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Azerbaijan Report: April 5, 2002

5 April 2002
Pope John Paul II to Visit Azerbaijan
Despite his frail condition, Pope John Paul II will visit Azerbaijan and Bulgaria in May, the Vatican said on 3 April. It was the Vatican's first confirmation of the trip that had long been in the planning stages. The Vatican said it will take place May 22-26, but did not give details.

John Paul, who will turn 82 on May 18, cut back his participation in several Holy Week ceremonies because of what the Vatican described as arthrosis, a joint disease involving destruction of cartilage. The Vatican on 2 April denied an Italian newspaper report that surgery was planned on his ailing knee. The pope's voice is often slurred and his hands tremble, both symptoms of Parkinson's disease. The May trip is part of John Paul's efforts to improve relations with non-Catholics. Azerbaijan is heavily Muslim while Bulgaria is predominantly Orthodox Christian.

Picketers Under Pressure
Refugees from Azerbaijan's Kalbajar district have allegedly been subjected to pressure after they staged a demonstration in Baku on 2 April to protest the nine-year occupation of the area.

Karabakh Liberation Organisation Chairman Akif Naghi said that after the action, some officials and police officers of the Kalbajar municipality came to the hostel where the protest action was staged and threatened the refugees. According to Naghi, the refugees were told openly that if they resort to such actions in future, measures will be taken against them.

The organisers of the protest faced additional pressure, according to Naghi. He said Chingiz Aliev, deputy chairman of the Karabakh Liberation Organisation, received an army draft notice. Naghi says that Aliyev had been discharged from the military in 1994 for health reasons after taking part in a number of battles in the Karabakh conflict. Naghi claims that Aliev's sudden call-up notice was politically motivated and shows that the Azerbaijani army is becoming a mechanism of punishment.

Kalbajar District Police Department Head Kocheri Aslanov denied that pressure had been put on the refugees. He says Naghi's statement is not the first time that that KLO has delivered unconfirmed information to media outlets. Aslanov says that Chingiz Aliev's 1994 discharge was not intended to be permanent, but was meant to give him time to recuperate before rejoining the army later.

(Babek Bekir)

Main Export Pipeline Project Underway
Valeh Alasgarov, head of the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic foreign investments department held a press conference on 5 April devoted to the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Main Export Pipeline. He said the project, which was launched some years ago, is proving to be more profitable than was originally predicted.

Alasgarov repeated that the construction work will be completed by the end of 2004 to allow shipment of the the first tankers of Azerbaijani oil to world markets from the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan by January 2005. Alasgarov said the engineering is nearing completion and talks have been launched with the owners of the land through which the pipeline will pass. The tenders on purchase of equipment are also being completed and the relevant agreements will be signed in the near future.

Alasgarov said talks with financial institutions have been successful and will yield good results. He said the main problem -- determining the distribution of shares among the project partners -- has been settled. He said that at first, SOCAR and its foreign partners had divided the shares equally, 50-50, but later, Azerbaijan transferred 5 percent of its stake to the Italian firm ENI.SOCAR has been conducting talks with other companies and has decided to reduce its overall stake from 45 to 25 percent. Alasgarov said companies wishing to participate in the project can bid until the project is offically approved and will be accepted on the same terms which were given to ENI. After the approval is given, it will be impossible to enter the project, Alasgarov said. He says then new terms will be set which mean more expensive prices.

Alasgarov said that LUKoil Russian and the American firm ExxonMobil are interested in the project. Alasgarov also discussed the funding of the project. He said the partners will pay some 30 percent up front, while the remaining 70 percent will be obtained from banks in the form of credits. In response to a question about how SOCAR would pay for its share, Alasgarov said the company would fund it from its own reserves and those of the Oil Fund.

(Maarif Chingizoglu)

Foreign Companies and Banks Leave Azerbaijan
The number of banks and foreign companies leaving Azerbaijan has increased recently. Many have said their decisions are the result of a lack of appropriate business conditions in Azerbaijan, but Azerbaijani officials deny this explanation, claiming that those firms and banks cannot stand competition. What are the real reasons that these companies and banks are leaving this country?

Independent economist Vugar Bayramov says that it is not plausible that foreign banks such as HSBC would leave the country because they were unable to face the competition. He said the reason is the government's discriminatory policy against some companies.

The government has divided banks into those it favors and those it does not, which hinders the activities of those in the latter group, he said. Referring to the problems facing HSBC -- which announced at the beginning of March that it was pulling out of Azerbaijan after six years -- he said that the bank had been drawn into court disputes by the tax authorities even though the bank proved that it had not violated Azerbaijan's laws.

