Strategic Analysis Caucasus Brief
Bi-weekly review (21. 11. – 04. 12. 2022)
Ruins Of The Zvartnos, Yerevan, Armenia. Photo: MindStorm/Shutterstock
Armenia’s parliamentary opposition bloc dissolves
The opposition party Reborn Armenia has decided to terminate its activity in the National Assembly, with three out of the four lawmakers stepping down. President of the party Vahe Hakobyan, vice-Presidents Hripsime Stambulyan and Yelena Kirakosyan have already submitted their resignation letters, according to a statement published on Monday, November 28.
MP Zemfira Mirzoyeva, who represents the Assyrian community, will temporarily suspend her membership in the party and continue her activity in the parliament. According to the statement, other party members are free to accept Hakobyan, Stambulyan and Kirakosyan mandates though they will have to leave the party.
In its statement, Reborn Armenia claims it will continue its activities in the opposition field within the framework of the values and policies declared by the party. “At the same time, we thank our RA NA “Armenia” Faction colleagues for the path we passed together and the joint work, wishing them success in their activities and struggle. We are sure that the interaction with our partners from the opposition field will be continuous in the future as well, based on shared ideas and common goals,” reads the statement.
As OC Media reminds us, the Reborn Armenia party was established in 2020 by the former governor of the southern Syunik region, Vahe Hakobyan, shortly after the Second Nagorno-Karabakh war. The party allied with the ARF and the country’s second president, Robert Kocharyan, in the 2021 elections, with the coalition winning around 30% of the votes and occupying 36 of 107 seats, four of which were won by Reborn Armenia members. When Kocharyan refused to enter parliament, the Reborn Armenia–ARF bloc became the parliament’s main opposition.
The Homeland Party, another minor opposition party, left the parliament in June after months of protests in the streets of Armenia’s capital city demanding a change of government. The party, established by former Pashinyan ally and ex-head of the National Security Service Artur Vanetsyan, was part of a parliamentary bloc with Armenia’s former ruling Republican party.
With the two newer and smaller parties having left parliament, Armenian legislative power has been returned to the country’s two former ruling parties and current ruling party — the ARF, the Republican party, and the Civil Contract party.
- AVETISYAN Ani, OC Media, “Armenia’s parliamentary opposition bloc dissolves“, https://oc-media.org/armenias-parliamentary-opposition-bloc-dissolves/
- Iravaban.net, „The Party ceases its activity in the RA National Assembly. Reborn Armenia Party“, https://iravaban.net/en/406810.html
- PanArmenian.net, „Opposition party terminates parliamentary activity as MPs resign“, https://panarmenian.net/m/eng/news/304015
Armenia and Hungary Restore Diplomatic Ties
On December 1, Armenia and Hungary officially agreed to restore their diplomatic relations frozen by Yerevan a decade ago. Armenia’s former leadership cut those ties in 2012 after the Hungarian government controversially extradited to Azerbaijan an Azerbaijani army officer who hacked to death a sleeping Armenian colleague in Budapest in 2004. The officer, Ramil Safarov, whom a Hungarian court sentenced to life imprisonment in 2006, was pardoned, rewarded and promoted by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev on his return to Azerbaijan.
The Hungarian government claimed to have received prior assurances from Baku that Safarov would serve the rest of his life sentence in an Azerbaijani prison. Yerevan dismissed that explanation. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban had travelled to Baku and met with Aliyev two months before Safarov’s release. Orban has long maintained a warm rapport with the Azerbaijani leader.
Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan and his Hungarian counterpart Peter Szijjarto announced their governments’ decision to restore diplomatic ties after meeting on the sidelines of an OSCE ministerial conference held in the Polish city of Lodz. In a joint statement, they said the move would “open a new page in Armenian-Hungarian relations.” They noted the “common Christian heritage” of the Armenian and Hungarian peoples.
As Eurasianet.org points out, following the military defeat to Azerbaijan in 2020, the new “post-war reality” spurred Yerevan to begin seeking to restore relations with Hungary, said Richard Giragosian, the head of the Yerevan think tank Regional Studies Center. “For Armenia, the shock of the murder in the Safarov case has faded, and the impetus was to overcome its isolation and renew ties to Budapest,” Giragosian told Eurasianet. The restoration of ties was preceded by a year of heightened diplomatic activity between Yerevan and Budapest.
