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European Parliament celebrates Nawrúz
Written by , Friday, 22 Mar, 2013 – 15:52 | 2 Comments

Although not an official holiday of the European Union, that didn’t stop the European Parliament in Brussels from partying hard to commemorate Nawrúz this year. My friend and colleague Kawa Ahangari, a Kurdish secularist/federalist activist from Iran, has provided NewEurasia with a cache of photos from the event, which saw representatives from across the Iranian-Central Asian world, from Azerbaijan and Iraqi Kurdistan in the west to Tajikistan in the east.

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Nasiba Abdullaeva delivers Daniel Pearl’s message of tolerance
Written by , Tuesday, 4 Dec, 2012 – 11:40 | No Comment

On October 5, 2012, the U.S. Embassy Tashkent observed the 11th Daniel Pearl World Music Days featuring Nasiba Abdullaeva, famous Uzbek singer, and Ofarin dance theatre.

This was the third time the U.S. mission to Uzbekistan hosted the annual event with a goal to spread the universal power of music in building tolerance and peace.

Daniel Pearl was an American journalist, Chief of the South Asia Bureau of the Wall Street Journal, and kidnapped and severely killed in February 2002 while reporting in Pakistan on alleged links between “shoe bomber” Richard Reid and al Qaeda.

Daniel was a talented musician who joined musical groups in every community he visited. He firmly believed in the power of music, as a force to unite people and spread messages of hope, against the culture of violence. Read the full story »

Azerbaijan’s Tartars and Oxfam strawberries ;-)
Written by , Tuesday, 16 Oct, 2012 – 17:23 | No Comment

Editor’s note: To mark world food day, Emil Baghirov, a blogger from Azerbaijan, travelled to the Tartar region in the center of the country to find out how Oxfam-supported strawberry farming is changing rural women’s lives. Here are his impressions.

This post has been provided courtesy of Oxfam.

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An Impossible Dream
Written by , Monday, 15 Oct, 2012 – 1:00 | No Comment

Photograph of Arzu Cabbarova, courtesy of Oxfam (CC-permission).

Editor’s note: Today is Blog Action Day. This is an annual event that unites the world’s bloggers with the goal of sparking discussion and collective action. This year the theme is ‘The Power of We’, and with our new partners at Oxfam, NewEurasia is sharing the story of Arzu Geybullayeva, a prominent Azeri blogger and author of “Flying Carpets and Broken Pipelines (http://flyingcarpetsandbrokenpipelines.blogspot.co.uk/).

In rural Azerbaijan, many women shoulder the burden of caring for their families and earning a living while their husbands migrate to Russia to find work. Arzu travelled to Sheki in Northern Azerbaijan to meet another Arzu, Arzu Cabbarova, who defied stereotypes and overcame personal tragedy in order to set up several organisations which empower women to earn an income of their own. This is Cabbarova’s story.

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The Azeri-Georgian border “cocktail party”
Written by , Thursday, 2 Aug, 2012 – 21:51 | One Comment

Crossing the Georgian border. Photograph by Danny Gordon (CC-usage/NewEurasia).

Editor’s note: British student Danny Gordon has been cycling across the world to raise money for UNICEF and Sports Relief, and not long ago, he passed through the southern arc of the former Soviet Union. NewEurasia managed to catch up with him to ask his impressions about crossing borders here…

As I pedaled away from the last security check in the crossing from Georgia to Azerbaijan, I, admittedly oddly, found myself likening the dynamic between these two countries to that which might be found at an awkward cocktail party.

I had fully expected the crossing to be somewhat uncomfortable, as a result of potential tensions arising from the huge cultural and religious differences between Orthodox Christian Georgia and Muslim Azerbaijan. Churches of Georgian cross-dome style that framed beautiful frescoes and murals were abruptly replaced by Azeri mosques dripping in colourful, rhythmic arabesque. The change was so stark; the personalities of the states’ so different, that I wouldn’t have been surprised if, when they met at the border-post, it had been a less than cordial affair. As it happened, I was pleasantly surprised.

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Why Eurovision in Azerbaijan is Ultimately a Good Thing
Written by , Sunday, 27 May, 2012 – 11:49 | No Comment

This is a partner post from the Editor’s Notes blog at Kanal PIK TV, click here for more from Kanal PIK

By Nicholas Alan Clayton

Dictatorships do not like the spotlight.

