By Mina Muradova (06/10/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)

An internal investigation in Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry has erupted in a scandal over the comments of a diplomat who publicly criticized the government after a deadly fire in a Baku apartment-building.

In early June, President Ilham Aliyev recalled Azerbaijan’s Ambassador to Ukraine and Permanent Representative to the GUAM Organization for Democracy and Economic Development Eynulla Madatli. Although no official explanation was given, local media reported that it was connected to his “like” of a status posted by another diplomat, Arif Mammadov, on his personal Facebook page.

Mammadov, Head of the Permanent Observer Mission of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to the European Union, sharply criticized Azerbaijani officials over the May fire that killed 15 people in the Binagadi district of Baku. “There is no nation that would stand that shame and injustice,” Mammadov wrote on his Facebook page in May. “Officials earn millions on our people’s sufferings, and if they are not afraid of our people’s anger, then they must be scared of God's anger!” Four of the 16 residents who died were young children. Fifty others were injured, and most were later said to be in serious condition.

The government swiftly set up a commission to investigate the tragedy, and President Aliyev chaired its first meeting on May 20. Deputy Prime Minister Abid Sharifov, appointed to head the commission, said residents of the apartment block would be given temporary accommodation and 20,000 manats (US$ 19,500) per household in compensation, while families who lost members would get another 15,000 manats each. Sharifov indicated that building and safety standards had not been observed, and Prosecutor General Zakir Qaralov pointed to the exterior plastic cladding, saying it had not been certified.

“The preliminary theory is that the facing materials used in the repairs were of poor quality and non-fireproof. I have repeatedly raised the issue of repairs carried out in Baku: first of all, repairs must be carried out with good quality and hazardous substances must not be used, Aliyev said. “Representatives of relevant government agencies have repeatedly told me that all the materials used are of good quality and fireproof. But the incident has shown that this information is false.” These materials have been used in Baku for many years, but no previous incidents have occurred. The minister for emergencies, Kamaleddin Heydarov, clarified that a certificate submitted to the state anti-fire service had confirmed that this material is resistant to fire.

The city’s mass rebuilding has been spurred by the oil and gas boom of recent years. Heydarov noted that over 260 building exteriors are covered with similar material and that all of them were being controlled. The cladding, made of a plastic called Styrofoam, was only put on recently, apparently to decorate Baku and other cities ahead of the European Games, which Azerbaijan is hosting on June 12-28.

The horrific event sparked extensive expressions of grief on social media, fueled by amateur videos of the fire and photos of victims, including one widely-circulated shot of two-year-old Farah Maharramova celebrating her birthday days before her death.

In some Baku districts, city authorities ordered workers to remove the panels from aging buildings. Elsewhere, private residents used hammers and sometimes their fingers to chop off chunks of the material surrounding their apartment windows and ground-floor walls. A notice on Facebook invited 24,000 Azerbaijanis to participate in removing the new facades: “It’s stupid to put up with this in silence. We have to act … We have dismantle this idiotic facing ... Life is worth fighting for.”

Mammadov’s post was considered a call to “revolution” against the government. Some pro-governmental media outlets termed it a “mutiny” within Azerbaijan’s diplomatic corps. In a June 3 article, described Mammadov as a “traitor” and “a new opposition activist.”

Hikmat Hajiyev, a spokesperson for Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry said, “We were informed about it. The Foreign Ministry will thoroughly investigate the issue in accordance with its internal procedures. Such behavior from the diplomat, if confirmed, would be inappropriate and far from ethic norms. It would be irresponsible and unprofessional behavior that is unacceptable.” As a result of the internal investigation, a number of the Foreign Ministry’s employees have been dismissed.

In response, Mammadov commented on his Facebook page on June 7 that the government had started “the hunt against the best diplomats of the country … The repression order came from the repressive factory of the country. It is beyond understanding that the country’s best diplomats are fired for ‘liking’ on Facebook my words expressing condolences to the families of those killed during the tragic fire in Baku … Diplomats are forced to write derogatory statements. I would say that the actions taking place now can only be called insanity of the power.”

