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Caucasus Report: October 31, 2005

31 October 2005, Volume 8, Number 38

SHOCK WAVES FROM HIGH-LEVEL AZERBAIJANI ARRESTS CONTINUE. "RFE/RL Caucasus Report" has observed with frustration and regret on at least one previous occasion (see 22 July 2005 issue) that the mixture of uncertainty and rumor that imbues Azerbaijani domestic politics makes it difficult, if not impossible, to identify clearly the factions that most observers believe exist within the upper echelons of the country's leadership, let alone to predict the outcome of that presumed struggle between them for influence.

The events of the past two weeks -- the abortive attempt on 17 October by former parliament speaker Rasul Guliev to return in triumph to Baku after a nine-year absence, and the subsequent arrests of highly placed officials who have been accused of plotting with Guliev to stage a coup d'etat -- similarly raise more questions than they provide answers.

Those questions fall into three broad categories: first, in what way are Guliev's comeback attempt and the subsequent arrests linked? Is there any truth to the statements released by the State Security and Interior ministries and the Prosecutor-General's Office on 20 and 25 October accusing the disgraced former officials of plotting with Guliev to overthrow the country's leadership? Or did Guliev's precipitous move simply provide President Ilham Aliyev with a convenient pretext for removing persons whom he considered an actual or potential threat to his proposed policies? Second, what can one infer from the affiliations and attributes of persons dismissed and arrested so far? What, if anything, do they have in common? And third, how are those arrests likely to impact on domestic politics in the short- to medium-term?

To date, two former cabinet members (Economic Development Minister Farkhad Aliyev (no relation to the president) and Health Minister Ali Insanov) have been accused of conspiring with Guliev, as have former presidential administration official Akif Muradverdiev and Fikret Sadykhov, former head of the state petrochemical concern Azerkhimiya. Several lower level officials have also been detained, including former Finance Minister Fikret Yusifov, on whose voluntary confession the accusations against Farkhad Aliyev and Insanov are reportedly largely based. Both those two ex-ministers have denied the charges against them and refuse to testify. Rasul Guliev for his part has, predictably, likewise denied any contacts whatsoever with them.

If one takes those denials at face value, and proceeds from the assumption that Guliev's abortive bid to return to Baku simply served as the catalyst for a round of detentions, then what was the motive for the detentions, given that the most prominent victims have little in common? The dismissals do not fit into the pattern of a squaring of accounts between communities from different regions of the country (the Nakhichevan group vs. the "Yeraz" group from Armenia): while Ali Insanov is from Armenia, Farkhad Aliyev's family comes from Lenkoran, near the border with Iran. Nor do they share a political affiliation: on the contrary, Insanov was one of the original founders, and represented the conservative wing of deceased President Heidar Aliyev's Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP), while Farkhad Aliyev, although a member of YAP, was widely viewed as committed to economic and political reform and was rumored to have links to, and possibly even to provide funding for, the political opposition.

What the two men do have in common is money: on 28 April "Nezavisimaya gazeta" identified Insanov as ranking fourth on a list of the 30 wealthiest men in Azerbaijan. (It did not publish the complete list, or give an estimate of his net worth.) One long-time observer of Azerbaijani politics, who asked to remain anonymous, suggested that President Aliyev may have been following the example of his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin and moved to neutralize those oligarchs whose personal fortunes put them in a position to implement their own political agendas. Aliyev has repeatedly said that economic monopolies (currently controlled by Azerbaijan's oligarchs) must be dismantled to permit the emergence of a new class of businessmen; a class that, although he has not stated as much, could serve as an alternative power base.

First, though, Aliyev must cope with the domestic political repercussions of the two ministers' arrests. As noted above, both Insanov and Farkhad Aliyev have denied the charges against them and refuse to testify, in contrast to several lower level officials who have reportedly already provided evidence incriminating others. That may be a reflection of the interrogation methods used, or it may be that Insanov and Farkhad Aliyev have threatened to divulge information that could compromise close associates of the president and are hoping to cut a deal that would permit them to leave Azerbaijan and retire in luxury in return for keeping silent.

