Books on Azerbaijan
Update No: 324 - (19/12/07)
The moderate Islamicists
Azerbaijan is relatively free of radical Islam. The Azeris love their vodka and
the dancing girls. This comes of seventy years of communism.
Whenever ascetic clerics from the neighbouring province of Iran, Azerbaijan
province as it so happens, come to town and deliver them homilies on the
iniquity of alcohol and female company, the room empties in no time. 'Wine,
women and song' is their motto, as it was after all of Omar Khayyam, as he made
clear in the immortal Rubaiyat, translated by Edward Fitzgerald and now an
The recent arrests of suspected Islamic radicals in Azerbaijan have,
nevertheless, spurred concern about possible outbursts of terrorism.
There is a curious situation developing in the country. The regime is so
oppressive for all, despite the oil wealth- that doesn’t trickle down- now
even the laid-back Azeris are taking against the regime, especially the youth.
Atmosphere of fear
Political analysts in Baku tend to downplay the threat. Meanwhile, moderate
Islamic religious leaders contend that government security sweeps have created
an "atmosphere of fear" among mainstream believers.
The terrorism scare began in late October, when the Ministry of National
Security announced the break-up of an Islamic militant group that had been
plotting attacks against foreign targets in Baku. The announcement prompted the
brief closure of US and British diplomatic offices in Baku.
Some group members who evaded arrest during the initial 27 October raid, carried
out an attack against a Lukoil gas station three days later. The last member of
the group at large, identified as Bakhtiar Orujov, was ultimately taken into
custody on 20 November.
On 6 November, authorities detained eight Islamic militants affiliated with a
second group, including a foreigner, identified only as Abu Jafar, who was
characterized in a ministry statement as an operative affiliated with the al-Qaida
international terrorist organization. The arrests came after security forces
engaged in a cat-and-mouse-like search for more than a month, painstakingly
sifting information that finally led them to a safe house in Sumgayit, where the
militants were seized.
The fact that the ringleader of the first group was a military officer, Lt.
Kamran Asadov, prompted widespread concern that radical Islamic ideology, termed
by many in Azerbaijan as Wahhabism emanating from Saudi Arabia, is gaining a
foothold in state structures.
On 30 November, Eldar Safarov, chief spokesman for the Defense Ministry,
adamantly denied that the military had become a hotbed of militant Islamic
sentiment. "There are no radical religious groups under the title Wahhabism
in Azerbaijani military units," the Trend news agency quoted Safarov as
saying. At the same time, he noted that the Defense Ministry had
"reinforced measures" to prevent the infiltration of radical Islamic
ideology into the military.
Since the first announcement about arrests in late October, government officials
have sought to project a sense of normalcy and continuity.
"There is total stability in Azerbaijan and law-enforcement agencies are
keeping the situation under control. Not only foreign embassies, but all
citizens have no problems with security threats," Deputy Foreign Minister
Khalaf Khalafov said at press conference on 30 October.
The arrests began shortly after a sudden visit to Baku by CIA Director General
Michael Hayden. Many local experts believe the CIA director may have shared
information with Azerbaijani law-enforcement agencies that enabled them to
launch the security operations.
Azerbaijani broadcast and print media outlets have devoted lots of attention to
the arrests of suspected Wahhabis. Baku-based political analysts are urging
caution in evaluating the security threat, suggesting that local media may be
exaggerating the danger.
One Baku expert, Rasim Musabekov, said the greatest threat perhaps was that a
clampdown on suspected radicals would result in the restriction of civil
liberties. Musabekov specifically worried that steps to heighten surveillance
could end up imposing burdens on the legitimate expression of spiritual beliefs
by those "who express their religious feelings in different forms from
Recent events appear to have rendered Islamic leaders at Azerbaijani mosques
with conservative reputations more sensitive to outside scrutiny. When queried
about the arrests of militants, Gamet Suleymanov - the imam of the Abu-Bekr
Mosque in central Baku, once described by a government official as a "den
of Wahhabis" - refused to comment. "I have nothing to do with
it," Suleymanov said.
