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Azerbaijan Report: September 24, 2002

24 September 2002
Three Presidents Launch "Historic' Pipeline
The presidents of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey launched construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) main export oil pipeline on 18 September at the Sangachal terminal south of Baku. The construction of pipeline, which is expected to cost $2.95 billion dollars, is due to be finished in late 2004. The first tanker of oil from Azerbaijan will be sent from the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan to world markets at the beginning of 2005.

In his opening speech, Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliev, who called the beginning of the construction of the pipeline an historic event, said that BTC is of great political importance. He claimed that some unrest in the Caucasus since 1994, when the "Contract of the Century" between Baku and Western oil companies was signed, was directly linked to the pipeline. Some political organizations tried to stage a coup d'etat in Azerbaijan as a result, Aliyev said. Moreover, he linked the last attempt on Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze's life, in 1998, with oil politics. Aliyev said he appreciated the role of the United States in the realization of the project, adding that without the support of the White House BTC would not have been realized.

Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, for his part, said that the BTC pipeline would guarantee secure transportation of Caspian oil to European markets. He expressed a hope that the planned Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline would be realized as soon as possible.

Georgian President Shevardnadze called the BTC pipeline primarily a reward to future generations. The construction of the pipeline is a noble event in the histories of the Azerbaijani, Georgian and Turkish peoples, he said. Forces that want to prevent the realization of the project will never succeed, he added.

Spencer Abraham, the U.S. energy secretary, who also took part in the ceremony, read a letter from George W. Bush in which the U.S. president called the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline "a central component of a new East-West energy corridor that will provide far-reaching benefits. These include attracting new investment to the region, enhancing global energy security, strengthening the sovereignty and independence of countries in the Caspian Basin, and bolstering these states' economic cooperation and integration into the global economy. The pipeline will benefit the countries of the region, and those throughout the rest of the world. I commend the government and corporate leaders attending today's ceremony on your strategic vision and determination. The United States looks forward to a continued partnership with you in ensuring that Caspian energy resources help foster peace and prosperity for many years to come."

But while participants in the launch ceremony struck an optimistic tone, the Russian media wrote that Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said that not all issues surrounding BTC have been solved. Russia originally opposed the project, which will do much to remove Azerbaijan and Georgia from Russian sphere of influence. Moscow has since said that Azerbaijan will not have enough oil to make the pipeline viable.

Some Azeri experts say that the latest round of Russian comments on the pipeline suggests that the Kremlin still harbors plans against BTC. Former State Advisor Vafa Guluzade said in an interview with RFE/RL's Azerbaijani service that Russia was still able to prevent the construction of the pipeline. According to him, Moscow could unleash a new phase in the Nagorno-Karabakh war and raise Armenians in Georgia�s Javakhetia district against Tbilisi, thus re-escalating tensions in the South Caucasus.

But according to Khagani Huseinov, the head of the Center for the Investigation of Conflicts, the option of using Armenia against the BTC pipeline could turn against Russia itself. He said that although the Kremlin is not able to affect Baku on the pipeline, it could put pressure on Azerbaijan at the upcoming Moscow meeting on the status of the Caspian to force Baku to make concessions, for instance, on the division of the sea.

(Zerkhanim Ahmedli and Natig Zeinalli)

Minister Discusses Government Loans With Journalists
Minister for Economic Development Ferhad Aliyev met media representatives on 16 September to clarify some issues surrounding the 5 September presidential decree granting long-awaited government loans to the media. Under the decree, 3 billion manats (about $620,000) will be allocated from the State Fund for Assistance to Entrepreneurs in order to develop independent media in Azerbaijan. Aliyev also noted that loans would be given to each newspaper irrespective of their political allegiance.

Some leading newspapers are more interested in the amount of money on offer than when it will be granted. Rauf Arifoglu, the editor-in-chief of the opposition newspaper "Yeni Musavat," said that given the number of media outlets that would like to get the loans, the amount is too small. Given that there are more than 200 outlets competing for the loans, each newspaper will be able to get no more than $2,000-$3,000, Arifoglu said.

