South-Caucasus Geopolitical Watch – from July 16 to July 22, 2022

07/15/2022: Scandal in Abkhazia over the transfer of ownership of the Pitsunda dacha to the Russian Federation.

The decision of the “government” of Abkhazia to transfer to the Russian Federation the property of the dacha Pitsunda, which belonged to Nikita Khrushchev and is part of a reserve with an area of ​​184 hectares, has been the subject of comments from Sergei Shamba, “secretary of the Security Council of Abkhazia” and chairman of the “United Abkhazia” political party, in the face of strong criticism over the discovery on July 11 that this decision, which still needs to be ratified by parliament, had been signed in Moscow on January 19th. He said: “In our view, the issue of transferring the Pitsunda State dacha to Russian ownership distracts politicians and society from issues that are more relevant to the protection of our state and its sovereignty. The military-political tension in the world confronts us with the task of modernizing our armed forces and increasing their combat capacity. And it is on this task that we must now focus our main attention” while explaining: “The transfer of the Pitsunda State Dacha to the ownership of the Russian Federation, which is being prepared today, is not only a form of expression of our great gratitude to our ally – neighbor, but also a means of strengthening the fraternal bonds between our countries and ensuring the security of our country“.
On July 18, a group of former Abkhaz “deputies” sent a letter to the Abkhaz “People’s Assembly” with a request to conduct a review of this agreement. On July 19, several representatives of the “Public Chamber” of Abkhazia met with the “Speaker of the Parliament”, Lasha Ashuba, on this subject, handing him a letter referring to “the negative reaction of society“, stating that “Pitsunda City Assembly members” had also “expressed concern over an alleged covert transfer of land in a specially protected natural area, abuses of citizens rights and other violations of the legislation of Abkhazia” and requesting the postponement of consideration of the issue, as well as a review of compliance with the Constitution of the Republic of Abkhazia, the law “On international treaties” and “On natural territories specially protected”.

On July 19, “President” Aslan Bzhania, met with several representatives of political parties and veterans’norganizations of Abkhazia, together with “Vice-President” Badra Gunba, “Head of the Presidential Administration”, Alkhas Kvitsinia, and Security Council Secretary Sergey Shamba. He then clarified the situation by explaining that “the fundamental and most important difference between the 1995 and 2022 agreements [was] in the fact that the buildings and structures [were] transferred to Russian ownership, while the land, as before, [remained] the property of Abkhazia” and that the Russian side would “use the facility exclusively for state events with the participation of persons subject to state protection”. All the participants unanimously validated the decision to ratify this agreement.

07/16/2022: First bilateral meeting in Tbilisi between the Armenian and Azerbaijani Foreign Ministers.

Armenian and Azerbaijani Foreign Ministers Ararat Mirzoyan and Djeyhun Bayramov met for the first time in a 3-hour bilateral meeting in Tbilisi, following their respective bilateral meetings with Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and with Foreign Minister Ilia Darchiashvili, who welcomed the move, saying: “Today is a special day in Georgia. Tbilisi hosts a very important dialogue started between our two neighbouring countries, and this process is of particular importance because together, with joint efforts, we will try to ensure peace and security in our region” while recalling the Neighbourhood Peace Initiative launched by its government in 2021. The Armenian side stressed “the importance of using the institution and experience of the OSCE Minsk Coordination Group [and] to address humanitarian issues, including the release and repatriation of Armenian prisoners of war and the clarification of the fate of missing persons.” While the Azerbaijani side insisted on the need for “withdrawal of the Armenian armed forces from the territory of Azerbaijan” and he underlined “the importance of clarifying the fate of about 4,000 missing Azerbaijani people“. This meeting was welcomed by the American Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Karen Donfried, who met the next day with the two Foreign Ministers, by the American Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and by the French Minister for Foreign Affairs, Catherine Colonna.

The second meeting of the Armenian and Azerbaijani border commissions is scheduled to take place in Moscow in August 2022.

