Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev has been in power since 2003 and has used his country’s immense natural resources to cultivate not only his personal wealth, but an autocratic regime with limited political and press freedoms. Resource nationalism is the watchword of Aliyev’s leadership, as the country has immense oil and gas riches which it exports to both Russia and to Europe. US and British companies have invested an estimated $35 billion in the country’s energy sphere in recent years and the government enjoys the security of knowing East and West rely on it for energy supplies. The Arab spring reinforced this security as oil supplies from those regions were destabilised. Last year’s Eurovision song contest was the opportunity to showcase the capital Baku’s glittering modern architecture and enviable infrastructure. What it hid however is the ever widening divide between rich and poor, the deplorable rights abuses that occur in the regime, and the shadows in which the media are forced to operate as they face daily oppression from the government. The upcoming presidential elections, due to take place in October, are the reason, many say, for mounting oppression.
Since the beginning of this year, there has been evidence that the population is becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the political elite. Wealth in Azerbaijan is concentrated in the hands of few as the market economy has been wildly profitable for those within the upper echelons of society. Average citizens have not fared so well. On Thursday 24 January, in the town Ismailli, about 200 km northwest of Baku, hundreds of people protested demanding the resignation of local governor Nizami Alekperov. Violence broke out and cars were set on fire as up to 3,000 people became involved in rioting. The police responded with tear gas and water cannon. The incident was sparked by a local hotel owner crashing his car into an electricity pole and then arguing with another motorist. The hotel owner, 22 year-old Emil Shamsaddinov has, it seems, already attracted attention for his lavish lifestyle. The incident sparked latent anger at the widening gap between the elite and the poor. The Chirag Hotel owned by Shamsaddinov, was set on fire along with cars in the car park. These riots indicated how patience is wearing thin with the cronyism and corruption set deep within with the elite sectors of society. On January 26, a rally was staged in Baku in solidarity with protestors who suffered at the hands of riot police in the town. More than 100 people gathered for the rally calling for Aliyev’s resignation. Around 40 people were arrested. Another matter which has attracted widespread public outcry is that of violence in the military. Military service is compulsory for men between the age of 18 and 35. Corruption within the armed forces is commonly known and many pay bribes to avoid service. This is not surprising given the numbers of conscripts who die on simple military manoeuvres. On January 7, conscript Jeyhun Gubadov was found dead at a military barracks. His family suspects he was murdered by fellow soldiers. On January 12, more than 500 demonstrators took to the streets of the capital, shouting “No to murders in peace time!” The police in Baku detained several young opposition activists. The problem shows no signs of abating. In the first week of March three recruits died in mysterious circumstances in the course of just one week.
Azerbaijan lacks a united political opposition, largely because the state suppresses all dissenting voices. Reports claim that there are more political prisoners in Azerbaijan than in Belarus, which is notorious as one of the most repressive regimes in the post-Soviet sphere. The political opposition is regularly persecuted. A new law, which took effect at the start of January, has introduced high fines for people participating in “unlawful” protest actions. Those caught doing so will have to pay fines ranging from $380 and $760, which in a country where the average monthly salary is $400, is a considerable deterrent. “[The Azerbaijani government continues to arrest opposition activists for peacefully expressing dissent,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Director for Europe and Central Asia. On January 13, it was reported that Isa Gambar, the leader of the Musavat party and a potential candidate in presidential elections later this year, was attacked on his way to the southern city of Lenkoran, along with other members of his party, by a group of as many as 100 people. Gambar was the man Ilham Aliyev controversially beat in the 2003 presidential elections that were widely believed to be unfair. On February 4 the leader of the opposition REAL movement, Ilqar Mammadov, was arrested on charges of organising mass disorder in relation to the Ismayilli riots. Another prominent opposition leader, Tofiq Yaqublu was also arrested. If convicted, they could spend up to 3 years behind bars. Mammadov has been gaining considerable attention for his criticism of the regime, which he expresses via a number of platforms including a blog. In early January, the REAL movement nominated the politician as its candidate for the presidential election to be held in mid-October. He sees the timing of his incarceration as no coincidence. The politician subsequently published an open letter from prison in which he makes no bones of his opinion of the Aliyev regime: "I visited Ismayilli shortly during calm daytime between two nights of popular clashes with police. I was there to observe the situation and report to the public my considerations, i.e. to perform precisely the function of civil society and political leaders. Now, Azerbaijani authorities accuse me of organizing that spontaneous, but unfortunately violent protest against corruption." Mammadov had previously raised eyebrows for "comparing the institutional role of the parliament to that of the medieval zoos of our shahs. They used to throw opponents into those zoo cells to feed the animals and to scare other residents. In a true manner of mafia boss, Adil Aliyev -- an MP, former police chief, and brother of even a higher- ranking security official -- publicly threatened to behead me for this blog posting."
