By Bakhtiyar Aslanov (12/10/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
On November 12, 2014, the Press Service of the Ministry of Defense in Azerbaijan made the following statement regarding the shooting down of a helicopter over Nagorno-Karabakh: “the military aviation of the enemy side has been doing provocative flights and maneuvers during the latest military trainings, implemented by the Military Forces of the Republic of Armenia within the last 3 days in the front-line between Azerbaijan and Armenia. After continuous and intensified maneuvers over our positions and posts; two military helicopters tried to attack our positions in the airspace controlled by the military of Azerbaijan. Two MI-24 helicopters owned by the Military Forces of the Republic of Armenia again tried to attack our posts at 13:45 on November 12, 2014. As a response, Air Forces of Azerbaijan shot down one of those armed helicopter, 1,700 meters northeast of Kangarli village in Agdam. The remains of the helicopter fell 500 meters from the front-line.” Armenian officials responded that the helicopter belongs to the Nagorno-Karabakh leadership, not Armenia.
The next day, Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense made another statement, claiming that the Mi-24 combat helicopter belonged to the Erebuni military aerodrome close to Erevan. The dead crew members, mayor Sergey Sahakyan, senior lieutenant Sargis Nazaryan and lieutenant Azat Sahakyan are officers of the Armenian Air Force. Although denied by Armenia, Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense listed the names and released detailed background information on the officers.
Emphasizing the presidents’ meeting in Paris initiated by the French President Francois Hollande on October 27, 2014, Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated on November 12 that Armenia embarked on large-scale military exercises in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan and had continuously been violating the cease-fire along the line of contact. Hence, Azerbaijan’s MFA claims that Armenia alone carries all responsibility for the re-escalation of the conflict. An MFA spokesperson stated that by shooting down a helicopter that violated Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized airspace, Baku does not violate any liability of the OSCE Minsk Group.
The presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan both reacted quickly to the incident. Armenia’s President Serzh Sargsyan immediately visited Nagorno-Karabakh and spoke in front of the soldiers on November 13. Although he used very special words targeted to the local audience, Sargsyan underlined that a re-escalation of the conflict into war will not happen. Ilham Aliyev also visited a military camp in Shamkir on November 15, and while seeming very confident and satisfied when congratulating the soldiers, he avoided using overtly inflammatory language.
In Basel, Switzerland, the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov and French Secretary of State for European Affairs Harlem Désir, expressed their concerns over violations of the cease-fire in 2014 during a meeting of the OSCE Ministerial Council. They emphasized that the violations of the cease-fire in July and August caused several causalities; enhanced the tension and deepened mutual distrust between the parties. On December 4, the aforementioned diplomats signed a joint statement, noting that “there is no military solution to the conflict. We call on both sides to restrain from using violence and work on the concrete peaceful solution of the conflict”.
Hikmat Hajiyev, a spokesperson for Azerbaijan’s MFA, commented on the statement that the military trainings of Armenian forces with huge numbers of personnel and military equipment and their provocative maneuvers along the line of contact after the meetings of the presidents in Sochi and Paris caused the downing of the helicopter. Regarding the call from the Minsk Group Co-Chairs to speed up negotiations for a peace agreement, Hajiyev reiterated Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov’s statement on Baku’s readiness to work on the Broader Peace Agreement supported by the co-chairs after the meeting in Paris.
Officials in Yerevan have claimed that their military forces were able to claim the bodies of the dead soldiers in the helicopter incident after shooting two Azerbaijani soldiers. According to the PanArmenian news agency, the three officers were buried at St. Sargis Church in Yerevan on November 24. However, Baku has denied this information and states that Azerbaijani soldiers protect the area where the remains of the helicopter are located.
Armenia and Azerbaijan cancelled an expected meeting of the two countries’ Foreign Ministers in Basel after the incident. “We regret that the foreign ministers of Azerbaijan and Armenia were unable to meet at OSCE … Dialogue is a necessary part of the peace process” the U.S. Co-Chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, James Warlick wrote on his Twitter page on December 8.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.