By Mina Muradova (01/22/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)
As Azerbaijan prepares to host the first European Games this summer, new sport and non-sport venues are being constructed and infrastructure is being renovated. By investing millions to organize the games in just 30 months, Azerbaijan’s government seeks to promote the young Caspian state through an ambitious sport event.
However, against this backdrop, Azerbaijan’s government has intensified its crackdown on journalists and civil society representatives. Human Rights Watch issued a statement on January 20, saying that over the past year, the Azerbaijani government used a range of bogus criminal charges, including narcotics and weapons possession, tax evasion, hooliganism, incitement, and even treason, to convict or imprison at least 34 human rights defenders, political and civil activists, journalists, and bloggers, prompting others to flee the country or go into hiding. Following the prosecutors’ requests, courts have frozen the bank accounts of at least 50 nongovernmental groups and in some cases the accounts of their staff, as part of ongoing criminal investigations against several foreign donors.
Another human rights watchdog, the International Federation for Human Rights, stated that Azerbaijan has adopted aThe International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), whole arsenal of “anti-NGO laws” since 2013. NGOs are henceforth compelled to register their organization with the government and their funds with the Ministry of Justice in order to receive funding (whether from inside or outside the country). Those who cannot or refuse to register their subsidies from abroad therefore break the law. The use of non-registered subsidies is now deemed to be an administrative offense and the judiciary considers the funds to be a source of taxable personal income.
The latest move to silence alternative voices was a police raid on the office of U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty on December 26, detaining journalists for hours. Former journalists of the station have also been questioned by police. Inspectors from the prosecutor’s office ransacked the company safe, seized computers, memory sticks, and documents, and sealed the office shut.
“This operation is clearly designed to block the activities of our Baku bureau and threaten our journalists,” Radio Azadliq director Kenan Aliyev told Reporters Without Borders. In a statement, Radio Azadliq co-director and Editor Nenad Pejic said: “The order comes from the top as retaliation for our reporting and as a thuggish effort to silence RFE/RL.” Prosecutors said the bureau’s work was to be terminated, but did not specify for how long.
Azerbaijani prosecutors have staged similar raids in recent months on other so-called foreign entities, including foreign nongovernmental organizations such as IREX, the National Democratic Institute, and Oxfam.
The Baku bureau of RFE/RL was shut down twenty days after the arrest of its prominent anchor Khadija Ismayilova. She is well-known as an investigative reporter who published several reports about government corruption and the business of the president’s family members. Ismayilova was detained for two months on heavily disputed charges of “inciting” a former colleague’s suicide. If convicted, Ismayilova may face up to seven years in prison.
Pejic said “The arrest and detention of Khadija Ismayilova is the latest attempt in a two-year campaign to silence a journalist who has investigated government corruption and human rights abuses in Azerbaijan … The charges brought against her today are outrageous. Khadija is being punished for her journalism.”
In 2012, the Zeit Stiftung and Fritt Ord Foundation awarded Ismayilova with the Gerd Bucerius Free Press of Eastern Europe Award. She has received many other awards and is a respected journalist. She has published stories related to corruption in Azerbaijan, in particular within the Organized Crime and Corruption Project. Most recently, she also worked on consolidating the list of up to 100 political prisoners in Azerbaijan, prepared by Azerbaijani NGOs. Although her accuser, Tural Mustafayev, has withdrawn his complaint, she remains in detention.
“The arrest of Ismayilova is nothing but orchestrated intimidation, which is a part of the ongoing campaign aimed at silencing her free and critical voice,” Dunja Mijatović, the OSCE’s Representative on Freedom of the Media, said in a written statement. Khadija Ismayilova was arrested the day after the head of the Presidential Administration Ramiz Mehdiyev published a lengthy article in which he directly calls NGOs the “fifth column.” He publicly accused Ismayilova of treason and called RFE/RL’s employees in the country spies.
“She along with her ‘friends’ prepare anti-Azerbaijani programs, make indecent statements, demonstrate an openly hostile attitude to well-known public figures and disseminate a lie. Her position has nothing in common with her journalist profession,” Mehdiyev wrote in his article and specifically noted: “It is clear that this sort of defiance pleases Ms. Ismayilova’s patrons abroad.”
This week a group of international NGOs started a campaign urging President Ilham Aliyev to release prominent human rights defenders who are currently behind bars in Azerbaijan. Another group of NGOs sent a letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel ahead of her upcoming meeting with Aliyev on January 21 in Berlin. “President Aliyev is seeking a greater legitimacy by meeting the world leaders and hosting mega sporting events,” said Hugh Williamson, HRW’s Europe and Central Asia director. “Merkel should send a clear message that closer political and economic ties with Europe are directly linked to Azerbaijan’s release of unjustly jailed journalists and human rights advocates and respect for fundamental human rights.”
