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Azerbaijan Report: February 11, 2003

11 February 2003
Spiritual Leader Mediates Between Nardaran Villagers, Government
After negotiations with the spiritual leader of the Caucasus Muslims, the villagers of Nardaran, a Caspian settlement 25-kilometers north of Baku, have agreed to stop their protest actions and dismantle the tent on Nardaran's main square they have been living in since the fall.

On 9 February Sheikh-ul-Islam Haji Allakh-Shukur Pashazade met with Nardaran's elders in an effort to mediate between the government and the village. Pashazade assured the villagers that the president wanted to solve the problem through negotiations, guaranteeing that police forces would no longer raid the village.

Hajiaga Nuriev, the town's chief elder, told local media that right after the meeting Nardaran�s residents fulfilled all their obligations. "After the meeting the village's population held a meeting at the central square. We passed the words of Pashazade to the people," Nuriev said. "The people said that they will put their trust in him. During negotiations we will demand that the authorities release the innocent residents, investigate the [June 3] events impartially and solve the village's social problems� But if the government puts Pashazade in a difficult situation and does not meet its commitments, we will gather in the square again."

Earlier this month, police forces again raided Nardaran. The operation began just after 3 a.m. when more than 100 of the village's men were asleep in the large tent where they were living, they say, in order to avoid police sweeps. Eight villagers were detained and 10-17 injured, while authorities said that the clashes left 10 civilians and six policemen wounded.

The police say that the raid was to detain "suspected criminals" wanted in connection with last June's violent clash between police and the villagers, which left one villager dead and dozens injured. They say that the villagers were armed, forcing them to use truncheons, tear gas and guns loaded with rubber bullets. But according to the villagers, immediately after entering the village, the police officers began beating people and firing their guns in the air.

Dozens of people were arrested after the June 3 riot. Residents, who then protested against poor living standards, afterward began making political demands. Since then, Nardaran has been a scene of renewed protests, which the government has blamed on radical religious groups linked to Iranian clerics or Osama bin Laden's terrorist network.

Nardaran's residents, however, reject links with fundamentalist groups and charge the central government with using these accusations as a pretext for repressing social discontent. Earlier this week the Iranian Embassy in Baku released a statement that Iranians play no part in Nardaran's problems.

Meanwhile, the Vienna-based International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF) and the local Human Rights Center of Azerbaijan condemned the latest police raid in the settlement of Nardaran. In a joint statement, the two organizations demanded a "thorough and impartial" investigation into the circumstances of latest raid and the one on June 3. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and General Prosecutor's Office released its joint report in August on the June 3 incident, but villagers and local rights groups have condemned it as biased.

The groups also demanded that all civilians being held in connection with these two events be immediately released or, if legally charged with a crime, that they be brought before an "impartial and competent tribunal."

(Rovshen Gambar and Kebiran Dilaverli)

Trade Union Confederation Nominates Aliyev for Elections
The Trade Union Confederation of Azerbaijan (TUCA) has nominated Heydar Aliyev for president at its second congress. But the move was an illegal one, said Vusal Gasimov, chairman of the Institute of Economic Technologies. Under the current law "On trade unions," trade unions are nonpolitical organizations created on a public basis and thus cannot interfere in politics and cooperate with political parties, he said. In an interview with RFE/RL's Azerbaijani service, Gasimov noted that in accordance with the congress's decision, all trade union committees have been ordered to conduct corresponding measures in the provinces. That, in fact, means that local committees will campaign for the president. Gasimov said that there is no such case in international practice, adding that the TUSA is, first of all, a member of the International Free Trade Union Confederation and the International Labor Organization. These organizations, for their part, are against the involvement of their members in politics.

Political scientist Ilgar Memmedov disagrees. He told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani service that there is nothing strange in trade unions endorsing a presidential candidate. These institutions can support political parties and their candidates in elections. Trade unions support political institutions in many European countries, he said. In Great Britain, the Labor Party is quite close to trade unions. Meanwhile, Memmedov called the confederation's decision "unfounded." In order to have a million and half trade union members, there must be a million and half permanent workplaces, he said. Moreover, the owners of these workplaces must be content with the current government as to unanimously vote for the current president. At present the economic situation in Azerbaijan is so bad that it is impossible to find a million and half citizens who would be satisfied, Memmedov said.

On the other hand, he said, since the Azerbaijani people are aware that such support is unfounded, a campaign conducted around the confederation's statement is harmful to the government itself. The government's speculation around the issue could in fact reduce Aliev's total votes, Memmedov concluded.

