Published in Field Reports

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 Erik Davtyan (06/10/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)

Ahead of the EU’s Eastern Partnership summit in Riga, possible perspectives of Armenia’s relations with the EU became one of the most discussed issues on Armenia’s foreign policy agenda. After Armenia decision in 2013 to decline initialing an Association Agreement with the EU, instead opting to join the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), the two parties have decided to promote bilateral cooperation in a new format matching the new realities in the South Caucasus.

On May 11, Armenia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Edward Nalbandian received the political directors of Poland’s and Sweden’s Foreign Ministries, Yaroslav Bratkevich and Torbjörn Sohlström, who reportedly arrived in Yerevan to hold consultations in the lead-up to the Riga Summit. The interlocutors discussed issues relating to preparations for the Riga Summit. Nalbandian reaffirmed that Armenia aims to develop and deepen cooperation with the EU in different fields, given Armenia’s obligations under other international integration formats. Bratkevich and Sohlström represent the two EU member states that have played a key role in defining the EU’s new policy towards neighboring post-Soviet states. In 2008, the Swedish and Polish foreign ministers, Carl Bildt and Radoslaw Sikorski, presented the idea of creating an Eastern Partnership (EaP) between on the one hand the EU, and on the other Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan.

Simultaneously, on May 11, Armenia’s permanent representative to the EU, Tatoul Margarian, met with the EU Commissioner for the European Neighborhood and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn, discussing the bilateral preparations on the eve of the EaP Riga Summit. Towards the summit, politologist Narek Galstyan expressed the view that the EU has changed its attitude towards the six post-Soviet republics and has adjusted its policy to follow a bilateral, rather than regional track. In other words, the EU has decided to take an individual approach towards all six states, including Armenia.

On May 21, Armenia’s President Serzh Sargsyan paid a working visit to Latvia to take part in the summits of the European People’s Party and the EU’s Eastern Partnership. During the visit, President Sargsyan met with Latvia’s President Andris Bērziņš. The presidents praised the political dialogue between Armenia and Latvia, which has been developing in the spirit of mutual understanding, and the dynamics of interstate relations, and stressed the importance of boosting these dynamics. Bērziņš also considered Armenia’s decision to join the EEU pragmatic and welcomed Armenia’s balanced multilateral approach.

Sargsyan also met Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel. Both Sargsyan and Merkel emphasized the fact that Armenia and Germany have significantly enlarged and enriched their cooperation agenda through around six dozen cooperation agreements. They also commented security issues in the South Caucasus, especially in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs.

The Riga Summit, held on May 21-22, resulted in the signing of a declaration which touched upon a myriad of issues. In relation to Armenia, the declaration states that “Participants welcome the common understanding reached on the scope for a future agreement between the EU and Armenia aimed at further developing and strengthening their comprehensive cooperation in all areas of mutual interest.” The parties welcomed “the progress to date in the implementation of the Visa Facilitation and Readmission Agreements (VFA/RA) with Armenia” and expressed hope that the EU and Armenia will promote a visa dialogue, provided that “Armenia continues to ensure sustained progress in the full implementation of the VFA/RA.” The signing parties also underlined that “they look forward to the launching of negotiations on an EU-Armenia Aviation Agreement at the earliest opportunity.” The declaration also mentioned the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, reiterating “full support to the mediation efforts by the co-chairs of the Minsk Group on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, including at the level of Presidents and their statements since 2009”.

Reacting to the Summit, EU Commissioner Hahn expressed his confidence in obtaining a mandate to start negotiations. The European Commission has issued a positive report on Armenia which stresses that “the EU and Armenia have reached an understanding on the scope of their future contractual relations that take into account the other international commitments of Armenia, in particular its decision to join the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).”

