By Erik Davtyan (12/10/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

On October 26-28, Armenia’s President Serzh Sargsyan paid a working visit to Paris at French President Francois Hollande’s invitation. At the Paris Marine Palace, the Armenian and French presidents discussed a broad range of issues concerning on the Armenian-French agenda and contemporary regional and international challenges. Regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution process, Sargsyan stressed that Armenia has always supported a resolution of the conflict exclusively through peaceful negotiations and noted that he highly appreciates the OSCE Minks Group’s efforts targeted at pushing the negotiation process forward and establishing lasting peace and stability in the region. The most important part of the working visit was Sargsyan’s meeting with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev. After the Sochi and Newport talks in August and September respectively, this was the third regular meeting organized at the level of heads of states.

On October 27, Sargsyan and Aliyev held talks with the participation of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs (Igor Popov, James Warlick, and Pierre Andrieu) and the personal representative of the OSCE Chairman-in-Office Anjey Kasperchik, followed by a private conversation between the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents. The participants attached great importance to continuing dialogue within the framework of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairmanship and confidence-building efforts in order to make progress in peaceful negotiations, and stressed that no alternative existed to a peaceful resolution of the conflict. The parties arranged to proceed with high-level negotiations.

The high-level meeting attained various interpretations in Armenia. Armenia’s minister of foreign affairs emphasized the official viewpoint on the Sargsyan-Aliyev talks. During a briefing with journalists Edward Nalbandian described the meeting as “useful, sincere and constructive.” The foreign minister said that “there was an opportunity to touch upon a number of regional and international issues which showed that the approaches of Armenia and Azerbaijan on some issues can be close to each other,” adding that the two states took “a small step toward bringing the positions of the two sides a little bit closer.” The head of the Armenian National Congress party’s committee on foreign relations, Vladimir Karapetyan, believes that the meeting itself was a positive step. The fact that the co-chairs display activity, he says, proves that the international community pays attention to the region and the conflict, and that Azerbaijan sees no alternative but the talks.

According to Davit Ishkhanyan, representing the “Armenian Revolutionary Federation” party, the deadlock in the negotiation process may have negative impact, therefore “each meeting should be regarded as a guarantee for the preservation of peace.” Taking into account the fact that Sargsyan and Aliyev had tête-à-tête talks (unlike during the Sochi and Newport meetings), Ishkhanyan thinks the Paris meeting was progressive for the format of the negotiation process, rather than for its essence. The Armenian daily Zhoghovurd shared the view that the parties anticipated meeting in Paris in advance, since Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and the U.S. Secretary of State had each initiated trilateral meetings with Sargsyan and Aliyev before, so this meeting was to be organized by France, the third member state of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairmanship.

Presenting his opinion to Tert.am, politologist Ruben Mehrabyan believes that the Paris meeting was a good opportunity to reach midterm results in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict regulation process. The most important implication of these meetings, according to Mehrabyan, was the fact that they took place “outside the Russian platform.” Another politologist, Levon Melik-Shahnazaryan, does not have any expectations from the meeting as “the meetings between heads of the two states generally depend on the internal and external problems of other states.” Clarifying his viewpoint, Melik-Shahnazaryan says the activation of high-level meetings is not stipulated by the regulation of the conflict, but by the interests of the states that organize those meetings.

The Nagorno-Karabakh issue remained one of the most debated themes in November due to the Mi-24 helicopter that Armenia claims belonged to the Nagorno-Karabakh authorities, which was shot down by the Azerbaijani armed forces during what Armenia alleges was a training flight on November 12. The downing of a helicopter was a unique incident that has not occurred since the cease-fire in 1994. The chair of the Standing Committee on Defense, National Security and Internal Affairs of Armenia’s National Assembly, Koryun Nahapetyan, described the incident as “unprecedented” and the “rudest violation of the cease-fire.” According to the head of the Social Democrat Hnchakyan Party’s central office, Hakob Tigranyan, “the downing of the helicopter was nothing more than an invitation to war,” hence “any negotiations with Aliyev are pointless after this crime.”

