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Caucasus Report: August 8, 2005

8 August 2005, Volume 8, Number 26

U.S.-AZERBAIJANI RELATIONS AT A TURNING POINT? The working visit to Washington last week by Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov came at a very significant time for both countries and could represent something of a turning point in bilateral relations. Following a sweeping reevaluation of U.S. policy, those relations have been subject to a dynamic, yet subtle shift in recent months, driven by a set of external developments ranging from the impact of the so-called colored revolutions in several former Soviet states to a new emphasis on democratization as the strategic priority of the second Bush administration.

The shift in U.S.-Azerbaijani relations has also been dictated by internal considerations, further exacerbated by Azerbaijan's looming parliamentary elections set for 6 November. Set against the wave of democratic change in Georgia, Ukraine, and most recently, in Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan faces new pressure to ensure a free and fair election. And it is this need to meet heightened democratic standards that is the new determinant in the U.S. approach to Azerbaijan.

The necessity for improved electoral credentials in Azerbaijan has been repeatedly stressed in recent months by the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and was reiterated during last month's visits to Baku by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright and current Deputy Secretary of State Paula Dobriansky. But Washington's insistence on democratization in Azerbaijan is not merely an end in itself, but stems from a broader American recognition of democratization as essential to domestic stability and regional security. It also reflects a new tool in the global war on terror, although it remains to be seen if this "muscular Wilsonian" approach will yield better results.

For Azerbaijan, this priority for democratic elections has sharply raised the threshold for the regime of President Ilham Aliyev. But preparations for the election have fallen far short of the shared expectations of the international community and the Azerbaijani opposition. Specifically, Azerbaijan's electoral reforms remain incomplete, with shortfalls in both the composition of electoral commissions and the planned monitoring of the ballot. American disappointment with election preparations to date was also a central message in Mammadyarov's talks with his American hosts.

This is also a lesson for others, however. For neighboring Armenia, which will be facing its own elections within the next two years, and even for Georgia, whose Rose Revolution was rewarded by an American presidential visit and by U.S. help in pressuring Russia to withdraw its troops from the country, but which has since created a Central Election Commission wholly dominated by supporters of the ruling party, there are significantly higher standards and greater expectations.

In addition, Mammadyarov's visit was largely overshadowed by speculation about an imminent agreement for a new U.S. military base in the country. This speculation has been largely fueled by the recent demand by Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov to close the U.S. and coalition air base at Karshi-Khanabad within six months. The loss of the use of the base in Uzbekistan is viewed by some experts as an immediate setback to the U.S. military's operational capabilities in nearby Afghanistan and, as the thinking holds, necessitates the opening of a new air base in Azerbaijan. While this view is correct in recognizing the importance of the South Caucasus air corridor as a "lifeline" between coalition forces in Afghanistan and bases in Europe, it is flawed by a superficial understanding of the nature of the U.S. military mission and presence in Azerbaijan, as well as by the practical limitation of aircraft needing to refuel en route from Azerbaijan to Afghanistan.

Despite reports predicting a "new" U.S. military engagement in Azerbaijan, in reality there has been a significant American military mission there for at least three years, comprised of two components. The first component was the creation of the "Caspian Guard," an initiative involving both Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan focusing on maritime and border security in the Caspian Sea. The Caspian Guard initiative incorporates defensive mission areas, including the surveillance of Caspian airspace, borders, and shipping. It encourages greater coordination and cooperation in counter-proliferation efforts by Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. This effort was further bolstered by a $20 million program launched in July 2004 and implemented by the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency to train the Azerbaijan Maritime Border Guard. Additional training and combined exercises were also provided by U.S. Navy SEALS to Azerbaijan's 41st Special Warfare Naval Unit in June 2004.

The second component was the establishment of several "Cooperative Security Locations," tactical facilities with pre-positioned stock that provide contingency access but, unlike a traditional base, have little or no permanent U.S. military presence. These locations are designed to increase the mobility of U.S. military forces and, most importantly, facilitate counter-proliferation missions along Azerbaijan's southern border with Iran and northern borders with Georgia and Daghestan.