Published in Field Reports

By Huseyn Aliyev (05/27/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)

On May 17, the head of the republic of Ingushetia, Yunus-bek Yevkurov, announced in an interview to the Russian News Service radio station that there are only 14 insurgents left in the republic. Yevkurov insisted that his security services have detailed profiles on these members of the insurgency, who have long been included in federal search lists. Despite detailed information about the identities of these militants, their whereabouts remain unknown to the authorities because, as stated by Yevkurov, “these people are spread all across the republic: some of them are hiding in forests, others in urban areas.” Realizing that his quantitative assessment of the insurgency’s strength is rather hard to believe, Yevkurov added that “of course, these bandits have assistants and kin members who can easily join their ranks, when needed.” The latter statement suggests that the authorities are well aware that the actual number of members of the Islamist underground in the republic is above the figure claimed by Yevkurov.

In Yevkurov’s words, the main reason why the republic’s security services, several thousand-strong, have so far failed to locate and neutralize a dozen insurgents, is due to the militants’ “exceptional” sophistication. As stated by Yevkurov, “these bandits have extremely good counterintelligence, they know how to conceal their radio and phone communication. To a certain extent they are one step ahead of modern technology.” Hence, the head of Ingushetia tacitly admitted that the militants are not only better equipped than his counterterrorism units but also have better access to modern technology. Yevkurov narrowed down the explanation for this “superior professionalism” of Ingushetia’s militants to their training by “foreign secret services.” He emphasized that “here in Ingushetia, hiding in mountains, it is impossible to learn all these things.” The latter statement falls in line with the common rhetoric of blaming the effectiveness of Islamist insurgents in the region on their alleged links with foreign (presumably Western) intelligence services, which was previously reiterated by Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov. 

Nonetheless, Yevkurov announced that “terrorism has been defeated” in his republic and that over the past four years, 80 members of the Islamist underground have voluntarily surrendered. All 80 of them were later amnestied and only one has since re-joined the militants.

However, Yevkurov’s bold announcement about the demise of the insurgency comes amid a relative decrease in militant activity across the North Caucasus. In fact, only one insurgency-related incident in the republic has occurred since the start of the year, in which one member of the security forces was killed in a confrontation with militants, while one insurgent was injured.

While some analysts suggested that the decrease in militant activity is due to last year’s killing of the head of Ingushetia’s insurgency, Arthur Gatagazhev, the decline of the Ingush wing of the Caucasus Emirate (CE) is more likely a part of the overall decomposition of Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus. Quantitatively, Ingushetia’s branch of the CE started phasing out its activities after the capture of its founder, amir Magas (Ali Taziyev) in 2010, which weakened its position within the CE. For example, as estimated by the Caucasus Knot, only 37 people became casualties of the armed conflict in Ingushetia in 2014, in comparison to 94 victims in 2013. In 2011, following the capture of amir Magas, the number of insurgency-related casualties decreased to 108 from 326 in 2010. Yet, Ingush militants have managed to increase the rates of violence in the following year, causing 167 casualties. Nevertheless, the overall decline of the CE has delivered a heavy blow to the Ingush insurgency, leaving it in steady recession. This decline became even more obvious after the death of the CE’s longtime leader Doku Umarov in late 2013 and the failure of his successor, Dagestani cleric Aliaskhab Kebekov, to prevent the CE’s decomposition.

Given that the current head of Ingushetia’s militants recently announced his decision to pledge loyalty to the Islamic State (IS), the withdrawal of significant numbers of Ingushetia’s militants from the CE becomes imminent. Given the traditionally close linkages between Ingush and Chechen Islamists, the above move can be expected to create cleavages within Ingushetia’s insurgency similar to the situation in neighboring Dagestan. In this light, the current lull in insurgency-related activities in the republic is likely a consequence of internal strife within the CE rather than the ability of Ingushetia’s security forces to put an end to the insurgency. 

Published in Field Reports

By Eka Janashia (05/27/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)

The EU refused to grant Georgia a visa-free regime at the May 21 Eastern Partnership summit in Riga. The summit’s declaration heralds that Georgian citizens will be granted visa-free access to the Schengen zone as soon as all necessary reforms are in place. Although the Georgian government met only 7 of 15 compulsory requirements – conditional for obtaining an EU visa-waiver – it optimistically hoped to extract a concession. The country’s eligibility will be assessed gain at the end of 2015.

