By Stephen Blank (05/21/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

Iran is substantially modifying its policies in the Caucasus and is seeking to draw Azerbaijan closer. The high point of this rapprochement was the visit of Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev to Iran in April, a visit arranged after he and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani met in Davos in January. The visit received glowing reporting in both countries and led to the signing of several memoranda on minor issues. However, the key is that Iranian Supreme Leader Seyid Ali Khamenei expressed assurances of greater bilateral cooperation as a result of the visit as well as Iran’s support for Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, including apparently Nagorno-Karabakh. 

Ilham Aliyev and Hassan Rouhani

Published in Analytical Articles

By Mina Muradova (05/07/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

The arrest of an Azerbaijani journalist and political analyst involved in public dialogue between Azerbaijan and Armenia could endanger people’s diplomacy within the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution process.

Rauf Mirgadirov has been a correspondent in Ankara for the Baku-based newspaper Zerkalo (Mirror) for the last three years. His press accreditation was suddenly cancelled and he was asked to leave Turkey immediately. Mirgadirov arranged to leave Turkey by bus for Georgia, but was forced off the bus and deported to Baku, where he was arrested upon arrival. He is now under investigation by the Ministry of National Security.

According to Rachel Denber, Deputy Europe and Central Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, “The possible coordination between Turkey and Azerbaijan to return Mirgadirov to Azerbaijan without due process should be immediately and thoroughly investigated … Turkish officials brazenly snatched Mirgadirov up without cause and unlawfully returned him to Azerbaijan. These shameless violations should be investigated and those responsible should be held to account.”

Mirkadirov’s arrest three days after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Baku raised suspicions among many in Azerbaijan that the journalist’s arrest was the result of an agreement between Ankara and Baku. Some analysts believe the action is part of Erdogan’s campaign against the leader of the Islamic Hizmet movement, Fethullah Gülen. In early 2014, another Azerbaijani journalist of Turkish newspaper Today’s Zaman, Mahir Zeynalov, was deported from Turkey.

Yet, the difference between two cases is that Mirgadirov is suspected of spying for Armenia and the charges brought against him are high treason and espionage, which envisages a punishment from 10 years in prison to a life term sentence.

Mehman Aliyev, Director of the Turan news agency, said that Mirgadirov was forced to leave the country because of his government-critical articles. “Recently, he has criticized both Azerbaijani authorities and Erdoğan’s government for violations of human rights and democratic freedoms,” Aliyev said.

Mirgadirov promoted public dialogue between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which have not had diplomatic relations since the early 1990s due to the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijani prosecutors state that Mirgadirov is suspected of having transferred classified information about Azerbaijan’s political and military sectors to Armenian intelligence between 2008 and 2009, “including photos and schemes to be used against Azerbaijan.” They claim that these supposed meetings occurred in Armenia, Georgia and Turkey.

Prosecutors pointed out Laura Bagdasarian, an Armenian journalist who is known for her cooperation with the well-known Azerbaijani human rights activist Leyla Yunus, as an Armenian “intelligence agent.” Mirgadirov's lawyer, Fuad Agayev, predicted that “other local journalists and civil society activists who cooperated within the Bagdasarian-Yunus joint project could also be prosecuted.” On April 30, prosecutors began questioning journalists with connections to Mirgadirov as well as the Institute for Peace and Democracy led by Yunus.

A few days after Mirgadirov’s arrest, Yunus and her husband Arif Yunus were stopped at the airport when they were departing for an international conference in Brussels. The prosecutor-general’s office said the Yunus couple was detained on April 28 because they “tried to flee the country” after being summoned as witnesses in a criminal case. Yunus was released from detention after questioning by investigators and the office of her institute was searched. The prosecutor-general’s April 30 statement did not elaborate on the criminal case, but it said the criminal investigation would continue. Yunus says investigators asked her about her ties with Mirgadirov.