Bayramov said the banks close to the government realize major projects and they are not taken to court. He says that if a foreign bank with regulated capital of $25 billion loses out on business to a bank with regulated capital of $1 million, then there can be no serious belief that decisions are made purely on financial grounds.

Bayramov says three banks have ceased activity in Azerbaijan over the past three months. One of them -- HSBC, formerly known as the British Bank of the Middle East -- made an official announcement, and two more banks which have gone bankrupt will take that step in future. Additionally, six major foreign companies have left the republic over the past three months.

Economist Ali Hajiyev of the Ana Vatan (Motherland) Party says the flight of foreign firms has to do with both competition and Azerbaijan's improper tax policy. He says the Cabinet must seriously consider the issue and take necessary steps to remedy the problem.

(Maarif Chingizoglu)

Pressure from Chechen Asylum Seekers Forces UNHCR to Close Baku Office
Tensions between the United Nations Refugee Agency and Chechen asylum seekers in Baku forced UNHCR to shut down its operations in Azerbaijan for several days at the end of March. After angry demonstrations outside the agency's office and allegations of corruption, UNHCR announced it was suspending activity due to the "inappropriate behavior of certain refugees."

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Baku freely admits that it does not have the resources to cope with all the asylum seekers in the country. Its primary mission is to help care for the more than 600,000 internally displaced Azerbaijanis who fled Nagorno-Karabakh a decade ago.

It is also trying to process more than 5,000 Chechen asylum seekers and about 1,000 from Afghanistan. With only six to eight staff members available to conduct interviews to determine whether people qualify for status of refugee, the process can be a very slow one.

But although spokesman Vugar Abdulsalimov says UNHCR understands the frustration of asylum seekers who feel they are being given the run-around instead of help, the agency was unprepared for the attack levelled at it by a group of Chechens in Baku.

In late February, five asylum seekers wrote to the organisation's head office in Geneva, charging that local staff in Azerbaijan were demanding bribes in exchange for distributing aid. Next came pickets outside the agency's Baku headquarters. On March 27, UNHCR decided to suspend its operations for a few days.

Abdulsalimov denies that the office closed as a result of the bribery allegation, which he called "an insult." He said UNHCR asked the five signatories of the letter to come present any evidence they had of corruption. Only two showed up, he said, with no "significant facts."

He says that UNHCR suspended activities because the agency recognised that it needed to rethink the way it delivers services. He also said it was intended to give tempers a chance to cool.

The director of the office, Didier Laye, met Chechen representative Ali Asayev during the shutdown, and Asayev is reported to have said afterwards that he had seen no evidence of corruption. As far as UNHCR is concerned, the matter is closed. But leading Chechens in Azerbaijan say the community is still in a desperate situation. Some 5,400 people have registered for refugee status, but so far only about 450 families -- perhaps 1,300 or 1,400 individuals -- have completed the process and are receiving aid. "A large part of the population is dissatisfied," Abdulsalimov says. "All these people are destitute."

He says that the Chechen mission in Baku, representing rebel President Aslan Mashkhadov, had been distributing aid until May of last year, but that it is no longer doing so. There have been reports that Arab countries that used to support the effort no longer do so, and that in the wake of September 11, Baku has shut down Islamic charities that had been helping the Chechens for fear that they are fronts for terrorists.

The Chechens then turned to UNHCR for help. The agency was not prepared to handle the influx.

Following the standoff, UNHCR is trying to overhaul its operations in Baku, Abdulsalimov said. It currently distributes $80 to $100 a month to refugees for up to six months, and runs a free medical clinic. But, Abdulsalimov admits, that is not enough.

The agency ran a brainstorming session during its shutdown, he says, at which the entire staff tried to think of new ways to help. UNHCR headquarters in Geneva is not going to give more money to the Baku office just because Azerbaijan needs more, he says, but they might be receptive to proposals for new programs.

(Richard Allen Greene)

The newspaper "Yeni Musavat," quoting the Olaylar agency, writes that the waters of the river Araz could cause an epidemic. Armenia has reportedly discharged industrial and daily wastes into Araz, which has resulted in rise of toxic bacteria by 4-5 times and increased the volume of hydro-carbonate calcium.

The article "APFPs cannot unite" in the newspaper "Yeni Azerbaijan" says that both wings of the divided Azerbaijan Popular Front Parties are making efforts to achieve reunification, but that these efforts have yielded no results and the commissions established to bring the party back together face a hopeless task.

