Tag Archives: Azerbaijan

Nagorno-Karabakh – A mountainous conflict

A nasty war seems on the brink of flaring up again

THROUGH a slit in a stone bunker, soldiers from the Nagorno-Karabakh republic can see their Azeri foes just 150 metres away. In these mountains between two former Soviet republics, there are echoes of Ukraine. This summer was “more tense than before”, says an officer at the front of this long-simmering conflict.

Nagorno-Karabakh is run by ethnic Armenians but is legally part of Azerbaijan. Secession in 1988 led to a war that killed some 30,000 people. A shaky ceasefire ensued in 1994, with Azerbaijan losing 14% of its territory. Exchanges of fire along the front have long been common, but the clashes this year have been the worst since 1994.

Commando raids became frequent, adding to the usual sniper fire. And the action has spread to the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, where civilians have become targets. Each side blames the other. Heavy Azeri losses at the start of August provoked bellicose rhetoric from the president, Ilham Aliyev. “The war is not over,” he declared. “Only the first stage of it is.”

Like a headmaster disciplining unruly students, Russia’s Vladimir Putin summoned Mr Aliyev and his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sargsyan, for talks in Sochi in early August. Tensions cooled, but the parties are no closer to a settlement.

On September 2nd Mr Sargsyan congratulated Nagorno-Karabakh on the 23rd anniversary of its independence by calling the republic’s choice “an irreversible reality now”.

But it is Ukraine that casts an ominous shadow, “reinforcing the zero-sum mentality”, says Thomas de Waal of the Carnegie Endowment in Washington. Trust in international mediators and security guarantees has frayed. Officials in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, detect double standards over sovereignty and self-determination.

They wonder why the West punishes Russia for annexing Crimea, but not Armenia for similar behaviour in Karabakh. Many ask why the West approves of Ukraine using force to restore territorial integrity, but insists on Azerbaijan’s peaceful patience.

As a result, Azerbaijan is “losing trust in the ability of the West to maintain a deterrent or a peaceful ceasefire,” says Matthew Bryza, a former American ambassador to Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan feels vulnerable. Russia provides a security guarantee for Armenia, where it has a military base and 4,000-5,000 troops. Azeri officials see the Western response to Ukraine as tepid, part of a worrying pattern of disengagement.

This perceived indifference has favoured a crackdown in Azerbaijan. Several anti-government activists have been arrested this year, some charged with treason. The bank accounts of NGOs have been frozen. International pressure was once a “brake mechanism” on Azerbaijan, says Sabine Freizer, at the Atlantic Council, but it may no longer work.

Azerbaijan’s new assertiveness has come with the weakening of two restraints: its military disadvantage and the prospect of a diplomatic settlement. Riding a wave of petrodollars, Azerbaijan’s annual defence budget rose from $177m in 2003 to $3.4 billion in 2013.

Purchases include sophisticated weapons from Israel, Turkey and Russia. The country has a new and inexperienced defence minister.

Armenia has built up its forces and defences too. Even so, Mr Putin used its sense of vulnerability to persuade it to apply for membership of the Eurasian union, his pet project.

The risk of open war remains low, but the militarisation of the borders and the willingness to use violence creates “the risk of a war by accident”, says Richard Giragosian, director of the Yerevan-based Regional Studies Centre. The consequences would be disastrous, drawing in Russia, Turkey and Iran, and potentially feeding unrest in the Middle East.

The framework of a peace plan exists, hinging on the return of seven de jure Azerbaijani districts around Nagorno-Karabakh in exchange for the republic’s right to decide its own status.

A mountainous conlict

But in Stepanakert, the capital, leaders insist that a settlement is impossible without a seat at the table for Karabakh, which is represented by Armenia. Even then, a compromise that includes returning territory to Azerbaijan is “unrealistic”, says Nagorno-Karabakh’s prime minister, Arayik Harutyunyan.

While Stepanakert seems peaceful, the people steel themselves for what many see as an inevitable return to violence. Zhanna Galstyan, head of the Nagorno-Karabakh parliament’s defence committee, recalls an adage of Chekhov: “If there is a gun hanging on the wall in the first act, at some point in the play it must go off.”