She noted that Mirgadirov took part in projects that were supported by Germany’s Friedrich Ebert Foundation, the British and Polish embassies, the EU and other international organizations and foundations and that were aimed at encouraging the peace process between two countries.

Yunus said, “I do not accept any charges against Mirgadirov and if he was arrested for contacts with Armenians within our projects, then let the government arrest me … The treason and espionage charges brought against Mirgadirov, an active participant of conferences and the projects implemented jointly with Armenian NGOs, are putting an end to visits of civil society activists of Azerbaijan to Armenia and to the enhancement of public diplomacy and civil society in Azerbaijan … It makes participation in ‘citizen diplomacy’ dangerous.”

The Azerbaijani government is deeply skeptical about the possible contribution of citizen diplomacy to resolving the long-lasting conflict. “People’s diplomacy is an important but not decisive element of the Armenian-Azerbaijani Nagorno-Karabakh conflict,” Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov remarked on the sidelines of the Second Global Forum of open societies in Baku. “That is, if the people’s diplomacy plays the role of an impulse, then it will be possible to speak about the importance of its role in resolving the conflict. However, at the moment, we do not see any steps in this direction.”

Agayev, Mirgadirov's lawyer, stated that his client did not have access to classified information and that the charges are therefore groundless. “Maybe investigators have some photos or videos where Rauf sits with Armenians at one table. But it is not serious to arrest a prominent journalist based on that,” the lawyer said. Mirgadirov acknowledged his participation in various conferences hosted by international organizations in Armenia and other countries, where he represented Azerbaijani civil society groups and presented the interests of his country, but he said that his participation was legitimate. Agayev noted that Mirgadirov considered the charges to be bogus and intended to intimidate other human rights activists and journalists in the country.

The arrest comes just weeks before Azerbaijan assumes the rotating chairmanship of the Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers. According to CPJ research, Mirgadirov is the ninth journalist behind bars in Azerbaijan.

Published in Field Reports

By Mina Muradova (04/02/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

The conflict between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Islamic Hizmet movement’s leader Fethullah Gülen has spread to Azerbaijan. A scandal erupted in Turkey in December 2013, when police arrested 52 suspects on various corruption charges, including the sons of three government ministers and the general manager of the state-owned Halkbank. The operation detained people close to the Turkish Prime Minister.

Erdogan termed it a plot by the Hizmet movement and its exiled leader Gülen to overthrow the government. It was considered a response to the government’s decision last November to close in 2015 the dershane, a network of private tutoring centers, most of which are run by the Gülen movement. Educational centers reportedly provide enormous financial resources to the group but also help it recruit new members and allies in government.

In late February, both government and opposition media reported that a similar “parallel structure” existed in Azerbaijan. The diplomatic missions of both countries reportedly provided the government with a list of local Gülen followers. In early March, emails showing ties between Azerbaijani officials and Gülen were leaked to the media. One of them was related to Elnur Aslanov, an official of President Ilham Aliyev's Administration.
“The Turkish government is concerned that the Hizmet movement is expanding in Azerbaijan through its wide network of educational establishments and businesses, as well as by placing figures loyal to the Hizmet movement in high-level posts in government,” the Musavat daily reported on February 28.

In Azerbaijan, Gülenists have been presented as a moderate socio-religious movement, but indifferent to politics. Local authorities had concerns about this but tolerated the movement thanks to its high quality educational system, including 13 prep schools, 11 high schools, and the Qafqaz (Caucasus) University that were considered as the main part of the Hizmet Movement. In 1992, Azerbaijan became the first country outside of Turkey where the movement opened its schools. Last year, the education institutions were transferred to the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan, but preserved curriculum, management and teacher staff with no changes.

Most people cannot afford to pay the fees, so it is mainly the children of businessmen and the elite who go there. This raises suspicions that the schools are raising a new "golden" generation with Gülen’s values.

In early March, the names of officials linked with Gülen started appearing in the media. The news portal Minval called Aslanov a "patron of the Azerbaijani branch of Gülen followers."