07/18-20/2022: Visit of the Georgian Prime Minister to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili travelled to Uzbekistan on July 18 accompanied by Foreign Minister Ilia Darchiashvili and Economy Minister Levan Davitashvili to meet his Uzbek counterpart Abdulla Aripov in Tashkent the following day, and to discuss Georgia’s role as a transport corridor for the Central Asian Republic. The 18.5% increase in bilateral trade volume (amounting to $15 million) between the two countries in 2021 was underlined, as well as Georgia’s desire to increase its wine and mineral water exports. Also explored were opportunities for Uzbekistan to use Georgian transport infrastructure and port facilities to “access the EU consumer market“. The Georgian Prime Minister also inaugurated a square and a statue in honour of the famous Georgian poet, Shota Rustaveli, in the presence of the Mayor of Tbilisi, Kakha Kaladze, before meeting the Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, whom he thanked for his “unwavering support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia“. He left the same evening for Turkmenistan where he was welcomed by Muhammetgeldi Serdarov, Minister of Finance and Economy of Turkmenistan and Avtandil Napetvaridze, Georgian Chargé d’Affaires in Turkmenistan. The following day, he met with Turkmen President Serdar Berdimuhamedov in Ashgabat to discuss “joint projects and the transit potential of the two countries” including those to “increase the efficiency and safety of shipments of freight between Asia and Europe via the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea, leading to the expansion of trade and economic relations“. A cooperation agreement was signed regarding the launch of direct flights connecting the countries and increasing the cargo turnover between them.

07/18-19/2022: Visit of the Director of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service Sergei Naryshkin to Yerevan and Baku.

Following the confirmed meeting between the director of the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) William J. Burns with the Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinian, and the Secretary of the Security Council, Armen Grigorian, on July 15, the Prime Minister of Armenia also met the director of the Russian foreign intelligence service Sergeï Naryshkin, on July 18. The latter explained to the press: “My visit to Yerevan is certainly not related to the visit of my American colleague here. But I do not exclude that his visit was precisely linked to my trip”. He described the work program that took place in these terms: “part of this cooperation concerns the interaction of our special services, and we discussed today with my colleague the exchange of intelligence information, joint actions to identify and prevent a whole series of external threats, threats against Armenia and Russia. […] We are developing a common work plan for the years to come. […] The question of the reform of the Armenian State Security Service, by creating a separate foreign intelligence service, falls within the competence of the Armenian political leadership. We will provide any methodological assistance and support in any working format with our esteemed colleagues and partners”.

The following day, he travelled to Baku where he reportedly met with President Ilham Aliev and the head of Azerbaijan’s foreign intelligence service, Orxan Sultanov. A cooperation agreement between the foreign intelligence services of Russia and Azerbaijan was reportedly signed, which would include “the protection of the national sovereignty and territorial integrity of the two states, the fight against international terrorism and the radical extremism, protection of the interests of foreign agencies and citizens of Russia and Azerbaijan in third countries».

07/18/2022: Visit of Ursula von der Leyen and Kadri Simon to Azerbaijan for the signing of a new memorandum of understanding on a strategic partnership in the field of energy.

The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and the European Commissioner for Energy, Kadri Simon, travelled to Azerbaijan on July 18 to meet President Ilham Aliyev and the Azerbaijani Minister for Energy, Parviz Shahbasov. A new Memorandum of Understanding on a Strategic Energy Partnership was signed including “a commitment to double the capacity of the Southern Gas Corridor to deliver at least 20 billion cubic meters per year to the EU by 2027” in order to contribute to the “diversification objectives of the REPowerEU plan” and help Europe to “end its dependence on Russian gas“. According to the European Commission “Based on enhanced energy cooperation, Azerbaijan is already increasing its natural gas deliveries to the EU, from 8.1 billion cubic meters in 2021 to 12 billion cubic meters in 2022“. This protocol also foresees “the deployment of renewable energy generation and transmission capacity in order to take full advantage of the synergies between the EU’s clean energy transition and Azerbaijan’s large untapped renewable energy potential, in particularly in the offshore energy sector“, recognizes “the importance of the Global Methane Pledge” and “that making the natural gas supply chain as efficient, environmentally and climate friendly as possible is a collective responsibility” while supporting “the creation of systems to collect natural gas that would otherwise be vented, burned, or released to the atmosphere.”