The “Sports for Rights” NGO coalition issued a statement saying “Azerbaijan’s partners should insist that this terrible situation in the country’s human rights record is removed before Baku plays host to the European Games, and that these people be released immediately and unconditionally. We sincerely hope that we can count on your [Merkel’s] principled leadership on this urgent matter.”
By Huseyn Aliyev (12/10/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
On November 12, an Armenian combat helicopter was shot down by Azerbaijani defense forces after an attempted attack on Azerbaijani positions over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. The incident took place just two weeks after the fruitless peace talks between Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev and his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sargsyan, organized on the initiative of French President Francois Hollande in Paris. Although the escalation of violence on the border between the Armenian-controlled breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan has been growing steadily since the early summer, this particular incident appears to be the highest point yet in the confrontation.
By Bakhtiyar Aslanov (12/10/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
On November 12, 2014, the Press Service of the Ministry of Defense in Azerbaijan made the following statement regarding the shooting down of a helicopter over Nagorno-Karabakh: “the military aviation of the enemy side has been doing provocative flights and maneuvers during the latest military trainings, implemented by the Military Forces of the Republic of Armenia within the last 3 days in the front-line between Azerbaijan and Armenia. After continuous and intensified maneuvers over our positions and posts; two military helicopters tried to attack our positions in the airspace controlled by the military of Azerbaijan. Two MI-24 helicopters owned by the Military Forces of the Republic of Armenia again tried to attack our posts at 13:45 on November 12, 2014. As a response, Air Forces of Azerbaijan shot down one of those armed helicopter, 1,700 meters northeast of Kangarli village in Agdam. The remains of the helicopter fell 500 meters from the front-line.” Armenian officials responded that the helicopter belongs to the Nagorno-Karabakh leadership, not Armenia.
The next day, Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense made another statement, claiming that the Mi-24 combat helicopter belonged to the Erebuni military aerodrome close to Erevan. The dead crew members, mayor Sergey Sahakyan, senior lieutenant Sargis Nazaryan and lieutenant Azat Sahakyan are officers of the Armenian Air Force. Although denied by Armenia, Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense listed the names and released detailed background information on the officers.
Emphasizing the presidents’ meeting in Paris initiated by the French President Francois Hollande on October 27, 2014, Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated on November 12 that Armenia embarked on large-scale military exercises in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan and had continuously been violating the cease-fire along the line of contact. Hence, Azerbaijan’s MFA claims that Armenia alone carries all responsibility for the re-escalation of the conflict. An MFA spokesperson stated that by shooting down a helicopter that violated Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized airspace, Baku does not violate any liability of the OSCE Minsk Group.
The presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan both reacted quickly to the incident. Armenia’s President Serzh Sargsyan immediately visited Nagorno-Karabakh and spoke in front of the soldiers on November 13. Although he used very special words targeted to the local audience, Sargsyan underlined that a re-escalation of the conflict into war will not happen. Ilham Aliyev also visited a military camp in Shamkir on November 15, and while seeming very confident and satisfied when congratulating the soldiers, he avoided using overtly inflammatory language.
In Basel, Switzerland, the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov and French Secretary of State for European Affairs Harlem Désir, expressed their concerns over violations of the cease-fire in 2014 during a meeting of the OSCE Ministerial Council. They emphasized that the violations of the cease-fire in July and August caused several causalities; enhanced the tension and deepened mutual distrust between the parties. On December 4, the aforementioned diplomats signed a joint statement, noting that “there is no military solution to the conflict. We call on both sides to restrain from using violence and work on the concrete peaceful solution of the conflict”.
Hikmat Hajiyev, a spokesperson for Azerbaijan’s MFA, commented on the statement that the military trainings of Armenian forces with huge numbers of personnel and military equipment and their provocative maneuvers along the line of contact after the meetings of the presidents in Sochi and Paris caused the downing of the helicopter. Regarding the call from the Minsk Group Co-Chairs to speed up negotiations for a peace agreement, Hajiyev reiterated Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov’s statement on Baku’s readiness to work on the Broader Peace Agreement supported by the co-chairs after the meeting in Paris.
Officials in Yerevan have claimed that their military forces were able to claim the bodies of the dead soldiers in the helicopter incident after shooting two Azerbaijani soldiers. According to the PanArmenian news agency, the three officers were buried at St. Sargis Church in Yerevan on November 24. However, Baku has denied this information and states that Azerbaijani soldiers protect the area where the remains of the helicopter are located.
