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Azerbaijan Report: October 28, 2002

28 October 2002
Ferry Freighter Sinks in Caspian, More Than 40 Feared Dead
On 22 October a ship belonging to the Azerbaijan State Caspian Shipping Company (KASPAR) sank in the Caspian Sea. The "Mercury 2" vessel, traveling from Aktau, Kazakhstan to Baku was carrying 60 tonnes of oil in 16 containers, 42 crewmembers and at least eight passengers. Four of the known passengers were citizens of Russia and Kazakhstan, the others were from Azerbaijan. Some people claim that there were also unregistered travelers aboard the ship. However, KASPAR has denied the existence of such people.

The ship sank because of strong winds, according to the initial findings of a governmental commission, which was immediately convened to investigate the accident. A second statement pointed to technical defects. Survivors said that there had been an explosion and fire aboard the ship. The commission has yet to present its final conclusions.

During a meeting with the media and relatives of the passengers and crew, Jabbar Hashimov, an official from KASPAR, denied the possibility of an explosion aboard the vessel. Strong winds of up to 30 meters a second created six-meter waves. The rough seas caused the oil containers to shift to one side, and the ship sank, Hashimov said. As of 28 October the governmental commission confirmed a total of nine rescued and four dead. The fate of the remaining passengers and crew is undetermined.

More than 15 ships have participated in the search for survivors. KASPAR, ships of the, State Oil Company of Azerbaijan (SOCAR) as well as BP have been involved in rescue efforts. AZAL State Corporation has sent helicopters to assist to the rescuers.

(Maarif Chingizoglu)

Opposition Attacks Election Code Draft Process
As election campaigning gears up for the fall 2003 presidential elections, a struggle over the new election law between the government and opposition is increasing. Etibar Husenli, the chairman of the National Independence Party (AMIP), has claimed that the government and some international organizations are holding secret discussions on the government's draft law on elections.

To date none of the organizations participating in the drafting of the election law--the government, OSCE, the Council of Europe, or the U.S. based non-governmental organization IFES (the International Foundation for Election Systems)--have revealed the nature of the draft law. IFES has made public that it has already given an expert assessment of the document.

According to a leaked copy of the IFES comments, in order to register with the Central Election Commission candidates must not only collect a certain number of signatures, it must also leave a deposit of $5,650 -- $112,950. If a candidate collects the necessary number of signatures, he can reclaim the deposit.

The IFES assessment concurs that a large deposit is needed to avoid baseless candidates, but not so high that it could hinder political parties from participation in elections. The indicated amount is so large that only the best-funded groups will be able to participate.

Local independent experts agree that the deposit amount indicated in the draft would block free electoral competition. Hafiz Hasanov, a legal expert for the Independent Consultation and Assistance Center for Civil Society, said in an interview with RFE/RL's Azerbaijani service that the deposit isssue is, in fact, intended to get rid of unwanted candidates. He added that in December the law draft is expected to be presented to the Milli Majlis (parliament). At the same time, the OSCE will hold public debates on the law in Baku. The organization will probably express its final opinion on the document after these debates, Hasanov said. However, Mubariz Gurbanli, deputy executive secretary of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party (YAP), told RFE/RL that YAP was unaware of the draft law.

(Natig Zeinalli)

Azerbaijani newspapers comment on the hostage incident in Moscow, where on the evening of 23 October to the morning of 26 October a group of more than 40 Chechen militants held hundreds hostages. The independent Russian-language newspaper "Zerkalo," reports that Sheikhulislam Haji Allahshukur Pashazade, head of the Religious Board of the Caucasian Moslems, has condemned the hostage-taking incident in Moscow and said that Islam, as well as other religions, denounces extremism and terrorism.

Under the headline "Moscow face-to-face with terror," the pro-governmental newspaper "Yeni Azerbaycan" points out that the only way to get rid of terror is to clear the Caucasus of all separatist elements. In order to avoid terror attacks, hostage-takings and other similar incidents, efforts of law-enforcement bodies are insufficient. Nothing will change until the root of the problem is solved, the newspaper concludes.

The newspapers also ran articles and commentaries on the 22 October sinking of the "Mercury 2," in the Caspian. Azer Aihan in an article entitled "A Ship named Azerbaijan" in the opposition newspaper "Yeni Musavat" writes that there were numerous stowaways aboard the vessel. The author also complains of the incompetence of the Azerbaijani government to act in extraordinary situations. Though President Heydar Aliyev is a KGB general, he was unable guarantee efficient work in non-standard situations.

Elkhan Gudretoglu in the article "Russia has left behind Azerbaijan" in the opposition newspaper "Hurriyyet" writes that unlike Azerbaijan, Russia is actively working toward conquering the Turkish natural gas market. Gudretoglu notes that the Turkish government has over and over again expressed its readiness to import Azerbaijani natural gas extracted from the Shahdeniz field. But a dispute over the profitability of the field between BP and the State Oil Company (SOCAR) is detaining deliveries of Azerbaijani gas to the Turkish market. Meanwhile, Moscow intends to sell Ankara three billion cubic meters of gas in 2003 and 16 billion cubic meters in 2008.

Fuad Mustafaev, the deputy chairman of the "reformist wing" of the Popular Front Party, said in an interview with the opposition newspaper "Azadlig" that the opposition is, in general, satisfied with the political activity of the people. Perhaps, most participants in the opposition demonstrations are still those who are members of various parties or highly politicized people. But in fact, most of the population support and esteem the opposition leaders, even if they do not join the opposition protests.

An author writing only as Kamil in the article "For whom has Lale Shovket become problem?" in the independent newspaper "525" notes that since Shovket praised the personal efforts of President Aliyev in the realization of the BTC oil pipeline, the opposition's attitude toward the chairwoman of the Liberal Party has worsened, while the government's attitude has improved. Kamil adds that the ongoing positive opinions voiced by government representatives about Shovket are perhaps intended to separate her from the opposition camp and thus break the opposition's united stand. On the other hand, the government is perhaps trying to win over Shovket, whose intellectual approach differs from that of some opposition leaders.

(Compiled and translated by Etibar Rasulov)