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Caucasus Report: August 16, 2001

16 August 2001, Volume 4, Number 30

In late June, Azerbaijan's President Heidar Aliyev decreed the creation of a State Committee for Relations with Religious Organizations and appointed orientalist Rafik Aliyev to head it (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 June 2001). The committee will supercede the old Religious Department within the Cabinet of Ministers, and have a much larger staff. Its primary function will be to monitor the activities of religious organizations engaging in missionary activity in Azerbaijan, whether Christian or Islamic.

The presidential decree on creating the new state committee specified that its work is not intended to restrict the freedom of religion guaranteed by Azerbaijan's Constitution. But Rafik Aliev's statements in a 25 July interview with Turan, and at a press conference in Baku on 10 August, make clear that the committee aims to introduce more stringent regulations to govern the activity of both religious organizations and individual religious activists, and monitor compliance with those regulations. It will be entitled to collect, and to submit to the Interior Ministry and other law enforcement agencies, information on persons engaged in religious propaganda. And it will be empowered to ask a court of law to suspend the activities of any religious organization that engages in illegal activities, incites interethnic discord, or engages in "religious-political divisive activities aimed at undermining national security."

Rafik Aliyev said that of the total estimated 2,000 religious organizations in Azerbaijan, only 410 are formally registered. Those that have not yet undergone registration will be asked to do so beginning in October 2001, a process that Aliyev estimated will take some six or seven months. All mosques must be subordinated to the Baku-based Spiritual Administration of Muslims of the Caucasus. Aliyev added that the number of foreign pastors granted permission to engage in proselytizing in Azerbaijan will be limited, and restrictions will be imposed on the length of time they may stay in the country. He also said that the legal ban on allowing "foreign nationals" to work as teachers in Azerbaijani medreses (Islamic institutes of higher learning) will be strictly enforced, noting that 90 percent of those medreses are not registered with the state. The textbooks and other teaching materials used at those medreses will likewise be vetted for suitability.

In addition, the committee will monitor the import of religious literature and may impose specific quotas for individual religious groups in order to ensure that the number of religious texts a religious community imports is commensurate with its current members' needs. If a community of 500 people seeks to import 5,000 copies of a religious text, Aliyev said, this suggests they intend to engage in "propaganda."

Rafik Aliyev did not say, however, whom the new restrictions are primarily directed at. There are at least three currents of religious activity that could be construed as posing a potential threat. The first of these is proselytizing by Shiite religious emissaries from Iran. The second is "wahhabism," which in the Azerbaijani as in the Russian context appears to be a shorthand term for any brand of Islamic extremism originating in the North Caucasus that the state leadership cannot control. And the third are the various Christian and other sects whose missionaries are currently active in Azerbaijan.

Ever since the demise of the USSR, Western observers have been watching attentively for indications of a crusade by Iran to export its own particular brand of Islam to Azerbaijan. While Iranian mullahs are active in Azerbaijan, until very recently they have not been publicly identified as a serious danger. But "Vremya novostei" reported on 25 June that "extremists dispatched from Tehran" are the primary target of the new state committee, and that Azerbaijani intelligence agencies consider them a threat to Azerbaijani statehood. Moreover, "Vremya novostei" quotes Azerbaijani intelligence sources as saying that "although the Iranian clergy does not officially support wahhabism, the wahhabis who are engaged in illegal activity in Azerbaijan have direct links with Iranian intelligence."

Speaking at a seminar in Baku in early May, Azerbaijan's Deputy National Security Minister Tofik Babaev claimed that a number of religious organizations sponsored by Iran or Arab countries are engaged in inciting domestic political conflicts with the ultimate aim of seizing power in Azerbaijan. Babaev estimated the number of Azerbaijani converts to wahhabism at some 7,000, noting that wahhabi missionaries seek above all to recruit representatives of ethnic minorities and persons of mixed parentage (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 17, 4 May 2001). Northern Azerbaijan and the Abu-Bekir, Shahidler, and Blue mosques in Baku were identified as the main strongholds of wahhabism. The Iranian Embassy in Baku promptly rejected Babaev's claims as "unfounded" and "irresponsible."

Whether fundamentalist Islam in whatever form has already made such inroads in Azerbaijan that it has become a significant political force is difficult to judge. On the one hand, most Azerbaijanis' conscious religious identification as Muslims does not extend beyond the observance of rituals that have evolved from the strictly religious to become part of national culture. On the other hand, economic collapse and the resulting rise in unemployment could predispose the most disadvantaged members of society to seek consolation in religion.

While Babaev focused primarily on the perceived Iranian/wahhabi threat, Rafik Aliyev also spoke with concern over the number of Azerbaijanis who have converted to Christianity, Hinduism, or Bahaism. He admitted that no precise figures exist, but estimated the number of such converts as between 5,000-6,000. ("Sharq" last December gave a higher estimate -- 9,368 converts over the previous decade -- while the head of the now defunct Religious Department within the Cabinet of Ministers, Mustafa Ibragimov, told Turan in early January 2001 that the total figure was approximately 3,000.)