(Almaz Nasibova)

11 February is Gurban Bayrami (The day of sacrifice). Azerbaijani newspapers ran congratulations by President Heydar Aliev, as well as from various organizations and foreign heads of state.

Under the headline "Today is Gurban Bayrami," the independent newspaper "Tezadlar" writes that among Muslim states Azerbaijan has sacrificed most of all. But the people of Nagorno-Karabakh have sacrificed most among Azerbaijanis. Therefore, the newspaper specially congratulated the people of Karabakh, since they have sacrificed Shusha, Agdam, Lachin, Gubadli�

According to the independent Russian-language newspaper "Zerkalo," Peter Burkhard, head of the Baku Office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), laid the blame for the failure of an opposition-government discussion on the draft election code on the opposition.

Under the headline "Hopes to break stability in the country through Baku villages have collapsed," the governmental newspaper "Azerbaycan" notes that the Azerbaijani government has showed goodwill and humanism toward its citizens and demonstrated once again its determination to solve existing problems through negotiations.

The independent Russian-language newspaper "Ekho" in the article "Iraqi danger for Turkey and Azerbaijan" notes that military cooperation between Azerbaijan and Turkey signifies not only Turkish aid to Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, but also Azerbaijani support to Turkey in the Iraq issue.

According to the pro-governmental newspaper "Yeni Azerbaycan," the chairman of the European Court on Human Rights will visit Azerbaijan on 15 February.

Ahmed Oruj in an article entitled "National and anti-national" in the independent newspaper "525" writes about words that have a special meaning for the Azerbaijani people, in particular the word "national." What is troubling is the combination of this word with others. After gaining independence, the word "national" has been added before the name of most state institutions, organizations and persons. In fact, there is nothing bad about this. The problem is, however, that "national" is being used to disguise negative events and deceive the public. The author cites some examples: "National Assembly (Milli Majlis), national television, national bank and so on." It is well known that although the parliament is called Milli Majlis, the people did not elect it, and it protects not the people's interests but its own and those of the ruling circle. The parliament has never discussed such topical issues as unemployment, people's living standards or energy supply for the population.

Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Vilaet Guliev recently stated Azerbaijan's position on the Iraq issue and said that Baku would rather wait for the next U.N. resolution on Iraq.

Political scientist Khagani Huseinli said in an interview with the opposition newspaper "Hurriyyet" that by being an active member of the anti-terror coalition, Azerbaijan could win great political dividends. Therefore, he called the government to openly state its position. "I completely support the idea that Azerbaijan, a nation that has felt terrorism against itself, must take a strong stand within the coalition," Huseinli said, adding that since there are terror organizations in the Armenian-occupied Nagorno-Karabakh region, Azerbaijan should support the United States without fail. In this case, Azerbaijan would get mutual assistance in clearing its territories from terror groups in the future. Huseinli also pointed out that in the Iraq issue, Azerbaijan must coordinate its position with Turkey.

Natig Kerimov, a resident of the settlement of Nardaran, said in an interview with the newspaper "Zerkalo" that the residents of Nardaran have not retreated from their initial demands. "We will struggle until the end," Kerimov said, adding that the visit of Sheikh-ul-Islam Haji Allakh-Shukur Pashazade, the spiritual leader of Muslims of Caucasus, to the village, switches on a "green light" for a peaceful solution to the problem. Kerimov said that negotiations on releasing 15 arrested residents of Nardaran are ongoing, and in the near future this issue will be resolved. Asked whether the residents of Nardaran have changed their demand regarding the resignation of the president, Kerimov pointed out that it is meaningless to demand the president's resignation during the negotiation process.

Megrur Ali Polad in the article "The year of hope" in the opposition newspaper "Yeni Musavat" points out that 2003 will be a decisive one in the fate of Azerbaijan and its people. The point is that regardless of whether the opposition wins the fall presidential elections or not, Azerbaijan will face a new situation and undergo great changes.

Prominent journalist Genimet Zahidov in an interview with the opposition newspaper "Azadlig" talked about the recent past and future of Azerbaijani journalism. He said that when he came to the media, a legal alternative media was making its first steps. "Today we can talk about a developed media in Azerbaijan." Zahidov expressed hope that color newspapers would also be published in the near future. Moreover, newspapers will have to change their themes. Since the relations between the opposition and the government are now strained, the level of radicalism in the local media is also high. But political processes can change and the struggle for power can be substituted for the struggle of ideologies. At that point, the themes of newspapers can rise to a more liberal level. Zahidov also notes that at present journalists of both governmental and opposition newspapers work under hard psychological conditions and expend much energy to find radical expressions. This situation involuntarily and negatively affects journalists' productivity.

(Compiled and translated by Etibar Rasulov)