The EU-Georgia visa liberalization (VL) dialogue started in June 2012 and was embodied in a visa liberalization action plan (VLAP) one year later. VLAP demands that certain criteria are fulfilled to grant Georgian citizens a short stay in the Schengen zone without a visa.

In the fall of 2014, the European Commission (EC) reported on Georgia’s successful accomplishment of VLAP first-phase benchmarks, enabling it to move to the realization of the next phase.

The EC’s report from May 8, 2015, report categorized Georgia’s progress on VLAP criteria as “almost,” “partially” or “completely” achieved. The benchmarks regarding document security; integrated border management; fighting organized crime; protection of personal data; freedom of movement; issuance of travel and identity documents; and international legal cooperation in criminal matters were assessed as completely achieved. In the almost achieved category, the report mentioned migration management; money laundering; cooperation between various law enforcement agencies; and citizens’ rights, including protection of minorities. Among partially achieved benchmarks are asylum policy; trafficking of human beings; anti-corruption; and drug policy.

With regard to anti-corruption policy, the report urged Georgia to reform the civil service, drawing on international practice, and modify the civil service law in compliance with the scope and standards of a professional and de-politicized civil service. It also suggests revising the drug policy to confer it more “restorative” than “retribution” connotations.

The report included a comprehensive document elaborated by the Commission’s staff, based on factual analysis and statistics, on the anticipated migration and security implications of Georgia’s VL for the EU.

The document concludes that the EU is an attractive destination for Georgian migrants as well as Organized Criminal Groups (OCGs), triggering a range of potential security challenges. The paper admits that migrant flows would remain limited due to Georgia’s small population, but in case of a new armed conflict the number of Georgian citizens aspiring to settle in EU would increase considerably. In this regard, the VL could become instrumental for Georgian nationals to apply for asylum in EU member states and legalize their protected stay there.

In this perspective, the VL is not merely a technical question for Brussels but also a political one with clear security implications. In contrast, Georgia’s Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili stated that the “political decision” to grant Georgia a visa-free regime has already been take and only “technical procedures” remain.

Georgia’s political opposition slammed the government for failing to do its “homework,” depriving the country of free traveling advantages to EU.

Before the Riga summit, the government reportedly highlighted the benefits that Georgia could gain from the VL. In a joint letter, Georgia’s President Giorgi Margvelashvili, PM Gharibashvili, and speaker of parliament Davit Usupashvili asked the EU to make an “unambiguous endorsement of the visa-free regime … For Georgians, visa liberalization will provide a long-awaited tangible reward for reforms and encourage renewed efforts.” The letter said visa liberalization will promote tourism, cultural proximity, student exchange programs and civil society partnerships. More importantly, the EU visa-waiver will demonstrate to the inhabitants of the occupied territories of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions the practical advantages they could gain from reintegration with the Georgian state.

However, in the run-up to the Riga summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that Georgia, along with Ukraine, has not made enough efforts to get the VL and “a lot still needs to be done,” meaning that Brussels will overhaul the process of reforming and cogently appraise Georgia’s eligibility, and detach the issue from the sensitivity of Georgia’s territorial integrity or public opinion.

While the benefits that Georgia may gain from the VL is clear, the EU’s continuous refusal to grant the country such an agreement also exposes Georgia to certain risks. According to the last polls commissioned by the U.S. National Democratic Institute (NDI), a majority of the respondents still approved of Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration. Yet the number in support of joining the Russia-led Eurasian Union has steadily increased in recent years. From 11 percent in 2013, it soared to 20 percent in 2014 and to 31 percent in 2015.

This trend simultaneously demonstrates the growing EU skepticism in the country caused by Georgia’s opaque perspective of obtaining EU membership or extracting “tangible” benefits from “political rapprochement and economic integration” with it.

As put by European Council President Donald Tusk, Kyiv, Tbilisi, and Chisinau “have their rights to have a dream, also the European dream.” Yet the slow progress in Georgia’s EU integration risks deepening the sense of alienation among Georgians and could contribute to diverting the country from the Euro-Atlantic path on which it has set out. Georgia’s government needs to work diligently to avoid such an outcome.

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The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.


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