Ursula von der Leyen also said, “Let’s strengthen our economic relations and bring our peoples together. Connectivity will be crucial here. The EU wants to work with Azerbaijan and establish links with Central Asia and beyond”.

On July 21, Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov came to Baku to meet the Azerbaijani President who said, “Of course our strategic cooperation covers many areas, including energy security. It is currently one of the main topics on the global agenda. These and other questions will be discussed today. I am happy that we have established cooperation in the field of energy. There is already a direct line to Bulgaria along the Southern Gas Corridor. This is of course a long-term cooperation which will have great potential in the future – not only in the field of energy but also in other areas such as trade, investment, creation joint ventures, tourism” while emphasizing “great potential in the field of transport“.

07/19/2022: Critical speech by Ilham Aliyev to the European Parliament delegation to Azerbaijan and 18th meeting of the EU-Azerbaijan Cooperation Council in Brussels.

A delegation from the European Parliament led by the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, David McAllister. visited Azerbaijan on July 19 and was received by President Ilham Aliyev, who took the opportunity to recall some points of disagreement saying: “I remember that the last delegation visited us in 2018. To be honest, I was even a little surprised when I heard that you were planning a trip to Azerbaijan. […] I remember our meeting during which we discussed at length the development of cooperation. But, unfortunately, this did not happen. We are not responsible for this, but the position of certain Members of the European Parliament is the cause. We consider this position to be totally unfounded. Accusations, insults and false information have been levelled against us. I even forgot the number of anti-Azerbaijani resolutions adopted by the European Parliament on different occasions, we are probably talking about more than 10 resolutions. In particular, a resolution was adopted after the Patriotic War, which was particularly worrying because the resolution referred to the destruction of Armenian cultural heritage in Karabakh. This is not true […] it is completely unacceptable to pass a unilateral resolution that blames Azerbaijan for problems we never committed and ignores the actions of Armenia and Armenians on our territories. But it happened unfortunately. I know that many members of your delegation voted in favour of this resolution. This is a completely counterproductive step. […] In fact, the European Parliament is more aggressive towards Azerbaijan than the Armenian Parliament itself. Sometimes it seems that these resolutions are passed by the Armenian Parliament or maybe some Armenian pressure groups have some influence on them. Otherwise, it is very difficult for us to understand the logic behind it.[…] We want to build close relations with Europe, and everything we do, including the most visible signs of cooperation that I have just mentioned , demonstrates this. But if the European Parliament decides to choose such a path, it is its choice. But she must know that it is impossible to isolate Europe from Azerbaijan and Azerbaijan from Europe, despite the efforts of some MPs”.

On the same day, Brussels hosted the 18th meeting of the EU-Azerbaijan Cooperation Council to “review the general state of EU-Azerbaijan relations and discuss mutual interest for future cooperation” in the presence of Azerbaijani Minister of Foreign Affairs Affairs, Djeyhun Bayramov, the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borell, and the European Commissioner for Enlargement, Oliver Varhely. The press release states: “Azerbaijan is an important partner of the European Union and a strategic energy partner, supplying natural gas and oil to Europe, and thus contributing to the EU’s efforts to diversify its resources energy. Energy was therefore an important topic in our discussions. […] The EU wishes to further strengthen cooperation with Azerbaijan, in particular with the conclusion of the new comprehensive EU-Azerbaijan agreement and a common aviation area agreement […] The Council also discussed the situation of rights people, democracy and the rule of law“. Dheyhun Bayramov also met NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels.

07/19/2022: First transfer of a group of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) to Karabakh.