Meanwhile supporters of Insanov have launched a broad public campaign to secure his release on bail. Rizvan Talybov, who heads an organization that represents the Yeraz, told journalists on 26 October that he believes Insanov's arrest was orchestrated by an unnamed faction within the leadership that aspires to oust Aliyev by mobilizing the Yeraz community to protest on Insanov's behalf. Talybov himself then warned that tens of thousands of Yeraz could take to the streets if Insanov is not released from the pretrial confinement to which he has been sentenced.

At present, therefore, Insanov and his supporters would seem to pose a greater threat to political stability than does Guliev, who has now been publicly branded as not only corrupt but a traitor to his country and to the memory of the deceased president.

KARABAKH PRESIDENT SEES OPPORTUNITY FOR BREAKTHROUGH IN PEACE PROCESS NEXT YEAR. The leader of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic thinks 2006 may be a year of positive shifts in the settlement of the long-standing dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh. In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL's Armenian Service, President Arkadii Ghukasian said that international mediators perhaps see an opportune moment as "parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan are ending and there are no elections in Karabakh, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia, or the United States (sic)" in 2006. "The feeling is that the mediators are in a hurry," Ghukasian said, adding Azerbaijan is showing a more constructive approach.

"Of course, I consider it positive that today Azerbaijan speaks about the status of Karabakh, does not avoid discussions. If you remember, in the past Azerbaijan spoke only about issues of particular interest to them. Today one can assume that Azerbaijan is perhaps ready to work in a more constructive field," Ghukasian said. "But I find it difficult to say what the degree of this constructivism is and whether it will prove enough for the settlement of the problem. On the other hand, I am convinced that the international community is in a hurry to speed up the process of settling this problem."

As for Nagorno-Karabakh's involvement in the peace process, Ghukasian does not think it right to say that it is not a party to the general process at all. "On the one hand, there is no active negotiating process on our part within the framework of the Minsk Group. Meetings are held only between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan. On the other hand, during their regional tours the Minsk Group cochairmen always pay visits to Nagorno-Karabakh, meaning that they negotiate with us as well," said Ghukasian.

As for the current format of negotiations in which Armenia and Azerbaijan are represented as parties, Ghukasian thinks it is a forced step considering Azerbaijan's reluctance to have direct contacts with Nagorno-Karabakh. "I think it is a big obstacle to the process and the formula according to which Karabakh should join the talks only later is unclear to me," he said. "Negotiating only with Armenia, Azerbaijan is dragging out the process. Meanwhile, its negotiations with Karabakh would mean that Azerbaijan is ready for a settlement."

Ghukasian believes that in dealing only with Armenia, Azerbaijan is pursuing its goal of persuading the international community to recognize Armenia as the aggressor in the conflict and to apply sanctions against it. "There is an absurd opinion in Azerbaijan that negotiating with Karabakh will mean recognition of its independence. We have much more serious arguments for our independence than negotiations with Azerbaijan," said Ghukasian.

The Nagorno-Karabakh leader expressed his strong opinion that any settlement plan should first of all consider the issue of Karabakh's status as a priority. "I see that the international community is showing a clear approach today that the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh's status is really on the agenda," Ghukasian said. "While Azerbaijan did not even want to speak about the status of Nagorno-Karabakh before, now it is forced to discuss this issue." (Karine Kalantarian)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "We now have an absolutely manipulatable parliament, a pseudo-free press, and the illusion of civil society." -- Georgian political analyst Paata Zakareishvili, quoted by "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 24 October.

"The entire economy of the North Caucasus regions consists of distributing federal subsidies. And those who distribute the subsidies -- that is, the regional authorities -- concentrate all economic and political influence in their own hands. That's how clan-family structures arise. Population growth in those regions is high, producing a fairly substantial number of young men who see no employment prospects other than crime. People are inclined to rationalize their own actions. It's far more comfortable to be a bandit with a cause, even if it's only Wahhabi fundamentalism, than a bandit with no cause at all." -- Russian commentator Mikhail Leontiev, writing in "Kompaniya," No. 41, October 2005.