Mammadov refused an offer from Belgium’s Foreign Ministry to protect him and his family. “Several media have reported that I am looking for political asylum in Norway. No way! My determination to fight obscurantism and injustice against my great nation is limitless,” Mammadov stated.

Published in Field Reports

By Mina Muradova (05/13/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)

The Olympic torch has been lit in Azerbaijan and started a journey through 60 cities and regions of the country. In one month, Azerbaijan will host the inaugural European Games, a sort of continental Olympics that convene 6,000 athletes from more than 50 member countries of the European Olympic Committees (EOC).

The government’s preparations include 18 competition venues, including a US$ 500 million Baku Olympic Stadium, development of city infrastructure and an unprecedented crackdown on political dissent.

On May 12, Index on Censorship and a number of other organizations signed a joint letter to Lord Sebastian Coe of the British Olympic Association, to highlight violations against freedom of expression and threats to human rights defenders in Azerbaijan ahead of the European Games.

“On behalf of the Sport for Rights coalition, we are writing to bring your attention to the unprecedented and mounting crackdown in Azerbaijan, which has resulted in dozens of political arrests, including prominent journalists, human rights defenders, and political activists … In the run-up to the European Games, which will take place in Baku on June 12-28, we ask you to publicly support the Azerbaijani people and the rights to free expression, association, and other fundamental freedoms,” the letter says.

The authors of the letter asked Coe to publicly condemn the clampdown, calling for the release of Azerbaijan’s political prisoners: “In making such a statement, you would send a signal to Azerbaijani civil society that they are not alone in their struggle for fundamental freedoms.”

Last summer, a group of Azerbaijani human rights activists launched the Sport for Rights campaign. The campaign has a simple objective: to draw attention to the human rights situation in Azerbaijan in the context of the European Games. As indicated in hundreds of credible reports by media outlets, NGOs and governments, the Azerbaijani government has deployed a wide range of means to repress this initiative.

Observers say that since Baku was awarded the games in 2012, targeted political repression has increased drastically. In April, Rasul Jafarov, an activist and organizer of the Sports for Rights campaign, was sentenced to six and a half years in prison. He was sentenced for illegal business activities, evading taxes, and abuse of power. But it is widely believed that these charges are false, and that his real “crime” was monitoring and reporting on criminal cases against journalists and his successful awareness campaigns highlighting violations of freedom of expression, assembly, and association in Azerbaijan. His “Sing for Democracy” and “Arts for Democracy” campaigns drew attention to Azerbaijan’s poor human rights record, and his planned “Sport for Rights” campaign would have done the same in the run up to the European Games.

A few days after Jafarov’s conviction, the same court sentenced Intigam Aliyev, a leading human rights lawyer who has filed hundreds of cases with the European Court of Human Rights, to seven and a half years behind bars, again on bogus charges. Both had been detained since August 2014.

In early May, Faraj Karimov, a well-known social media activist and leading member of the opposition Musavat party, was handed a six-and-a half year sentence by a Baku court. He was arrested in July 2014 and accused of possessing illegal narcotics. So was his brother Siraj – also a Musavat member – who was given a six-year jail term this March.

Karimov was the administrator of ISTEFA (Resign), which was the largest Azerbaijani-language page on Facebook with 300,000 subscribers before it was closed down in July 2013. He then created a page called BASTA, which has 155,000 subscribers, and was also administrator of the Musavat party’s website.

He declined to address the court at the end of his trial, saying, “I have been arrested for my struggle against an authoritarian regime. If I spoke at a trial that flouts the law, it would be of great benefit to those who ordered my arrest.”

Amnesty International, which has designated both Karimov brothers as prisoners of conscience, said last year that when Faraj was arrested, he was questioned about Facebook, not drugs.

