on the silk road


Museum of Tolerance Hosts Azeri Press Conference, Stifles Reporter’s Questions

LOS ANGELES–A press conference by Azeri parliamentarians at the Museum of Tolerance on the Georgian conflict and its threat to western oil pipelines in the Caucasus was cut short Friday when this reporter was censored after asking about Azerbaijan’s growing belligerence towards Armenia.

The media briefing on the South Caucasus was hosted by the Simon Wiesenthal Center at its Los Angeles-based Museum of Tolerance. It featured a 5-member parliamentary delegation from Azerbaijan, as well as a member from the Consulate of Georgia. Azerbaijan’s Consul General in Los Angeles was also in attendance.

When a question was asked by this Asbarez reporter regarding an August 8 statement by the Azeri Foreign Ministry saying Georgia’s attack on South Ossetia served as a precedent for resolving ethnic conflicts in the region, he was silenced, not only by members of the audience and the Azeri consular staff, which denied the incident, but also by Rabbi Cooper who prematurely ended the conference (others were slated to speak) to take a tour of the museum.

Incidentally, the Republic of Armenia’s Consul General in Los Angeles, Armen Liloyan, was not invited to the press briefing. “We have never received such an invitation,” he said, when asked why a representative from Armenia, a US partner in the Caucasus, sharing warm relations and strong ties to both the United States and the west as well as Russia, was not invited.

Asbarez contacted Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, for comments on the Center’s failure to invite a representative from the Republic of Armenia to the briefing. But Cooper could not be reached for comment and did not return calls.

Though the event was publicized as a briefing about the “implications of the Russian invasion of Georgia for the region and for oil and gas supplies globally,” it was more rhetoric than information. Throughout the briefing, one common theme was conveyed to the audience–that the conflict in Georgia was actually between Russia and the West.

“This is an offensive against the United States, American interests, and values,” remarked Asim Mollazada, the Azeri parliamentarian giving the first and only briefing.

“We said we would like to be a reliable ally of the United States,” he said, underscoring Azerbaijan’s centrality to US interests in the region.

Rabbi Cooper, who moderated the press conference, echoed most of Mollazada’s remarks in his praise for the two former soviet republics. Azerbaijan and Georgia, he boasted, were model republics in the region with their impeccable democratic track records

Asim Mollazada, Member of the Azerbaijani Parliament, showing the location of the pipeline as Rabbi Abraham Cooper, SWC associate dean, looks on.

Asim Mollazada, Member of the Azerbaijani Parliament, showing the location of the pipeline as Rabbi Abraham Cooper, SWC associate dean, looks on.

Mollazada, who is also the chairman of Azerbaijan’s Democratic Reform Party and a member of its parliament’s Foreign Relations Committee, warned that Russia’s advance into Georgia and the PKK sabotage of a section of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline are “evil” forces that threaten to derail the democratic progress of Azerbaijan and Georgia.

According to international human rights watchdogs, such as Human Rights Watch, Reporters without Boarders, and Amnesty International, neither Georgia nor Azerbaijan has proven to be a model of democracy in the region.

On January 6, tens of thousands of Georgians, claiming fraud and demanding a recount, took to the streets to protest the election victory of American-allied President Mikheil Saakashvili. Saakashvili called for snap elections in November after he imposed a state of emergency following a brutal police crackdown on peaceful demonstrators calling for his resignation. Saakashvili, whose government was criticized by Human Rights Watch for “crossing the line” in November, is now being accused of having enacted policies of ethnic cleansing in its breakaway province of South Ossetia, which it devastated in a bombing campaign that began on August 7th.

Meanwhile, Azeri President Ilham Aliyev has faced persistent criticism over his heavy-handed treatment of independent media and opposition parties.

According to Amnesty International, journalists in Azerbaijan “striving to expose the misuse of government power are increasingly living under the threat of politically motivated arrests, physical assault and even death…[and] are only free to express opinions that fall in line with government directives. Anyone daring to voice criticism of the authorities or to expose Azerbaijan’s enduring corruption problem faces an uncertain future.”

