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Babylon & Beyond

Observations from Iraq, Iran,
Israel, the Arab world and beyond

Category: Caucasus

AZERBAIJAN: Egypt-inspired protests spread to Caucasus, raising tensions


Opposition groups in Azerbaijan are calling for the release of a 20-year-old political activist who was arrested last week after posting a message on his Facebook page calling for Egypt-style protests in Baku's central square.

Although Azerbaijani officials denied the arrest was politically motivated, the situation highlights growing tensions between opposition groups and the government following the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

Two days after the Egyptian protests began on Jan. 25, the government appeared to launch a preemptive strike against an similar uprising in Azerbaijan.

The government's anti-corruption commission, which is overseen by presidential Chief of Staff Ramiz Mehiyev, convened Jan. 27 for the first time since 2009. In the following weeks, several government officials have made announcements promising far-reaching anti-corruption measures within government ministries. According to the newspaper Yeni Musavat. 18-year president Ilham Aliyev is also considering reshuffling his Cabinet and calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Artur Rasizade.

At the end of January, government employees received orders to "avoid irritating the population and to work effectively and build public trust,” according to the news website EurasiaNet

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AZERBAIJAN: Feud over ban on Islamic head scarves fuels fears of Iranian meddling


A full-blown ideological war appears to have erupted between Iran and the secular government in neighboring Azerbaijan after Baku earlier this year banned the wearing of Islamic head scarves, or hijabs, at schools in the Caucasus nation by introducing a standard school uniform that prohibits traditional Islamic dress.

Conservative clerics in the Islamic Republic have publicly and repeatedly slammed the decision and warned Azerbaijani authorities that they're heading down a slippery slope by prohibiting schoolgirls from wearing hijabs in the classroom in the Shiite Muslim-majority nation whose citizens maintain strong ties to co-religionists and fellow ethnic Azeris in Iran.

"An ideological revolution has been staged in the republic of Azerbaijan, and this country will become one of the religious centers in the future," said a cleric named Foruqi during Friday prayers in the ethnic Azeri city of Ardabil in Iran, according to state television. "And this is the issue that scares the enemies."

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AZERBAIJAN: WikiLeaks depicts lifestyles of Baku's rich and powerful

Azerbaijan mehriban

Documents released by WikiLeaks about the Azerbaijani political and business elite read less like diplomatic cables and more like the latest episode of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.”

Two cables, which originated from the U.S. Embassy in Baku in January and February of this year, range from the catty – comments on the Azerbaijan first lady’s plastic surgery – to the downright gossipy – the private jet preferences of a minister’s sons.

They are the first in a series titled “Who Owns What,” profiling the “small handful of players” who control both the political and business fields in Azerbaijan – and who collude, conspire and amass fantastic wealth at the expense of reform, market competition and real democracy in their country, according to the cables. The remaining cables in that series have not yet been released.

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CENTRAL ASIA: WikiLeaks dispatches reveal a Great Game for the 21st century


The Americans were confounded. Maksat Idenov (pictured), the Harvard Business School-educated head of Kazakhstan’s state-owned oil company, had abruptly booted Guy Hollingsworth, a Chevron Corp. executive, from a meeting and from talks over a potentially lucrative deal.

Kazakhstan-idenov A month went by before they finally figured out what had gone wrong. The executive of the California-based energy giant had been spotted playing golf in the Kazakh capital, Astana, and sunning in Spain with Idenov’s predecessor and rival, according to a Feb. 14, 2008, dispatch from the U.S. Embassy in Astana released by WikiLeaks.

“Idenov amplified his anger with Hollingsworth by explaining that Hollingsworth does not understand how we are doing business now,” said the dispatch.

The confidential dispatches from Central Asia depict a slicked-back 21st century version of the Great Game, the 19th century battle between the Russian and British empires over Central Asia’s riches. In today’s great game, diplomats and jet-set corporate executives gather business intelligence to outsmart corrupt autocrats and navigate teetering bureaucracies and make fortunes in the energy business.

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IRAN: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia squeezed between Tehran and Washington


Armenia finds itself in an unfriendly neighborhood and engaged in a highly militarized 20-year territorial dispute with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. It has long pulled off a diplomatic coup, maintaining simultaneous close relations with Iran, Russia and the United States, all three of which it relies on for protection, investment and trade.

But the chickens came home to roost two years ago when it drew the ire of the U.S. government upon the discovery by U.S. intelligence that Armenia had transferred Bulgarian missiles and rockets to Iran, according to a December 2008 cable from the secretary of State, posted on WikiLeaks.

Those weapons were later "recovered from two Shia militant attacks in which a U.S. soldier was killed and six others were injured in Iraq," according to a January 2009 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan. 

Washington was demanding answers, and Armenia was feeling the heat. 

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GEORGIA: Leaked memos fuel debate over who started war with Russia


More than two years after Russia and Georgia clashed in South Ossetia, the fog of war continues to hover over Tbilisi and Moscow.

According to diplomatic cables from the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi, released by the Wikileaks website, Russia was doing everything it could -– including reportedly arming South Ossetian separatists with Grad missiles and spreading nasty rumors about the Georgian president's sanity -– to provoke and destabilize Georgia, long before the two countries clashed in August 2008. One of Russia's primary goals seems to have been to oust Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.

This leaked confidential information is not a game-changer -– it's certainly not new to any Russian or Georgian who owns a television -– but it does add fodder to a still-heated debate about which nation started the war in the first place, and who is to blame for the fallout.

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AZERBAIJAN: President Aliyev compared unfavorably to hot-headed mobster in WikiLeaks cable


Azerbaijani President Iham Aliyev awoke Friday to the diplomatic equivalent of a severed horse head in his bed.

According to a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable, the staff of the U.S. Embassy in Baku has been comparing the president, rather unflatteringly, to Sonny Corleone, the most impulsive and thin-skinned of Don Vito Corleone’s sons in the hit novel and film trilogy, "The Godfather."

In a secret cable entitled “President Ilham Aliyev – Michael (Corleone) on the outside, Sonny on the inside,” sent in September 2009, U.S. diplomats describe the Azerbaijan president as similar to Michael Corleone -– which is to say, “cool-headed” and “realistic” –- when dealing with foreign partners, but similar to Sonny Corleone –- which translates to “harsh,” over-reactive, and “increasingly authoritarian” -– when dealing with domestic issues.

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IRAN, GEORGIA: Washington wary of warming ties between Tehran and U.S. ally


In a turn of events that has both Georgian and American diplomats walking on eggshells, Georgia and Iran agreed this week to eliminate visa restrictions and resume direct flights between Tbilisi and Tehran.

This new open-border policy comes at a time when Iran -- facing a fresh round of European, U.S., and Russian-backed sanctions, internal unrest and an array of external military threats -- is desperate for a few friendly faces in its own backyard.

But Iran’s new-found friendship has Georgia -- the United States' closest ally in the Caucasus, and the recipient of roughly $4.5 billion in Western aid in the past two years -- dancing the diplomatic two-step.

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