In order to promote the Games, their organizers launched a campaign in social media by hijacking the official hashtag of the European Games, #HelloBaku. In March, the organizers announced a competition for the most creative photo – the winner would get tickets to the games’ opening ceremony, and was announced in early May.

But as Index on Censorship later wrote, the contest backfired with “a number of social media users instead using #HelloBaku to highlight Azerbaijan’s poor record on human rights. One such video was posted by Dinara Yunus, the daughter of Leyla and Arif Yunus who are imprisoned since last summer. She asked President Aliyev “What are you scared Mr. President? Why do you choose repression over freedom?”

According to the initiators of the Sport for Rights coalition, “In the run-up to the European Games, we believe that public condemnation of the crackdown by [international] bodies could help achieve tangible, democratic change at this crucial time.”

Published in Field Reports
Wednesday, 29 April 2015 00:00

Azerbaijan Demoted to EITI Candidate

By Mina Muradova (04/29/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)

In mid-April, Azerbaijan was sanctioned by the International Board of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) meeting in Brazzaville, Congo, for crackdowns on civil society. EITI is a global partnership supported by a coalition of governments, companies and civil society working to promote open and accountable management of natural resources. Azerbaijan committed to EITI in 2003, became a candidate country in 2007, and was the first country to become compliant in 2009.

Having been the first state to join the 48 country transparency initiative, Azerbaijan has now been demoted back to candidate status. Brendan O’Donnell, civil society representative to the EITI International Board and leader of the Global Witness oil campaign said, “Accountability to citizens is the professed essence of the EITI and while citizen groups involved are gagged or controlled by the state in a member country the initiative has no credibility.” The closed meeting in Brazzaville considered the situation for civil society organizations (CSOs) in Azerbaijan “unacceptable” and that EITI could not be properly implemented given the current circumstances for CSOs.

The EITI Board called on the government of Azerbaijan to reaffirm its commitment to work with CSOs and ensure an enabling participative environment. Specifically, the Board called on the government to ensure that NGO Coalition members could resume their role within EITI and be allowed to: 1) access their bank accounts and register new grants for EITI implementation activities; 2) speak freely about the EITI process and express views without fear of reprisal or harassment; 3) organize training, meetings and events related to the EITI process.

The decision followed a recently published EITI Validation report. Validation is EITI’s independent evaluation mechanism and Azerbaijan is the first country to be validated against EITI standards. The October EITI Board meeting in Myanmar agreed that “the situation facing civil society in Azerbaijan is clearly problematic” and called for early validation expressing concern for the ability of civil society to engage with the EITI process in Azerbaijan.

The EITI has thereby become the first international body to reprimand Azerbaijan. “This is long overdue,” said O’Donnell. “This has long been a crisis for the EITI Board and things have only worsened, with continued intimidation, funding streams outlawed and the state taking over coordination of the coalition of citizens groups. These issues must be reversed to prevent Azerbaijan being thrown out of the initiative.” According to EITI’s Chair Clare Short, Azerbaijan can regain compliant status if it implements “corrective” actions after 12 months or face suspension. To have its membership restored, Baku needs to “ensure that civil society in Azerbaijan can participate in the EITI in a meaningful way.” 

Human Rights Watch welcomed EITI’s decision and called it as “unprecedented.” Rachel Denber, Deputy Director of the Europe and Central Asia Division, said “Finally one of [Azerbaijan’s] international partners has made the government bear some consequences for its conduct … It’s the first time EITI has taken this step against any country, and it was richly deserved.”

Since 2013, the Azerbaijani government’s concerted efforts to silence the country’s independent civil society has undermined its ability to effectively participate in EITI and compromised the initiative’s standards. The government has arrested and imprisoned dozens of activists, frozen the bank accounts of dozens of groups, and adopted new, highly restrictive laws on funding of independent groups.