In an interview to Armenianow.com, analyst Stepan Safaryan says the incident will have an extremely negative impact on the conflict regulation process and that its consequences may even be unprecedented. Safaryan underlined that “the results of the meetings between presidents are now nullified.” Moreover, Sargis Asatryan, a specialist on Azerbaijani studies, believes that “the downing was a desperate step which may be directly connected to national, social and religious problems that exist in Azerbaijan.” Armenia’s Ombudsman Karen Andreasyan instead emphasized the humanitarian side of the incident. He says the regular violation of the cease-fire has disabled medical aid to the staff of the helicopter for nearly 8 days, which is “completely against the norms of international humanitarian law.”

Published in Field Reports
Wednesday, 26 November 2014 11:01

Azerbaijanis in Syria

By Mina Muradova (11/26/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

Azerbaijani media have reported that a national wrestling champion was killed while fighting for the Islamic State (IS) militant group. News about Azerbaijani citizens – mostly young men – traveling to Syria to join militant groups are increasing. Observers believe that this trend underscores an emerging security threat to the secular Azerbaijan.

The wrestler, Rashad Bakhshaliyev, from the Ismailli district in northern Azerbaijan, appeared to lead a successful life before his sudden departure for Syria in August, taking his wife and child with him. He won various wresting competitions in Azerbaijan and before leaving for Syria worked as a freestyle wrestling coach in Ismailli’s Olympic complex. In September, he called his mother, Mirvari Bakhshaliyeva, from Syria and told her that everything was fine, but one month later his wife announced his death in a telephone call from Syria.

Of Azerbaijan’s population of over nine million, 93 percent identify as Muslims, the overwhelmingly majority of which is Shia (65-75 percent) while the remainder identify as Sunnis. No precise data exists for the number of Azerbaijanis who have been fighting in Syria. Local media claims the number of militants in Syria is between 200 and 400, with more than 100 killed in action.

In light of more frequent press coverage of Azerbaijani citizens allegedly participating in the Syrian conflict, security forces are now paying closer attention to this trend. On September 23, Azerbaijan’s security forces arrested 26 residents for allegedly joining armed Islamic groups in Pakistan, Iraq and Syria and some were alleged members of Azeri Jamaaty, a jihad group in Syria made up of Azerbaijani nationals. In May, the leader of an Azerbaijani IS faction in Raqqa, Mohammad al-Azeri, gave a video address in which he stated that IS was on the “correct path of jihad” in Syria.

Azerbaijanis fighting in Syria primarily come from Baku, Sumqayit, and smaller towns in northern Azerbaijan. Specifically Sumqayit, just 35 kilometers north of Baku, is considered as the main source of fighters, following Salafism and advocating a return to Islam in its purest form. Salafism was catalyzed in Azerbaijan by missionaries from the North Caucasus in the 1990s, funded by Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and mostly supported by Sunni Muslims.

Azerbaijan is considered attractive for recruiting due to the ease of travelling there by bus through Georgia and Turkey, and Azerbaijanis do not need visas to enter these countries. Some experts believe that the government’s repressive attitude to religious communities, including the adoption of a law limiting religious freedoms and justifying police detentions and high fines may lead to an increase in religious extremism in Azerbaijan.

Another threat is expected from neighboring Russia. Azerbaijanis constitute the second largest nationality in Moscow, at 14 percent of the city’s population of about 11 million. Economic decline due to Western sanctions is causing a reduction of migrants’ income and makes some more receptive to radical religious movements.

On November 2, IS released a video titled “A Message from Brother Abu Muhammad Ar-Rusi” via social media and jihadi forums. The appearance of an ethnic Russian in an IS propaganda and recruitment video is aimed at Russian-speaking Muslims. Moscow has expressed concern that Russian-speaking militants in Syria could return to the Russian Federation and commit terror attacks. With regard to the threat posed by IS, Russia has focused attention on militants from the North Caucasus and on labor migrants from former Soviet republics. Last week, Russian authorities carried out a wave of arrests in Moscow of Azerbaijani men with alleged links to IS.

The UN Security Council has adopted two resolutions this year, intended to coordinate international efforts to fight terrorism. The August resolution imposed sanctions on persons with alleged links to IS and the al-Qaeda-linked group Al-Nusra Front. The second resolution ratified in September required UN member states to deny entry to anyone suspected of supporting or engaging in terrorist-related activities, making it a criminal offence to travel abroad to train for or fight for jihadist groups. A few days ago, Azerbaijan’s government made corresponding amendments in its national legislation.

