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AZERBAIJAN


  
  

 

Key Economic Data 
 
  2003 2002 2001 Ranking(2003)
GDP
Millions of US $ 7,124 6,090 5,600 102
         
GNI per capita
 US $ 810 710 650 146
Ranking is given out of 208 nations - (data from the World Bank)

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Update No: 375 - (26/06/12)

Last month, Azerbaijan offered a glittering spectacle to viewers across the world, of the Eurovision song contest. An exercise in propaganda, the event's organisers did their best to mask much of the hardship that the citizens of this energy rich, democracy-poor country endure. Nonetheless Azerbaijan’s domestic protest movement has staged a number of increasingly vocal rallies in recent months against the iniquities of the ruling regime, led by strongman President Ilham Aliyev. Azeri journalist Eynulla Fatullayev, who was the recent recipient of UNESCO's World Press Freedom Prize, said the leader had reduced his country to a "political desert." A recent visit by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton highlighted the problem of ongoing frozen conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh.

The aforementioned Eurovision song contest took place in Baku on May 26, amidst a storm of controversy about glaring rights abuses in Azerbaijan and accusations that people had been forcibly evicted to make way for the illustrious Crystal Hall facilities. The month prior was marked by increased political activity on the streets of the capital. A series of peaceful protests ended in arrests. On April 22, thousands turned out for a protest demanding the release of 17 opposition political prisoners. On May 7, around 100 activists from opposition groups who collectively form an organization known as the 'public chamber', picketed the office of Baku mayor Hajibala Abutalibov. The rally was dispersed by riot police and some participants allegedly beaten. They repeated the action again one week later, this time asserting their right to gather as well as calling for the mayor's resignation. On May 22, police detained around 10 of some 40 protestors who had gathered for a pro-democracy march. Video footage garnered from the various rallies show the police employing what could certainly be described as 'rough' tactics. On May 24, the day of the second Eurovision semi-final, around 30 demonstrators gathered outside Baku's public television centre in a freedom of speech picket. Police rapidly dispersed the crowd; eight were fined for disturbing the public order. At a press conference, Ali Hasanov, head of the public and political issues department at the presidential administration accused the detainees of anti-Azeri propaganda. On May 24, the EU expressed its concern by adopting a resolution calling for an "immediate stop to all actions aimed at suppressing the freedom of expression and assembly" in Azerbaijan.

Keeping a lid on dissident voices during the Eurovision contest has certainly proved a PR challenge for the government. It didn't help that popular Azerbaijani rapper Jamal Ali (who fled the country just days before the competition) released a music video denouncing government corruption and forced evictions around the time of the events. He was detained on hooliganism charges related to his appearance at an opposition rally in March and was allegedly tortured whilst in custody. He has proved an irrepressible source of criticism. On May 24, Amnesty International released its annual human rights report in which it found that there has been an increase in the 'violent harassment of civic groups and opposition media' as well as reports of violence against activists by police. Indeed, on May 26, Ali Kerimli, the leader of Azerbaijan's opposition People's Popular Front party, was summoned by police for questioning, after participating in a rally the day previous. He described it as the authorities' latest 'anti-democratic move”.

Nor did it help the authorities that the week before, the eventual winner of the competition, Sweden's Loreen, met with activists from the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety (IRFS), Human Rights Defenders, the organization of Sweden and the House of Human Rights. She apparently told opposition newspaper Azadliq that "Human rights are violated in Azerbaijan every day [...] One should not be silent about such things." However, she did subsequently avoid questions about the meeting at the press conference after the semi final on the basis of protecting her privacy, and she refrained from any such pronouncements upon winning. The Azeri authorities, needless to say, did not react well to her courting of the opposition. A deflection campaign immediately began. Ali Hasanov told the press: "Unfortunately there are some attempts at politicization. The musical event can not be politicized." He went on to assert that the nation has a thriving free media and an environment of political freedom. Amnesty International, unsurprisingly, took issue with these claims. The NGO's Europe and Central Asia director John Dalhuisen told Reuters that there has been "A stern crackdown of freedom of expression, dissent, NGOs, critical journalists, in fact anyone who criticizes the Aliyev regime too strongly, and we've seen this continue right up until the Eurovision Song Contest".