Denber noted that in fact the government had made it so difficult to operate that many independent organizations involved in EITI had to suspend their activities, some closed down altogether, and some activists had to leave the country: “In the wake of its EITI downgrade, the government can no longer claim to be a global leader on transparency.”

According to the Validation report, in 2014 about 40 local and international companies and 109 NGOs were members of the Multi-Stakeholder Group (MSG) on the implementation of EITI in Azerbaijan, although numbers of participating NGOs has fluctuated significantly, with 158 NGOs listed in the 2012 Activity Report.

Azerbaijani authorities have not yet reacted to the news. However, Shahmar Movsumov, Executive Director of State Oil Foundation of Azerbaijan and Chair of the MSG, expressed his indignation following the EITI Board’s decision: “The major goal of the Azerbaijani government has been to ensure full transparency of revenues from extractive industries for the citizens when it joined the Initiative in 2003. However, today Azerbaijan is criticized by organizations with double standards. It is unacceptable that EITI is becoming such an organization … Azerbaijan has not joined this Initiative to be accountable before any organization outside the country and listen to any critics not related to the mandate of EITI. Azerbaijan is not going to tolerate pressures with regard to this matter. Given all this, the government of Azerbaijan will consider whether to leave the EITI.”

A week after the EITI decision, a Baku court sentenced Intigam Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s leading human rights lawyer, to seven years and six months in prison. One of the country’s most well-known human rights lawyers and head of the Legal Education Society, Aliyev worked extensively to promote the rule of law in Azerbaijan and defend peaceful activists. He submitted hundreds of cases to the European Court of Human Rights, winning a number of them.

Baku’s Grave Crimes Court convicted Aliyev on charges of tax evasion, illegal business activities, embezzlement, and abuse of authority. On April 16, 2015, the same court sentenced Rasul Jafarov, another human rights defender, to six-and-a-half years on the same charges.

Human-rights activists called the conviction “politically motivated,” while a spokesman for Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry Hikmet Hajiyev rejected it and said: “It has nothing to do with the human rights activity. No one is prosecuted for professional activity and political affiliation in Azerbaijan.”

Published in Field Reports
Wednesday, 15 April 2015 00:00

Azerbaijan and the Iran Agreement

By Mina Muradova (04/15/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)

While it is too early to anticipate whether the April framework agreement between Iran and the six world powers will lead to a permanent deal, Baku expects business ties between the neighbors to grow after international sanctions on Iran are lifted.

On April 3, Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry expressed its belief that “this political framework will provide an opportunity in furthering the peace, security and stability in the region and beyond.”

Fikret Sadykhov, a political analyst, believes the Lausanne agreements with Iran will be beneficial for Baku, which was always against a military settlement of the conflict. “Over recent years, Azerbaijan has been affected by the military rhetoric of both the West and Iran as well as blamed for becoming a so-called platform for military attacks against Iran, all this had a negative impact on bilateral relations between Baku and Tehran,” said Sadykhov.

Rasim Musabekov, a member of parliament, told Vestnik Kavkaza that agreements will have a long-term effect not only on bilateral relations between Baku and Tehran, but also in the region. “If anti-Iranian sanctions are lifted, there are several projects that can be implemented between Iran and Azerbaijan. Trade turnover and economic contacts with Iran will develop in a better way. The project of constructing the North-South Railway will be fulfilled intensively. So, there are prospects for improvement in the trade and economic sphere.”

According to Ilham Shaban, head of the Center for Oil Studies, in 2010 trade turnover between the countries was about US$ 600 million, while in 2014 it was only US$ 220 million, as a result of sanctions.

Baku and Ankara have already expressed their interest in developing economic ties between the three countries, especially in transporting Iranian oil and gas through their territories. The Iranian, Turkish and Azerbaijani Foreign Ministers will soon hold a trilateral meeting in Tehran.