In line with the U.S. military need to project military power rapidly, the U.S. presence in Azerbaijan may be further expanded from the existing Cooperative Security Locations to Forward Operating Sites, host-country "warm sites" endowed with a limited military presence and capable of hosting rotational forces. These forward operating sites can also serve as centers for bilateral and regional training.

Thus, while the utility of a permanent, traditional military base in Azerbaijan is seriously limited, the expansion of the forward stationing of forces is likely. (Azerbaijani presidential aide Novruz Mamedov's recent statement to Interfax that Azerbaijan will not host "U.S. military bases" may draw a fine semantic line between "bases" in the traditional sense and forward operating sites.) Yet even the military relationship is in the final analysis contingent on Azerbaijan's ability to meet the new, more stringent U.S. standards of democracy and free elections. The steadfast refusal by the Azerbaijani authorities to amend the composition of election commissions and their reluctance to permit the marking of voters to preclude multiple voting cast doubt on President Aliyev's repeated assertions that the ballot will indeed be free, fair, and transparent. (Richard Giragosian)

DOES WAHHABISM POSE A THREAT TO AZERBAIJAN? Addressing a 3 August conference in Baku on "Religion and National Security," Rafik Aliyev, chairman of the Azerbaijani government's Committee for Work with Religious Formations, warned that the increased activity of "Wahhabis," meaning members of radical and/or unregistered Islamic groups, poses a threat to political stability in Azerbaijan in the run-up to the 6 November parliamentary elections. Reports of at least one, and possibly two, National Security Ministry operations against Wahhabis in recent weeks would seem to substantiate Aliyev's apprehension.

The first such crackdown took place on the night of 12-13 July, when National Security Ministry personnel raided the village of Novkhany near Baku, killing two "armed Wahhabis" and arresting six others. Some 30 more suspected Wahhabi sympathizers were apprehended in the district in the following days, reported on 4 August, quoting the father of Emil Novruzov, one of the young men in question.

Also on 4 July, the National Security Ministry refuted media reports that its operatives arrested 11 Wahhabis during a raid on a Baku mosque the previous day and were monitoring attendance at several other mosques.

In the wake of the July arrests, Azerbaijani Deputy Interior Minister Vilayat Eyubov was quoted by as saying that he does not believe the situation in Azerbaijan is conducive to the spread of Wahhabism. "I do not believe that they will be able to put down roots in Azerbaijan and attain their desired [objective]," he was quoted as saying. At the same time, Eyubov admitted that there is a constant flow of information about suspected Wahhabi sympathizers, and that information is systematically evaluated.

In contrast, popular Imam Ilgar Ibrahimoglu believes that Wahhabism does indeed pose a danger for Azerbaijan. Ibrahimoglu told that "it is no secret to anyone that radical Wahhabi groups have been active in Azerbaijan for several years," and that there is no indication of a weakening of that trend. Ibrahimoglu attributed the appeal of Wahhabism to the lack of democracy, frequent human rights violations, and the authorities' clumsy repression of less radical but unregistered religious communities. (Ibrahimoglu's own Djuma Mosque in Baku has been subjected to repeated pressure and harassment over the past two years.)

Parliament deputy Ramiz Akhmedov blamed the growing popularity of radical Islam on the "primitive, 19th-century" approach of the officially registered Muslim clergy that, he claimed, alienates believers and impels them to seek "pure Islam," reported on 18 January. Some, Akhmedov continued, opt for Shi'a Islam, some for Sunni Islam, and others for a third alternative that he did not name. Adherents of radical Islam then seek to take advantage of young believers' interest in studying the fundamentals of their faith. And supplying such knowledge has apparently become a major industry: Akhmedov pointed out that religious literature is freely available both in Baku and elsewhere, written in contemporary Azerbaijani and printed in both the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets.