Armenia and Azerbaijan cancelled an expected meeting of the two countries’ Foreign Ministers in Basel after the incident. “We regret that the foreign ministers of Azerbaijan and Armenia were unable to meet at OSCE … Dialogue is a necessary part of the peace process” the U.S. Co-Chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, James Warlick wrote on his Twitter page on December 8.
By Erik Davtyan (12/10/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
On October 26-28, Armenia’s President Serzh Sargsyan paid a working visit to Paris at French President Francois Hollande’s invitation. At the Paris Marine Palace, the Armenian and French presidents discussed a broad range of issues concerning on the Armenian-French agenda and contemporary regional and international challenges. Regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution process, Sargsyan stressed that Armenia has always supported a resolution of the conflict exclusively through peaceful negotiations and noted that he highly appreciates the OSCE Minks Group’s efforts targeted at pushing the negotiation process forward and establishing lasting peace and stability in the region. The most important part of the working visit was Sargsyan’s meeting with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev. After the Sochi and Newport talks in August and September respectively, this was the third regular meeting organized at the level of heads of states.
On October 27, Sargsyan and Aliyev held talks with the participation of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs (Igor Popov, James Warlick, and Pierre Andrieu) and the personal representative of the OSCE Chairman-in-Office Anjey Kasperchik, followed by a private conversation between the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents. The participants attached great importance to continuing dialogue within the framework of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairmanship and confidence-building efforts in order to make progress in peaceful negotiations, and stressed that no alternative existed to a peaceful resolution of the conflict. The parties arranged to proceed with high-level negotiations.
The high-level meeting attained various interpretations in Armenia. Armenia’s minister of foreign affairs emphasized the official viewpoint on the Sargsyan-Aliyev talks. During a briefing with journalists Edward Nalbandian described the meeting as “useful, sincere and constructive.” The foreign minister said that “there was an opportunity to touch upon a number of regional and international issues which showed that the approaches of Armenia and Azerbaijan on some issues can be close to each other,” adding that the two states took “a small step toward bringing the positions of the two sides a little bit closer.” The head of the Armenian National Congress party’s committee on foreign relations, Vladimir Karapetyan, believes that the meeting itself was a positive step. The fact that the co-chairs display activity, he says, proves that the international community pays attention to the region and the conflict, and that Azerbaijan sees no alternative but the talks.
According to Davit Ishkhanyan, representing the “Armenian Revolutionary Federation” party, the deadlock in the negotiation process may have negative impact, therefore “each meeting should be regarded as a guarantee for the preservation of peace.” Taking into account the fact that Sargsyan and Aliyev had tête-à-tête talks (unlike during the Sochi and Newport meetings), Ishkhanyan thinks the Paris meeting was progressive for the format of the negotiation process, rather than for its essence. The Armenian daily Zhoghovurd shared the view that the parties anticipated meeting in Paris in advance, since Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and the U.S. Secretary of State had each initiated trilateral meetings with Sargsyan and Aliyev before, so this meeting was to be organized by France, the third member state of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairmanship.
Presenting his opinion to Tert.am, politologist Ruben Mehrabyan believes that the Paris meeting was a good opportunity to reach midterm results in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict regulation process. The most important implication of these meetings, according to Mehrabyan, was the fact that they took place “outside the Russian platform.” Another politologist, Levon Melik-Shahnazaryan, does not have any expectations from the meeting as “the meetings between heads of the two states generally depend on the internal and external problems of other states.” Clarifying his viewpoint, Melik-Shahnazaryan says the activation of high-level meetings is not stipulated by the regulation of the conflict, but by the interests of the states that organize those meetings.
The Nagorno-Karabakh issue remained one of the most debated themes in November due to the Mi-24 helicopter that Armenia claims belonged to the Nagorno-Karabakh authorities, which was shot down by the Azerbaijani armed forces during what Armenia alleges was a training flight on November 12. The downing of a helicopter was a unique incident that has not occurred since the cease-fire in 1994. The chair of the Standing Committee on Defense, National Security and Internal Affairs of Armenia’s National Assembly, Koryun Nahapetyan, described the incident as “unprecedented” and the “rudest violation of the cease-fire.” According to the head of the Social Democrat Hnchakyan Party’s central office, Hakob Tigranyan, “the downing of the helicopter was nothing more than an invitation to war,” hence “any negotiations with Aliyev are pointless after this crime.”