Rovnag Abdullayev President of Azerbaijan’s State oil company SOCAR, claimed that Tehran was interested in the Trans-Anatolian Gas Pipeline (TANAP) project, which will carry gas from Azerbaijan to Europe via Turkey. He noted that Iran closely monitors the TANAP project. Speaking to the Azeri press, Abdullayev said Iran wants to purchase a share of TANAP, and that SOCAR, which is the principal stakeholder in the project, intends to sell shares if they receive a “proper” offer. Underlining that Iran’s need for this project will increase, Abdullayev said Tehran will produce more natural gas and it has no other alternatives to TANAP to carry it to Europe.

“It will be possible for Iran to take a stake in the TANAP project as long as certain commercial conditions are fulfilled,” Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yıldız said on April 9. He added that other countries also want a stake in the project, following a signing ceremony in Ankara between Turkish and Georgian authorities on energy.

According to plans, TANAP will connect to the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) to bring the gas into Europe. The cost of building TANAP is estimated to between US$ 10 and 11 billion. SOCAR owns 58 percent of the project, Turkey’s Botas 30 percent, and BP owns the remaining 12 percent. EU officials also support the idea of Iran joining to the project, which has the potential to diversify energy supplies and decreasing Europe’s dependence on Russian gas.

“TAP is open to new shareholders, which can add strategic value to the project,” Lisa Givert, TAP's communication head, told reporters in Baku, commenting on the possible interest from Iran. The pipeline aims to start transportation of gas from Azerbaijan’s Shah Deniz II field in the Caspian Sea, one of the world’s largest gas fields, in 2018-2019. The 870 kilometer (545 mile) pipeline will connect to TANAP near the Turkish-Greek border at Kipoi, and cross Greece, Albania and the Adriatic Sea before reaching southern Italy. “For any additional volumes that come on stream, TAP will comply with the EU regulation and relevant sanctions,” Givert said. Azerbaijan aims to transport 16 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas a year from its Shah Deniz II field in the Caspian Sea to Turkey and on to Europe.

Economic analyst Ilham Shaban believes the decision to transit Iranian gas through TANAP will be political rather than commercial. “TANAP might be used only for some small volume of Iranian gas as the pipeline is not designed for transit of huge resources. If we share capacity with Iran, then what happens to export of gas from fields like Absheron, Umid-Babak and the deep-water section of Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli (ACG) to the European market in the future? Are we going to build another export pipeline? … I think the issue of transit of Iranian gas through Turkey will be discussed only within the political context.”

Iran’s gas resources are impressive. According to BP’s review, the country has the world’s largest proven gas reserves at 33.8 trillion cubic meters (tcm). Russia's reserves are marginally lower at 31.3 tcm. Shaban believes that Iran will need to use alternative routes to transport its gas to Europe. “The Nabucco-West pipeline with a capacity of transporting 20 billion cubic meters of gas could be such an opportunity,” the analyst said.

However, Tehran has already signaled through Deputy Oil Minister Ali Majedi that it is ready to supply gas to Europe through Nabucco. Majedi stated that Iran was prepared to sign on as a supplier and added that “two visiting European delegations” had discussed potential routes to bring Iranian gas to Europe.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani brought up the offer in a meeting with his Austrian counterpart Heinz Fischer in September on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. Rouhani told Fischer that “the Islamic Republic can be a reliable supplier of energy for Europe” and mentioned the Nabucco pipeline. 

Published in Field Reports

By Nurzhan Zhambekov (04/01/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)

Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan face a tough year as oil prices plummet. A dramatic shift has occurred in the international oil market in recent months as oil supply has gone up, particularly with the U.S. oil production increase, and demand has weakened with the economic slowdown in China and the EU. Saudi Arabia, the world’s second largest oil producer, did not reduce its oil production despite the oil price decline, indicating that it would like to maintain its international oil market share. The precipitous decline in oil prices has resulted in a sharp fall in export revenues for Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, the third and second largest oil producers respectively in the former-Soviet Union after Russia. This dramatic price drop has put the two countries’ currencies under severe pressure.

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