The plight of government-critical journalists is particularly worrisome. On April l8 it was reported that staff from state run energy company SOCAR had attacked investigative journalist Idrak Abbasov whilst he and colleagues filmed them demolishing homes in a suburb of Baku. His brother was also hospitalized with injuries to his head and ribs. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe condemned the attack, with their representative on freedom of the media, Dunja Mijatovic, calling on the Azerbaijani authorities to "take resolute steps to end all forms of violence against journalists." Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch added to the chorus of outrage, commenting, "The fact that security personnel attacked Abbasov in broad daylight is utterly outrageous and shows the climate of impunity for attacks on journalists in Azerbaijan." SOCAR retorted that Abbasov had encouraged the violence. Abbasov is not the only journalist to have experienced heavy-handed tactics designed to stymie their work. Investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, the well-respected former Baku bureau chief of RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, has also been the target of an alleged smear campaign (which involved the placing of a camera in her home) which she believes was designed to prevent her from carrying out her professional activities, which include investigating corruption and its links to the ruling class. She claims that the authorities have failed to investigate the campaign against her effectively because of her critical stance. On May 3, World Press Freedom Day, journalist Eynulla Fatullayev, who spent four years in prison on charges relating to his work, was honoured by UNESCO which awarded him the Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize. It is no small irony that Azerbaijan's UN envoy, Agshin Mehdiyev, when quizzed by journalists on that same day about the freedom of media in his nation, failed to know that World Press Freedom Day existed. A letter penned by U.S. Representative Howard Berman to President Ilham Aliyev in which he highlighted concerns relating to the aforementioned cases may have driven the point home.

The Azeri regime has felt the pressure of international powers to acknowledge the problem of allegations of violence against journalists. During a meeting on May 2, Ali Hasanov told the European Broadcast Union (EBU) that the authorities would fully investigate "alleged cases of jailed and mistreated journalists." and agreed to change legislation "to reduce defamation to a civil, and not a criminal, offence." That same day, the Committee to Protect Journalists named Azerbaijan as a "runner-up" to their list of the 10 most heavily censored countries in the world, because "there are no foreign or independent broadcasters on the airwaves, and the few journalists who work on independent newspapers or websites are subject to intimidation tactics, including imprisonment on fabricated charges." On June 12, police in Azerbaijan detained pro-democracy photographer and blogger Mehman Huseynov, who works for the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety campaign group and the independent Azeri Turan news agency on charges of "hooliganism.” One day later, Natiq Adilov, press spokesman and reporter for the opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front Party interrogated by police about the May 24 protest in front of the Public Television centre. He was apparently accused of inciting mass demonstrations. He maintains that he was merely exercising his professional obligations as a journalist. Presidential adviser Ali Hasanov did not waste words when it came to lambasting them: "Those opposition activists, journalists, newspapers should not dare appear in society. They should be ashamed to appear in the streets. I am not saying we have to move against them [...] But public hatred should be demonstrated against them so that they understand that when foreign journalists come, they should not show them the ruined asphalt in some microdistrict. Instead, they should take the foreigners to a camp for displaced persons [from the Nagorno-Karabakh region]."

Upon which note, US Secretary of State made a visit to Baku on a tour of the region, partly in order to discuss the ongoing conflict with Armenia over Nagorno Karabakh and to strengthen ties generally. As a piecemeal gesture towards political pluralism, prior to the arrival of Clinton, Harvard-educated political activist Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, who was incarcerated last year for refusing to undertake military service, was released, around nine months prior to his scheduled release date. Last year his mother had written to the Secretary of State expressing her concerns about her son's health. Whilst the US has criticized been critical of Azerbaijan's rights record, some argue that the fact that Azerbaijan provides a transit route for US troops in Afghanistan has protected it from a certain amount of criticism. The issue of Nagorno-Karabakh continues to blight Armenia-Azerbaijan relations and remains a source of regional instability. At the start of June, clashes on the border of the two adversarial nations resulted in the death of nine people, prompting the OSCE to call for an end to the 'cycle of violence'. On June 11, Azerbaijani military officials reported that a mine explosion along the border between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh severely injured two Azerbaijani officers. When Clinton visited the region in the first week of June she voiced her concerns that skirmishes could lead to a "much broader conflict". In a joint statement issued on June 19, by the US, French and Russian presidents, the two sides were urged to fulfil their commitment to expedite the peace process, as promised in January.