Further, he said, the amount is not enough to allow the media to solve its problems. Arifoglu noted that "Yeni Musavat" alone has worked out a business plan for 500 million manats (about $102,000), adding that such a "laughable" amount as the government is offering could force the newspaper to reject the loan.

While the authorities are planning to allocate credit to the media, the newspaper "Baku Hefteliyi" (Baku Weekly) has been forced to stop publishing. At a 17 September press conference Ganimet Zahidov, the editor-in-chief of the newspaper, claimed that all publishing houses had been ordered not to print it. Zahidov alleged that the order had come "from the top" and that therefore there was no reason to blame the publishing houses for the problem. The editor said the pressure on the newspaper was the result of critiques it had published of the authorities and their alleged illegal actions. According to Zahidov, the authorities seem to be attempting to solve the "problem" posed by the newspaper without a fuss.

He also expressed the hope that the president would put an end to what he called lawlessness.

(Maarif Chingizoglu)

Azerbaijan Prepares For Council of Europe Evaluation
On 27 September the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) will hear reports judging how well Azerbaijan and Armenia have fulfilled obligations which they undertook when they joined the Council of Europe.

A member of the Azerbaijani delegation to PACE argued at a 17 September round-table discussion sponsored by the Sabah Youth Organization that Baku had made great strides toward fulfilling the commitments.

Gultekin Hajieva said that obligations concerning the improvement of Azerbaijani legislation have been met in full. The process of transforming state television into public television will be completed by the beginning of 2003. Moreover, in 2001 parliament adopted a law on corruption and an anti-corruption program will soon be completed.

Hajieva acknowledged that the question of political prisoners complicated the relationship between the Council of Europe and Azerbaijan. (The international organization accuses Azerbaijan of holding political prisoners, a charge Baku denies.) But she said that, having made their commitments, the Azeri authorities have made a lot of concessions to the Council. Under the commitments, the authorities must reconsider the cases of people whom non-governmental organizations consider to be political prisoners.

Hajieva said such that situation gives NGOs a chance to make baseless claims. She added that when Azerbaijan joined the Council of Europe the Azeri leadership was presented with a list of 500 names. Since some alleged political prisoners have been released, the total now amounts to 50. She denied that Alikram Humbatov, the leader of the short-lived, self-proclaimed Talysh-Mugan Republic, and Rahim Gaziev, the former defense minister, are political prisoners, although their cases are being reconsidered.

Opposition member of parliament Alimemmed Nuriev agreed that the former defense minister cannot be considered a political prisoner, but argued that former Interior Minister Iskender Hamidov, who was arrested in 1995 and charged with abuse of power and misappropriation of government assets, deserves to be released from prison. Nuriev also noted that although the Azeri parliament has, in fact, adopted a lot of laws aimed at the improvement of legislation, there is no concrete mechanism for implementing them.

(Natig Zeinalli)

Mutalibov Supporter Protests Jail Sentences
Sheikh Abdul Mahmudbekov, the chairman of the Committee to Defend the Rights of Former President Ayaz Mutalibov, has asked human rights advocates and international organizations to intervene on behalf of five Mutalibov supporters who have been imprisoned on charges of planing a coup d'etat in September-October 2001. Mahmudbekov called for the five to be considered political prisoners.

A closed court convicted the five on 27 August. But Mahmudbekov said in an interview with RFE/RL's Azerbaijani service that the court did not prove the guilt of the defendants. He argued that the testimony of Taylor Fetishoglu, a former Mutalibov spokesman, cannot be considered proof. Fetishoglu denied in court that the Azeri authorities had bribed him to give false evidence.

According to Mahmudbekov, arresting people because they criticized the government is tantamount to state-sponsored violence. In that case, then all Azeri people must be arrested, he said.