The EU counter-terrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove considered that between 20 and 30 percent of the over 3,000 Europeans who joined jihadist groups have now returned to their home countries. Some have resumed a normal life while some have become radicalized and dangerous, he warned. “The challenge is for each member state to assess each and every returnee, assess their dangerousness and provide the adequate response,” de Kerchove said.

Published in Field Reports

By Mina Muradova (10/29/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

Russia intends to create a “collective security” system on the Caspian Sea to step up its naval cooperation with Azerbaijan as Moscow seeks to limit the presence of foreign militaries on the Caspian Sea.

“We agreed on the principles of interaction … This is a real breakthrough,” President Vladimir Putin said after the fourth Caspian summit in Astrakhan on September 29. According to Putin, the parties made progress in preparing the convention on the legal status of the Caspian Sea “due to the coordination of key principles of the Caspian littoral states’ activity at sea.” These principles were reflected in a political statement signed by leaders of the five littoral states. According to Putin, the political statement “will become a cornerstone of the convention” and while he admitted that not all problems were settled in full, “their number has become far fewer.” The presidents managed to agree on clear formulations on the delimitation of water spaces, natural resources, and the regime of navigation and fisheries.

The Caspian Sea is a unique water area in terms of its ecology, which includes more than 500 kinds of sea plants and 854 kinds of fish species, including the Caspian sturgeon. The Sea contains an estimated 18 billion tons of hydrocarbon resources, with proven reserves of four billion tons.

The statement confirms the exclusive right of the littoral states’ armed forces to conduct military activity in the Caspian Sea as one of the fundamental principles for ensuring security and stability. “Such a regime was historically established. We’re not going to change it,” Putin said, adding that the five littoral states intend to solve all problems of the Caspian region exclusively among themselves.

Baku welcomed the results of the summit and Deputy Foreign Minister Khalaf Khalafov told journalists that the signed documents “fully meet” Azerbaijan’s national interests and do not contradict national legislation. “The basic principles of the agreements – the creation of a stable balance of weapons, taking into account the interests of littoral countries while carrying out military exercises in the sea, complying with the measures of mutual trust and meet Azerbaijan’s interests,” Khalafov said.

Azerbaijan’s compliance appears to be a primary objective of Russia’s Caspian policy, as this Caucasian country has relied mostly on U.S. advice in building its navy. Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Baku on October 13, two weeks after the presidents of the five Caspian states agreed to prevent the military presence of non-littoral states in the Caspian Sea. Reporting on Shoigu’s visit, RIA Novosti framed it as part of a concerted “Eastern foreign policy direction” to counter the effects of the Ukraine crisis: “For Russia the results of the [Caspian] summit were yet another remarkable success for the Eastern foreign policy direction that is taking place in the wake of a serious worsening of relations with the West as a result of the events around Ukraine. Earlier this year Moscow achieved a historic gas agreement with Beijing. It also managed to seriously advance the development of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which India and Pakistan will join next year.”

Shoigu’s visit is considered as the first active defense contact between the two nations after Azerbaijan and Russia failed to reach an agreement to extend the lease of the radar station in Gabala. “Now the period of disagreements seems to have been overcome with varying degrees of success, evidenced by intensive military and technical cooperation between the two countries,” Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper said referring to a source in the Russian defense ministry.

At present, the two countries are carrying out a program for developing cooperation in the military and military-technical fields for 2013-2016. 57 Azerbaijani servicemen are studying at the Russian Defense Ministry’s schools. According to Shoigu, “Education and training of personnel is a very serious task due to the supplies of military hardware for the Azerbaijani army within the military-technical cooperation” while cooperation in the Caspian Sea between the Russian and Azerbaijani navies is “a very important aspect.”

Shoigu’s delegation included the Russian navy’s top commander Viktor Chirkov, who met with President Ilham Aliyev and his counterpart, Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov. At the meeting, Shoigu termed Azerbaijan a “strategic partner of Russia” and the two Defense Ministers signed a plan on cooperation for 2015. Shoigu said that “everything connected with the Caspian is important to Russia,” and later confirmed that Russia’s agreements with Azerbaijan include joint military maneuvers in the Caspian Sea to be carried out in 2015.