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Putin’s Armenia Shock — Protests break out against a Russian ally in the Caucasus

Demonstrators wave national flags during a protest rally against a hike in electricity prices in Yerevan, Armenia on June 27.
Demonstrators wave national flags during a protest rally against a hike in electricity prices in Yerevan, Armenia on June 27

Ten thousand protesters over the weekend poured into the streets of Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, defying the government’s crackdown. Russian-media reactions suggest the Kremlin is nervous, as Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan is a close Moscow ally.

The so-called Electric Yerevan protests erupted this month after the state utilities commission announced a 17% rise in electricity rates, and they have steadily grown.

At issue isn’t merely the electricity price-hike in a country with 17% unemployment but the Russian domination of the local economy and the corruption and cronyism that are hallmarks of the Kremlin business model.

The local electricity provider, the Armenian Electricity Network, is a subsidiary of Russia’s Inter RAO, whose chairman, Igor Sechin, is a close friend of President Vladimir Putin.

The protesters allege the company is corrupt, and on Saturday Mr. Sargsyan conceded their demand for an audit. He also suspended the price hike, which was set to begin in August, until the audit is complete.

The Armenian leader and his Russian patrons seem to have grasped the depth of national feeling. The Kremlin over the weekend lent $200 million in military aid to Armenia, which has a long-standing territorial dispute with neighboring Azerbaijan.

Moscow also agreed to move the trial of a Russian soldier suspected of murdering an Armenian family in January to an Armenian court.

At stake for Mr. Putin are his military investments in Armenia. Home to some 3,000 troops, the 102nd Military Base in Gyumri, Armenia, is a crucial Russian beachhead in the South Caucasus corridor, without which Moscow can’t control the Caspian Sea and Central Asia.

Mr. Putin considers the Caucasus part of Russia’s imperial domain, and the Kremlin carved out bits of sovereign territory in the region in its 2008 assault on Georgia. Mr. Putin also wants stability in his Eurasian Economic Union, which Armenia joined this year.

The U.S. and Europe should aim to deny further Russian encroachments by encouraging westward steps. But no such determination is in evidence.

The European Union last month diluted its commitment to the Eastern Partnership countries, which include the South Caucasus states of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. By denying such states a clear path to association, Europe pushes them into Mr. Putin’s sphere.

The U.S., meanwhile, took a stance on Twitter. “Concerned by tense situation downtown,” the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan tweeted over the weekend. “Urge all sides to display peaceful, restrained behavior befitting democratic values.” That’s nice.

Armenia: Will Murders Bring Change to Ties with Russia?

Russia has agreed to let Armenian courts try a Russian soldier accused of murdering seven members of an Armenian family after deserting Russia’s major military base in the country.

The move is a major concession by Moscow, and comes as large-scale street protests in Yerevan against Armenia’s Russian-owned electricity company have been gathering strength.

The soldier, Valery Permyakov, walked off Russia’s 102nd military base in Gyumri on January 12, walked into the nearby home of the Avetsiyan family and opened fire; six died immediately and a seventh, a six-month-old baby, died later in the hospital. The case outraged Armenians and led to unprecedented protests against the base.

From the beginning, Armenia and Russia have disagreed about who should be able to try Permyakov: Armenia wanted him tried in Armenian courts, while Russia wanted him to be tried by a Russian military court, albeit on Armenian soil.

On June 26, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan met with a Russian government delegation to discuss energy fees, the issue that sparked the Yerevan protests. But the scope of the discussions was apparently wider than that, and Sargsyan’s office issued a surprise announcement after the meeting:

“At the meeting … Sargsyan took the opportunity to express appreciation to the Russian law enforcement organs, in particular to the prosecutor’s office for effective cooperation with the Armenian prosecutor’s office on the investigation the inhuman crime in Gyumri in January,” Sargsyan’s office said in a statement, news agencies reported.