Mezahir Aliev, acting chair of the Ministry of Internal Affairs Department on Combatting Drugs, discusses drug addiction in Azerbaijan in an interview with the newspaper "Khalg." According to him, there are some 13,000 registered drug addicts in Azerbaijan. No state, including Azerbaijan, gives the exact number of its drug addicts, he said. Aliyev noted that there were some 2,303 drug-related criminal cases last year, of which 711 were connected with the illegal sale of drugs. Recently, 242 grams of heroin and 1,200 grams of hashish were confiscated in a southern district. According to Aliev, history shows that both international crime and terrorism are connected with the drug trade.

The newspaper "Ekho" writes that the international human rights organisation Human Rights Watch has released its 2001 report on the level of human rights in Azerbaijan. The report charges that even after Azerbaijan's acceptance into the Council of Europe, pressure on the local press has continued and the government has refused to free dozens of detainees whom the CoE considers political prisoners.

The newspaper "Yeni Azerbaijan" asks well-known figures the question "Do you agree with the international human rights organisations' position regarding alleged massive violations of human rights in Azerbaijan?" According to parliament deputy Zalimkhan Yagub, there are only sporadic violations of human rights in Azerbaijan. Maharram Zulfugarly, advisor to the chairman of the Azerbaijan National Liberation Party, says on the contrary that human rights are violated in Azerbaijan in all contexts. The editor-in-chief of the newspaper "Azadlig," Rovshan Hajiyev, answered: "If, after the former mayor of Baku resigns, the new mayor does not carry out his decrees and trading kiosks are demolished, isn't that a violation of human rights?"

Zahid Safaroglu in an article entitled "Key to the Karabakh problem" carried by the newspaper "Yeni Musavat" writes that the Russian ambassador to Azerbaijan says the key "is in Azerbaijan's hands," putting President Heydar Aliyev in an uneviable position. According to Safaroglu, the main role in resolving the Karabakh conflict really belongs to Azerbaijan. The key to the problem has de facto always been in Baku, he says. The latest negotiations in the region do not reduce Azerbaijan's leading role; on the contrary, they increase it. Finally, the strengthening of Turkey and America's military-political influence in the Caucasus leaves no doubts that the key to Karabakh is in Azerbaijan. Then the author asks what key Russia has. Naturally, it must be admitted that once the Kremlin had "a universal key" to all the locks. But this key has become rusty and will not be able in the near future to open the Karabakh lock.

Parliament deputy Sayyad Aran in the newspaper "Azerbaijan" writes that the Azerbaijani opposition is losing its political weight and influence on local processes and is gravely concerned. The more concerned the opposition grows, the more it collapses. The author says this state of affairs is clear from the tension and difficulty prevalent Azerbaijan today. Aran says all strata of people, regardless of their political affiliation and position, must demonstrate solidarity, protect thecountry's independence and overcome the critical situation.

An author writing simply as "Mammadoglu," in an article entitled "What does the united opposition want?" carried by the newspaper "Hurriyyet" writes that the all government's efforts are directed at reducing the significance of the protest staged by the United Opposition Movement on 23 March. By discrediting this action, the government has another goal -- targeting the next action the opposition plans for 27 April. The author writes that by claiming that the opposition is a destructive and subversive force, the government tries to reduce the importance of the 27 April action. Thus, the government threatens the world community and does not want it to support the united opposition.

Zabil Mugabiloglu in a commentary "If they returned my past days..." carried by the newspaper "525" notes that the People's Front Party, one of Azerbaijan's first political parties, is providing topics for local media. He said those who split the APFP accused each other of betraying the late President, Elchibey, and depicted the developments as "cleansing the party of betrayers." Then the question arises: have the reformist or classical wings of APFP returned to Elchibey's goals at last? The author concludes by saying that the supporters of both Ali Kerimli's faction and Mirmahmud Mirelioglu's wing are cursing the devil over the bitter results of the split.

Boyukagaha Aghayev, in a commentary "A new phase of the inter-government struggle" carried by the newspaper "Azadlig," says President Aliyev has been rewarding his supporters and punishing those who are reluctant to back his son Ilham as the next president of the country. The president has pardoned Nizami Gojayev, head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs Investigation Department, and made Isa Najafov a judge of the Constitutional Court. Meanwhile, Eldar Hasanov -- reportedly part of a group that is not backing Ilham -- was appointed ambassador to Romania, essentially a sentence of political exile.

(Compiled and translated by Arifa Alieva)