In December 2021, the Hungarian government mediated between Armenia and Azerbaijan to broker the return of five Armenian soldiers detained following clashes the month before. The same day that the soldiers were repatriated, Hungary announced that it was donating 100,000 coronavirus vaccines to Armenia. In February, a Hungarian delegation visited Armenia and announced a cooperation program with a primary school named after the murdered Armenian soldier. “To keep Gurgen Margaryan’s memory alive in Hungary and to prevent such crimes in the future, we specifically chose to cooperate with the school named after him,” said István Csere, the director of a primary school in Budapest that partnered with the Armenian school.
All of that appeared to pave the way for a restoration of ties. “Last year, we saw that step by Hungary that resulted in five captives being returned to Armenia. After that, we saw some other steps, support was provided to the school named after Gurgen Margaryan, and coronavirus vaccines were donated to Armenia,” Deputy Foreign Minister Paruyr Hovhannisyan told a parliamentary hearing on November 3.
Hungary has openly supported Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, unlike other European Union member states. The Hungarian Foreign Ministry reaffirmed that support three days after the outbreak of the 2020 Armenian-Azerbaijani war in Karabakh.
- KUCERA Joshua, Eurasianet.org, „Armenia and Hungary to restore ties“, https://eurasianet.org/armenia-and-hungary-to-restore-ties
- Asbarez.com, “Armenia and Hungary Restore Diplomatic Ties“, https://asbarez.com/armenia-and-hungary-restore-diplomatic-ties/
Azerbaijani Shiite activist charged with drug trafficking
An Azerbaijani member of the Muslim Unity Movement, Shahin Gadirov, has been detained on four months pre-trial detention facing drug charges. Plainclothes police officers reportedly detained Gadirov on his way home from work on November 23. He was charged with drug trafficking on the following day and denied bail by the court.
Only three days later, relatives managed to get information that Gadirov was being held in the Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Muslim Unity Movement considers the criminal case against Gadirov to be “fabricated” and regards his arrest as a “provocation” and “pressure” on the organisation. Muslim Unity Movement, which does not have official state registration, was founded on January 13, 2015. After the creation of the movement, dozens of organisation activists were arrested. Nine movement members are in detention, including its leader Tale Bagirzade.
- AGHAYEV Ismi, OC Media, “Azerbaijani Shiite activist charged with drug trafficking“, https://oc-media.org/azerbaijani-shiite-activist-charged-with-drug-trafficking/
- Turan.az, “Muslim Unity member, arrested on drug trafficking charges“, https://www.turan.az/ext/news/2022/11/free/Social/en/12133.htm
Increased criticism of Russian peacekeepers heard from Baku
Azerbaijan increasingly criticises Russian peacekeepers for using Armenian toponyms of settlements in de facto Nagorno-Karabakh and for allegedly allowing the transport of weapons to the region. On November 25, the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry reported that Azerbaijan officially provided Russian MoD and peacekeeping contingent with a list and map of settlements of the Karabakh economic region of the Republic of Azerbaijan that include names corresponding to Azerbaijani toponyms. Azerbaijan has repeatedly appealed regarding the use of these names in official information.
“However, unfortunately, the names of Azerbaijani settlements are mentioned with fictitious Armenian toponyms in the official information of the peacekeeping contingent of the Russian Federation published on the official website of the Defense Ministry of the Russian Federation,” it added. “Thus, in the official information of the peacekeeping contingent of the Russian Federation dated November 24, 2022, it is stated that Azerbaijan allegedly violated the ceasefire in the direction of the settlement “Magavuz.” We inform the Russian side that the official name of the Azerbaijani settlement mentioned by them as “Magavuz” is “Chardagli”. The Azerbaijan Army Units did not violate the ceasefire and did not open fire in this direction,” the report said.