Shoigu said the documents establish cooperation on army-command training and maritime tactical exercises. He also discussed with his Azerbaijani counterpart the possibility of creating a collective security system for the Caspian states, which could as a “first step” include joint measures to prevent maritime and air incidents.

The U.S. State Department commented on the Caspian summit declaration that it does not intend to change its military cooperation with Baku. According to State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki, “We have seen the joint statement issued by the Caspian Five that, among other things, calls for the non-presence of armed forces in the Caspian Sea not belonging to one of the Caspian Five countries … We maintain a strong security cooperation relationship with Azerbaijan, focusing on border security, counterterrorism, NATO interoperability, and its capacity to contribute peacekeepers to international missions. We do not anticipate the Caspian Five joint statement will change that.”

Published in Field Reports

By Erik Davtyan (15/10/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

On September 16, Armenia’s Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian received James Warlick, the U.S. co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group. The last meeting with co-chairs in Armenia took place on May 16, 2014 in the framework of a regional visit to the South Caucasus. Nalbandian and Warlick exchanged views on issues raised at the September 4 meeting between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan in Newport, on the initiative of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. They also emphasized the importance of the upcoming Paris meeting between Presidents Sargsyan and Aliyev, due to take place in October on the initiative of French President François Hollande.

Presenting the aim of the visit at his press conference at the U.S. Embassy in Armenia, Warlick said it “aims at continuing the discussions which took place during the trilateral meeting in Wales between the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.” Characterizing the Wales meeting as “fruitful and sincere,” the U.S. co-chair stated that the actual negotiations should be held at some other level. Instead of organizing random meetings between the presidents or ministers of foreign affairs of Armenia and Azerbaijan, the parties should launch an official negotiating process which will surely be welcomed by the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs.

Warlick’s visit to Armenia was also remarkable for his exclusive interview to Yerkir Media TV on September 16. Presenting his viewpoint on the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh, the U.S. co-chair said that “the voice of the de facto authorities of Nagorno-Karabakh should be heard and that is why the co-chairs travel there on a regular basis and meet with the de facto authorities.” This was in fact a rare statement coming from a co-chair, because it emphasized the role of the Nagorno-Karabakh authorities in the resolution process.

Commenting on the current activity of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs, Kayts Minasyan, an analyst at the Center of Strategic Studies of France, underlined the fact that Warlick came to the South Caucasus without his French and Russian counterparts, a move stipulated by the tense relations between Russia and the West. During a press conference, the head of the “Modus Vivendi” center Ara Papian said that Warlick’s statement on the upcoming regulation of the Karabakh negotiation process was merely “a diplomatic wish, rather than reality,” because the parties are far from resolving the conflict. The vice-president of the Caucasus Institute, Sergey Minasyan, shared the view that the format of meetings between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan may yield some progress not in the negotiating process per se, but in “setting some mechanisms of influence along the line of contact.” Likewise, Armenian MP Sukias Avetisyan stressed the importance of organizing regular meetings at the presidential level.

According to a public opinion poll organized by the Z-PR poll center, 64 percent of the population in Yerevan believes that the visit of the U.S.co-chair will only contribute to initiating new meetings at the presidential level, while 21 percent think the recent activation of the regulation process is a consequence of the increasing international tension. The remaining 15 percent believes that the U.S. is seeking to keep the Nagorno-Karabakh negotiation process very active, even causing unexpected developments.

The intense activity of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs in September was also a consequence of recent negotiations between the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers, which took place on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly’s 69th session in New York. The ministers had an extended meeting with Warlick and his Russian and French colleagues, Igor Popov and Pierre Andrieu, along with Ambassador Andrzej Kasprzyk, the personal representative of the OSCE chairperson-in-office. After discussing the details of the upcoming meeting between Sargsyan and Aliyev, foreign ministers Nalbandian and Mammadyarov held talks in a tête-à-tête format, concerning predominantly the regulation process of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The Nalbandian-Mammadyarov talks, as the U.S. co-chair emphasized, “were conducted in a constructive atmosphere.” Later, the co-chairs had a meeting with the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office (CiO), Didier Burkhalter, and discussed the latest developments in the peace process, hoping that the presidential meeting in Paris will be productive.