Furthermore, the BTC pipeline, which Mollazada emphasized was as an agent of stability and democratic development in the region, has allowed Aliyev to strengthen his heavy-handed grip over Azerbaijan’s government. In preparation for his reelection in October, Aliyev has been establishing a cult of personality by propping up billboards throughout the country, depicting his father, the late president Haydar Aliyev and himself in a manner reminiscent of the Stalinist Soviet Union and 1980s Iraq under Sadam Hussein.

Despite the reality on the ground, Mollazada insisted that the region’s oil pipelines “solve problems.”

“[The BTC pipeline] is a system of transferring ideas of liberty…our goal, our priority is to create a system of liberty and human rights,” he remarked. “If evil wins in Georgia, the system will go to the middle ages.”

During the truncated question and answer session, an inquiry was made regarding the effect the conflict would have on the world oil market. Mollazada took advantage of the opportunity to frame the message in a way where American interests were being held hostage to Russian aggression in the region.

“Now oil is not pumping and immediately you will see prices will jump,” Mollazada said, stating that American, European, and Israeli interests would only be secured if Azerbaijan was supported. “It is vitally important to the energy security of Israel and Europe.”

But Azerbaijan’s longstanding insistence to isolate Armenia from regional development projects, namely the BTC pipeline, and the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars Railway, have further jeopardized the security and stability of the region and harmed US and western interests in the South Caucasus.

In spite of the windfall profits from the US–and the west–facilitated by the BTC project, Azerbaijan continues to lobby the United States for foreign aid rather than using its oil-generated wealth to better humanitarian and infrastructural problems it faces. Instead it uses these profits to bolster its blockade of Armenia, increasing the need for US humanitarian support to that country, a US partner in the region and diplomatic bridge between the West and Russia as well as Iran.

Although the tense status quo in Karabakh has by and large held, Aliyev has been using petrodollars from the BTC pipeline to beef up the country’s military, purchasing armaments and vehicles from France, the United States and the former Warsaw Pact countries. The tremendous new oil wealth has allowed Aliyev to increase defense spending from $175 million in 2004 to $2 billion in 2008. According to a Stratfor analysis, “Azerbaijan’s armament now has many wondering if Baku is planning another conflict against a neighbor that has been cut out of the region’s recent energy wealth.”

Azerbaijan ethnically cleansed its Christian Armenian minority in a series of pogroms and massacres as the Soviet Union was collapsing, forcing the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave forced into Azerbaijan, to declare independence. Karabakh’s democracy movement, legal by the statutes of the Soviet Constitution, triggered a brutal military attack on the enclave by Azerbaijan, sparking a conflict that ended with a Russian brokered ceasefire in 1994 and de facto independence for Karabakh.

Last month, Rabbi Cooper visited Azerbaijan to meet with the Foreign Minister and a leading Muslim religious leader, according to an Azeri Press Agency report cited by Day.az on July 22. During his meeting with the Azeri cleric, Sheikh-ul-Islam Haji Allahshukur Pasha-zade, who two years ago called on Azerbaijani’s to prepare for a “jihad” against Armenians, Cooper reportedly described Azerbaijan as “a tolerant country, where everyone can practice his religion without any restrictions.” His remarks, published the next day in a Day.az interview, were in reference to the Jewish community in Baku.

In the interview, Rabbi Cooper went on to say that Azerbaijan should do more to “inform the US community in details about their country and especially about [the Nagorno-Karabakh] conflict. The United States are mostly well informed about the ‘genocide of Armenians.’ It would be good if Azerbaijanis held work for informing Americans about the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.”

In 2003, the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles was embroiled in controversy over its refusal to establish a permanent exhibit on the Armenian Genocide. Despite a six-day hunger strike by 14 young human rights activists, calls from thousands of Armenian Americans nationwide, a major story in the Los Angeles Times, and growing interest on the part of local, state, and federal lawmakers, the Museum of Tolerance only agreed to include references to the Armenian Genocide in various exhibits at the museum. The Museum still does not have a permanent exhibit on the Armenian Genocide.