On November 25, the Russian peacekeeping contingent in Nagorno-Karabakh responded to the statement of the Ministry of Defense of Azerbaijan, noting that Baku’s criticism caused a surprise. “The Ministry of Defense of Azerbaijan demanded from the Russian side to use exclusively Azerbaijani place names when talking about Nagorno-Karabakh. The Azerbaijani side also blamed the peacekeepers for not publishing the information about the Armenian side’s violations of the ceasefire regime,” the report added. “The armed forces of the Russian Federation and the Russian peacekeeping troops in Nagorno-Karabakh use the place names defined by the topographical maps of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces during the execution of training and combat tasks. Baku’s criticism of the name of the Maghavuz settlement is surprising because other non-Azerbaijani place names were previously and repeatedly used in the bulletins of the Ministry of Defense of Russia in the context of ensuring the escort of convoys of Azerbaijani citizens through the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Moreover, the Azerbaijani side also uses these place names during the coordination of the route of the convoys and the organisation of interaction with the Russian peacekeepers,” the statement said.
It added that the violations of the ceasefire regime, which are published in the official bulletins of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, are recorded by the observation posts of the peacekeepers using objective surveillance equipment that allows the observation to be carried out at any time of the day. It would not be bad if the Ministry of Defense of Azerbaijan did not question the activities of the Russian peacekeeping troops in Nagorno-Karabakh on such minor occasions.”
Meanwhile, there are calls in Azerbaijan to take control of the movement of vehicles along the Lachin corridor, with some politicians demanding the road be closed altogether. Former Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Tofig Zulfugarov believes that such calls are a sign of populism. “It is a little strange to read when, at the suggestion of our opponents and some populists, we use the phrase “close the Lachin corridor”. “Our goal is to prevent the transport of weapons, anti-constitutional activities and propaganda, smuggling, drug trafficking, etc., into or on the territory of our country. And activities that do not contradict our laws, including humanitarian activities, can and should continue unhindered,” former Foreign Minister of Azerbaijan Tofig Zulfugarov wrote on Facebook.
Official Baku has recently stated that armaments are being supplied from Armenia along the Lachin road to the part of Karabakh where the Armenian population lives. These statements were reflected both in the statements of the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry and were heard from the lips of officials at various levels at meetings with foreign colleagues. Azerbaijani politicians argue that this necessitates more robust control over cargo going to Karabakh.
- JAM News,” ‘The demand to close the Lachin corridor is populism.‘ Opinions from Baku“, https://jam-news.net/the-demand-to-close-the-lachin-corridor-is-populism-opinions-from-baku/
- Caucasus Watch, Azerbaijan Repeatedly Warns Russia to Use “Proper Toponyms”, https://caucasuswatch.de/news/6539.html
Recent development in Nakhchivan indicates a possible loss of autonomy
In recent weeks several high-ranking officials have been arrested, and republican state bodies have been abolished in Nakhchivan. On November 28, the State Customs Committee of the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic was abolished. In its place, an institution was created under the authority of the General Customs Department: the Azerbaijan State Customs Committee.
The decision to dissolve the Nakhchivan Customs Committee was made in the aftermath of State Security Service arrests at the Nakhchivan Customs. Before that, the Nakhchivan State Security Service was abolished, and a document was signed on the establishment of the regional office of the Azerbaijan State Security Service directly subordinate to Baku. Previously, these institutions were subject to the Supreme Assembly of Nakhchivan.
On November 26, the Sabail District Court of Baku presided over by Judge Ulviyya Shukurova, chose a four-month preventive measure against Rafael Aliyev, the Minister of Finance of the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, in the ongoing criminal case at the State Security Service. The Minister of Finance is found guilty under Article 179.4 of the Criminal Code (embezzlement or embezzlement, when committed by causing significant damage). Rafael Aliyev is accused of misappropriating EUR 81 million of state funds. At the meeting in the Azerbaijani Parliament, Azerbaijani Finance Minister Samir Sharifov said that the subsidy allocated to Nakhchivan from the state budget for next year would be reduced by EUR 17.6 million.
