Azerbaijani capital are soaring ever upwards, seismic tension down below is building ever deeper, and could cause a devastating earthquake, MIT scientists announced in a June 14 statement.
Ten years of GPS tracking of seismic shifts suggest that fault lines near Baku may snap under the strain of a face-off between the North Eurasian and South Arabian plates, they found. That means that the city could share the fate of Azerbaijan's former capital of Shemakha, leveled by a quake in 1859.
“It is an extremely vulnerable area in terms of density of the people, the density of oil infrastructure, and potential environmental impact regionally; not just Azerbaijan,” commented principal research scientist Robert Reillinger to MITnews.
The good news is that the MIT people are not sure about it. Similar observations did little to predict the 2011 Japan earthquake and fickle mother earth is still largely beyond predictions.
If it is any reassurance, Azerbaijani scientists rejected the forecasts of their colleagues in Massachusetts and noted that Baku's Soviet-era buildings can withstand six or seven-magnitude tremors -- a finding that didn't hold during the city's 2000 earthquake (7 on the Richter scale).
Gunboats from Azerbaijan's coast guard threatened international oil company ships working on behalf of Turkmenistan on at least two occasions in 2008, U.S. diplomatic cables from Wikileaks show. The incidents, which don't seem to have been previously reported, caused Turkmenistan's president, Gurbanguly Berdimukhammedov, to accuse his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev of "personally insulting" him and "running like a little boy."
One incident was in April 2008, and involved a vessel from the Malaysian company Petronas in a part of the Caspian that both sides agree is Turkmenistan's:
[U]pon closing in on the Petronas ships/rig, the Azeri gunboats instructed the Petronas captain to move away. He reportedly refused to move, stating that he was nowhere close to Azerbaijan's claimed border. The standoff reportedly lasted for more than a day. In the end, the Petronas captain agreed to move slightly to the east (although not as far as the Azeri border guards at first had demanded), which apparently satisfied the Azeris.
The second was in May 2008 and involved a ship from Canadian company Buried Hill and was in a spot that was (and remains) in dispute between the two countries, around the Serdar/Kyapaz and Omar-Osman/Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli fields:
In the second episode, the Azeri gunboats again intercepted a vessel that Buried Hill had hired to do some research in block III related to its plans to begin drilling in the first quarter of 2009. Buried Hill told him this time calls were made from Ashgabat to Baku, and that the Azeri vessels subsequently backed off. According to
Buried Hill, there were also Iranian vessels in the area at the time of the interception.
Several days after apparent widespread skirmishes all along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border and the Nagorno-Karabakh "line of contact," there is still very little information about what actually happened. For a while, though, at least on the internet, it seemed that a serious escalation of violence was imminent.
It's a bit odd that, amid all the rumors of massive fighting, there doesn't seem to have been any casualties on either side, suggesting that the reports may have been some sort of deliberate disinformation campaign. And that's what the Armenian Defense Ministry has suggested:
The rumors spread by Azerbaijani mass media on the possible combat operations on NKR–Azerbaijan line of contact towards Aghdam and Fizulai are nothing but imagination.
In comparison to June 7-8, the ceasefire violations in different parts of the front line have become more frequent and have increased. This, however, did not affect and will not affect the general state.
All the usual suspects issued the usual statements calling on both sides to settle the conflict peacefully, etc. But one international reaction was especially notable: Russia's. A Russian military spokesman noted that airmen at the Russian military base in Armenia have been stepping up their training flights since the beginning of the year. From the New York Times:
Russian fighter jets stationed at a base in Armenia have conducted about 300 training flights since the beginning of 2012, and have increased the number of flying hours by more than 20 percent from last year...
Hillary Rodham Clinton may have gotten lots of love and wine in Georgia, but if we were to pick one man in the Caucasus truly overjoyed to see Madam Secretary, that would be the Azerbaijani youth activist Bakhtiyar Hajiyev.
Hajiyev, an organizer of an attempted rally perceived as opposing the heavy-handed Azerbaijani government, was recently freed from prison in what many believe was a PR move to please Baku's high-profile visitor. Perhaps his release gave Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov the chance to say that Azerbaijan is busy strengthening human rights. It ain’t gonna happen overnight, he added.
In Baku, Clinton sat down for a chat with Hajiyev and expressed hope that he will be allowed to do his work without interference and that, generally, Azerbaijanis will be allowed to speak their minds. She urged the Azerbaijani government to release its critics from prisons and also to keep working on providing more oil and gas to the West.
But Clinton’s Caucasus run did not ended up well for everyone in Azerbaijan and neighboring Armenia. The exchange of gunfire between the two countries that marked the kickoff of the secretary of state's tour reportedly resumed on the eve of Clinton's arrival in Baku . Some commentators believe that the shooting was intended to whip up US interest in pushing more aggressively for a resolution to the two countries' decades-long conflict over the breakaway region of Nagorno Karabakh. Both sides, as per usual, blame the other for this latest ceasefire violation.
Just as Hillary Clinton is making a trip through the Caucasus, the Azerbaijan-Armenia border is seeing some of the worst violence in years. On Monday, three Armenian soldiers were killed by Azerbaijani forces, and on Tuesday, the Armenians retaliated, killing five Azerbaijanis. Alex Jackson, in a very worthwhile post at his blog Caspian Intel, notes that the violence was not on the "Line of Contact" separating Azerbaijanis and Armenians at the de facto border of Nagorno Karabakh, but at the state border between Armenia and Azerbaijan proper. Further, the two incidents took place about 25 miles apart, "which indicates that the clashes are not linked by local geography (i.e. an Armenian incursion followed by a local Azerbaijani counterattack) but part of a broader pattern of probing attempts along the border," Jackson writes.
The implication is that, on one side or both, there was a degree of regional-level coordination by military commanders and a willingness to test the defences of the other side across a wide swathe of territory. This expansion of the battlefield marks a serious escalation.