Meanwhile, Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, the imam at Baku's Juma mosque, accused
authorities of casting a net too broadly, thereby ensnaring devout believers
along with a few militants. Security forces had created an "atmosphere of
fear" among devout believers, the imam said. "Religious people of
Sumgayit city have lived in fear during the last weeks.
The Ministry for National Security conducted operations there, but residents
were kept in the dark," added Ibrahimoglu, an outspoken defender of
religious rights in Azerbaijan. In 2004, he led resistance to government efforts
to close the Juma Mosque, which is known for its progressive social activities.
Law-enforcement agencies instituted heightened security procedures in the wake
of the arrests. Heavily armed police patrols were stationed at check points
along the country's main roads and around the outskirts of Baku, stopping
vehicles and conducting searches.
The running sore with Armenia
The Azeris are in a difficult situation. They are on bad terms with the
Armenians, still holding down 20% of their territory. Many of them are hankering
for a new war with Yerevan.
The Azeris feel that they have time on their side. Their oil revenues are
mounting by the month, with soaring world oil prices. The hard-line President
Kocharian of Armenia, a veteran leader of the previous war as president of the
enclave, Nagorno-Karabakh, in contention between the two sides, is due to depart
It is possible, however, that the ruthless Kocharian will opt for war beforehand
to let the Russians get him out of a hole.
The geopolitical quandary
But there is trouble brewing elsewhere too. Azerbaijan is in a quandary. It is
glad to have very good relations with the US, the key to it joining NATO soon.
But Washington has put it in a fix by requesting use of its airfield facilities
to oversee, and perhaps bomb, Iran. This could have turned Azerbaijan into a
pariah among its neighbours and be just the occasion for Kocharian to exploit.
There have been armed clashes of late between the Armenian and Azeri armed
forces along the disputed border zones. If Baku rashly goes along with the final
fling of a doomed US administration over Iran, it could rue the day. Iran in
Azeri terms, is a very special neighbour indeed, home to 13 million Azeris in
its northern province also Azerbaijan, which is more than there are in
Azerbaijan itself. If a war did break out they would be threatened.
President Ilham Aliyev was in Tehran for a conference of the Caspian Sea
littoral states in mid-October. Putin was there too and said that it was quite
unacceptable for one Caspian Sea state to allow a foreign state to use its
territory to attack another. Everyone knew what he meant.
Not that he wants Iran to acquire nuclear weaponry. The Russians are
back-peddling on giving Iran civilian nuclear technology at Bushehr, citing
The results of the summit
Summit meetings can greatly help to defuse international tensions, in this case
on two fronts, the Armenian and Iranian ones with Azerbaijan. Baku is to host
the 2008 Caspian Sea summit. It will hardly want to be at war with two of its
neighbours, one of then attending the conference, then.
The primary result of the October summit, which brought together the leaders of
Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan, was a declaration of
intent that offered something for everyone, while providing no clear timetable
for the realization of goals envisioned in the document.
The declaration affirmed the notion that outside powers should have no role in
deciding how the sea’s resources are utilized. It also emphasized that a legal
framework for the sea’s division would be reached through
"The sides hereby announce that only Caspian Sea littoral countries are
allowed to use the resources of the sea," read an excerpt of the
declaration published by the Tehran Times.
From the viewpoint of Iran, and perhaps Russia, the most significant passage in
the declaration concerned regional security. "The sides agree that they
will never launch a military attack against any of the littoral states,"
the declaration stated. "The sides reiterate that they will not let any
country use their soil for a military attack against other littoral
states." This wording would seem to rule out completely the possibility
that the United States could gain access to Azerbaijani military facilities to
support a potential attack against Iran.
The rough outlines of a breakthrough in Caspian negotiations could be seen
taking shape at the Tehran gathering. On the territorial division question, Iran
appears to be the chief stumbling bloc, given Tehran’s insistence on an equal
20 percent share of the sea. Under a formula supported by Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan
and Russia, Iran would end up with a roughly 13 percent share. However, Iran
might be willing to modify its position, if it can receive security assurances
from its Caspian neighbours – something that could help Tehran withstand US
and European Union pressure connected to the country’s nuclear programme.
