Azerbaijan heating up
This year the weather during the spring holiday, Novruz, was unusually cold. Amidst rain and wind the political climate in the country started heating up for the first time in a long time.
On March 17, the president of Azerbaijan signed a decree pardoning 148 convicts, including 14 people whom international human rights organizations considered to be political prisoners. I don’t remember any previous pardonings of such a record number of political prisoners, and it’s worthy to note, without any petitions and “laying of flowers at the leader of nation’s tomb. It would have been hard to imagine before.
To understand the scale of events, we should recall the how the “cooling period began, i.e., the campaign against civil society and NGOs in Azerbaijan. Famous representatives of civil society and Azerbaijani journalists have been objects of the attention by tax services and the Prosecutor’s Office since spring 2014. Rauf Mirkadirov, a journalist from the newspaper “Zerkalo, can be considered the first victim of this campaign, since in April 2014 he was deported from Turkey and immediately arrested upon arrival in Azerbaijan on charges of espionage for Armenia. Approximately 100 NGO activists (receiving grants from the West grants), journalists and oppositional youth movements were arrested over the couse of the year after these events.
The authorities were seriously concerned about the possibility of the “Arab revolution and the “Facebook revolution seeping into Azerbaijan. On the eve of those events, Ramiz Mehdiyev, head of the presidential administration, published in the public mass media an article accusing the U.S. Department of State of attempting to destabilize the situation in Azerbaijan via NGOs.
At that time resistance against pro-Western organizations was likened by many people to a Russia-USA confrontation in connection to the crisis in Ukraine. Azerbaijan had to choose a side. Who are we with? The USA is far away, but Russia is close by, so that’s why we have given in to intimidation from the north and closed western NGOs.
Azerbaijan-USA relations soon became strained. The U.S. Helsinki Commission, chaired by Senator Christopher Smith, presented a bill in Congress, which envisaged the creation of sanctions against Azerbaijan.
In the document, it was mentioned that the sanctions might be lifted when the Azerbaijani Government demonstrated considerable progress in releasing political prisoners, ceased prosecuting civil society and were to hold free and fair elections.
In response, the bill “On the Condition of Human Rights in the USA was submitted to the Azerbaijani Parliament. The bill envisaged a complete cut off of ties with the USA.
Many people explained this kind of aggravation as pressure from Russia. It must be noted that Russia considers the South Caucasus to be its traditional sphere of influence and is wary of the increasing western influence via various NGOs and grants. It dooesn’t want to repeat history in Georgia and Ukraine. This version is rather believable especially taking into consideration the events in Syria where Russia also participated quite actively.
We have become used to this behavior from Russia. I will try to assume an unusual role for me as Russia’s lawyer. If Russia is interested in limiting West’s influence on public opinion through NGOs and the civil sector, the question arises: why do American and European NGOs continue activity in such countries as Armenia and Kyrgyzstan that are almost completely controlled by Russia? The mentioned NGOs bring valuable resources and jobs to the country.
And vice versa. Why is the activity of these Western NGOs so strongly restricted in such countries as Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, which don’t depend so much on Russia. The most apparent answer is that the authoritarian state are afraid of losing their power and their money. That is why they try to restrict and control as much as possible civil society.
In this case how can the heating up of politics be explained? There are several scenarios:
1. Russia has not complied with its commitments, mainly concerning Karabakh. That’s why Azerbaijani authorities acts as if they are offended and have tipped their hats to the West.
This scenario doesn’t seem to hold up. I don’t think that our authorities are so naïve to believe Russia’s promises to change something in Karabakh in Azerbaijan’s favor. Noteworthily, at the beginning of the year Russia allocated a $200 million US credit to Armenia for the purchase of weapons. It was quite expected.
2. Azerbaijan has not been able to endure economic pressure. Prices for oil have dropped from $120 US to $33 US during the past year. The national currency has decreased in value twice this year. For the first time in the years of his rule the President confessed during his New Year address that “our profits have reduced sharply. There are still ambitious projects like holding large sport competitions, such as Formula 1 Grand-Prix of Europe, Islamic Solidarity Games, the Chess Olympiad and others. For the first time during Ilham Aliyev’s rule, authorities decided to request international financial institutions for aid. The amount is for about $4 billion US. Naturally, the IMF and the World Bank will pose questions about the situation regarding human rights.
The scenario is quite convincing. A sharp reduction of providing finance to unprofitable ventures, even if they are supported by the ruling clan and oligarchs’ families, testifies to the necessity to tighten things down. On the day of the Novruz celebration, President Aliyev said: “Azerbaijan doesn’t ask anybody to assist it; we are simply working on a new economic model. He also noted “international financial institutions highly appreciate our achievements and are ready to cooperate with us. Thus, this scenario makes sense, but not it can’t stand as an argument on its own.
3. For the first time in a long time the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, has received an invitation for an official visit to the USA to attend the Nuclear Security Summit. During the visit he is expected to meet with President Obama and other leaders. Aliyev wants to go there with “a positive image to avoid unpleasant questions concerning human rights.
This scenario complements the previous one, especially as Aliyev kept everyone at bay and did not yield at once to the West’s demands to release political prisoners. He did not release all of them. Journalists Khadija Ismailova and Seymur Hazi, the opposition leader Ilgar Mammadov (Tofig Yagublu, his “accomplice at the same trial), former Minister of Health Care Ali Insanov and some others are still behind bars.
Many international human rights organizations made statements welcoming Azerbaijan’s process of heating up. Notwithstanding, Arif and Leyla Yunus, opposition journalists, are still prohibited to leave the country to undergo treatment abroad. New names are being added to this list. Pro-Western NGOs’ accounts are still unfrozen, there are still draconian laws on receiving grants, and public resistance to all activists, who have received grants, is still endorsed.
Is there progress? It remains to be seen.