The mainly Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh region separated from Azerbaijan in 1991 and despite a 1994 ceasefire, violence continues to flare. Azerbaijan has repeatedly threatened to reclaim the enclave by military force if necessary and has made weapons purchases in preparation for that eventuality. On June 5, Azerbaijan's Defence Ministry accused Armenian soldiers of attempting to 'to infiltrate a position of the Azeri armed forces' resulting in the loss of 4 Azeri soldier's lives. On June 14, Azeri Foreign Minister Elmar Mamedyarov offered characteristic intransigence on the issue of Azeri snipers, saying, "If Armenia does not want its soldiers to die, it should withdraw its forces from Azeri territories [...] If it happens, there will be no need for snipers." Armenia refused to attend the Eurovision song contest and has boycotted the May 20-21 NATO summit in Chicago, in protest a declaration adopted by the group's 28 member states that Yerevan said was biased in favour of Azerbaijan. Despite ongoing international efforts, there appears to no sign of either side relenting on the issue thus far.

In terms of other regional issues, relations with Iran have become somewhat frayed in recent months. In late April, Foreign Policy magazine reported that Israel had gained access to airbases in Azerbaijan, a rumour which caused consternation in Tehran. The reports were vociferously denied by Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman but still highlighted a source of underlying friction. Azerbaijan, which is principally Shi'ite but with a secular government, generally enjoys friendly relations with the Jewish state to whom it has exported weapons and oil. Relations with Iran soured even further due to the recent incarceration of journalist Anar Bayramli, a reporter for Iran's Sahar TV and the Fars news agency, who was sentenced to two years in prison for heroin possession on June 12. His brother believes that he was framed and that the charges against him were politically motivated. The fact that shortly before his arrest it was suggested by the speaker of Azerbaijan's parliament that Sahar TV was "preparing anti-Azerbaijan provocations" certainly enhanced the credibility of this view of events.

Matters came to a head with the Eurovision song contest however. Iran revoked its envoy to Baku after criticisms of the event emerged from Iranian lawmakers and clerics who believed that a 'gay parade' would be accompanying the show (though nothing of the sort was planned - the city is hardly a Mecca for gay tourists). Hackers calling themselves the Cyber warriors for Freedom subsequently attacked the official websites of the contest and demanded that Azerbaijan "stop carrying out Eurovision 2012 in Baku and not allow gay parades". Anti-Iranian demonstrations then took place in Baku in response, stoking tensions further. Iran's Foreign Ministry handed a note of protest to Azerbaijan's ambassador to Iran, Javanshir Akhundov, saying that "the honour and dignity of the Islamic republic's spiritual leaders have been insulted" during the anti-Iran protests. Seemingly in a tit for tat move, Azerbaijan recalled its ambassador to Iran "for consultations" and asked Iran to clarify the whereabouts of two young Azeri poets who were allegedly detained in the Iranian city of Tabriz. Gay rights activist noted the irony of Iran complaining about the prospect of Azerbaijan’s allegedly proposing a gay rights parade when the state couldn’t be further from a haven for sexual minorities. Local gay rights groups face intimidation and the scene is almost entirely clandestine.

Apart from the suppression of opposition groups and dissenting voices, President Ilham Aliyev also retains his power thanks to the abundant natural resources of the state, the exploitation of which, is according to recent reports, very much linked to his own personal finances. At the end of April, Radio Free Europe did a report on the plight of displaced people who live in the vicinity of the Ordubad mine, where the Anglo-Asian mining company has plans to exploit gold. In its preparations for extraction it has been accused by local residents of cutting off access to streams and providing inadequate compensation for land seizures. Whilst locals blame the company, investigations found that the firm is in fact an elaborate front for the family of President Ilham Aliyev. The President has been repeatedly accused of appropriating public funds and funnelling them into his personal pocket via a number of proxy companies. This is not the only way in which the Aliyev profits from private enterprise in the state. Apparently an investigation by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and RFE/RL found that the first family personally profited from the construction of the Eurovision facilities, through its ownership (which is entirely secret) of the Azenco construction company. In 2010, this firm was awarded contracts worth $79 million. RFE/RL had previously discovered that the privatization of the State Aviation Company's infrastructure, including Azalbank saw Arzu Aliyeva, one of the president’s daughters, become a shareholder in the company. He has the support of the political structure to protect him from scrutiny. On June 12, the parliament of Azerbaijan granted the country's president and his wife lifetime immunity from criminal prosecution for any acts committed while in office.

The past month has seen an unusual amount of attention given to Azerbaijan, thanks to the Eurovision song contest, and the prospect of increased international scrutiny may have bolstered the opposition. The government has, however, became increasingly repressive to match. It is, many would say, a blessing for the country's citizens that Baku has been dropped from the list of candidates for the 2020 Olympic Games, if it would result in grandiose construction projects that would line the pockets of the Aliyev family whilst forcibly evicting people from their homes. Azerbaijan needs its opposition politicians, its investigative journalists and its political activists more than ever now, but theirs is a challenge of almost insurmountable difficulty.

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