Threats of physical violence against dissenting voices are sadly not as uncommon as one would like to imagine. Hafiz Haciyev, the head of a pro-government political party, has offered a cash reward for anyone who slices off the ear of novelist Akram Aylisli. Aylisli's novel "Stone Dreams" sparked outrage for portraying scenes of violence carried out by Azerbaijanis against their Armenian enemies during the violence that came in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The novelist previously held the title of "People's Author" in Azerbaijan, a title which has now been revoked. The ruling party has been trenchant in its criticisms. Even before Haciyev issued his violent promise, officials from the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party called on the novelist to withdraw the novel from sale and petition the nation for forgiveness. There have also been protests outside his home in Baku. Azerbaijan-Armenia tension remains high, and the Nagorno-Karabakh region, an area of frozen conflict, continues to stoke anger. “The book was meant to be about conciliation between Azeris and Armenians,” Mr Aylisli explained to The Independent newspaper. “I realised when I wrote it that it could be controversial, but I didn’t for a minute think that there would be this giant campaign on a state level.” Hugh Williamson, the Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch has said that, “The Azerbaijani authorities have an obligation to protect Akram Aylisl. Instead, they have led the effort to intimidate him, putting him at risk with a campaign of vicious smears and hostile rhetoric.”
As part of its campaign to promote Azerbaijan as a country with a modern agenda, the government was pleased to hold the annual Internet Governance Forum in Baku last year. At the forum President Ilham Aliyev claimed, "Azerbaijan enjoys freedom of the internet […] Internet-based radio and TV programmes, electronic newspapers and journals, and foreign and domestic social networks have gained wide currency. Thousands of bloggers operate freely in Azerbaijan’s internet space.” Critics were quick to dispute this claim, and argue that the city was a particularly infelicitous choice of venue for such an event. Whilst people are not openly arrested for writing government-critical pieces online, a number of members of the press have been arrested in recent times on trumped up charges. The local Institute of Reporters’ Freedom and Safety has done much to document these instances which, they say, are worryingly frequent. Dunja Mijatovic, special representative on media freedom at the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, noted that other bloggers and journalists are tortured, persecuted and arrested. “The internet and human rights mutually complete each other. These are inseparable notions,” she said. Human rights activist and blogger Emin Milli, previously attacked and jailed for “hooliganism”, has written a widely publicised letter this week to President Ilham Aliyev, warning that “the internet is not free in Azerbaijan and it is definitely not free from fear”. Azerbaijan is the world’s seventh-worst jailer for members of the press. It also puts print media under considerable pressure. Azadlig, the first independent newspaper in the country, is facing closure as the direct result of government lawsuits. The regime is ordering the newspaper to pay damages in libel cases which are far beyond what it can afford. Reporters Without Borders has strongly condemned the campaign against it. “These disproportionate damages awards against Azadlig are clearly politically motivated and have put its survival in greater danger than ever before,” Reporters Without Borders said. “They directly contravene the international treaties ratified by Azerbaijan and the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights, of which it is a party.” The newspaper’s editor, Ganimat Zahid, has already been imprisoned for two years on trumped-up charges. Apparently four of its staff are currently behind bars.