In an interview with APA News Agency on March 1, Aslanov said that “slanders against me and a number of senior officials, who are always committed to the statehood course of the national leader Heydar Aliyev and loyal to President Ilham Aliyev, the attempts to link us with Nurcular sect are the results of deformed imagination and groundless." Aslanov stated that the period of “political myths” ended in Azerbaijan long ago, and that society is able to differentiate between tales and reality.

Aslanov was sacked on March 17 after a decision by President Aliyev, but the document did not name a reason for his dismissal. He headed the political analysis and information department in the President's administration since 2007, and is the son of Rabiyyat Aslanova, a ruling party MP, and reportedly has ties to the influential "grey cardinal" Ramiz Mekhtiyev, head of the President's Administration. He was responsible for supervising the Center for Strategic Studies, some leading pro-governmental media outlets, and the pro-governmental youth organization Ireli. Two days later, Aslanov's department was closed and merged with the Department of public-political issues.

Some media reports have termed the developments Ali Hasanov’s victory over political rivals. Before Aslanov's dismissal, Ali Hasanov, who heads the Department for public- political issues in the presidential office, called for public vigilance. At a religious affairs conference in Baku on March 7, he stated that some religious movements and missionary organizations are trying to establish themselves in Azerbaijan and to create an extensive network in order to realize their interests. Hasanov said that “the representatives of those trends should know that attempts to adapt the state policy to their interests will fail.”

The issue has become highly controversial in Azerbaijan. Some political observers noted that Aslanov and others implicated by the leaked emails probably had nothing to do with Gülen.

According to Arif Hajili, a high-ranking member of the opposition party Musavat, "if a letter addressed to Gülen is a reason for firing, it is very strange because before there were a lot of publications about governmental officials linked to Kurdish PKK that created problems in relations with Turkey, but no measures were taken. Here, a person was sacked just based on an email."

Arif Yunus, a political analyst and the author of a book on Islam in Azerbaijan, termed the email "rubbish" because it was written with several Turkish grammar mistakes as well as errors from a religious point of view. "I don't believe that Aslanov is a Nurchu (a Gülen follower). It is a result of razborka (battle in Russian slang). I mean it is a power struggle between groups inside the government … It is impossible to trust letters fabricated in a computer. I can't say what is the reason for the struggle between Aslanov and Hasanov, but the campaign against the Gülen movement has been used for fighting against political rivals," Yunus said in an interview to Meydan TV.

Published in Field Reports

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Silk Road Paper Svante E. Cornell and S. Frederick Starr, Modernization and Regional Cooperation in Central Asia: A New Spring, November 2018.

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Article Svante E. Cornell, “Turkish-Saudi Rivalry: Behind the Khashoggi Affair,” The American Interest, November 6, 2018.

Article Mamuka Tsereteli, “Landmark Caspian Deal Could Pave Way for Long-Stalled Energy Projects,” World Politics Review, September 2018.

Article Halil Karaveli, “The Myth of Erdoğan’s Power,” Foreign Affairs, August 2018.

Book Halil Karaveli, Why Turkey is Authoritarian, London: Pluto Press, 2018.

Article Svante E. Cornell, “Erbakan, Kısakürek and the Mainstreaming of Extremism in Turkey,” Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, June 2018.

Article S. Frederick Starr and Svante E. Cornell, “Uzbekistan: A New Model for Reform in the Muslim World,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, May 12, 2018.

Silk Road Paper Svante E. Cornell, Religion and the Secular State in Kazakhstan, April 2018.

Book S. Frederick Starr and Svante E. Cornell, The Long Game on the Silk Road: US and EU Strategy for Central Asia and the Caucasus, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.

Article Svante E. Cornell, “Central Asia: Where Did Islamic Radicalization Go?,” Religion, Conflict and Stability in the Former Soviet Union, eds Katya Migacheva and Bryan Frederick, Arlington, VA: RAND Corporation, 2018.

 

The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.

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