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.
By Stephen Blank (the 03/05/2014 of the CACI Analyst)
Azerbaijan is playing a growing strategic role, as confirmed by the 2013 Azerbaijan-agreement to build the Trans-Anatolian gas Pipeline (TANAP) to the Turkish- Bulgarian border and from there connect to the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) that goes through Greece to the Western Balkans and eventually to Italy. The TANAP-TAP program is the first and only genuine alternative to the Moscow-backed South Stream pipeline. In combination with the AGRI (Azerbaijan-Georgia-Romania Interconnector), Azerbaijan now has two instruments by which to become seriously engaged in European gas trade, and moreover recently suggested transit of Iraqi gas through these pipelines.
By Mina Muradova (the 03/05/2014 of the CACI Analyst)
Azerbaijani investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova, well-known for her reporting on high-level corruption, is again under prosecution charged with spying for the U.S.. The U.S. Embassy has expressed its “deep disturbance” by “the ongoing, targeted harassment” of Ismayilova and described as “absurd” claims that she was passing along intelligence information to two American officials who met Ismayilova in late January.
Ismayilova works with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and hosts a daily analytical talk-show on Radio Azadliq, an RFE/RL channel in Azerbaijani. According to OCCRP, her award-winning investigations uncovered high-level corruption in Azerbaijan, including lucrative business deals of the Azerbaijani president’s family members, hidden interests of the president’s siblings in national contracts and mismanagement in the state financing sector.
In early 2012, she was targeted by a smear campaign in which an explicit video appeared on the Internet containing intimate and illegally obtained images of the journalist. In 2012 the Zeit Stiftung and Fritt Ord Foundation awarded Ismayilova with the Gerd Bucerius Free Press of Eastern Europe Award, while the Washington-based International Women Media Foundation gave her the Courage of Journalism Award.
The campaign intensified in August 2013 before the October Presidential elections when a new video appeared on the Internet and on February 13, Haqqani.az, a pro-governmental website, accused Ismayilova of passing information discrediting Azerbaijan’s opposition members to two congressional staffers who allegedly gather intelligence in Baku. The article was picked up by other pro-government media and amplified by parliamentarians, who demanded an investigation of Ismayilova and referred to RFE/RL as a "spy network of the U.S. in Azerbaijan."
The situation escalated when Ismayilova posted a scan on her Facebook page that appears to be evidence that the Ministry of National Security (MNS) hires an informer inside opposition circles. “On Feb 16 following the statements by government and pro-government media propaganda that I am involved in espionage, I posted on FB the picture - the scan of a so-called report leaked to me by a former employee of MNS,” Ismayilova said in her Facebook statement under the headline “Prosecutor is calling - Ministry of National Security is in trouble”. According to Ismayilova, the paper was an “alleged report by an MNS employee to his chief about the guaranteed cooperation with one member of a small opposition party.”
Stipulating terms and threatening blackmail, the document suggests an active government effort to infiltrate the political opposition. The paper reads that the informer receives 600 AZN as a monthly fee from the MNS Internal Intelligence Department for informing and creating conflicts within the opposition. Besides, the paper alleged that the MNS has additional means for pressuring the informant in the form of intimate videos.
“If the prosecutor's office opens this case, it means that the document is authentic and that the MNS has been spying on the private lives of opposition members and blackmailing them with the video,” - Ismayilova said in her Facebook statement.
On February 18, Ismayilova was summoned as a witness to the Prosecutor’s Office within an investigation into the leaking of state secrets. The U.S. Embassy dismissed the espionage charges and stated that "congressional staff delegations routinely visit Azerbaijan to meet with embassy staff, Azerbaijani officials, and civil society representatives. They do so to better inform our government’s legislative efforts regarding Azerbaijan and the rest of the region."
Ismayilova confirms that she had a routine meeting with congressional staffers, but nothing more. She noted that the Prosecutor’s Office was focusing "mainly on my dinner in Baku's Art-Garden restaurant with two visiting U.S. Senate staffers in late January. The prosecutor told me that they have information that I allegedly passed some kind of state secrets to the visiting Americans. I said that it is impossible, since I don't have any state secrets in my possession. This is an absurd allegation."
Ismayilova was charged under Article 284 of Azerbaijan’s criminal court for “revealing a state secret”.
This case was officially initiated after a Member of Parliament from the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party, Jeyhun Osmanli, submitted an audio recording to prosecutors that he claimed to have secretly in a Baku restaurant, when Ismayilova was talking to “foreign nationals.” On his Facebook page, Osmanli declared that “betrayal of the Motherland will not be forgiven.” Eldar Sultanov, a spokesman for the Prosecutor General’s Office, confirmed that Osmanli provided prosecutors with the audio recording of Ismayilova’s conversation in the restaurant. “This audio recording is under thorough investigation and a relevant decision will be taken,” he said.
On February 22, another RFE/RL journalist, Yafez Hasanov, posted on Facebook that he had received death threats over his critical reporting on human rights violations in Nakhchivan and appealed to the Interior Minister and General Prosecutor provide him with necessary security measures.
In an open letter, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) called on the Government of Azerbaijan to stop its harassment of all journalists and to respect freedom of the media, a commitment it has undertaken. Cardin noted that this harassment is a part of an “unfortunate string of politically-motivated arrests of Azerbaijani’s who are exercising their rights to free speech.” He termed the list of those jailed on criminal charges in the period prior to the 2013 presidential election, as “troubling.”
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.