By Mina Muradova (10/01/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
Whereas Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev intensively uses social media platforms for promoting Azerbaijan as a prosperous and democratic country, human rights observers condemn the authorities of this post-Soviet country for a recent escalation of repression against civil society activists.
“A free society has emerged in Azerbaijan. All democratic institutions are available and they operate successfully,” – @presidentaz, the official account of President Aliyev tweeted in early September. In a minute, another tweet said, “All freedoms, including the freedom of speech, the freedom of conscience, the freedom of the press and free Internet, are available.” And later, “Azerbaijani society is a free society, and this is our great achievement.”
The regional analyst and blogger Arzu Geybullayeva said that for anyone familiar with Azerbaijani realities, “the presidential feed is bitterly ironic, if at times darkly entertaining … Elsewhere in the post-Soviet world, authoritarians have figured out that succinct means success in social media. But Aliyev’s feed reads like one long speech regularly interrupted by a pesky 140 character limit,” she wrote on GlobalVoices, a citizen media platform.
The reason for Geybullayeva’s concern is the fact that the number of politically motivated detentions has increased sharply in the country after the defeat of a Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) resolution on “The follow-up to the issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan” on January 26, 2013. Amnesty International has recognized 24 people as “prisoners of conscience” in Azerbaijan, who were “jailed solely for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression” in recent months.
The latest in a series of attempts to silence government critics is the case of journalist and human rights defender Ilgar Nasibov, who was found unconscious with severe head trauma and broken bones in his face, in late August. “He was called from home to go the office in the evening,” his wife Malahat Nasibova told Azadliq radio. “They said some petitioners had come. They attacked him suddenly in the office and inflicted numerous injuries.” Unidentified people stormed the office of the Democracy and NGO Development Resource Centre in the Nakhchivan exclave of Azerbaijan, which he heads. Amnesty International reported that the Nasibov couple has long faced regular intimidation because government officials want them to leave the region, as they are “the only remaining independent voices there.” Even though the authorities reportedly detained one of Nasibov’s assailants, they have not initiated a criminal investigation.
Among the total number of politically motivated arrests, more than ten members of the media and bloggers are behind bars or awaiting trial. It is the highest number that the Office of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media has observed in Azerbaijan since the office was established. The OSCE’s representative Dunja Mijatović called the government of Azerbaijan to stop “the continued persecution of media and free voices in the country.” According to Mijatović, “These cases and accompanying smear campaigns have resulted in worrying setbacks for the development of free expression in Azerbaijan that create a chilling effect on media and society as a whole … While I do not challenge the lawful right of the authorities to scrutinize the activities of non-governmental organizations, such actions should not be aimed at silencing critical voices.”
On September 15, local media published a letter from prominent human rights activist Leyla Yunus to her husband Arif Yunus. The couple are kept in different pre-trial detention centers. She compared the political climate in contemporary Azerbaijan with the massive political repressions in the Soviet Union orchestrated by Joseph Stalin. “They began to arrest whole families, as Stalin did. The tyrant behaves as if there is no CE or EU or other international organizations,” she stated. Yunus reported that her cellmate verbally harassed her and threatened “to break her arms and legs” immediately after Yunus had met with representatives of the UN Commission against Torture in the Kurdakhani prison.
Three days later, the European Parliament (EP) called on Azerbaijan to undertake “long-overdue human rights reforms without further delay and cease their harassment of civil society organizations, opposition politicians and independent journalists and lift the ban of public gatherings in Baku.” Members of the EP condemned “in the strongest possible terms” the arrest and detention of human rights activists and demanded their “immediate and unconditional” release.
The Azerbaijani leadership continues to brush off any allegations that it is behind the serial arrests of its critics and the closure of their organizations. “It is regrettable that these NGOs and individuals – and some journalists – fall back on the foreign forces that fund them and regard themselves as above national law, refusing to report their grant-funded projects, file accounts, pay their taxes and comply with other legal requirements set out by the government,” Ali Hasanov, political affairs chief in the presidential administration, told the AzerTag news agency. “In those circles, the appropriate actions that state institutions have taken are sadly being misrepresented as ‘pressure on civil society’ and as ‘restrictions’ on the functioning of NGOs and the media. It’s a campaign to blacken Azerbaijan’s reputation.”
By Mina Muradova (09/03/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
The Sochi talks on settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict initiated by President Valdimir Putin has not met the hopes of many Azerbaijanis for a breakthrough in peace negotiations. The meeting reached only its immediate aim – a decrease in deadly skirmishes on the line of contact between Armenian and Azerbaijani troops, which resulted in the deaths of at least 20 soldiers in early August. Many in Baku believe that the clashes were provoked by Moscow to justify its influential position in the region.