“The decision about the transfer of the criminal case to the Investigative Committee of Armenia and the appropriate authorities in Armenia, reflects the spirit of partnership and brotherhood and fully corresponds with the position of the Armenian-Russian agreement on the status of the Russian military base in Armenia.”

On top of that, Russia also apparently agreed to give Armenia $200 million in credit for arms purchases.

Various Russian officials have been darkly warning that the protests in Armenia represent an anti-Russian, U.S.-backed “maidan,” a la Ukraine, and advising Sargsyan to take a harsher stance against the protesters.

But this move shows that Moscow also realizes it needs to try to assuage Armenian public opinion, which has been wounded not just by the electricity issue and the Permyakov case, but arms sales to its enemy, Azerbaijan. Will this concession be enough to tamp down the anti-Russian sentiment on the streets of Yerevan?

Stay tuned.

Armenian president suspends electricity hikes behind protest

A demonstrator waves an Armenian flag as others block a street during a protest against an increase of electricity prices in Yerevan on June 26.

YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — The president of Armenia on Saturday suspended hikes in household electricity rates in an effort to end the protests that have blocked the capital’s main avenue for six straight days. The demonstrators, however, didn’t disperse.

President Serzh Sargsyan said the government would bear the burden of the higher electricity costs until an audit of the Russian-owned power company could be completed. At least some of the money appeared to be coming from Moscow, where the protests have caused great concern.

Some of the protest organizers called for demonstrators to remain on the street until the rate hikes were completely annulled, but they said the decision on whether to continue the protest would be made Sunday evening.

Thousands of protesters have blocked Yerevan’s main avenue since Monday, their numbers steadily increasing throughout the week to a peak of about 15,000. In recent days, the protest has looked more like a street party, with the mostly young demonstrators dancing and singing national songs.

Armenia is closely allied with Russia, which maintains a military base in the former Soviet nation. Russian companies control most of its major industries, including the power grid, which the protesters claim is riddled with corruption.

Sargsyan’s announcement followed a meeting the night before with Russian Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov, who co-chairs a Russian-Armenian economic commission. During the meeting, they agreed to an audit of the electricity company, but this didn’t satisfy the protesters.

Sargsyan said Saturday the 17-percent electricity hike was necessary to support the power grid and therefore he was ordering the government to cover the cost. He said this wouldn’t be done at the expense of social payments, a sensitive issue in a country where one third of the population of 3 million is below the official poverty line.

Instead, the president said the money would come from the security budget.

“Of course our security problems are far from being resolved, and that’s an understatement, but today’s atmosphere of suspicion and distrust I also see as a problem of security and a very serious problem,” he said in a statement released by his office. “It needs to be resolved.”

Also as a result of the meeting with Sokolov, Russia agreed to loan Armenia $200 million to help modernize its military, according to Sargsyan’s office.

In another concession, Russia agreed to allow Armenia to try a Russian soldier accused of killing seven members of an Armenian family in January.

Armenia remains locked in a conflict with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. A cease-fire in 1994 ended a six-year war, but attempts to negotiate a peaceful settlement have stalled and fatal shootings occur frequently along the buffer zone.

The conflict also resulted in the closure of Armenia’s borders with Azerbaijan and its ally Turkey, which has hobbled the economy of the landlocked country.

Angered by the electricity hikes, about 5,000 protesters marched on the presidential residence on Monday evening. When they were blocked by police, they sat down on the road for the night, taking police by surprise.

In the early hours of Tuesday, riot police used water cannons to disperse them and arrested nearly 240 people, but by that evening even more protesters had gathered. Since then, the police have stood by peacefully.

Only a few hundred protesters have remained on the street around the clock, with the numbers swelling again in the evenings.

The protests, organized largely through social media, have become popular on Twitter with the hashtag #ElectricYerevan.

Penguin From Flooded Tbilisi Zoo Swims To Azerbaijani Border

The penguin is now headed back to Tbilisi
The penguin is now headed back to Tbilisi

After floods devastated the Tbilisi zoo, some of the surviving animals were rounded up in the Georgian capital — but a penguin made it all the way to the border with Azerbaijan.

