Azerbaijan and Belarus Catch a Blogger, but What Next?

Travel-blogger Alexander Lapshin’s irreverent reviews have left him in the doghouse before, but it was an alleged trip to separatist Nagorno Karabakh that really landed him in hot water. The Israeli-Russian blogger was detained in Belarus almost a month ago, and now, reportedly, is about to get extradited to Azerbaijan for supposedly trespassing on what Baku sees as Azerbaijani territory and supporting Karabakhi independence.

The case appears to mark the first time that a foreign national has been detained outside of Azerbaijan on such grounds.

A bout of camaraderie between two mustachioed strongmen, Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, appears to have entrapped the blogger. Cooperation has been tightening recently between the two, who share a propensity for never-ending presidential terms and a dislike of critical, independent media.

To be sure, Lapshin is no freedom-fighter, like many of those who have been jailed in Belarus and Azerbaijan. Catering to Russian-speaking audiences, his Livejournal blog Puerrtto details his travels to 122 countries and territories. He has been doing mostly what travel writers do: posting photographs of landmarks and dishes, complaining about bureaucracy and bad driving, but also throwing in an occasional coarse word.  

One rubric, billed as the author’s quarrels and lawsuits “with just about everyone in the world,” features Lapshin’s jeremiads about impediments to international travel. There are entries that blast Uzbekistan for requiring its citizens to get exit visas to leave the country, criticize Israel for supposedly over-zealous border guards and offer tips on how to conceal visits to Israel from select Arab countries.

“I love defending my and other people’s interests in courts, be it against air companies that cancel flights or Moscow police detaining visitors [to the city],” Lapshin wrote.

But now his own interests are under fire.

Over the past several years, Azerbaijan has actively resisted international visits to Karabakh, a territory that it effectively lost to local ethnic Armenian rebels and Armenian forces more than two decades ago.

The Azerbaijani prosecutor's office charges that Lapshin violated "international laws and the laws of Azerbaijan on the state border and passports" in April 2011 and October 2012, but his blog currently contains no entries from Karabakh on those dates.

Azerbaijani officials have blacklisted and sent protest notes to many foreign visitors to Karabakh, including international celebrities.

Lapshin is no celebrity, but his take on last April’s so-called Four-Day War, a deadly escalation in violence between Azerbaijani and ethnic Armenian forces over Karabakh, incensed certain Azerbaijani readers.

Drawing parallels to Israel’s conflict with Palestinians, he claimed that the fighting “provides an opportunity to perpetually put all misfortunes of a country down to foreign forces, thus justifying corruption, poverty and despair.” (The post, which Tamada Tales read on January 9, 2016, is no longer available.)

Whatever Lapshin wrote won’t have any effect on the decades-long, convoluted Karabakh conflict, but, arguably, someone sensed an opportunity.

With Russia threatening to curtail oil supplies to Belarus, Minsk is looking to Baku as an alternative energy supplier, and the blogger may have become a votive offering in this dynamic.

Belorusian officials have not publicly confirmed that they will extradite Lapshin to Azerbaijan, but pro-government Azerbaijani media has reported it as foregone conclusion. Israeli diplomats also expressed concern about an extradition and, consequently, a worsening of Azerbaijani-Israel relations.

Lapshin’s girlfriend, Ekaterina Kopyleva, who has taken over his blog and Facebook page to provide updates about his plight, claimed on January 6 that “He was told that a decision on extradition was made in his case.” She asserted that Lapshin’s “right to defense has been violated” as allegedly neither his lawyer nor Israeli consular officers were present when this information was conveyed.

Neither Israel nor Russia has confronted Azerbaijan head-on about their citizen’s situation, although both have influence they could exert. Russia has ties ranging from the Karabakh peace-process to arms supplies and energy deals. Israel carries on a multi-billion-dollar arms trade with Azerbaijan, which, in turn, supplies 40 percent of Israel’s oil imports.

That said, timing may have worked against Lapshin.

Kopyleva claims that the Russian consulate in Minsk said that work on her complaints could only begin after January 9, when its New-Year and Orthodox Christmas holidays ended.

Israel, for its part, commemorated Hanukkah the last week of December, but, before that period, reportedly asked Belarus not to go through with the extradition. Azerbaijanis “want to make an example of Lapshin,” an unnamed Israeli diplomat told Haaretz newspaper.  “This incident can turn into a serious mishap in our relations with them.”

The blogger was detained in Minsk a few days after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a short trip to Baku, where he praised Azerbaijan as a “shining example” of friendly coexistence between Jews and Muslims.

But if Israel or Russia fail to extricate Lapshin from Azerbaijan and Belarus’s grasp, apparently, there’s always Armenia. Its foreign ministry spokesperson told RFE/RL’s Armenian service in December that “We are dealing with this issue.” He declined to elaborate . . . “for the time being.”

Azerbaijan and Belarus Catch a Blogger, but What Next?

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