Due to many experts, Baku wants to abolish the autonomy of Nakhichevan and subordinate it directly to the country’s capital. But it’s not so easy, as JAM News points out. According to the constitution of Azerbaijan, the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic is actually a state within the Republic of Azerbaijan. Abolishing autonomy would require changes to the constitution, which would require a referendum, political commentator Agshin Karimov says. Karimov believes that the autonomy of Nakhichevan will be abolished. “Reforms are being prepared that require changes in the country’s basic law. In addition to the abolition of the autonomy of Nakhichevan, this is a matter of reforming the administrative division of Azerbaijan, increasing the number of deputies of the Milli Majlis. Other issues may be submitted to the plebiscite,” Karimov added.
“Structural changes are taking place in Nakhichevan”, Fazail Agamali, a parliamentary committee member on legal policy and state structure, said in an interview with Turan. “These steps can be regarded as part of the structural reforms being carried out by the country’s president.” The MP noted that various ministries, committees, and departments in the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic are being reorganised as part of the executive power of Azerbaijan. “To be continued,” he added.
According to political commentator Shahin Jafarli with a high degree of probability, it may be assumed that soon the head of the republic, Vasif Talybov, will somehow be removed from his post: “The fact that he did not take part in the events on the occasion of the thirtieth anniversary of the ruling party in Baku actually indicates his fall in the eyes of Baku, and work is underway to remove him.”
The reason, according to Jafarli is that many people look at Nakhichevan as a khanate: “This idea is not without foundation. Vasif Talybov built a khanate there. He issued decisions without coordinating them with Baku and without considering whether the central authorities would allow this. An atmosphere has been created there that is fundamentally different from other regions of Azerbaijan. Apparently, now Ilham Aliyev has decided to end this and link Nakhichevan with Baku with closer ties.”
- Caucasus Watch, „Recent Detentions and Ministry Abolitions in Nakhchivan“, https://caucasuswatch.de/news/6558
- JAM News, „What’s going on in Nakhichevan? Baku discusses possible abolition of autonomy“, https://jam-news.net/whats-going-on-in-nakhichevan-baku-discusses-possible-abolition-of-autonomy/
Anti-torture watchdog warns that Saakashvili could die without treatment abroad
Anti-torture watchdog “Empathy” has warned that the currently imprisoned former President of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, could die if he does not receive treatment outside of Georgia, reports OC Media. On November 28, in Mikheil Saakashvili’s absence, the Tbilisi City Court was hearing the case of the imprisoned former President involving unlawful border crossing.
Moreover, despite the pending trial, Georgian Public Defender Nino Lomjaria visited Saakashvili at the Vivamedi Clinic. “The former president’s health has sharply deteriorated, which is visually noticeable,” the Speaker claimed recently. “He is slimmed down considerably. He is unable to walk or stand up, according to the doctors. The doctor says his health has been deteriorating, especially since the beginning of October,” she stated.
Later, on December 1, the defence lawyers of imprisoned former President petitioned the Tbilisi City Court to either release Saakashvili or postpone his sentence per the provisions of the law for health reasons. The petition was presented by one of his lawyers, Shalva Khachapuridze, who explained that the 15-volume petition details the conclusions of medical experts, which are based on a physical examination of the former President, and also contain the photos that they took during that time.
The lawyers expressed hope that the Court would deliberate in the shortest possible time and interview roughly 25 relevant witnesses. According to Khachapuridze, “it is inconceivable for the Court not to decide to release or to postpone [Saakashvili’s] sentence based on […] the materials attached to the case.” Khachapuridze underscored that the failure of the Court to take such a decision would be in contravention of the law and would “mean the death sentence” for Saakashvili.
Article 283 of the Criminal Procedure Code of Georgia says the sentence can be deferred on health grounds until the recovery or substantial improvement of the condition, based on a forensic medical examination report suggesting the convict has a severe illness that prevents them from serving their sentence. Article 284 of the same code says the sentence may be lifted due to old age and a severe or terminal illness.
On December 1, the centre “Empathy”, engaged by Saakashvili’s side, published parts of its 2.980-page report on Saakashvili’s health, covering the period from June 1 to November 28, 2022. This document served as the basis for the defence lawyers’ appeal. The report reads that the former President has been diagnosed with more than 20 diagnoses or symptoms, of which “about ten leading causes make his condition incompatible with imprisonment.”
While the centre did not release a specific diagnosis, according to the report, Saakashvili experiences unexplained and prolonged fever, anorexia, rapid weight loss, muscular and joints pains, as well as muscle spasms, which – the conclusion reads – may be the result of an unidentified infectious process and/or a possible intoxication.