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American Jewish Committee to Lobby for Azeri Interests, Announces Director

BAKU (Asbarez)–The Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee, David Harris, was in Baku Saturday where he told journalists at a press conference that his organization would lobby on behalf of Azerbaijan’s interests in the United States.

Harris was visiting Azerbaijan on the invitation of Azeri President Ilham Aliyev. During his two-day visit he met with the President, Foreign Minister, Prime Minister and other officials.

“[The] AJC has long appreciated the importance of Azerbaijan as an example of religious tolerance and a proven friend of the United States and Israel,” Harris said. “We valued this opportunity to learn more about this strong ally in a challenging and critical region. We look forward to sharing our views about Azerbaijan’s key role when we return to the United States.”

However, Harris’ remarks stand in stark contrast to significant documented evidence to the contrary. Azerbaijan’s numerous political as well as social human rights abuses both against its Azeri majority as well as its ethnic minorities, including Armenians and have been widely reported in US press as well as international human rights bodies.

But according to the Harris, “Azerbaijan is critical to Western energy security and to the avoidance of a potentially dangerous monopoly in the market for natural gas.” The South Caucusus, he explained, is witnessing a historic event in Georgia because the recent outbreak of fighting in South Ossetia is important not only for Georgia, but also the whole region, including Azerbaijan and its territorial integrity.

The AJC will lobby for the US Government to pay more attention to the work of the OSCE Minsk Group, mediating the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Harris said, adding “the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was the key issue of discussion during my visit to Baku. We will work to improve the OSCE Minsk Group’s mission in the settlement of the conflict.”

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which has yet to be resolved, is in danger of erupting as Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev continues to make louder calls for renewed war to “take back” Karabakh by force. Making the situation in Azerbaijan more tense is the growing uncertainty over the outcome of Azerbaijan’s upcoming Presidential elections, slated for October 15.

There is a definite cult of personality that is being established that threatens the viability of democratic development in Azerbaijan. Aliyev has been propping up billboards throughout the country, depicting his father, the late president Haydar Aliyev and himself in a manner reminiscent of the Stalinist Soviet Union and 1980s Iraq under Sadam Hussein.

Aliyev has faced persistent criticism over his heavy-handed treatment of independent media and opposition parties. Meanwhile, over a million Azeri refugees from the Karabakh Conflict still live in shantytowns and abandoned train carts. Human rights violations are at an all time high, as severe media restrictions continue to result in the imprisonment and torture of journalists and opposition activists. According to Eurasianet, Aliyev’s recent claims that his government allegedly oversaw the creation of 650,000 new jobs by the end of 2007 are not being received well by most of Azerbaijan’s population, which has yet to feel the affects of the country’s massive oil revenues.

With less than three months to go until elections are held in Azerbaijan, controversy is looming over President Ilham Aliyev’s failure to solve many of the country’s social ills. With Karabakh a major election issue in Azerbaijan, Aliyev has sought to exploit nationalist fervor surrounding the unresolved conflict to detract from his administrations failures at home. In recent months, he has been touring the country and delivering, publicly calling for a new war and threatening to take Karabakh back by force.

On June 26, Aliyev staged the country’s first military parade in 16 years, and announced his intentions to build a military industrial complex that would support a second round war with neighboring Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.

Azerbaijan ethnically cleansed its Christian Armenian minority in a series of pogroms and massacres as the Soviet Union was collapsing, forcing the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave forced into Azerbaijan, to declare independence. Karabakh’s democracy movement, legal by the statutes of the Soviet Constitution, triggered a brutal military attack on the enclave by Azerbaijan, sparking a conflict that ended with a Russian brokered ceasefire in 1994.

Azerbaijan has been using petrodollars from the BTC pipeline to beef up its military, purchasing armaments and vehicles from France, the United States or the former Warsaw Pact. According to Stratfor, “Azerbaijan’s armament now has many wondering if Baku is planning another conflict against a neighbor that has been cut out of the region’s recent energy wealth.”

A renewed conflict would halt any possibility of Caspian energy reaching the west, and be a direct threat to U.S. and European interests in the region.