One reason why the Azerbaijani leadership appears so concerned about such conversions was divulged during the Baku seminar in May by the city's Mayor Hajibala Abutalibov, who claimed that missionary activity is aimed at weakening Azerbaijan's statehood and its armed forces. Possibly in an attempt to minimize the effects of such proselytizing, the Spiritual Board of Muslims of the Caucasus has formally requested permission from the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry to introduce the post of religious councilor in military units in order to "strengthen servicemen's faith and patriotic feelings," "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 9 August. The paper cited the Caspian News Agency as reporting that in some military units a special room has already been set aside for servicemen wishing to perform the namaz. (Liz Fuller)

IS THERE MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE TO THE CASPIAN STANDOFF? Of the dozens of articles that have been written in recent weeks evaluating the ongoing Caspian standoff between Iran and Azerbaijan, the overwhelming majority have focused on the validity of Iran's claims to a 20 percent share of the Caspian Sea, and to the obstacles to achieving a framework agreement between all five Caspian littoral states on the sea's status and the conditions for developing its hydrocarbon resources.

Some of those articles have also sought to place the recent deterioration in relations between Iran and Azerbaijan in the context of how those relations have evolved historically, especially over the past decade. But only a very few have addressed what appear to this author to be the most important questions raised by the current crisis, namely: is this a dispute only about oil, or is oil merely the most convenient lever at Tehran's disposal to exert pressure on its northern neighbor? And, regardless of the answer to that first question, why did Tehran choose that precise juncture to up the ante in relations with Baku?

"Vremya novostei" on 7 August suggested that the initial incursion by Iranian warships and military aircraft into Azerbaijan's sector of the Caspian on 23 July was intended primarily for domestic consumption, "in order to demonstrate to the powerful and nationalist-oriented Iranian clergy President-elect Mohammad Khatami's intention to conduct a hard-line foreign policy." But if that was in fact the case, how is one to explain the subsequent apparent softening of Tehran's position reflected in the remark by Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Ahani in Moscow last week that, failing a division of the Caspian into five equal parts, Tehran would consider a 25-kilometer coastal zone for each littoral state (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 August 2001)? And why the emphasis during Ahani's subsequent visit to Ashgabat on the convergence of the two countries' views, given that, as "The Wall Street Journal" pointed out on 3 August, any attempt to redivide the Caspian into equal sectors would pit Tehran against Ashgabat in competition for hydrocarbon deposits located in Azerbaijan's sector of the Caspian?

Other unanswered questions are: is Tehran's most immediate grievance not oil but Baku's steadfast rejection of its repeated offers to help mediate a solution of the Karabakh conflict? And, did anything occur during the visit in mid-July to both Yerevan and Baku by Iranian National Security Council secretary Hassan Rowhani that served to trigger the current crisis?

Meanwhile, no date has been set for a planned visit to Baku by Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi to finalize the details of Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev's long-postponed visit to Iran. The most recent time frame mentioned for Aliev's visit was this month, but presidential administration official Novruz Mamedov was quoted on 14 August by "Yeni Azerbaycan" as saying it may take place in September. Armenian President Robert Kocharian is due in Tehran in November for a visit that Rowhani said "will become a turning point" in relations between the two countries. (Liz Fuller)

HAS GEORGIAN PRESIDENT TURNED HIS BACK ON 'YOUNG REFORMERS?' On two occasions over the past week, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze has distanced himself from an initiative by a group of younger and reformist-oriented members of the government, prompting the independent daily "Alia" to the conclusion that Shevardnadze has abandoned the "reformers" to throw his weight behind the "old guard" within the government and the majority Union of Citizens of Georgia.

The first rebuff for the "reformist" wing was Shevardnadze's rejection of a controversial draft bill, unveiled last week by Justice Minister Mikhail Saakashvili, that would have required government ministers to furnish proof that their wealth was acquired legally. Shevardnadze, whose periodic pledges to eradicate corruption in Georgia have acquired all the conviction of a smoker's repeated vows to give up cigarettes, rejected that proposal as violating the presumption of innocence. Shevardnadze said that the outcome of the privatization of state property will not be revised, and that the principle of "taking away from the rich to give to the poor" cannot be applied in Georgia.

Several opposition politicians, together with at least one minister whom Saakashvili accused by name of corruption, rejected his draft bill as "populist" and a bid to increase his popularity rating, which is already one of the highest for any Georgian politician, including the president.

The second rebuff came during a government session on 15 August at which Tax and Revenue Minister Mikhail Machavariani announced his resignation to protest what he termed the "ruinous" draft state budget for 2002 proposed by Economy, Trade, and Industry Minister Vano Chkhartishvili. (Chkhartishvili is one of the ministers whom Saakashvili has accused of using a state loan to buy his house.) That draft foresees budget revenues 110 million laris ($48.3 million), or 10 percent, higher than an alternative draft prepared by the Finance Ministry.

Chkhartishvili told journalists on 14 August that his revenue target of 1.229 billion laris can be met provided that the Tax Ministry does its job properly. At the government session the following day, Shevardnadze the following day concurred with that argument.

Saakashvili on 16 August expressed his admiration for Machavariani's "unprecedented" decision to quit, but warned that he has no intention of following his example. "I will fight to the end to get the law on confiscation of illegally obtained property passed," Saakashvili added. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "This war is probably the cruelest war that there has ever been. It is not even a simple colonial war, it is a war to eradicate the [Chechen] people." -- Former Russian Supreme Soviet Chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov, interviewed on RFE/RL Russian Service's "Face to Face" program on 12 August.

"If the president has no pen to sign a decree dissolving the parliament, the veterans will be his pen." -- From a statement adopted on 10 August at a meeting of the Coordinating Council of War and Labor Veterans in Yerevan (quoted by Noyan Tapan).