But Aidin Mirzazade, a member of the parliament from the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party, denied that the legal proceedings against the Mutalibov supporters were politically motivated. According to him, if someone disagrees with the court's decision, he can turn to the Court of Appeal and afterward to the European Court of Human Rights.

(Babek Bekir)

According to the independent Russian-language newspaper "Zerkalo," Steven Mann, the U.S. envoy on Caspian energy issues, said that the tension between Russia and Georgia would not affect the realization of the BTC pipeline.

The independent Russian-language newspaper "Ekho" writes that President Aliyev will visit the towns of Sheki and Barda in October and November and participate in the opening of the Olympic Sport Complex in Sheki.

An article in the official government newspaper "Azerbaycan" recalls that on 20 September 1994, 22 leading world oil companies from the United States, Great Britain, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Norway signed the deal to develop Azerbaijan�s offshore reserves. In the article, entitled "'The Contract of the Century' is the foundation-stone of the Azerbaijani economy," Zeinal Vafa notes that Azerbaijan is expected to export 60-80 million tons of oil and 14-15 billion cubic meters of gas in 2010-2015. Therefore, he writes, the economic significance of BTC is tremendous. The export of Azerbaijani oil through the pipeline will increase the influence of Azerbaijan, Turkey and Georgia in the international arena and ensure stability in the Caucasus, the author writes.

An official with the company hired to build the Azeri section of BTC tries in an interview with the opposition newspaper "Azadlig" to defuse a controversy over the allegation that an Armenian holds a leading role in the firm. Gazi Anuti, Consolidated Contractors Company's manager responsible for the construction, says in an interview that people of more than 40 nationalities work at the company. He notes that Pakistanis and Indians work together at the firm, though Pakistan and India have very tense relations. He did not deny that Armenians, too, work for the company, but says that the man at the center of the controversy, Kevork Toroyan, an alleged advisor to the CCC board, left the firm long ago. Moreover, he adds, Toroyan worked at its office in the U.S. Anuti confirms that the founders of the company are Christian Arabs, but says most of workers are Muslims. There is no religious or national discrimination at the company, Anuti concludes.

Azer Aihan in the article "Realities of BTC" in the opposition newspaper "Yeni Musavat" alleges that after launching construction of BTC, the West could turn its back on President Heidar Aliyev and attempt to replace him with another, more democratic leader. Citing an unnamed political scientist, Aihan writes that the West needed President Aliyev to realize the BTC pipeline, but according to the author the West is interested in democratic reforms in Azerbaijan. Without them, it is almost impossible to promote Western interests in the region, he argues. Western leaders think it will not be possible to find a long-term solution to the Karabakh conflict until there is a democratically elected leadership in Baku, the author writes. A peace agreement signed by President Aliyev and based on unilateral Azeri concessions will serve as a source of tension in Azerbaijan. Western leaders realize that in order to be successful, any agreement must be supported by the Azerbaijani people. Only that will mean a once-and-for-all solution of the conflict, Aihan concludes.

Razi Abbasbeili in an article entitled "Heating Oil Mafia in Azerbaijan" published in the independent newspaper "Yeni zaman" writes about alleged misappropriation of fuel oil. Abbasbeili alleges that documents from the "Azerenerzhi" Joint Stock Company � which controls the energy sector of Azerbaijan � suggest that 60-70 percent of fuel oil is sold not to local enterprises, but to foreign ones and that proceeds from those sales do not return to Azerbaijan. Muslum Imanov, the company's former president, has become the first sacrifice in the game. At a conference with ministers, President Aliyev charged Imanov with stealing fuel oil allotted to the energy sector and ordered the interior minister to launch an investigation into the charges. The results of the investigation have not yet been revealed. Meantime, officials continue to misappropriate millions of tons of fuel oil, the author writes.

(Compiled and translated by Etibar Rasulov)