For all the state media bombast and extravagant events that autocratic regimes love to feed their own people, the last thing they are interested in is having hundreds of prying foreign eyes digging into the realities that their propaganda glosses over.

Even if only a small portion of their population sees foreign news reports, despots would prefer the international press ignore their countries altogether. They keep visa restrictions high, make foreign press accreditation hard to get and saddle visiting reporters with minders to steer them away from the story and scare the bejesus out of the journalists’ local sources.

It is for this reason that I respectfully disagree with European leaders who are increasingly calling for boycotts and venue changes for international events like the Euro 2012 in Ukraine and the 2014 Ice Hockey World Cup in Belarus due to the hosts’ human rights abuses and democratic deficiencies. Counter-intuitively, hosting international events brings these regimes exactly what they both need and hate: scrutiny, responsibility and sunlight. Read the full story »

Will there be a “Eurasian Spring”? No and yes
Written by , Tuesday, 6 Dec, 2011 – 17:40 | 2 Comments

Last week I gave a lecture at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven on whether or not an “Arab Spring”-style revolution could happen in Eurasia and more specifically in Azerbaijan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. My answer was: probably not in the immediate term (say, before five to seven years from now) and not as part of a “chain reaction” from the current Arab Spring. In the long term, some of the regimes will bite the dust, however. The reason for the both likelihoods is actually the same: a combination of youth bulge, social mobility and delayed/stunted social change, modern ICT penetration, and rigidifying first-family regimes. These factors are creating the conditions that keep a revolt at bay for now but could also eventually make an explosion or a coup of some sort inevitable.

A key element of my presentation concerned comparing/contrasting the Arab and Eurasian states. Ultimately, if one lesson from the Arab Spring (and Kyrgyzstan) applies to Eurasia, then it is this: that things at some point can go unexpectedly fast, and that internal dynamics, both within the regimes and within the wider society, are much more important than whatever geopolitical designs or “Great Game powers’ desire for stability” can actually control.

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Azerbaijan hosts second annual media forum of Turkic languages
Written by , Tuesday, 1 Nov, 2011 – 10:17 | No Comment

Screen capture of footage from APA.

Editor’s note: At the end of October, Baku hosted the second annual medium forum of Turkic-speaking nations. It’s an interesting example of pan-Turkism’s small revival in the region, and neweurasia’s Tomyris reports on official views of the event.

On October 28th, the Second Media Forum of the Turkic-speaking Countries and Communities was held in Baku, Azerbaijan. The event was organized by the Press Council and the Mass Media State Support Fund, under the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev.

Trend.Az News informs that the symbolic day in Baku brought upon The Coordination Centre of Turkic-speaking media outlets, under the decision of the Second Media Forum. Local committees for individual countries and societies were formed and the individual Committee Chairmen elected as members of the Coordinating Council. At the meeting, a chairman for the media union was elected – Aflatun Amashov, Chairman of the Press Council.

Some committee members include:

“… Trend Agency, the Press Council, the Mass Media State Support Fund under the Azerbaijani President and Azerbaijani Union of Journalists, were elected members of the local committee on Azerbaijan.”

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Azerbaijan: A New Front in Iran-Israel Rivalry
Written by , Monday, 24 Oct, 2011 – 1:00 | No Comment

Editor’s note: Originally posted by Nima Khorrami Assl at NewEurasia partner site, Kanal PIK.

Notwithstanding its religious, cultural, and historical links with Iran, the Republic of Azerbaijan has had a difficult relation with its southern neighbour since its independence in 1991. Antagonised by Tehran’s support for Armenia during the 1992-1994 war and suspicious of Iran’s meddling in its internal affairs, Baku has sought to counter the ‘Iranian threat’ by forging closer ties to Israel. This, in turn, has eroded whatever room that used to exist for improvement of ties between the two states, and therefore it is no exaggeration to claim that Tehran-Baku relations have been under strain for over a decade.

