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Azerbaijan Report: June 20, 2003

20 June 2003
Police Block 500 Opposition Protesters
On 18 June the opposition National Independence (AMIP) and Democratic parties attempted to hold an unsanctioned protest in front of the Central Election Commission. They were demanding democratic elections, as well as creating equal conditions for all presidential candidates.

Police wielding truncheons blocked some 500 opposition protesters as they attempted to reach the commission office. The parties complained of cruel behavior by police against the protesters and reported that dozens received light injuries and a number were arrested in clashes when police tried to disperse the crowd.

(Rovshan Gambarov)

Presidential Pardon Good but Not Enough, Say Human Rights Activists
On 17 June President Heydar Aliyev has signed another decree pardoning or reducing the sentence of a total of 106 prisoners. Local human rights activists--Ali Mustafaev, head of Azerbaijan's Helsinki Human Rights Committee, and Chingiz Ganizade, chairman of the Committee for Democracy and Human Rights�stated that they greatly appreciated the president's move. But Mustafaev told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani service that such a step would be more important if it hadn't been undertaken for political aims. Unfortunately, political considerations have prevailed, as a rule, in all amnesty and pardon decrees signed by Aliev. In other words, the government has pardoned those it considers acceptable. Mustafaev noted that the signing of such a decree is mostly linked with the upcoming presidential ballot. Mustafaev expressed regret that none of those considered political prisoners would be released under the recent pardon decree. He said that after the decree the Council of Europe's demand before Baku remains unaltered.

Ganizade, for his part, recalled that on 5 June the Council of Europe's Legal and Human Rights Committee criticized Baku for failing to carry out its commitments regarding democratic reforms and release of political prisoners. He pointed out that the problem of political prisoners will be on the agenda of the PACE session on 26 June.

Ganizade also noted that not long before the pardon decree, the Monitoring Group of Human Rights Organizations and members of the state pardon commission held a meeting at which the parties discussed pardoning the political prisoners whose names are on the list presented by the Monitoring Group or reconsiderating their cases. Some hours later the president signed a pardon decree, but none of prisoners on the Group's list benefitted from that decree.

Unlike Mustafaev, Ganizade considered it wrong to link the decree with the upcoming presidential elections. This must be mainly explained with the severity of the report on political prisoners in the country, delivered by rapporteur Georges Clerfayt at the Council of Europe Legal and Human Rights Committee.

(Almaz Nasibova)

Azerbaijan Marks World Refugee Day
Beginning this year World Refugee Day will be marked on 20 June in Azerbaijan as well, said Bohdan Nahajlo, head of the UN High Commission for Refugees Baku Office at an 18 June press conference. He noted that various events are scheduled to mark that date, adding that the UNHCR has shot a documentary that reflects the living conditions of refugees in Saatli District. This film will be screened in various countries throughout the world.

According to official information, to date more than one million refugees and internally displaced persons (IDP) have been registered in Azerbaijan. Of that number, 60,000 Azerbaijani citizens were forcibly driven out from the Nagorno-Karabakh region, while 600,000 were forced from the territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh; and 100,000 have been deported from districts bordering Armenia. Moreover, 250,000 people were deported from Armenia from 1988 to 1993, while 50,000 are Meskheti Turks who came from Central Asia following 1989 clashes in Uzbekistan.

According to UN official estimates, 1,482 Afghan and 7,523 Chechen refugees have come to Azerbaijan since 1999. The number of refugees from other countries, including Iran and Iraq, amounts to 703.

(Natig Zeinalli)

20 June is marked throughout the world as World Refugee Day. Local media touch on this theme. For example, in an interview with the pro-governmental newspaper "Yeni Azerbaijan," parliament deputy Hadi Rejebli, chairman of the parliamentary standing commission on social policy, talked about the number and the social situation of refugees in the country. He said that various international organizations render assistance to the refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). The cooperation with international organizations can be divided into three stages. The first stage is from 1988 to 1993, the second from 1993 to 1998. The third stage embraces the period since 1998, which is characterized by structural administrative reforms and increasing the cooperation with global institutions. At present the government cooperates with more than 80 such institutions, especially the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Rejebli pointed out that not long ago the UNHCR wanted to cease its mission in the country, but thanks to President Aliev's efforts, the UNHCR Baku Office agreed to continue its activities.

Under the headline "Perhaps Terri Davis will no longer be involved in the Karabakh problem," the independent Russian-language newspaper "Ekho" points out that Terri Davis, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe's rapporteur on Nagorno-Karabakh, is expected to nominate himself for the organization's secretary-general. In this case his expected visit to the region could be postponed, since he would have to resign from the post of rapporteur. The paper also recalls that Davis stated during the recent April visit to the region that next time he plans to visit Nagorno-Karabakh as well, along with Baku and Yerevan.

The independent newspaper "Ayna" published an appeal signed by intelligentsia from South Azerbaijan, Iran. The appeal reads that "the historical documents prove that Tabriz is one of the oldest cities of the world, as well as of the country. It has preserved many historical and unique monuments and treasures. Unfortunately, nothing has been done to restore and preserve these monuments. On the contrary, most of the monuments have been purposefully destroyed. One of these monuments is the Castle of Erk, the greater part of which has been demolished. The Mosque of Goy, which is considered to be a unique cultural treasure in the world, has been sacrificed to trade. Trade centers are being built around it." The appeal also states that signatories want the members of the Tabriz City Council to prevent such a situation. Despite the fact that Tabriz is a leading Turkic town, it has begun to lose its Turkic face thanks to the erroneous policy of the Iranian regime, which intends to turn Tabriz into a Persian town. "This is the greatest offence to Azeri Turks."