Observers have suggested that the government frequently reverts to kneejerk nationalism in order to distract citizens from everyday political woes. This may well have been the case, many noted, in the Akram Aylisli scandal. The central accusation facing the novelist was that of being unpatriotic. The state’s frozen conflict with Armenia also offers the regime a long-standing cause around which to generate nationalist pride. Azerbaijan lost 20% of its territories as a result of the war over Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990s, which killed 30,000 people. Repeated international attempts to broker a deal between Baku and Yerevan over the territory have stalled. Hostilities between the sworn foes have flared considerably in the past months, stemming from an incident involving a murder in 2004. In August of last year, Azeri soldier Ramil Safarov, who was convicted of murdering Armenian lieutenant Gurgen Margarjan while both men were at a NATO English-language course for military officers in Budapest, was released. He had been sentenced to 25 years behind bars for nearly decapitating the soldier, an act of ostensible vengeance for the Nagorno Karabakh conflict and derogatory comments made by the Armenian about Azerbaijan. It was apparently claimed that Safarov would be serving the rest of his prison sentence on home territory. The reality was quite different. He was greeted with a hero’s welcome in Baku, pardoned, given his back pay and promoted. Armenia reacted with fury. The Armenian president, Serzh Sargsyan warned: “We don’t want a war, but if we have to, we will fight and win.” Armenia also ceased all diplomatic ties with Hungary. The deal, many say, reveals more about the corrupt nature of Viktor Orban’s government in Hungary than it does about either Armenia or Azerbaijian. It is alleged that the impoverished Orban regime was effectively bribed by Baku to release the former soldier. The affair was certainly deleterious to attempts to promote reconciliation and resolution between the two sides.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has subjected both Armenia and Azerbaijan to international scrutiny, and reflects some of the interesting facets of the Azerbajian’s relationship with Europe and international powers. Whilst Baku has apparently welcomed the Minsk group’s attempts to broker a deal, the regime is also quick to criticise the EU for attempting to interfere in anything that relates to rights. When the EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and the enlargement and neighbourhood commissioner Stefan Fule criticized the Azerbaijani government for the recent arrests of an opposition leader Ilgar Mammadov and journalist Tofiq Yaqublu. Aliyev stated that EU representatives “had no right to interfere in Azerbaijan’s internal affairs.” Azerbaijan has also proved itself a laggard in terms of the EU’s Eastern Partnership project, designed to bring post-Soviet countries closer to Europe. Baku has little need to heed the EU’s warnings on rights, given that it has a strong economy, and the West is dependent upon it for energy supplies. Azerbaijan has also been useful for NATO, which uses Azeri airfields to resupply troops in Afghanistan. However, when the troops pull out in 2014, this may reduce its regional leverage. An interesting development in terms of its near abroad is the recent failure to reach a deal with Moscow on its continued use of an Azeri radar station. Baku had wanted to increase the annual rent for the facility to $150 million from the $7 million under the current agreement. Moscow has apparently resisted on the basis that it does not need the radar station for its surveillance activities. Some have suggested that the failure to agree on the base signifies the loss of a foothold for Moscow. Others see it as simply expeditious on the Kremlin’s part. The relationship is also complex as Russia supports Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Analysts have speculated that Moscow may prefer to use soft power to assert itself in Azerbaijan through the media and NGOs as opposed to costly military mechanisms.
NGOs are concerned, rightly, that the international community fails to hold Baku sufficiently accountable for its rights abuses, because of the state’s economic power and its energy riches. The regime is unremitting in its treatment of critical voices and it merits close scrutiny from human rights watchers. It uses its wealth to mask a culture of oppression and poverty. The Ismayilli riots indicate however that patience with the elite may be wearing thin.
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