"There might be a quid pro quo somewhere down the line which entails a
softening of the Iranian position on division, in exchange for some security
guarantees on its northern flank," said Michael Denison, an expert on
Caspian affairs at the University of Leeds in England.
The leaders of Caspian littoral states agreed to meet in 2008 in Baku.
Nazarbayev voiced hope that a comprehensive territorial pact could be ready for
signing by the time that summit convenes, but many experts believe such a
scenario, despite the mutual expression of intent in Tehran, remains highly
unlikely. Serious obstacles remain. Perhaps the most visible difference of
opinion at the Tehran meeting concerned the construction of a trans-Caspian
pipeline, a project strongly backed by the United States. Nazarbayev argued that
such a pipeline should only require the approval of states directly involved in
order to move forward. Putin, however, invoked environmental concerns in arguing
that any major pipeline project concerning the Caspian must obtain the consent
of all littoral states. Given that any trans-Caspian pipeline would break
Russia’s existing stranglehold over regional energy export routes, Moscow
would not be expected to approve of the construction of any new route. A key to
whether or not a Caspian treaty can be signed soon is connected to efforts by
Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan to compromise on sectors of the sea claimed by both
countries. Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Russia have already resolved their
disputes regarding their respective Caspian sectors. If Azerbaijan and
Turkmenistan can settle their differences, Iran would come under increasing
pressure to revise its stance. Some experts say things have already reached a
point where Iran is having trouble resisting the pressure of its neighbours.
"The de facto situation is going to become the de jure situation,"
predicted Ustina Markus of the Kazakhstan Institute of Management, Economics and
Strategic Research in Almaty. "There are too many vested interests there
[in the Caspian Basin] now." Other observers believe that no matter what
happens between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, a Caspian accord is unlikely to be
signed in 2008. "It [an Azerbaijani-Turkmen pact] could bring the five
[Caspian] countries closer to a convention on [the sea’s] legal status,"
said Maria Disenova, an analyst at the Institute for Economic Strategies-Central
Asia. ""But I am not positive that it will be signed during the next
summit." Beyond the question of the sea’s territorial division, Putin
used the summit to try to extend Russia’s influence over regional economic
Baku persecutes opposition newspapers
Arrests of pro-opposition journalists in Azerbaijan - including two who have
received jail terms - set off a wave of criticism of the government's actions.
From EurasiaNet. By Mina Muradova for EurasiaNet (15/11/07)These are not good
times to be a pro-opposition editor in Azerbaijan. In the past two weeks, two
editors at pro-opposition newspapers have received jail terms in criminal cases,
and a third is facing possible prison time following his arrest on assault
The actions have set off a wave of criticism by ordinary Azerbaijanis as well as
local and international observers. On 10 November, opposition newspaper Azadlig
(Freedom) editor-in-chief Ganimet Zahid was formally charged with hooliganism
and inflicting minor bodily harm on a man who was accompanying a woman who
claims Zahid insulted her. If convicted on both charges, Zahid could face a
three-year minimum prison sentence. A local media watchdog organization, the
Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety (IRFS), believes that the incident
was a provocation designed to engineer trouble for the opposition journalist.
"This is not the first time that Zahid, or his paper have been targeted by
such ploys," IRFS Chairman Emin Huseynov said. "Azadlig newspaper
journalists, including Zahid himself, have been the targets of physical attacks,
kidnappings, bogus arrests and so on. "In the run-up to Azerbaijan's 2005
parliamentary elections, the opposition editor was kidnapped, beaten and
photographed nude. IRFS maintains that the 7 November incident is similar in its
nature. Zahid said that he was walking to Azadlig's offices in Baku's Azerbaijan
Publishing House when he was approached by an unknown young woman who began
shouting at him that he had insulted and sworn at her. A young man with an
athletic build then reportedly approached Zahid, and began beating the editor in
retaliation for the woman's allegations. Zahid sustained minor injuries from the
incident. Representatives of the western diplomatic community in Baku have
condemned Zahid's arrest. On 12 November, US Ambassador Anne Derse noted that
"in recent months" signs of an apparent "campaign … against
opposition journalists" have been noted. She stressed that a free press is
an important factor for democracy. "The campaign against the press may
adversely affect democratic development," local news agencies reported
Derse as saying.