Over the last two years, however, tensions have reached new heights as Azerbaijan has consciously become part of the “shadowy intelligence war” between Iran and Israel. The strangely aggressive outburst by Gen. Hassan Firouzabadi, chief of Iran’s armed forces Joint Staff Command, not only brought into sharp focus Tehran and Jerusalem deepening intelligence war in Azerbaijan, but also reflected the Iranian government’s growing concern over Israel’s “penetration” of its northern neighbour. On August 9 Firouzabadi warned Azerbaijan President that he would face “a dark fate” should he continue to expand ties with Israel; a statement that prompted the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry to deliver an official protest to the Iranian Embassy in Baku as well as the arrest of three members of the banned Islamic Party of Azerbaijan which Baku claims is funded by Tehran.

Faced with enormous socio-political challenges in the immediate aftermath of its independence, Baku urgently needed to find a reliable political, economic and strategic partner in order to preserve its national sovereignty. Moscow and Tehran were out of the equation given their historical support for Azerbaijan’s arch rival Armenia. Presence of a large Jewish minority in Azerbaijan and the strength of communal links between the Jewish state and Baku, on the other hand, encouraged Azerbaijani policymakers to establish relations with Jerusalem; an effort that was further facilitated by both states near-identical sense of regional insecurity born out of war and siege.

And ties have gone from strength to strength since they are mutually beneficial to both Israel and Azerbaijan. Expanding its influence into the non-Arab segments of the Muslim world has long been a strategic Israeli objective. Having relations with a Muslim nation, especially a Shiite country, not only means an extra vote in the UN, but also indicates that Israel does have Muslim ‘friends’, and thus it is not an enemy of Islam.

Energy security is also an integral part of this bilateral relationship due to Azerbaijan’s vast energy resources and its geography. In fact, Israel is now the second largest importer of Azerbaijani oil after Italy. There is also a growing covert collaboration in the energy sector between the two states. According to Rafael Abbasov, former director of economic and trade development at the Israeli Embassy in Baku, “Israeli firms are a lot more involved than at first meets the eye”. In order to avoid causing problems for the government in Baku “they often register as U.S. or UK branches and then participate in bidding for tender contracts”.

Finally, improvement of ties between the two capitals has provided Israel with a “forward operating base” from where it monitors Iran and its controversial nuclear programme. According to Soner Cagaptay, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Israeli intelligence agencies have established “listening posts along the Azerbaijani border with Iran” for some time now. In addition, given Azerbaijan’s fear and distrust of Iran, Israel sees in Baku an ally which can be easily persuaded to support Israeli efforts to counter Iran’s influence especially that a nuclear-capable Iran could have important geostrategic implications for Baku.

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Caspian Quandary
Written by , Saturday, 7 Jun, 2008 – 13:09 | 2 Comments

