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Azerbaijan Report: February 16, 2004

16 February 2004
Has Azerbaijan's Foreign Policy Changed?
As president, Ilham Aliyev has paid his first foreign visit to France and then Russia and he is now preparing for a visit to Iran. According to Akhad Gazai, Iranian ambassador to Azerbaijan, Iran may even sign a military cooperation agreementwith Baku. Traditionally, a new president pays first visits to friendly countries hinting at priorities in his foreign policy. But one of the countries Aliyev has visited supplies Armenia with armaments worth $1 billion dollars and the other has expelled Azerbaijan's ships fromCaspian waters. Despite Ilham Aliyev's assurances that he will continue the balanced policy of his father, some experts point to possible changes in the country's political course.

Zafar Guliev of Turan news agency suggests that President Aliev's visit to Russia and the obligations undertaken during this trip, as well as the recent rapprochement with Iran, might be understood as Baku's partial retreat from a West-oriented foreign policy. Guliev attributes such cardinal changes to internal factors. He notes that in the past six months the Azerbaijani authorities have shown less willingness to implement commitments the government has assumed before international organizations. It does not even intend to digest international institutions' criticism on this matter. As a result, by chumming up with Russia and Iran the Azerbaijani government is trying to create new props for itself, as well as to respond to criticism of its reluctance to begin reforms. According to Guliev, such a policy cannot be long-term and both the government and the whole country may suffer from it.

Similar arguments have been expressed by Ganimet Zahidov, editor-in-chief of the opposition newspaper "Azadlig." He noted that the experience of the last decade shows that neither Russia nor Iran is interested in progress in Azerbaijan and in establishing stability there. According to Zahidov, this policy can be viewed as a sacrifice of the country's interests.

But political scientist Vafa Guluzade says that the Moscow declaration signed during Ilham Aliyev's visit to Moscow will not have drastic consequences. He points out that this document only reflects the parties' intentions and has no legal foundation. Guluzade doubts that Azerbaijan will conclude a military cooperation with Iran. Such allegations lack serious grounds and must be viewed as the opposition's interpretation, Guluzade concluded.

At a 13 February press conference, Novruz Mammedov, chief of the Presidential Administration's foreign affairs department, also denied the statements that Azerbaijan's foreign policy is mostly oriented towards Russia. Baku pursues a balanced foreign policy, the foundation of which was laid by the late President Heidar Aliyev, Mammedov said.

(Babek Bekir)

Number Of Lawsuits In Relation To October Events Increases
A group of people arrested in connection with the October 2003 events went on hunger strike on 9 February to protest the delay in bringing them to trial. According to their lawyers, up to 50 detainees initially participated in the hunger strike, but later one group abandoned the protest action. According to Niazi Mammedov, head of the Justice Ministry's department for execution of court rules, at present only three persons are continuing the hunger-striking action.

Meantime, last week the Court for Grave Crimes continued the trials of opposition members charged with involvement in post-election disturbances. During one of the trials the defendants protested the court's refusal to grant the petitions of defense, adding that if these petitions are not satisfied by 16 February they will go on hunger strike.

According to Saftar Nehmatli of the Committee for Fighting Election Fraud and Repression, the cases of 90 persons have been submitted to the Court for Grave Crimes. They have been divided into 11 groups. The cases of the 12th group of 10 persons charged with violations of public order has been submitted to Sabail district court, while the investigation into those of a further 28 persons has yet to be completed.

Nehmatli pointed out that the division of the same case into different sections contradicts the country's legislation. But the Court for Grave Crimes explains that indiividual courtrooms are too small.

Journalist Racketeering In Azerbaijan Is Real, According To Press Council Chairman
Press Council head Aflatun Amashov said at a 12 February press conference that after revealing the names of four newspapers whose employees are involved in racketeering, the members of the Council face growing pressure. According to Amashov, he personally receives anonymous calls and is threatened. All this is aimed at deterring the Press Council from investigating of cases of media racketeering.

Amashov pointed out that the council has received complaints about racketeering by other seven newspapers. "We are now conducting an investigation into these complaints," he said, adding that if there are more such complaints, the council will take more drastic measures.

(Kebiran Dilaverli)

Import Of U.S. Poultry Banned
This decision is linked with the outbreak of avian influenza in the U.S. state of Delaware. According to Aslan Aslanov of the Ministry of Agriculture, although bird flu has been discovered only in Delaware, as a preventive measure the government has suspended the import of chicken from the anywhere in the United States.

To date some countries, including Russia, have introduced restrictions on import of chicken from Delaware where some cases of avian influenza have been recently discovered. Russia's Ministry of Agriculture even stated that if avian influenza spreads in the U.S., Russia will halt the import of U.S. poultry.

(Rovshen Ganbarov) (Compiled and translated by Etibar Rasulov)