According to on 4 August, Wahhabism has taken root above all in the northern and central districts of Azerbaijan, and in Baku. That geographical pattern suggest that Wahhabism first penetrated from Daghestan, which borders on Azerbaijan to the north. So-called Wahhabis in several remote villages challenged the Daghestani authorities in 1999, and the Russian media consistently blame Islamic fundamentalists for the almost daily terrorist bombings and killings in that republic.

The online daily similarly registered a strong Wahhabi presence in northern Azerbaijan, but in an article on 18 January entitled "The 'Wahhabization' of Azerbaijan is continuing," it claimed that there is also a Wahhabi presence in the south of the country. The same article listed other ways in which young Azerbaijani believers are exposed to radical Islam: when studying theology abroad, and while on pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.

Former Deputy National Security Minister Sulhaddin Akper enumerated various ways in which the Azerbaijani authorities could counter Wahhabi propaganda: by raising the level of religious education, screening more stringently applications from persons wishing to perform the hajj, and lodging a formal protest with the government of Saudi Arabia, which is perceived as an exporter of radical Islam. Akper said it is up to both the Foreign Ministry and Azerbaijan's official religious bodies to take appropriate action.

But according to the government's Committee for Work with Religious Formations Chairman Aliyev, the Board of Muslims of the Caucasus (UMK), instead of acting to avert the subversion of Islam in Azerbaijan by radical tendencies, is actively encouraging them. Aliyev claimed in mid-July that on two occasions within the previous three months, state customs officials have intercepted and confiscated consignments of radical Islamic literature addressed to the UMK. Aliyev said the first consignment of books weighed 14 tons and the second 10 tons.

But UMK officials claimed that the literature in question was in Arabic, Uzbek, and Kazakh, and was intended for shipment to Uzbekistan. They said the consignments were sent to Baku "by mistake." On 4 August, Caucasus Press quoted Aliyev as saying customs officials intercepted a further consignment of radical literature two days earlier, and that such shipments are sent to Azerbaijan via Turkey and Georgia.

Speaking at the 3 August conference on "Religion and National Security," Aliyev said that he thinks the recent arrests of "Wahhabis" were justified, according to on 4 August. He called for "serious" work to explain government policy to the leaders of religious communities in the run-up to the 6 November election. (Liz Fuller)

ARMENIA 'IMMUNE TO TERRORIST ATTACKS.' Armenia is immune to the kind of deadly terrorist attacks that have rocked major Western cities in recent years, military intelligence service chief Basentsi Azoyan claimed on 3 August. "I am confident that no terrorist acts and especially international terrorist acts will take place in Armenia," he told RFE/RL in a rare interview. "There are no grounds for that."

Azoyan argued that bombings and other terrorist acts are usually carried out by Islamist extremists and separatist groups fighting a central government. No such elements operate in Armenia, he said. But Azoyan warned at the same time that radical Islamic organizations "may pose a threat to Armenia" in the event of a renewed war with Muslim Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. "We must therefore help to expose those groups all over the world," he said.

Two other countries that border on Armenia, Iran and Turkey, also have predominantly Muslim populations. But with the Turkish-Armenian border closed and Armenian-Iranian relations warm, the risk of terrorist infiltrations from those countries appears minimal.

The counterintelligence service is one of the most secretive divisions of the Armenian military and is formally part of its General Staff. According to Azoyan, the main focus of its unpublicized activities is to stave off "periodical" attempts by Azerbaijan to send sabotage and reconnaissance groups into Armenia.

"There have been numerous attempts by sabotage or intelligence groups to enter Armenia," he said. "There have even been cases where some agents reached Yerevan. But they were all exposed and rendered harmless." Azoyan claimed that the most recent such incident took place last year, but he refused to give any details. (Ruzanna Stepanian)

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK. "We need a market economy, not an oriental bazaar." -- Mardan Efendiev, a leading member of Asim Molla-zade's Party of Democratic Reforms, in a 5 August interview with