Laying a gas transit route across the Caspian bed from the Azeri coast to the shores of Turkmenistan, with all its hydrocarbon wealth, remains an exciting prospect for energy-hungry Europe and one that grows tantalisingly near with the passing of time.
Arguably, this vague sense of looming achievement is the artefact of Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, whose openness to dialogue and negotiation has dangled the possibility of a breakthrough on gas deliveries that could see the West rid of Russian energy hegemony.
Consider his promise to EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner that Ashgabat would supply the European Union with 10 billion cubic metres of gas from 2010. Not to speak of numerous other more low-key visits to Turkmenistan by U.S. and EU officials, including last week’s brief stop-off from President George W. Bush’s Special Envoy for Eurasian Energy Ambassador C. Boyden Gray and U.S. Coordinator for Eurasian Energy Diplomacy Ambassador Steven Mann.
When OSCE Chairman-in-Office Alexander Stubb dropped by last week, he could not resist congratulating his Central Asian interlocutors for pursuing diversification of hydrocarbon exports.
It is now virtually gospel-truth that Turkmen gas will eventually reach three immediate destinations _ Russia, China and Iran _ and the West continues to hope that list can be extended yet further.
For all the fervour that this thought inspires, however, some fundamental core issues stand in the way. In brief, these could be outlined as international politics, availability, and technical feasibility.
As has been widely documented elsewhere, Moscow is desperate to secure majority control over Central Asian gas reserves and has moved quickly and decisively to ensure it is successful. The preliminary tripartite agreement sealed in May 2007 between Russia, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to build a gas pipeline skirting the Caspian shore and expanding the capacity of an existing Soviet-era route traversing Uzbekistan was rightly hailed as a victory and a decisive blow for Moscow. Thrashing out the deal has proved more problematic, though it is still early days to determine the exact nature and seriousness of the sticking points between the stakeholders.
Yet, for all the importance of last year’s groundbreaking concord, it is likely that Russia’s evolution towards market realism will have a more telling effect in the long run.
In March, Russian gas monopoly Gazprom announced that it would begin paying European-level prices for gas from Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. It is clear to anybody that has watched regional gas politics play out over the last few years that Gazprom is not motivated by any sense of fairness toward Central Asian countries or, as it claimed farcically, that it is “guided by their national economic interests.”
Likewise, Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller’s reported commitment to paying Azerbaijan real market prices for its gas testifies to a strategic recalculation on Moscow’s part. Where arm-twisting was once the name of the game, Russia is now deploying its vast financial resources to squeeze out Western rivals.
Ultimately, this card may have been played too late in the day and Russia’s target suppliers have reason to be suspicious of this sudden Damascene conversion to market principles.
To begin with the Azeri part of the puzzle, as a former president of state-owned energy firm SOCAR told Eurasianet recently, “Azerbaijan is already exporting its gas to Europe at market prices. So, I do not see reasons why Baku should sell its gas to Russia instead of the Europe.”
Azerbaijan’s potential to become a spoiler also extends to the role it could play in enabling the elusive trans-Caspian pipeline. Improving ties between Baku and Ashgabat look likely to culminate in the most disruptive sticking point in bilateral ties over the past decade_ the contested offshore Serdar/Kipyaz oilfield _ being settled. Should that come about, the trans-Caspian will become inevitably become a tantalising possibility, barring one-sided disruptive territorial diplomacy from Moscow.
For potential to be realised, however, a number of technical issues will have to surmounted. Again, it was Azerbaijan, with U.S. support, who took the initiative on this front in April when it commissioned KBR subsidiary Granherne to conduct a feasibility study on the pipeline. It is hoped the study will clear up long-standing questions about the pipeline _ including the environmental hazards, the risks of seismic activity in the area, and expected construction and maintenance costs.
It is not yet clear when that research will be concluded or publicised, but the day will be awaited with bated breath by many a policymaker from Washington to Brussels. A caveat in all this is that one of the routes reputedly under examination includes oil and gas links between Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, which would not immediately benefit Turkmenistan. Indeed, Astana’s growing heft as a regional broker would indubitably see it favour an option that left it holding all the cards, but it is still too early to speculate on the range of hypothetical outcomes.
Ever keen to put the cat among the pigeons, SOCAR First Vice President Khoshbakht Yusifzadeh said this week that existing gas pipelines on Azeri subsea soil mean only an additional 100 kilometres need to be added to complete the trans-Caspian. Yusifzadeh gives no specific details, lending a frustratingly illusory air to the claim, but is compelling nonetheless.
At 100 kilometres, the trans-Caspian proposition would be eminently realistic even compared with Russia’s planned 900-kilometer Nord Stream, which faces opposition from neighbouring countries, environmentalist groups and certain European Union states.
Even providing Turkmenistan wants to run the gauntlet of geopolitical manoeuvring and the lengthy exercise of waiting for an expensive and possibly risk-laden pipeline to built, however, will it really be able to provide.
Once more, a much-awaited international study will be responsible for settling that mystery. British-based Gaffney, Cline & Associates’ findings will conclude once and for all just how much Turkmen gas there really is and, more importantly, whether the reserves are large enough to meet the demands of all-comers.
But cynicism about Turkmenistan’s extravagant hydrocarbon reserves claims abounds, with the widely shared consensus being that Berdymukhammedov is drawing suitors into a bidding war. This line of reasoning presumes Russia and China will be ultimate victors of this competition for Turkmen gas. Indeed, it is hard to believe Ashgabat would risk the diplomatic oblivion to which it would be doomed if it double-crossed these two giants.
Meanwhile, onlookers remain in the dark and the West continues to waltz in ever-diminishing circles round Central Asia’s most reclusive nation. What will appear once the dust has settled, only time will tell.