Published in Field Reports
Wednesday, 01 October 2014 10:28

Azerbaijan Increases Pressure on Civil Society

By Mina Muradova (10/01/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

Whereas Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev intensively uses social media platforms for promoting Azerbaijan as a prosperous and democratic country, human rights observers condemn the authorities of this post-Soviet country for a recent escalation of repression against civil society activists.

“A free society has emerged in Azerbaijan. All democratic institutions are available and they operate successfully,” – @presidentaz, the official account of President Aliyev tweeted in early September. In a minute, another tweet said, “All freedoms, including the freedom of speech, the freedom of conscience, the freedom of the press and free Internet, are available.” And later, “Azerbaijani society is a free society, and this is our great achievement.”

The regional analyst and blogger Arzu Geybullayeva said that for anyone familiar with Azerbaijani realities, “the presidential feed is bitterly ironic, if at times darkly entertaining … Elsewhere in the post-Soviet world, authoritarians have figured out that succinct means success in social media. But Aliyev’s feed reads like one long speech regularly interrupted by a pesky 140 character limit,” she wrote on GlobalVoices, a citizen media platform.

The reason for Geybullayeva’s concern is the fact that the number of politically motivated detentions has increased sharply in the country after the defeat of a Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) resolution on “The follow-up to the issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan” on January 26, 2013. Amnesty International has recognized 24 people as “prisoners of conscience” in Azerbaijan, who were “jailed solely for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression” in recent months.

The latest in a series of attempts to silence government critics is the case of journalist and human rights defender Ilgar Nasibov, who was found unconscious with severe head trauma and broken bones in his face, in late August. “He was called from home to go the office in the evening,” his wife Malahat Nasibova told Azadliq radio. “They said some petitioners had come. They attacked him suddenly in the office and inflicted numerous injuries.” Unidentified people stormed the office of the Democracy and NGO Development Resource Centre in the Nakhchivan exclave of Azerbaijan, which he heads. Amnesty International reported that the Nasibov couple has long faced regular intimidation because government officials want them to leave the region, as they are “the only remaining independent voices there.” Even though the authorities reportedly detained one of Nasibov’s assailants, they have not initiated a criminal investigation.

Among the total number of politically motivated arrests, more than ten members of the media and bloggers are behind bars or awaiting trial. It is the highest number that the Office of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media has observed in Azerbaijan since the office was established. The OSCE’s representative Dunja Mijatović called the government of Azerbaijan to stop “the continued persecution of media and free voices in the country.” According to Mijatović, “These cases and accompanying smear campaigns have resulted in worrying setbacks for the development of free expression in Azerbaijan that create a chilling effect on media and society as a whole … While I do not challenge the lawful right of the authorities to scrutinize the activities of non-governmental organizations, such actions should not be aimed at silencing critical voices.”

On September 15, local media published a letter from prominent human rights activist Leyla Yunus to her husband Arif Yunus. The couple are kept in different pre-trial detention centers. She compared the political climate in contemporary Azerbaijan with the massive political repressions in the Soviet Union orchestrated by Joseph Stalin. “They began to arrest whole families, as Stalin did. The tyrant behaves as if there is no CE or EU or other international organizations,” she stated. Yunus reported that her cellmate verbally harassed her and threatened “to break her arms and legs” immediately after Yunus had met with representatives of the UN Commission against Torture in the Kurdakhani prison.

Three days later, the European Parliament (EP) called on Azerbaijan to undertake “long-overdue human rights reforms without further delay and cease their harassment of civil society organizations, opposition politicians and independent journalists and lift the ban of public gatherings in Baku.” Members of the EP condemned “in the strongest possible terms” the arrest and detention of human rights activists and demanded their “immediate and unconditional” release.

The Azerbaijani leadership continues to brush off any allegations that it is behind the serial arrests of its critics and the closure of their organizations. “It is regrettable that these NGOs and individuals – and some journalists – fall back on the foreign forces that fund them and regard themselves as above national law, refusing to report their grant-funded projects, file accounts, pay their taxes and comply with other legal requirements set out by the government,” Ali Hasanov, political affairs chief in the presidential administration, told the AzerTag news agency. “In those circles, the appropriate actions that state institutions have taken are sadly being misrepresented as ‘pressure on civil society’ and as ‘restrictions’ on the functioning of NGOs and the media. It’s a campaign to blacken Azerbaijan’s reputation.” 

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The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.

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