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Azerbaijan: Spy Scandal Continues To Raise Questions

(RFE/RL) The Azerbaijani authorities and supporters and associates of Ruslan Bashirli, leader of the opposition youth movement Yeni Fikir, have offered widely diverging accounts of, and explanations for, the events that culminated in Bashirli's arrest last week on charges of plotting to overthrow the Azerbaijani leadership.

According to a statement released on 4 August by the Azerbaijani Prosecutor-General's Office, Bashirli traveled in late July to Tbilisi at the behest of his mentor, Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP) Chairman Ali Kerimli. On the sidelines of a conference, Bashirli is said to have met with three men, one ethnic Georgian and two Armenians, all of them Armenian intelligence agents, and told them he was working on instructions from the U.S. National Democratic Institute to prepare for a revolution in Azerbaijan.

His interlocutors reportedly expressed approval, promised help, and presented him with an initial payment of $2,000 to help fund the revolution, promising to provide a further $20,000 within days. One of the Armenians then informed Bashirli that the encounter had been filmed, including his acceptance of and signing a receipt for the $2,000. The Armenian reportedly told Bashirli that if he reneged on his promise to cooperate, the incriminating film footage would be handed over to the Azerbaijani authorities.

Bashirli was accompanied to Tbilisi by his deputy, Osman Alimuradov, who, according to on 4 August, was reluctant to collaborate with the Armenians and who denounced Bashirli to the authorities on his return to Baku. Bashirli was duly apprehended on 3 August.

In an interview with Azerbaijan's Lider TV on 6 August, a transcript of which was posted on on 8 August, Azerbaijani Prosecutor-General Zakir Garalov quoted from what he said was a written statement by Alimuradov. Alimuradov said he spent the night after the meeting with the three Armenian agents brooding over the implications of the course of action Bashirli had agreed to, and came to the conclusion that it was morally wrong. He said he tried to persuade Bashirli after their return to Baku to abandon the entire undertaking, but Bashirli said they should wait to do so until he received the additional $20,000. Therefore, according to Alimuradov, he decided to hand over to the Azerbaijani authorities the video footage of the meeting he was given by the Armenian.

A Crude Fabrication?

Bashirli's fellow oppositionists, however, have dismissed the prosecutor-general's account as a crude and clumsy fabrication intended to discredit the AHCP in the run-up to the 6 November parliamentary election, and Kerimli personally. Bashirli himself reportedly told his attorney, Elchin Garalov, on 8 August that he was being pressured to incriminate Kerimli, whom the website on 6 August identified as one of Azerbaijan's most popular and respected opposition politicians.

The online daily on 6 August quoted pro-government political scientist Mubariz Akhmedoglu as saying Bashirli is clearly guilty of treason, and the links between him and the AHCP are adequate grounds for revoking that party's official registration. Speaking at a press conference in Baku on 5 August, two deputy chairmen of Yeni Fikir, Said Nuriev and Fikret Faramazoglu, said that Bashirli was offered the $2,000 by representatives of Georgian and Armenian "democratic forces."

They said he was drunk at the time, and hypothesized that his drink may have been spiked. They said that the following day, Bashirli returned the money. Both the official charges against Bashirli and the opposition objections to those charges are based on the incriminating video materials, which show Bashirli sipping cognac in the company of three men and uttering incriminating statements. Specifically, he is said to have agreed to the proposal made by one of the Armenian agents to take advantage of the tense domestic political situation in Azerbaijan, and even open fire at an opposition demonstration.

Questions About Video

But Bashirli's lawyer Gambarov told journalists in Baku on 8 August that the video footage was edited, and that Bashirli's words were "taken out of context," reported on 9 August. Moreover, as several Azerbaijani commentaries have pointed out, Bashirli's drunken pronouncements cannot be conflated with a statement of intent to overthrow the present leadership.

Even more problematic than the content of the videocassette is the way the Azerbaijani authorities allegedly acquired it. As Bashirli's lawyer Gambarov observed on 8 August, "No intelligence service in the world would hand over a videocassette with compromising footage to someone whom it was seeking to co-opt."

In an article entitled "Armenian recruitment or planned operation?" the independent online daily on 6 August similarly asked why the Armenians should have given the cassette to Alimuradov. Are the Armenian special services really so stupid, the daily asked, that they would play into the hands of their Azerbaijani counterparts? The daily further noted that the Azerbaijani Prosecutor-General's Office acted unprofessionally in immediately making public the contents of the cassette, rather than handing it to the National Security Ministry to permit it to try to identify, and obtain more watertight evidence against, the purported Armenian agents. went to far as to suggest that the case against Bashirli was fabricated by the Azerbaijani authorities. But Akhmedoglu dismissed that possibility, telling on 6 August that "I do not think that the Azerbaijani authorities are powerful enough to try to manipulate the Armenian special services or certain Georgian circles."

What Lies Beneath

Pending the emergence of new evidence, it is impossible at this juncture to determine with any certainty which of the above hypotheses is correct. But if, as Bashirli's supporters claim, the case against him was fabricated in Baku, then the question arises: by whom, and to what end? Was it simply a bid to discredit Kerimli and his party in the run-up to the 6 November ballot, or even to trigger widespread unrest that could be adduced for postponing that ballot? Or could the real object of the exercise be totally different?

Given the rumored existence of rival factions within the upper echelons of the Azerbaijani leadership, was the hapless Bashirli simply a pawn in a larger scheme either to embarrass President Ilham Aliyev and call into question his professed commitment to building a democratic society, or to reignite popular hostility towards Armenia at a point when Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe mediators have expressed cautious optimism that a negotiated settlement to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict may be closer than ever before?

See also: Youth Leader's Arrest Triggers Political Turmoil

Baku Implicates Armenian Intelligence In Alleged Coup Bid

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