IRFS' Huseynov believes that such incidents will only increase as Azerbaijan's
presidential campaign gathers momentum. The government has so far eschewed
comment on the arrest. On 12 November, however, Ali Ahmadov, the governing Yeni
Azerbaijan Party's executive secretary, told reporters that support for
"free media … does not mean that journalists can consider themselves
above the law," the news agency Novosti-Azerbaijan reported. The 30 October
sentencing of another journalist to an eight-and-a-half-year prison term by the
Azerbaijani Court for Serious Crimes has helped fuel concerns about media rights
and freedom of expression. Eynulla Fatullayev, the editor-in-chief of Realny
Azerbaijan and Gundelik Azerbaijan, received the jail time for alleged tax
evasion, inciting ethnic and religious hatred and a charge of terrorism. He was
also fined 242,522 manats (about US$285,300).
The European Union issued a statement on 8 November that characterized the
sentence as disproportionate. The case against Fatullayev began after Realny
Azerbaijan published an article that alleged that Azerbaijani troops had been
responsible in part for a massacre of ethnic Azeris during the war with Armenia
over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh." Cases of this kind run
counter to Azerbaijan's commitment to the freedoms of expression and
opinion," the statement charged, underlining that both issues are
"essential" for Azerbaijan’s participation in the EU's European
Neighborhood Policy, "as well as for the development of the partnership
between Azerbaijan and the European Union." While Fatullayev's is the
higher-profile case, another opposition editor has also recently been given jail
time. On 6 November, Ideal newspaper editor-in-chief Nazim Quliyev was sentenced
to two-and-a-half years in prison on charges of defamation. He was found guilty
of defamation and insults following a lawsuit filed by Natiq Jafarov, the head
of the gas distribution department for Baku's Binaqadi District. Human rights
activists, opposition politicians and pro-opposition journalists are trying to
band together in order to combat what they contend is government pressure. On 12
November, a working group was set up to advocate for Zahid's release, saying
that "the opposition and media representatives must unify their efforts to
fight for freedom of speech." The collective is preparing an appeal to
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev about Zahid's arrest, while two opposition
members of parliament - Igbal Agazade, leader of the Umid (Hope) Party, and
Panah Huseynov, leader of the People's Party - will petition the General
Prosecutor's Office to set Zahid free on bail. The head of one pro-opposition
news agency argues that parliament itself needs to become more pro-active on the
freedom-of-speech issue, adding that the country could benefit from legislation
that clearly defines the parameters of defamation. "There is a need to
establish a group for the protection of freedom of speech since the situation
with arrests of journalists and repression of media from the authorities in
Azerbaijan has worsened," Turan Director Mehman Aliyev commented to
reporters. In October, officials filed 50 lawsuits against newspapers and
journalists on charges of slander, according to the Media Rights Institute, run
by the international media support organization Internews. Courts imposed fines
worth 250,300 manats (about US$294,133) on media in connection with the cases,
the Institute reported. For now, though, the government maintains that these
court actions simply reflect the equitable application of the law, with no
special privileges given to any group of people." Freedom of speech and
press is incompatible with insulting and libelling other people," Ali
Hasanov, head of the presidential administration’s public policy department,
commented to Turan on 9 November. "No one arrests or persecutes journalists
in Azerbaijan. Journalists must know that no one is given a right to insult the
dignity and honor of those other people." Hasanov, a close advisor to
President Aliyev, has argued that despite appeals from the international
community, "we cannot allow chaos." In the current situation, he
added, without elaboration, criminal liability for defamation cannot be
repealed. "The right of one person cannot be violated at the expense of
another," he said.