In an interview to Armenianow.com, analyst Stepan Safaryan says the incident will have an extremely negative impact on the conflict regulation process and that its consequences may even be unprecedented. Safaryan underlined that “the results of the meetings between presidents are now nullified.” Moreover, Sargis Asatryan, a specialist on Azerbaijani studies, believes that “the downing was a desperate step which may be directly connected to national, social and religious problems that exist in Azerbaijan.” Armenia’s Ombudsman Karen Andreasyan instead emphasized the humanitarian side of the incident. He says the regular violation of the cease-fire has disabled medical aid to the staff of the helicopter for nearly 8 days, which is “completely against the norms of international humanitarian law.”
By Mina Muradova (11/26/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
Azerbaijani media have reported that a national wrestling champion was killed while fighting for the Islamic State (IS) militant group. News about Azerbaijani citizens – mostly young men – traveling to Syria to join militant groups are increasing. Observers believe that this trend underscores an emerging security threat to the secular Azerbaijan.
The wrestler, Rashad Bakhshaliyev, from the Ismailli district in northern Azerbaijan, appeared to lead a successful life before his sudden departure for Syria in August, taking his wife and child with him. He won various wresting competitions in Azerbaijan and before leaving for Syria worked as a freestyle wrestling coach in Ismailli’s Olympic complex. In September, he called his mother, Mirvari Bakhshaliyeva, from Syria and told her that everything was fine, but one month later his wife announced his death in a telephone call from Syria.
Of Azerbaijan’s population of over nine million, 93 percent identify as Muslims, the overwhelmingly majority of which is Shia (65-75 percent) while the remainder identify as Sunnis. No precise data exists for the number of Azerbaijanis who have been fighting in Syria. Local media claims the number of militants in Syria is between 200 and 400, with more than 100 killed in action.
In light of more frequent press coverage of Azerbaijani citizens allegedly participating in the Syrian conflict, security forces are now paying closer attention to this trend. On September 23, Azerbaijan’s security forces arrested 26 residents for allegedly joining armed Islamic groups in Pakistan, Iraq and Syria and some were alleged members of Azeri Jamaaty, a jihad group in Syria made up of Azerbaijani nationals. In May, the leader of an Azerbaijani IS faction in Raqqa, Mohammad al-Azeri, gave a video address in which he stated that IS was on the “correct path of jihad” in Syria.
Azerbaijanis fighting in Syria primarily come from Baku, Sumqayit, and smaller towns in northern Azerbaijan. Specifically Sumqayit, just 35 kilometers north of Baku, is considered as the main source of fighters, following Salafism and advocating a return to Islam in its purest form. Salafism was catalyzed in Azerbaijan by missionaries from the North Caucasus in the 1990s, funded by Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and mostly supported by Sunni Muslims.
Azerbaijan is considered attractive for recruiting due to the ease of travelling there by bus through Georgia and Turkey, and Azerbaijanis do not need visas to enter these countries. Some experts believe that the government’s repressive attitude to religious communities, including the adoption of a law limiting religious freedoms and justifying police detentions and high fines may lead to an increase in religious extremism in Azerbaijan.
Another threat is expected from neighboring Russia. Azerbaijanis constitute the second largest nationality in Moscow, at 14 percent of the city’s population of about 11 million. Economic decline due to Western sanctions is causing a reduction of migrants’ income and makes some more receptive to radical religious movements.
On November 2, IS released a video titled “A Message from Brother Abu Muhammad Ar-Rusi” via social media and jihadi forums. The appearance of an ethnic Russian in an IS propaganda and recruitment video is aimed at Russian-speaking Muslims. Moscow has expressed concern that Russian-speaking militants in Syria could return to the Russian Federation and commit terror attacks. With regard to the threat posed by IS, Russia has focused attention on militants from the North Caucasus and on labor migrants from former Soviet republics. Last week, Russian authorities carried out a wave of arrests in Moscow of Azerbaijani men with alleged links to IS.
The UN Security Council has adopted two resolutions this year, intended to coordinate international efforts to fight terrorism. The August resolution imposed sanctions on persons with alleged links to IS and the al-Qaeda-linked group Al-Nusra Front. The second resolution ratified in September required UN member states to deny entry to anyone suspected of supporting or engaging in terrorist-related activities, making it a criminal offence to travel abroad to train for or fight for jihadist groups. A few days ago, Azerbaijan’s government made corresponding amendments in its national legislation.
The EU counter-terrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove considered that between 20 and 30 percent of the over 3,000 Europeans who joined jihadist groups have now returned to their home countries. Some have resumed a normal life while some have become radicalized and dangerous, he warned. “The challenge is for each member state to assess each and every returnee, assess their dangerousness and provide the adequate response,” de Kerchove said.
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.