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Azerbaijan Report: December 23, 2003

23 December 2003
What Will Happen After Aliyev?
Heidar Aliyev has died after dominating Azerbaijani politics for 34 years. Local experts differ in their opinions of how his absence will affect politics. According to philosophy professor Rahman Bedelov, opposition political forces have the wrong attitude to former President Aliyev. Bedelov argued that the late president was neither a constant democrat nor a dictator. Although he failed to establish democratic principles, Azerbaijan remained a secular country. Future developments will depend more on freethinking people than political leaders.

But Mehman Aliyev, director of the Turan news agency, believes that future events will depend primarily on the behavior of the late president's son, incumbent President Ilham Aliyev.

Opposition Musavat Party deputy chairman Vurgun Eyyub said that the current regime left by Heidar Aliyev is not capable of solving the problems the country faces, primarily because the new government has been formed against the people's will. Eyyub acknowledged that Heidar Aliyev was a master of governing and ruled his team skillfully. But Ilham Aliyev possesses neither the skill nor the strength to control the government. Therefore more challenges will occur, government intrigues and discontent will grow. At the same time, if the numerous problems inherited from the previous regime are not solved, popular dissatisfaction will gain strength. Moreover, after the presidential elections the government has toughened its attitude toward the opposition forces. If this policy is continued, Azerbaijan is likely to be isolated in the international arena, facing strong pressures.

Eyyub did not rule out certain corrections in the government's policy in the near future. All will depend on Ilham Aliev's desire to make changes. In other words, if the president gets rid of hard-liners, this would improve the atmosphere. This could also affect the relationship between the government and opposition. But it is doubtful whether the president will do so.

Husein Pashaev, a member of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP) Political Council, disagrees. According to him, Ilham Aliyev is an elected president, who is recognized by the international community. As for the contradictions within the government, Pashaev recalled that Ilham Aliyev has inherited the late president's team and intends to work with it. (Natig Zeinalov and Shahnaz Beilergizi)

Freedom House Ranks Azerbaijan As 'Not Free.'
Azerbaijan moved from "partly free" in 2002 to "not free" in 2003 in terms of political rights and civil liberties, due to the 15 October presidential elections, according to an annual survey released by international NGO Freedom House. This year's report said that 25 countries have shown improvements in freedom, while 13 registered setbacks.

According to Freedom House spokesman Michael Goldfarb, although the campaign against terrorism has led to repression in certain regions, such as Central Asia, in 2003 the world has continued to move toward greater freedom and democracy.

The report ranks 88 countries that are home to 44 percent of the world's population as "free," and 55, representing 21 percent of the global population, as "partly free." The survey finds that 49 countries, representing 2.2 million people, are "not free."

Of the 25 countries that showed improvement in freedom, Argentina moved from "partly free" to "free" and Burundi and Yemen moved from "not free" to "partly free." Of the 13 countries that registered regress, Bolivia and Papua New Guinea moved from "free" to "partly free," and Azerbaijan, the Central African Republic and Mauritania moved from "partly free" to "not free."

Of the 49 countries rated "not free," eight countries -- Burma, Cuba, Libya, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, and Turkmenistan -- are named the "worst of the worst." Two territories, Chechnya (Russia) and Tibet (China) also received the worst ratings.

The survey also finds no firm link between Islam and political repression. It shows that half of the world's 1.5 million Muslims live under democratically elected governments in countries like Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Turkey, which are categorized as "partly free." (Samira Gazieva)

Religious Freedom Situation Improves A Little.
There was a slight improvement in the status of respect for religious freedom in Azerbaijan, according to a U.S. State Department report on international religious freedom in 2003. While some religious groups reported delays in and denials of registration, the report finds that these groups are able to import religious literature and meet without government interference. "However, local authorities occasionally monitor religious services, and officials at times harassed nontraditional religious groups," the report said.

The report reveals that generally relations among various religious communities are harmonious, but there is popular antipathy towards ethnic Azeris who convert to non-Muslim faiths and hostility toward groups that proselytize, particularly Evangelical Christian and missionary groups.

"According to official figures the country's population is approximately 8 million, 96 percent of which is nominally Muslim. The Muslim population is approximately 70 percent Shiite and 30 percent Sunni; differences traditionally have not been defined sharply. Among the local Muslims religious observance is relatively low and Muslim identity tends to be based more on culture and ethnicity than religion," the report said.

According to the report, "The government is concerned about Islamic missionary groups, predominately Iranian and Wahhabist, that operate in the country, whose activities have been restricted in recent years. The government has closed several foreign-backed Islamic organizations as a result of reported connections to terrorist activities."

According to the State Committee for Work with Religious Associations, which is responsible for the registration of religious entities, "199 religious groups were registered by the end of the period covered by the report. The Committee estimates that 2,000 religious groups are in operation; many have not filed for re-registration." (Elkhan Nesibli)

Will Azerbaijan Fulfill Its Obligations To The Council of Europe?
In early 2004, the Council of Europe is expected to conduct hearings on how Azerbaijan has fulfilled its obligations before the council. Parliamentary deputy Gultekin Hajieva, a member of the Azerbaijani delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), suggested that the issue of implementation of the commitments to the Council of Europe is gradually approaching completion. She recalled that not long ago parliament adopted a draft law on eliminating difficulties in the registration of legal entities. The draft laws on public television and corruption are to be submitted to the parliament before the end of December. Hajieva does not think the Council of Europe will criticize the democratic elections. She said an anticipated pardon decree will also promote a solution to the issue of political prisoners. But she denied that all the people considered political prisoners by the Council of Europe will be released. According to Hajieva, the only recommendation that remains unfulfilled is the adoption of a law on alternative military service and this is understandable considering that Azerbaijan is at war with Armenia.

According to Ali Kerimli, head of the People's Front Party, it would be wrong to suggest that most of the commitments have been implemented. Instead, the government seems to seek to deceive the Council of Europe. He noted that under the draft law on public television, the consideration of which is expected in the near future, its administration is to be appointed by the president, although this conflicts with the Council of Europe's recommendations. Moreover, the government refuses to fulfill its commitments regarding political prisoners and democratic elections. Of the 14 recommendations, only a few have been implemented to date.

While Hajieva rules out the possibility of imposing any sanctions against Azerbaijan, Kerimli does not exclude that the Azerbaijani delegation may be deprived of its voting right. Anyhow, Azerbaijan may be granted additional time, which the government must use effectively, Kerimli said. Otherwise, sanctions will be inevitable. (Babek Bekir)

(Compiled and translated by Etibar Rasulov)