According to Yerevan, the fighting was a result of repeated small-scale Azerbaijani attacks to which Armenia responded. Baku for its part said that Azerbaijani troops forcibly prevented provocations by “Armenian sabotage groups.”
The recent clashes were the gravest since the 1994 ceasefire agreement was signed between the two sides with mediation of the Kremlin.
“The nature of the clashes is totally unprecedented,” said Lawrence Sheets, a Caucasus analyst told Bloomberg. “What has changed is that over the past weeks, we have seen the first instances of the use of high-caliber weapons, not just small arms as had previously often been the case. The verbal threats have also hit an unprecedented peak.”
Over past weeks, images of military vehicles and equipment most likely headed toward the frontline have spread in social networks. Controversial information about serious and deadly clashes gave rise to aggressive rhetoric from both sides, even in the virtual world. On Facebook, a number of Azerbaijani users called on the authorities to show “all our military power to Armenian side.” One Baku resident posted: “Now it is time to demonstrate all our military power. Our military aircraft have to destroy all territories along the line of contact, where the ceasefire was constantly violated in order to demonstrate Armenians how serious we are….”
Before President Ilham Aliyev left for Sochi, around 60 tweets threatening Armenia were posted via his official account. “We will restore our sovereignty. The flag of Azerbaijan will fly in all the occupied territories, including Shusha and Khankandi [in Nagorno-Karabakh],” he wrote. “Just as we have beaten the Armenians on the political and economic fronts, we are able to defeat them on the battlefield”.
Although Azerbaijan seems to the side that is most interested in changing the status-quo in the conflict, many in Baku believe that Armenia, a strategic ally of Russia in the South Caucasus, provoked clashes at the behest of the Kremlin. The theory is that Moscow wanted to use the situation in order to change of Vladimir Putin’s image from an intriguer and aggressor to a peacemaker in the region.
Vafa Guluzade, a former state advisor on foreign policy, said that Putin wanted to show that “Russia still plays a decisive role in the South Caucasus,” and therefore, Putin called for a summit on August 10 with his Azerbaijani and Armenian counterparts in order to show the world his “peaceful, mediating face.”
Guluzade also noted in an interview to Interfax that the Kremlin tried to force Azerbaijan to join the Moscow-led Customs Union, an economic entity that Azerbaijani officials have declined to join. “The meeting with Putin’s mediation was organized just for show, demonstrating that Russia is a key actor in settling the Nagorno-Karabakh problem … Russia tried to compel Azerbaijan, up to the last moment, to join the Customs Union. But Azerbaijan today is a confident and military strong country, so it gave no result,” Guluzade added.
While the presidents were watching a sambo tournament in Sochi following the trilateral meeting, Armenian and Azerbaijani troops continued breaching the ceasefire agreement and taking hostages.
After the summit, President Aliyev said “We discussed the settlement of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict in Karabakh which has been going on for too long and needs to be resolved.” The president stressed that the main mission of the international mediators was to settle the conflict, not to freeze it or strengthen the confidence-building process. “I believe that the latest events will stir international mediators into action,” he said. “Azerbaijan wants peace, the neither war nor peace situation can’t last forever.”
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters that the talks with Aliyev and Sargsyan, were “useful,” with both presidents reaffirming their commitment to seeking a solution exclusively on the basis of a peaceful approach. “There are only few uncoordinated aspects of the conflict settlement, the overwhelming majority of agreements are already clear.” According to Lavrov, several specific points will be finalized: “As they say, the devil is in the details, and the most complex issues are not solved yet.”
After Sochi, the rhetoric coming from Baku and Yerevan became even louder. Sargsyan stated that his country had missiles with a 300-km-radius, which could turn Azerbaijani towns into “Aghdam” referring to the ruined Azerbaijani city under Armenian control. Aliyev stated on August 30 that “…The position of Azerbaijan in Sochi sounded even stronger, thanks to the courage of the heroic Azerbaijani soldiers and officers and the enemy was dealt a devastating blow that they still can’t get over … Of course, Azerbaijan and the Azerbaijani army is strong, and heroic Azerbaijani soldiers are a constant source of fear for them.”
According to Lawrence Sheets, “With all the current violent upheavals in the world, from Ukraine to Iraq and beyond, unfortunately some are not taking the current major escalation between Azerbaijan and Armenia seriously enough … This is a war, and we are now only a step away from any of the sides deciding to resort to the use of highly destructive and sophisticated missile systems they have acquired, capable of causing massive casualties and destruction.”