Following an unprecedented violation of the Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire by Azeri forces on March 5, Stratfor intelligence wrote in an analysis piece citing the growing threat to regional security of a richer and stronger Azerbaijan.

“Azerbaijan has grown stronger and richer following the 2006 completion of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline, which Western companies developed to feed oil to Europe,” it said. “The BTC led to a more pro-Western Azerbaijan, and the tremendous new wealth it generated has helped the country increase its defense spending from $175 million in 2004 to more than $1 billion at the start of 2008.” Azerbaijan’s military budget has since reached $2 billion.”

%u218Energy wealth has doubled Azerbaijan’s gross domestic product;Azerbaijan’s defense budget has jumped from just a few hundred million a year to a billion this past year,” Stratfor wrote earlier in 2007. “The country is arming itself, and neighboring Armenia is closely watching. The two countries have been deadlocked over the Azerbaijani secessionist region of Nagorno-Karabakh — a conflict that has flared into a war in the past. Azerbaijan’s armament now has many wondering if Baku is planning another conflict against a neighbor that has been cut out of the region’s recent energy wealth.”

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan’s longstanding insistence to isolate fellow US Ally Armenia, from regional development projects, namely the BTC pipeline, and the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars Ralway, have further jeopardized the security and stability of US interests in the South Caucasus.

During the planning stages of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, Azerbaijan pressured British Petroleum to bypass a more economic a commercially secure route that went through Armenia, a fellow US partner in the region. In 2003, New York Congressman Joseph Crowley (NY-07) criticized the routing of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil and gas pipeline during the House International Relations Committee markup of the reauthorization for the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC). The Committee was considering the OPIC’s application for political risk insurance in connection with construction of the BTC pipeline.

At the markup’sCongressman Crowley stated: “American taxpayers are being asked to help cover hundreds of million of dollars in increased costs for the BTC pipeline route that would bypass the more economic and commercially viable route through Armenia. If the Caucasus region’sin my opinion’sis to move forward’swe must ensure that all countries move forward together at the same time. Choosing favorites in the Caucasus will not promote regional stability’seconomic integration’sand peace.”

Despite all this, Harris assured Azerbaijan’s leadership that his organization would work for the interests of Azerbaijan in the United States.

“As your friends, we will try to do something for this but it mostly depends on Azerbaijan itself. Americans shouldn’t only know Azerbaijan as an energy-rich country but also as a country that made important contributions to peacekeeping efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said, promising to take steps towards the strengthening of relations between Azerbaijan and the United State.

“We will work to improve the relations between the United States and Azerbaijan,” he said. “We will also pay attention to Americans’ education [of Azerbaijan] to convey to them the basic knowledge about Azerbaijan and to inform the political circles and U.S. presidential contenders about Azerbaijan.”

Meanwhile, the Azerbaijan Press Agency reported on Monday that the Izmir-based Azerbaijan Culture Center has began a petition drive demanding that the Turkish-Armenian border remain closed until the withdrawal of Armenians from the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.

The head of the Center, Jamal Mammadkhanoglu, underscored that the borders should not open without an “Armenian withdrawal from Azerbaijani lands.”

“Turkey has to maintain its embargo against Armenia for that,” he said. “Otherwise, Azerbaijan has no other option but to liberate its lands through military force.”

Azerbaijan and Turkey must unite as one nation, like “a clenched fist,” he said.



“Fire in Neighbor’s House” has Turkey on Edge
August 13, 2008, 1:41 am
Filed under: Turkey | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Asbarez Reports that the conflict between Russia and Georgia threatens to undermine NATO member Turkey’s ambitions to become an energy hub and could exacerbate misgivings among EU states about expanding the bloc right up to the Caucasus.

The fighting over the breakaway region of South Ossetia, which has unsettled oil markets, is another reminder that Turkey, a country that wants to join the European Union, sits in a volatile region bordering Iran, Syria, Iraq and former Soviet republics.

With no energy resources of its own, Turkey has worked hard to become a transit route for Caspian and Central Asian oil and gas exports as Europe tries to reduce its dependence on Russia.

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