War, crisis, arrests and herring deficit
A list and analysis of major events and trends of 2016.
Foreign policy. Key word: war
The Karabakh conflict, that was put on the frozen conflicts’ list after conclusion of 1994 truce, turned out to be on agenda again following escalation of tension on the contact line of Armenia-Azerbaijan troops in April.
The escalation took place from Aril 2 till April 5. Not a single international organization can tell exactly, who started shooting first. Azerbaijan and Armenia have been blaming each other for that. As a result, according to official data, 37 Azerbaijani citizens were killed and approximately 1,000 residents of the frontline villages became homeless after their houses had been ruined by shells.
The aforesaid attracted the region’s key players’ attention to Azerbaijan, like, for example, Russia, and pulled at heartstrings each resident of the country. As a result, of a ‘small victorious war’, Azerbaijan regained over 2,000ha. land area. In his New Year address to the nation, President Ilham Aliyev termed it as ‘a glorious victory’.
The Azerbaijani community was so much drawn together in a uniform patriotic flush, that many were even discontent in April that the war had ended so quickly and that not the entire Karabakh had been regained by Azerbaijan.
Here you can read “The April Diary” by our correspondent from the frontline villages.
And here is a short multimedia clip on what people in both countries think about the ‘April war’ and its outcome.
Domestic policy. Key word: arrests
There were some good news too: 148 people, including 14 persons named as political prisoners by the international organizations, were pardoned on the President’s Decree in March. It was followed by a couple of expected ‘releases’ from prison: Rauf Mirgadirov, a journalist, and Intigam Aliyev, a lawyer, as well as some other persons were released.
Release of Khadija Ismayilova, a journalist, famous for her investigations into the Aliyev family assets, was a peak of the thaw (here is her first interview after the release).
The rest of the leadership’s actions were a continuation of previous policy aimed at eradication of every kind of dissenting views.
There was a wave of arrests just ahead of the referendum on introduction of the constitutional amendments, the details of which will be provided below. The majority of arrestees were oppositionists. For example, Faiq Amirov, the director of the opposition Azaldiq newspaper, was arrested on August 20, on the charges of instigation of religious animosity. Natiq Jafarli, the ReAL movement board member, was arrested for involvement in financial crimes.
At least 10 people were arrested, detained or fined within the period from August 12 till August 28.
Several international human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and Freedom House, released the statements, linking those arrests to the upcoming referendum and explaining them by an attempt ‘to silence critical voices’.
Meanwhile, Ilgar Mammadov, the leader of the ReAL public movement, is still in prison. Many people regard him as a ‘key political prisoner’ and an alternative candidate for presidency.
Founded in 2009, the ReAl movement has been engaged in political activity since 2011. It nominated its candidates both, at the presidential (Ilgar Mammadov) and the parliamentary elections. The movement has gained great renown in the capital.
And the most high-profile arrests that shook even the Azerbaijani community, which is accustomed to nearly everything, was the arrest of Bayram Mammadov and Qiyas Ibrahimov, the activists of the NIDA youth movement. They were arrested on May 10, according to the official version, allegedly for possession of heroin (1kg. per person). Whereas unofficially, they were arrested for making the inscriptions ‘F… the system!’ and ‘Happy slave day!’ on the monument to the ex-President of Azerbaijan, Heydar Aliyev, on his birthday.
The ‘monument prisoners’, as they are now referred to in Azerbaijan (and not just because their arrest has drawn the international human rights organizations’ attention) were sentenced to 10 years in prison each.
The referendum. Key word: power
The constitutional amendments that, relying on the government officials, were supported almost by 90% of Azerbaijani citizens, haven’t so far changed anything in the country’s daily life. Though, these amendments:
• abolish a presidential candidate’s age qualification
• extend the term of presidency
• allow the president to appoint vice-presidents
• allow the president to dissolve the parliament
• allow the president to call snap presidential elections
• and ignore a right to private property in the public interests
(The details are available here:).
The referendum was held on September 26. The officials claim, the highest level of transparency and organization of vote was ensured.
The only unusual thing about the referendum were the opposition’s 2 rallies against it. The first one was attended by approximately 10,000 people, which is quite unnatural for an inert Azerbaijani community.
Economy. Key word: Help!
The year started with demonstrations in the regions. As many as 9 regions were swept by sporadic protests on January 12-13. The people took to the streets with quite non-political slogans: ‘We have nothing to buy bread for!’
The heads of executive government were trying to convince the residents on the ground. Meanwhile, in Baku, 50 oppositionists were arrested, since the authorities regarded them as being responsible for the civil unrest (for more details follow the link).
The Manat rate was continuously dropping, the banks were closing and the prices were hiking. The currency exchange offices at each and every corner became a thing of the past. The banks either restricted the dollars sale, or didn’t sell them at all (more details about the banking system’s troubles are available in the article by Torghul Mashalli, an expert-economist). At present, the US$ exchange rate against AZN totals 1,7, and it is sold at 1,8. In 2014, right at the start of devaluation, the exchange rate made 0,78.
The more was the currency devaluating, the more often the authorities voiced their readiness to develop the branches of economy not related to the oil sale. The discussions were launched on public broadcasters, first on the agriculture, in general, and then on cotton. Even a soviet tradition of harvesting cotton by the entire enterprises was restored.
Later, there were talks about tourism development, especially as the country hosted Formula-1 in summer. For that purpose, the visa acquisition procedure was facilitated first, and then the visa regime with certain countries was abolished (to find out, which particular countries it concerned and what it resulted in, read our analytical article about the Azerbaijani tourism).
Nearer to the end of last year, the government applied an ancient, proven method – ‘the treasury is empty-let’s increase taxes’. Now, Azerbaijan residents will pay more for electricity and gas; customs dues on certain goods have been increased. On a side note, a tax, that didn’t exist earlier, has been imposed on exported goods. And that’s just a smaller part of a long list of new taxes and new rates of already existing ones (for more details about the anti-crisis measures, follow the link).
Culture & sports. Key word: expenses
‘Ali and Nino’ film premiere was the breaking news in the culture sphere. Leila Aliyeva, Azerbaijani President’s daughter, was the executive producer of the film. The film is based on the Azerbaijani emigrant writer, Kurban Said’s same-name novel. It’s a melodrama story set against the background of the important historical developments. The film budget totaled US$20million.
Critics were not overly enthusiastic about the movie. Find more details about the film here.
Formula-1 was the major sports event. According to Azad Rahimov, the Minister of Youth and Sports, Formula-1 cost the country at least US$60million. There are few fans of car racing in Azerbaijan. Thus, what Baku residents will remember about Formula-1, that was organized right in the capital’s center, are the blocked roads and the ‘follow-up’ concerts in the boulevard.
10 oil workers were killed as a result of accident at the Azerbaijani state oil company SOCAR’s owned offshore platform, on the night of December 15. The walkway with the people on it collapsed and the people drown in the sea. The officials claim, the accident was caused by a storm, while the human rights activists say, it happened due to the company’s negligence for the operational safety rules (all details available in our article).
The year 2016 year was marked by the deepening economic crisis and growing patriotic spirit.
Although herring suddenly vanished from the shop shelves on the New Year eve, but the clothing stores announced 30% discounts instead of the ordinary New Year sales, there were still many of those, willing to enjoy the New Year fireworks and the nicely decorated streets were absolutely packed with people.