The U.S. State Department is considering allowing a sale of surveillance equipment to Azerbaijan, which supporters say is needed to help protect against Iran. But Washington's Armenian-American lobby and its allied members of Congress are objecting, arguiing that it could be used against Armenian forces in the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh, as well.
The equipment in question hasn't been precisely identified, but it is some sort of surveillance equipment that would be installed in Mi-35M attack helicopters that Azerbaijan has lately been acquiring from Russia. The State Department and Azerbaijan are saying that the equipment would be used by Azerbaijan's border service, and an "action item" by the U.S. Azeris Network emphasizes that the equipment is required to police the border with Iran:
[I]t is the moral responsibility of the U.S. Congress and Government to show their support to their strategic ally in that turbulent region and stand strong with Azerbaijan. Such support should start with statements and resolutions in support of sovereign, secure and independent Azerbaijan, to supplying it with defensive systems such as Patriot air-defense systems (PAC3), border protection equipment, helicopter protection systems, simulators, Command and Control gear, and any other defensive and border-protection military hardware and software that would protect Azerbaijan’s energy infrastructure, make it less vulnerable, and send a strong message to Iran to stop bullying and threatening. We should show our allies that we value their partnership and friends, and are not ignoring the threat Iran poses.
Three Armenian soldiers were killed by gunfire from neighboring Azerbaijani just as US Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton was about to go country-hopping in the South Caucasus.
Clinton arrived in Yerevan today and, after a stop in Georgia, is due in Baku on June 6.
To hear the Azerbaijani news service APA tell it, the “preventive measures,” which wounded three Armenian soldiers as well, were directed at stopping the Armenian military from infiltrating Azerbaijan from Armenia's northern Tavush region.
But, as is the standard case in Caucasus countries hosting Clinton, you need to tune into the news on the other side of the conflict line for the second side of the story.
Armenian news reported that the Armenians died in a shootout as they tried to halt an infiltration from Azerbaijan. “Thanks to [the] courage[ous] actions of the soldiers… [the] enemy was drawn back,” ArmenPress cited Armenia’s Ministry of Defense as saying.
The not-so-frozen Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region is most definitely going to be discussed with Madam Secretary in both places.
Civil rights as well. An area where there's a lot to chat about with both sides; Georgia, too.
Iranian naval vessels have conducted maneuvers close to the border with Azerbaijan, and high-ranking Turkish officials are visiting Baku as a show of force against Iran, according to a report in Regnum.ru.
The Regnum report cited the Azerbaijan opposition newspaper Yeni Musavat, which in turn cited eyewitnesses in the region of Astara, bordering Iran, as saying "six vessels of the Iranian navy forces had come close to the Azerbaijani state border for the second day. According to their observations, the Iranian vessels are involved in a series of manoeuvres as if it demonstrates threat to Azerbaijan." The alleged incursion comes at a time of increased tension between Iran and Azerbaijan, including Tehran's recall of its ambassador to Baku last week.
And Regnum's correspondent, citing a source in Baku "close to Turkish military circles in Baku," said that four top Turkish military commanders are visiting Azerbaijan in early June, including the heads of the army, navy and air force. "By this step, Turkey wants to explain Iran that it will not leave Azerbaijan alone," the source told Regnum.
Azerbaijan's state border service, however, denied the original report in Yeni Musavat, saying reports that Iranian warships were maneuvering were "baseless and provocative."
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.