According to the centre, the condition requires complex diagnostic tests and prolonged surveillance of the kind that is not currently available in Georgia to rule out infection and/or intoxication. The conclusion further says that if the current dynamic of deterioration of health condition persists, potential intoxication is “expected to result in a coma and death.”
Irakli Kobakhidze, the chairperson of the Georgian Dream party, reacted that the centre is biased as it is “directly linked” with the United National Movement (UNM). Therefore, he claimed, “this organisation’s trustworthiness equals zero.” On November 29, Justice Minister Rati Bregadze also addressed the ex-President’s health condition in a briefing, which maintained that since his arrest, Saakashvili has “enjoyed all rights granted to him by the law” and “to this day is under the supervision of highly qualified medical personnel.”
The Justice Minister did note that “due to the high level of responsibility which the state attaches to the life and health of each person,” the government has proposed to Saakashvili to “bring any doctor from any foreign clinic whom the state will allow being involved in his treatment.” Regarding calls for transferring Saakashvili abroad for treatment, Minister Bregadze explained that the “Justice Ministry does not have the legal leverage for initiating such a request.”
- Caucasus Watch, „Recent Political Developments Regarding Georgia“, https://caucasuswatch.de/news/6565.html
- KINCHA Shota, SHOSHIASHVILI Tata, OC Media, “Anti-torture watchdog warns that Saakashvili could die without treatment abroad“, https://oc-media.org/anti-torture-watchdog-warns-that-saakashvili-could-die-without-treatment-abroad/
Volodin threatens Abkhazia over Pitsunda. The local opposition is united in its rejection
Speaker of the Duma Vyacheslav Volodin arrived in Abkhazia to talk behind closed doors with de facto deputies of the People’s Assembly. Local experts consider Volodin’s statement that “[w]e believe that friendship is a two-way street” to be an essential message and even a veiled threat regarding premises in Pitunda (Bichvinta), reports JAM News.
Although the visit’s official purpose was to sign an inter-parliamentary agreement on cooperation between the Duma and the de facto People’s Assembly, it took place just a week before the Abkhaz deputies will deliberate on ratification of the transfer of the Pitsunda estate to Russia.
After meeting with the Abkhaz deputies, Volodin said that “the conversation in a closed format was very useful”: “We need to get to know each other better, given our allied relations and the desire to build them […] more effectively. The pace is set by the heads of our states, and the governments are working in this direction. As for parliaments, we have not had effective communications for a long time.” “Development is possible only on the basis of trust. It is impossible to form trust without dialogue,” Volodin said.
Meanwhile, the Abkhaz expert community agrees that the main purpose of Viacheslav Volodin’s visit to Abkhazia is to convince the Abkhaz colleagues to ratify the agreement on the Pitsunda estate in the form, in which was signed in January 2022. Meanwhile, Abkhaz opposition seems to be united in its rejection of the agreement in its current form. On November 19, representatives of the Abkhazian opposition forces published a collective statement against the deal. The parties Forum of National Unity of Abkhazia and Apsny, the public organisations Aidgylara. Arwaa, AND, Union of Youth and Veterans of the Patriotic War, Aiaaira, Akhiatsa, the expert-fund Aamta, and the Committee for the Protection of the Sovereignty of the Republic of Abkhazia signed the document.
“Never before has there been such a protest in Abkhazian society in connection with initiatives of the Russian Federation. Relations between our countries have always been exclusively friendly, good-neighbourly, and no-one in Abkhazia wants them to be overshadowed by poor-quality legal documents that contradict the spirit of our fraternal relations…,” reads the statement.
- JAM News,” ‘Friendship is a two-way street‘ – Speaker of Russian Duma in Abkhazia”, https://jam-news.net/friendship-is-a-two-way-street-speaker-of-russian-duma-in-abkhazia/
- Abkhaz World,” ‘The Dacha Stumbling-block‘. The Abkhazian opposition is collective ‘contra‘”, https://abkhazworld.com/aw/current-affairs/2067-the-dacha-stumbling-block-the-abkhazian-opposition