Tag Archives: Nagorno-Karabakh

Armenia Gets a Monument to Kalashnikov

A monument to the legendary Russian arms-designer, creator of the AK-rifle series, Mikhail Kalashnikov, has been erected in Armenia. The full-length statue of the man whose weapons came to epitomize Russian/Soviet military might was placed in the northern town of Gyuimri, the site of Russia’s lone military base in the South Caucasus.  

The Kalashnikov monument will be unveiled officially and a museum will open on November 8, according to a press-release from the 102nd military base, cited by RIA Novosti. The base commander, Colonel Andrei Ruzinski, came up with the idea last year, when Kalashnikov passed away, leaving behind the legacy of what Russia says is the world’s most popular rifle.

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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.”

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.

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.”

Austrian reporter refused Azeri visa over visiting Artsakh

Austrian reporter refused Azeri visa over visiting Artsakh

Reporter Jutta Bauer, who was accompanying Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz during his visit to the South Caucasus, was refused an entry visa to Azerbaijan over visiting Nagorno Karabakh.

Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Die Presse newspaper correspondent Jutta Bauer visited Karabakh “without Azerbaijan’s consent” in 2011 and was therefore blacklisted.

The issue was not settled even after the personal interference of Mr. Kurz, who is expected to discuss the incident in the context of freedom of speech violations in Azerbaijan.

In August 2013, Azeri Foreign Ministry published the notorious blacklist, which includes Slovak politician Frantişek Mikloşko, Argentinean parliamentarian Jose Arbo, Russian expert Andrey Areshev, Baroness Caroline Cox, opera star Montserrat Caballé and many other famous personalities.

Armenia, Azerbaijan Leaders Meet Over Nagorno-Karabakh

The presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan have met for a third time in less than three months over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Armenia’s Serzh Sarkisian and his Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev held face-to-face talks in Paris on October 27.

They were later joined by the cochairs of the OSCE Minsk Group — U.S. Ambassador James Warlick, Igor Popov of Russia, and France’s Pierre Andrieu.

Earlier on October 27, Sarkisian and Aliyev met separately with French President Francois Hollande.

Sarkisian said Yerevan remains committed to finding a negotiated peace to the Karabakh conflict.

Armenia's President Serzh Sargsyan (C) and Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev (R) leave after a dinner with French President Francois Hollande, to discuss the conflict around Nagorno-Karabakh, at the Elysee Palace in Paris October 27, 2014. REUTERS-Philippe Wojazer

Violence has increased recently along the line of contact between Armenian Karabakh forces and Azerbaijani troops, with more than 20 soldiers killed there since August.

Armenian-backed separatists seized Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan during a war in the early 1990s.

Azerbaijan Tightens Screws On Civil Society, Independent Media

Following the sentencing of Azerbaijani youth activists in a Baku court in early May, supporters clashed with police.

There is good news coming out of Azerbaijan these days. But much of it seems to be coming from the Twitter feed of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.

“A free society has emerged in Azerbaijan. All democratic institutions are available and they operate successfully,” he wrote on September 1.

Followed moments later by: “All freedoms, including the freedom of speech, the freedom of conscience, the freedom of the press and free Internet, are available.”

And: “Azerbaijani society is a free society, and this is our great achievement.”

But if you dig a little deeper for your news about Azerbaijan, the picture is much bleaker. The European Stability Initiative, a Berlin-based think tank, recently issued a five-page report detailing what it calls “the most serious and brutal crackdown on civil society in Azerbaijan ever” since Baku assumed the chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe in May.

From the conviction and eight-year prison sentence handed down to journalist and activist Parviz Hashimli on May 15 to the brutal beating of journalist Ilgar Nasibov by unknown assailants on August 21, it is a depressing litany of arrests, detentions, searches, and court hearings of bloggers, journalists, and prominent activists.

Squeezing Out Independent Media

Mehman Aliyev is the head of the Turan information agency. He says that the crackdown is particularly severe because Azerbaijani society was already strictly repressed.

“There were more media outlets in the past and when one or two was hit, it did not seem very dramatic,” he says.

Journalist İlgar Nasibov was brutally beaten in August.Journalist İlgar Nasibov was brutally beaten in August.