An African penguin from the zoo was spotted swimming in a river near a bridge at the international border some 60 kilometers from Tbilisi, the zoo administration said on June 17.

“He is alive,” it said. “A group has gone to bring him back to Tbilisi.”

Twenty African penguins were moved to the Tbilisi Zoo in July 2014 from Living Coasts, a zoo in the town of Torquay in southern England, in a bid to set up a new breeding colony for the endangered species.

The penguin found near the border was among many animals that broke loose and roamed after the zoo was swamped by severe floods that killed at least 17 people and caused severe damage to the Georgian capital.

Many zoo animals drowned, and some were shot dead by police who cited safety concerns. The zoo said more than half of some 600 animals in its care had drowned or been killed by the authorities.

The African penguin originates from southern African waters
The African penguin originates from southern African waters

The latter includes a tiger that authorities said was shot on June 17 after it mauled a man to death in downtown Tbilisi.

Meanwhile, the zoo said a hippopotamus that was tranquilized and returned to the facility on June 14 had emerged from “depression.”

“Our beloved hippo…had lost some weight in the first two days,” the zoo administration said. “But the hippo is doing well now. He has got enough sleep and began to eat again.”

Armenian troops kill Azerbaijan soldier

Flag_of_Nagorno-Karabakh

Baku—Armenian forces killed an Azerbaijani soldier as clashes festered along the volatile frontline of the breakaway Nagorny Karabakh region, a military spokesman in Baku said on Friday.

“On March 26 (Thursday) Armenians have violated a ceasefire on the eastern sector of the Karabakh frontline,” an Azerbaijani Defence Ministry official told AFP.

“An Azerbaijani serviceman was killed in action,” the official said without giving further details.

The incident comes after three Armenian troops were shot dead in a similar clash last week, and takes the number of people reported killed on both sides this year to 22.

Baku and Yerevan have been locked in a dispute over Azerbaijan’s Nagorny Karabakh region since a bloody war in the early 1990 and frequent flare-ups happen along the line dividing the warring sides.

Karabakh serviceman wounded from Azeri commandos’ attack dies in hospital

Threatening a shaky 1994 truce, clashes between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces intensified again in January following an unprecedented spiral of violence last year.

Yerevan-backed ethnic Armenian separatists seized control of Karabakh and another seven adjacent districts of Azerbaijan during the conflict that left some 30,000 dead.

Despite years of negotiations, the two sides have not signed a final peace deal, with Armenian-populated Karabakh still internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan.

Karabakh’s ethnic-Azeri community — around a quarter of the population before the war — was entirely driven out.

Baku, whose military spending exceeds Armenia’s entire state budget, has threatened to take back the territories by force if negotiations fail to yield results.

Armenia, backed militarily by Russia, says it could crush any offensive.

Nagorno-Karabakh says 3 of its soldiers killed, 4 wounded in clash with Azerbaijani forces

YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — The defense ministry of the separatist Nagorno-Karabakh region said three of its soldiers were killed and another four were wounded Thursday while repelling an Azerbaijani incursion.

It said an unspecified number of Azerbaijani invaders were killed during the clash, which lasted about two hours. Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry, in turn, blamed the Armenian side for the clash and claimed that 20 Armenian soldiers were killed or wounded. The conflicting claims couldn’t be independently verified.

Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh region and some adjacent territory have been under the control of Armenian soldiers and local ethnic Armenian forces since a 1994 cease-fire that ended a six-year war.

Attempts to negotiate a peaceful settlement have stalled, and the sides engage in frequent shootings along the buffer zone.

Armenian and Azerbaijani officials have exchanged tough statements, blaming each other for provocative actions.

Armenian President Serge Sarkisian said Wednesday that “attempts to speak to Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh in the language of threats, provocations and blackmail will not lead to settlement of the problem.”

In Azerbaijan’s military statement issued Thursday, Defense Minister Zakir Gasanov was quoted as saying that “all enemy provocations on the line of contact will be harshly stopped.”

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