On July 19, the Azerbaijan State Committee for Refugees and Displaced Persons announced that it had transferred the first group of displaced persons to their place of origin in the village of Agali, in the district of Zangilan stating, “The first stage of resettlement of people in Agali village, which was rebuilt based on the concept of ‘smart village’ in Zangilan district, started from the residential compound built for IDPs in Masazir settlement in Apsheron district. […] The relocation of the population to the village of Agali is the first stage of the Great Return. Before the occupation, this administrative district united 3 villages. In the first phase, 41 families will be relocated to the village of Yeni Agali. The first resettled families were mostly selected from among those living in the most difficult conditions in temporary settlements, and the size of the living areas planned for resettlement was also taken into account”.

07/19/2022: A new Russian opponent is refused entry to Georgia.

On July 19, a Russian blogger, Alexei Romanov, said he had been refused entry into Georgian territory after a 6-hour wait at the Anglo-Norwegian border. The Georgian Ministry of Interior reportedly handed him a document without a specific reason and only ticking the box “does not meet the other reasons set out in Georgian law“.

07/19/2022: Declaration by Vladimir Putin concerning the development of transport routes in the South Caucasus on the sidelines of the trilateral meeting in Tehran.

On the sidelines of bilateral meetings and the trilateral meeting he had with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Iranian counterpart, Ebrahim Raïsi, on July 19, Russian President Vladimir Putin said about the development of transport in the South Caucasus: “As you know, under the leadership of one of the deputy prime ministers of the Russian government, there is a group that is working to establish relations in Transcaucasia, to develop infrastructure, to solve infrastructure problems in the South Caucasus, between Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia. And here, in this direction, in the Iranian direction, a lot can be done. As you know, the first experimental and test train has already traveled the “North-South” route. It is a short route with access then to the ports of southern Iran, and here the route to the Persian Gulf and India. There is the specific Rasht-Astara rail link. This is a small section in Iranian territory, we are talking about 146 kilometres. Azerbaijan is interested in building this section. We recently met President Aliyev in the framework of the Caspian Summit and we discussed it. Iran is interested in it, and our Iranian partners have now confirmed that. Russia is also interested in this, because we would have direct access to the Persian Gulf from the north of Russia, from Saint Petersburg. This is a very interesting and promising path. This is to build a section, I repeat, of only 146 kilometres. The Russian side is ready to do this. We must agree on the terms of this construction. We have now discussed it in general terms with our Iranian partners and friends, but, I repeat, with Azerbaijan we have clarified it. I hope we will now move on to concrete work.”

The next day, Armenian Deputy Prime Minister Mher Grigoryan claimed that there was consensus with Azerbaijan on the Yeraskh-Horadiz railway but none on the issue of highways.

07/19/2022: New tensions between Azerbaijani armed forces and Russian peacekeeping forces in Karabakh

Azerbaijani media reported a shooting on July 19 in the village of Shushakend in the Khojaly district, following engineering works launched by the Armenian armed forces, and the intervention of Russian peacekeepers to allow work to continue. In addition, the Azerbaijani armed forces reportedly arrested a convoy of Russian peacekeepers the same day as it attempted to “smuggle at least five Kalashnikov assault rifles illegally”. The Azerbaijani Ministry of Defence had denounced on July 16 another breach of the ceasefire of the Armenian side and the shooting in the direction of the settlement of Zaylik in the district of Kelbajar, which was denied by the Armenian Defence ministry, accusing in return the Azerbaijani forces of having themselves opened fire in the direction of the Armenian positions of the colony of Yukhari Shorzha in the district of Basarkechar.

It should be noted that Nikol Pashinian presented on July 18 to the Ministry of Defence the new chief of staff of the Armenian army to senior officers, Edouard Asryan, who is also the first deputy minister of Defence, which he explained thus: “We made this decision by analysing a number of events that have taken place in recent years, including cooperation issues between the Ministry of Defence and the General Staff“.

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