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Lapshin’s case: what, how and why?

A daring blogger in Baku jail

From what I have observed, extradition of Alexander Lapshin, a travelling blogger, from Minsk to Baku, has been a hot-button issue in Azerbaijani (and maybe also in Armenian) mass media and on social networks. This news seems to have overshadowed even the long-awaited transfer of the body of Çingiz Qurbanov, an Azerbaijani serviceman, killed in a border incident on the New Year eve.

What happened?

There is such a blogger, Alexander Lapshin, a citizen of Russia, Ukraine and Israel, who keeps a ‘livejournal’ blog about traveling. To tell the truth, before December 2016, I hadn’t even heard his name, though I’ve been blogging on livejournal for more than 10 years already.

Lapshin travelled to Nagorno-Karabakh in April 2011 and October 2012. The matter isn’t that he didn’t get the Azerbaijani authorities’ permission, but he didn’t even formally notify them thereof. He travelled through the territory of Armenia, with which Azerbaijan has an unresolved conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh status. Thus, Lapshin violated the Law of Azerbaijan of State Border.

According to the Azerbaijani side, upon his return from Karabakh, Lapshin was making public statement in support of Nagorno-Karabakh’s independence. Due to all the aforesaid, Alexander Lapshin was put on undesirable persons’ ‘black list’, available on the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry’s website.

Here are some more details concerning this ‘black list’.

In August 2013, Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry released the list of 330 people considered as persona non grata, including MPs, politicians, journalists, students, artists and other individuals from various countries and international organizations.
No clearly set criteria for inclusion in/ exclusion from this list haven’t been publicly available so far. Unlike neighboring Georgia, where the Law on Occupied Territories has been in effect since 2009, there is no such legislation in Azerbaijan, to say nothing of the publicly available guidelines, explaining what a foreign nation should do in case he/she decides to visit Nagorno-Karabakh. The decisions are made individually, at the government officials’ level

Today, many draw a parallel between Lapshin’s case and that of a renowned Russian singer of Georgian descent, Soso Pavliashvili, who not only illegally visited Nagorno-Karabakh, but also performed at a concert dedicated to 20th anniversary of Artsakh’s independence. Afterwards, Pavliashvili was included in the Azerbaijani FMA’s ‘black list’.
However, in November last year, a well-known Russian businessman of Azerbaijani origin, Emin Agalarov (President Ilham Aliyev’s former son-in-law), invited Soso Pavliashvili to hold a charity concert in Baku. Despite the social media users’ stormy protests, Pavliashvili was removed from the ‘black list’, even though he didn’t make public repentance.

Some people from the list were sending letters of apology and remorse, saying they had been unaware of the rules and had been fraudulently enticed. Later, they were also removed from the ‘black list’. For example, Al Bano, a prominent Italian singer, or Artem Lebedev, another Russian travelling blogger.

Since there are no clear-cut procedures for foreign national to legally visit Nagorno-Karabakh, they have to take ‘a path of least resistance’, so as not to fall out of grace with the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry (and, God forbid, the law enforcement agencies).

Avaz Hasanov, an experienced peacekeeper, the Head of the Society for Humanitarian Studies, has recommended the following procedures: Before travelling to Karabakh through Yerevan (and there is no other way, since there is no border crossing checkpoint in the Aghdam district of Azerbaijan, unlike the Georgian-Abkhazian administrative border on the bridge over the Inguri River), any foreign national, be it a private person, a journalist or a project participant, should, first of all, get Azerbaijani visa in his/her own country.

Then he/she can send a fax or E-mail to the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry, indicating the aim of his/her visit, as well as the visit dates and etc., and enclose a copy of the Azerbaijani visa. It usually turns out to be enough. However, in case the Foreign Ministry has some more question, it’s advisable to answer them so as to avoid sanctions on part of the Azerbaijani side.

As far as Lapshin is concerned, he didn’t just fail to notify the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry of his visit (he doesn’t require any visa, since he holds the Russian passport), but, according to the Azerbaijani authorities, he behaved in an extremely daring manner: having been included in the ‘black list’, he repeatedly crossed the Azerbaijani border. Moreover, he purposefully produced the Ukrainian passport. In the ‘black list’ he is registered as ‘Alexander’, whereas in the Ukrainian passport – as ‘Olexander’. That’s the reason, he wasn’t identified by the system. Later, he boasted on his blog, how skillfully he had cheated the Azerbaijani border guards.

Why did it happen?

There were many foreigners, who had illegally visited Nagorno-Karabakh long before Lapshin. Today, the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry’s ‘black list’ includes 335 names, whereas 2 years ago there were more than 400 of them. So, why it’s exactly Lapshin, who was put on the wanted list, arrested in Minsk and extradited to Baku. There are several answers to this question.