“But now they have reduced the information space so dramatically that critical media are limited to just one or two outlets. The government is open about this. Apparently it’s in Azerbaijan’s national interest not to have critical media.”

Aliyev told RFE/RL on September 8 that he might be forced to close Turan, the country’s last remaining independent news agency.

Rahim Haciyev, first deputy editor in chief of the opposition “Azadliq” newspaper, tells a similar story. “The authorities believe the press should work under the guidance of official propaganda,” he says. “The government’s policies cannot be criticized.”

The most recent list of political prisoners in Azerbaijan, published in June under the supervision of activist Leyla Yunus — who was arrested herself in July — includes 98 names.

Blaming ‘Foreign Forces’

The driving force behind the crackdown is Ramiz Mehdiyev, President Aliyev’s chief of staff. He held a closed-door meeting of government officials and pro-government media executives on August 29 at which he attacked independent and Western media for their coverage of Azerbaijan and, in particular, the conflict with Armenia over the de facto independent Azerbaijani region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

He said the “main purpose” of nonstate media in Azerbaijan — including RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service, the Voice of America, and the BBC — was “to discredit the state of Azerbaijan, to blacken its achievements, and to confuse the public by stressing groundless, fabricated issues.”

He said “foreign forces” use nongovernmental organizations and independent media to take advantage of “the tolerant and democratic environment in Azerbaijan” to disseminate “absurd lists of ‘political prisoners’; information about alleged violations of human rights; fabrications about pressure on civil-society organizations, media, and journalists; and exaggerations about the corruption problem in Azerbaijan.”

On September 5, Azerbaijani security forces raided the Baku office of IREX, a U.S.-funded nongovernmental organization that promotes democratic reforms around the globe. The organization’s bank accounts have been frozen, as have those of other international NGOs including Transparency International and the National Democratic Institute.

At the same time, “The New York Times” on September 6 published an investigative report detailing how Baku uses its oil money to buy influence in Washington and “reinforce public opinion in the United States” that Azerbaijan is “an important security partner.”

Geopolitical Anxiety

The crackdown comes at a sensitive time for Baku as it pursues its policy of finding a middle course between an increasingly assertive Russia and the West.

“The government is frightened most by recent developments around the world, especially in the post-Soviet space,” says Baku-based political analyst Azer Gasimli. “Today the fate of Azerbaijan, to some extent, is being resolved on the battlefields of Ukraine. The West is preoccupied with the events in Ukraine and until that [conflict] is resolved, the U.S. and the West won’t get strict with Azerbaijan.”

Former U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan Richard Kauzlarich agrees that Baku believes the West is distracted by Ukraine and the Middle East and could be using the opportunity “to complete the internal repression and eliminate foreign NGOs.”

In a written response to a query from RFE/RL, Kauzlarich also says Baku might be giving in to Russian pressure to distance itself from the West. Another possibility, he says, is that Baku could be reacting to pressure from Washington to negotiate a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict “rather than [impose] the Azerbaijan solution on Armenia.”

Azerbaijani investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who hosts an evening talk show for RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service, says she believes the crackdown is largely targeting individuals who would protest if President Aliyev begins to pursue closer relations with Russia or the nascent Moscow-led Eurasian Union.

Journalist Haciyev of “Azadliq” says Baku was scared during a recent spate of violence along the Line of Contact surrounding Karabakh and on the border with Armenia. “

We saw then that citizens did not rely on information from official sources,” he says, making it difficult for Baku to control the narrative of the situation.

Next: ‘Death To Traitors’?

Now the crackdown seems to be gaining speed. On September 2, state media published an interview with parliament deputy Yagub Mahmudov, who is also the director of the Institute of History of the Academy of Sciences. Mahmudov called for the restoration of the death penalty for “traitors.”

“The death penalty should be imposed on such people,” Mahmudov said. “We should have capital punishment. Why should traitors be forgiven?”

Meanwhile, EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele was in Baku on September 9 and promised 3 million euros ($5 million) in assistance to civil-society organizations. Activists, however, fear there is no one left at liberty in Azerbaijan to accept the gesture.

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