The U.S. called on Yerevan and Baku to take steps in order to reduce tensions and respect the ceasefire. U.S. Ambassador to Armenia John Heffern delivered a video message stressing that threats and militant rhetoric will not help resolve any conflict. Heffern repeated that there can be no military solution to the Karabakh conflict and called on the parties to start talks, since revenge and further escalation will make it difficult to achieve peace. “The best way to honor the memory of those killed is to stop clashes right now,” - he noted.
By Avinoam Idan (09/03/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
The return of open fire in the Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) conflict recently brought about a meeting between the presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia in Sochi, under the auspices of President Putin, on August 10, 2014. The growing tension in the conflict and the Sochi meeting take place against the background of the crisis in Ukraine. The Karabakh conflict serves as Russian leverage in influencing and promoting Russia’s geostrategic aims in the Caucasus and beyond, and Russia’s new initiative in the conflict meant to improve Russia’s stance in its confrontation with the U.S. and EU and its hegemony over the gateway to Eurasia.
By Erik Davtyan (08/14/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
On August 10, a trilateral meeting took place between the presidents of Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. After the Kazan meeting in 2011, this was the first such meeting hosted by a Russian president. On August 8, Presidents Sargsyan and Aliyev had both paid a working visit to Sochi in order to discuss a wide range of issues, concerning Armenian-Russian and Azerbaijani-Russian relations respectively. Since both parties had expressed their willingness to hold a trilateral meeting, their official visits to Sochi presented a good opportunity for the dialogue between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The last meeting of the two presidents took place on November 19, 2013, in Vienna and was conducted with the participation of the Co-Chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group and the Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairman-in-Office Andrzej Kasprzyk.
The meeting focused on the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as the recent clashes on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border and the line of contact. While the working visit also pursued some other important issues (e.g. Armenian-Russian relations), the concerns among Armenia’s population over the events on the borderline and the possibility of a state-level discussion of that situation became the main point of interest during the trilateral meeting. Many Armenians attached great importance to the Sochi meeting due to the tense situation on the line of contact, which has since early August caused the deaths of over 20 soldiers. The recent skirmishes were the bloodiest fighting in two decades, and the proceedings at Sochi were therefore followed closely in Armenia.
In the first week of August, the developing situation on the frontline raised concerns among the Armenian public, fearing a possible escalation of the conflict. While clashes on the line of contact have occurred from time to time in past years, the massive breach of the cease-fire for a relatively long period of time, and the everyday news on the tense situation triggered perceptions that a return to large-scale military operations could be imminent. The death of 18 20-year-old soldiers in a week raised deep concerns among almost all Armenians, in Armenia as well as in the diaspora.
On August 7, President Aliyev’s military rhetoric on Twitter raised additional concerns in Armenia. Aliyev stated that Azerbaijanis “have beaten the Armenians on the political and economic fronts,” hence they “are able to defeat them on the battlefield.” These statements, which were actually made on the level of president, where received with a deep anger among Armenia’s population.
Both the borderline situation and Aliyev’s statements received reactions from Armenia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and were widely covered in Armenian mass media. Moreover, the international reactions to the events served to further underline the seriousness of the situation. The U.S. Department of State and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs both expressed their stances towards the situation on the line of contact, which was one of the rare cases when the co-chairing states expressed their opinion not on the level of co-chairs, but foreign offices.
Russia’s mediation attempt was largely in line with the expectations of the Armenian public. Hence, most Armenians welcomed the chance for a meeting between the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents. Despite the fact that Armenian society has an ambiguous attitude towards Russia and its relationship with Armenia, there was a relative unanimity towards the necessity of the Sochi meeting. Russia is considered to be Armenia’s strategic partner, and to secure part of Armenia’s state borders. Besides, Russia is one of the three members of the OSCE Minsk Group, as well as Armenia’s most significant arms supplier.
As the working visits of the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents started on August 8, some Armenian experts are inclined to link that circumstance with the 6th anniversary of the August war between Russia and Georgia, thereby implying that there is an indirect message to Georgia’s neighboring states, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Nevertheless, the Sochi meeting drew the attention of Armenia’s population primarily due to its consequences for the acute situation on the frontline, rather than the prospects for approaching solutions to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict itself. Therefore, this meeting, followed by a 10-month pause, largely satisfied the expectations of the Armenian public.
By Armen Grigoryan (08/14/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
After the recent clashes between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces, Russia’s leadership attempts to act more decisively in order to compromise the OSCE Minsk Group mediation efforts and to compel Armenia and Azerbaijan to accept Russia’s special role in the region. Russia’s proximity and strong influence over political elites and societies gives it an advantage over other Minsk Group co-chairs – the U.S. and France. However, the lack of security guarantees and economic perspectives may induce Armenia to start reviewing its attitudes concerning relations with different international actors and regional integration frameworks.
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.