Firstly, Lapshin acted in a defiant manner. Having been put on the ‘black list’, he repeatedly crossed the Azerbaijani border and publicly boasted of his ‘feat’. But that’s not the whole story: in his post about crossing the Georgian-Azerbaijani border, Lapshin has used abusive language against Heydar Aliyev, who is considered the national leader in Azerbaijan.

Besides, late Heydar Aliyev is the father of the incumbent President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev. In other words, it could be a personal grudge on this offence that played certain role. Although, that post was removed from Lapshin’s livejournal blog, but there are plenty of reposts on the Internet: ‘The Champions’ League match: Republic of Azerbaijan vs. Sasha Lapshin, 1:0 for the blogger!’

In the outlaw state like Azerbaijan, as I view it, things are often settled in terms of ‘unwritten rules’. So, Lapshin violated those ‘unwritten rules’ and now he has caught it at last.

Another explanation could be the recent tension in the Russian-Belarusian relations. Lapshin’s arrest in Minsk timed to coincide with yet another cool-down in Russia-Belarus relations.

Although Belarus is part of Putin’s projects, like CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization), EAEU (Eurasian Economic Union), CU (Custom Union) etc., it has been always distinguished by its relatively independent policy. Tension in Russia-Belarus relations was triggered by the Belarusian side’s attempts to revise the prices on imported Russian gas and pay US$73 instead of US$132 per 1,000cub.m. On December 30, Minsk unilaterally raised by 7,7% the tariffs on transit of the Russian oil. In addition, Belarus President claimed, he had reached agreement on oil import with some alternative suppliers, such as Iran and Kazakhstan. Azerbaijan was also named alongside those countries. A conflict between Moscow and Minsk has also affected imports of the Belarusian agricultural products to Russia.

An additional symptom of escalating tension was the Belarusian side’s refusal to participate in the CSTO and EAEU summits, held in St. Petersburg on December 26. As a result, Minsk hasn’t sign the EAEU Customs Code, without which the document can’t take its effect.

Alexander Lapshin was hardly the first media worker, affected by Moscow-Minsk confrontation. 3 Russian electronic media contributors were arrested in Belarus end of 2016 for ‘instigation of interethnic discord’ in their articles published on Regnum, Lenta.ru and Eurasia Daily internet-resources – the Caucasian Knot reports.

What’s to be expected next?

Lapshin was arrested pursuant to 2 articles of the Criminal Code of Azerbaijan:

  • 318.2 (“Trespass of the state border of Azerbaijan without the established documents or outside the border checkpoint of the state frontier, committed on preliminary arrangement by a group of individuals);
  • 281.2 (“Public appeals for violent takeover of power, violent deduction of authority, violent change to constitutional grounds, or infringement of the territorial integrity of the Azerbaijan Republic, as well as distribution of materials with such content, committed repeatedly or by a group individuals).

Under the Criminal Code, Lapshin will be facing 8 years in prison at most.

Many columnists are unanimous in the opinion that after a show-trial, Lapshin will be extradited either to Russia or Israel, since he a citizen of these countries. Though, it’s true that official Baku may benefit to a certain extent from that.

For example, to exchange one citizen of Russia, Alexander Lapshin for another Russian citizen, Dilmar Askerov, who is serving his term in Nagorno –Karabakh prison.

Some details about the Kelbajar prisoners’ case

Askerov and his compatriot, Shahbaz Guliyev, were arrested in Kelbajar district (which is under control of the Armenian side) and sentence in 2015. According to Azerbaijan’s version, Askerov and Guliyev didn’t violate any laws, since they were moving within the internationally recognized territory of Azerbaijan (as they said, they were going to visit their ancestors’ graves). According to the Armenian version, they are saboteurs.

According to Uzeyr Jafarov, Colonel-Lieutenant, military expert and Chairman of the Reserve Officers NGO, in this case, Russian MFA allows for double standards, defending the rights of one citizen (Lapshin) and ignoring the rights of its other citizen (Askerov). In this case, the Azerbaijani side will have a new ‘bargain card’ for an attempt to release the Kelbajar prisoners.

The method of Lapshin’s extradition from Minsk to Baku deserves particular attention. Four officers in camouflage, with masks and guns, met him at the airport as if he was a chief of some terrorist organization. He was handcuffed. Many social network users have drawn attention to the disparity of measures taken. In particular, Ulvi Mehdi, a Facebook user and film expert, compared the Azerbaijani law-enforcers actions to ‘artillery shelling of sparrows.’

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