In an interview with the pro-governmental newspaper "525" political scientist Leila Alieva commented on processes occurring in the region. Touching on the impact of the tense U.S.-Iranian relations on Azerbaijan, she said that the instability in a neighboring country is undesirable, of course. But if this is a temporary instability and results in democratization in Iran, it should be treated positively in a certain sense. Asked "What position should Baku take in the U.S.-Iranian confrontation?" Alieva noted that "the United States tries to use not Azerbaijan, but Iran's Azerbaijanis against Tehran. Washington supports Iran's Azerbaijanis and opposition. Today the existence of an independent Azerbaijan is considered as pressure on Iran. In general, Azerbaijan could have a large political and economic influence on Iran, since we live in a mostly secular society, our mode of life is more progressive."

Genimet Zahidov in an article entitled "A war for an Azerbaijani president" in the opposition newspaper "Azadlig" writes that it is now clear that the idea of a common opposition candidate does not appeal to the entire opposition. It is true that this alliance includes all large parties that determine the opposition's face. Four leading opposition parties�People's Front (AXCP), National Independence (AMIP), Musavat and Democratic parties have signed several documents on participating with a unified candidate. Even the Azerbaijani Forces Union (AQB), which not long ago made decisive statements of support for ex-president Mutallibov, now talks about the possibility of joining the "common candidate" campaign. Separate individuals and groups able to affect public opinion also prefer to talk about the attractive sides of the "common candidate." The author says that the largest opposition unions would most likely be able to come to a common agreement. Zahidov claims that there will be no accidental candidates in this presidential ballot. These candidates are those, the author writes, who want to become famous to solve their own small problems or want merely to create "social fun." There will be a serious battle in this year's elections, since the opposition considers the prolongation of the incumbent government's term as "social tragedy," while the government views the loss of power as a "family tragedy."

An author writing only as Gabiloglu in the article "Who is doomed to be a common candidate from the opposition?" in the independent Russian-language newspaper "Zerkalo" recalls that the opposition has agreed to go to the upcoming presidential elections with a common candidate. Four out of the leading opposition parties are conducting negotiations on this. And each of these parties' leaders is ambitious for power and the presidency. The author considers separately the role of these leaders in the society. For example, Gabiloglu claims that Ali Kerimli, the chairman of the AXCP "reformist faction" has remained aloof from the common candidate matter. But this does not mean that his chance of becoming the unified candidate is less than the other leaders�. "No. It should be taken into account that the AXCP experienced a deep crisis some two years ago. Even some experts then viewed this as the end of Kerimli's career, while others predicted that he would continue his career on the basis of a loyal and constructive policy toward the incumbent government. But Kerimli has succeeded in preserving his leadership within the opposition camp." And despite everything Kerimli are expressing his support for the common candidate. Nevertheless, Gabiloglu pointed to Musavat chairman Isa Gambar as a more advantageous candidate, referring to Musavat's success in the 2000 parliamentary elections. The author thinks that the Musavat intends to cede to nobody among the "leading four." He also analyses to what extent other leaders--Rasul Guliev, Ayaz Mutallibov and Etibar Memmedov--are advantageous in the common candidate process and concludes that they are not equally advantageous.

Parliament deputy Shadman Husein responded to questions by the independent newspaper "Uch Nogta" regarding the presidential elections scheduled for 15 October. Speaking about international organizations' impact on the ballot, Husein said that "I do not believe that international institutions will be able to affect the holding of the ballot and its results. They can only monitor and observe the elections. These organizations can also apply democratic methods of the international practice during the pre-election marathon. But naturally the final word must be said by the country's citizens." As for the relations between the opposition and the government, Husein noted that the guilt for the failure of creating a bridge between the government and opposition, first of all, falls on the opposition itself. "It must be acknowledged openly."

Terlan Hamzaoglu in the article "The sphere of taxes will widen" in the independent newspaper "Khalg Jebhesi" writes that "the state programs on eliminating poverty and developing the economy which have been implemented since the beginning of 2003 and cover the period from 2003 to 2005, provide for improving the country's tax and customs policies. The basis for this policy constitutes a reduction of taxes and a widening of their sphere." According to Hamzaoglu, during the last four years the share of the private sector in the budget incomes has increased from 26.5 to 49 percent. In other words, almost half of the state budget is due to entrepreneurship. Nevertheless the dependence of the budget on the oil factor has not been eliminated. It is not accidental that the Tax Ministry often explains a deficit in tax collection with entrepreneurs who do not pay all their taxes. In principle, the ministry's intention to collect more taxes and fill the budget is understandable, since the security of a teacher and a doctor, as well as the army and the country depends on the tax collection. But businessmen must also be understood. First of all they want a more favorable tax regime for their economic activities. But the current taxes have been calculated for filling the state budget. Although in reality a tax system must play the role of an economic tool that stimulates business activities.

(Compiled and translated by Etibar Rasulov)