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Azerbaijan Report: November 12, 2002

12 November 2002
Journalists' Union Protests Closure of Newsstands
On 8 November the Journalists' Union together with representatives from the privately owned Gaya media distribution firm held a scheduled protest in front of the Baku Mayor's Office. The demonstrators shouted slogans such as "Hands off the Gaya distribution network," "Hands off the newspaper 'Yeni Musavat,'" "Stop pressures on free media" and "freedom to the media," among others.

Journalists' Union chairman Ganimet Zahidov was the first to speak. He recalled that since a number of officials do not want to observe the law, the union has decided to resume protest actions against the government. Zahidov pointed out that the media and distribution firms continue to face numerous pressures.

"Even though the president pledged, during a meeting with editors of leading media outlets in December 2000, to eliminate pressure on the media, some officials have not carried out the words of the head of state," Zahidov said. Quite the contrary, pressures against some distribution companies have increased, and new legal actions have been brought against leading opposition newspapers. And all these pressures and legal suits are ordered from above, he added. "This is our first protest in 2002," Zahidov noted and expressed the hope that it would also be the last one.

Gaya's director Khanhusein Aliyev said that the firm has been under pressure before but never as much as this year. Aliyev noted that in the past Gaya ran 56 newsstands throughout Azerbaijan--22 of them in Baku, 34 in other cities. While the government ordered the closure of 12 of its newsstands in Baku, newsstands in Nakhichevan, Guba and Sheki have been removed completely. The reasons for the closure are unclear, Aliyev cited one example where newsstands were closed for blocking the regular functioning of traffic. In another instance, Gaya's stands were closed for allegedly selling pornographic materials.

Lawyer for the Journalists' Union Mubariz Eliazov pointed out in his speech that lately, legal violations in the sphere of media freedoms have increased notably, adding that the results of a monitoring conducted by the union attest to it. He said that a year ago the president set himself as an example for other officials and called on all government officials to cease legal actions against media representatives; however, some officials are not hastening to make such a step. As a result, some newspapers, including the newspaper "Avrora," have not been able to resume their activity.

A resolution was read at the end of the protest, which ended no incidents of violence.

(Maarif Chingizoglu)

SOCAR Chief Says No Possibility of Privatization in Short-Term
Speaking at an 8 November press conference held at the ruling New Azerbaijan Party (YAP) headquarters, Natig Aliev, president of the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan (SOCAR), downplayed any possibility of the company privatizing in the near future.

Aliyev said that at present privatization of the company, which employs about 80,000 people, is technically a very difficult process and would not completely be in the national interests of Azerbaijan. Valuation of the funds and oil reserves of the company would take a long time. Moreover, he noted that because SOCAR also conducts a number of projects of social importance, privatization--which would evaluate such projects' profitability--would result in a hard blow for the population.

Aliyev also reported on the country's oil production. He said it has stabilized and Azerbaijan now extracts 9 million tonnes of oil a year. He said that within the first 10 months of 2002, SOCAR has contributed 1.3 trillion manats (about $263.5 million) to the state budget. The amount of money in the State Oil Fund has reached $600 million.

Regarding speculation that Russia's Lukoil, which participates in several large-scale oil projects in Azerbaijan, is planning to pull out of a number of them, Aliyev said that he was aware of such information, but Lukoil has yet to officially notify SOCAR of such a pullout. But he added that on 21 November Lukoil's president, Vahid Alekberov, will be in Baku and it is possible that he will bring up the issue of a share sell-off during his visit.

Aliyev also commented on the ongoing debate over the profitability of the Shah Deniz gas field, owned by the Azerbaijani government and a BP-led consortium. He agreed that production expenses would be high. "We are now working with BP to reduce these expenses and to exclude those that are superfluous," Aliyev said.

Aliyev pointed out that one of the problems connected with the Shah Deniz field was how to finance Azerbaijan's 10 percent share in the project. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has already expressed its readiness to allocate loans to Azerbaijan for this purpose. But Azerbaijan first wants to try to solve the problem using its own internal resources, in particular funds from the State Oil Fund. He also noted that the construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum export pipeline, which will transport natural gas from Shah Deniz to the Turkish market will be delayed by one year. The Azerbaijani government has already notified Ankara that Azeri gas will be transported to Turkey by August 2006, Aliyev concluded.

(Natig Zeinalli)

Newspapers ran articles and commentaries on President Heidar Aliev's 8 November visit to Sheki, in the north of Azerbaijan.

Javid Jabbaroglu in an article entitled "Sheki did not become Ganja," in the opposition newspaper "Yeni Musavat" notes that after the Ganja visit, the president's visit to Sheki was much expected. Most of all because Sheki as well as Ganja are on Heydar Aliev's "black list." Jabbaroglu writes that Sheki faces the same problems as other regions of Azerbaijan. The local population is poor and suffers from high unemployment, and a lack of regular electricity. People are pessimistic about the future. But nobody complains loudly about the difficult living standards. Such silence most likely originates from a psychology of fear, which arose after the social unrest in Sheki in November 2000.

Meherrem Zulfugarov, an activist of the National Independence Party (AMIP), in an interview with independent newspaper "525" declared that the opposition will nominate one or two candidates for the presidential elections in autumn 2003. The nomination of more candidates would split the opposition electorate, he said.

The opposition newspaper "Azadlig" writes about the danger of Wahabbism in Azerbaijan and calls on the government to take more active measures to prevent it.

Under the headline "New oil strategy ensures a happy future for Azerbaijan," the official newspaper "Azerbaycan" writes that although oil is the greatest wealth of Azerbaijan, for a long time the Azerbaijani people did not have control of it.

12 November is Constitution Day in Azerbaijan. Fikret Babaev, a judge of the Constitutional Court, said in an interview with the pro-governmental newspaper "Yeni Azerbaycan" that there are some criteria for the development of society. Most significant among them is the protection of human rights and freedoms. If this criterion is not observed, it is meaningless to talk about development in society. Therefore, the judiciary must respect people's rights. Protection of human rights and freedoms must be the basic principle of each judge and official in an administrative institution. But he acknowledged that citizens are not completely satisfied with courts.

An author writing as Turgut in the article "Temporary unity of the false opposition" in the newspaper "Azadlig" claims that government circles are experiencing serious troubles regarding their political future. They clearly realize that the present political processes--integration of the opposition parties into a common election block, an increase in political activity of the people and an increasingly tough international stand toward the government--will lead to the failure of the government in the upcoming elections, he says.

An author writing only as Elkhan in an article "The government is anxious about pressures on Azerbaijanis in Russia" published in the opposition newspaper "Hurriyyet" writes that after last month's hostage incident in Moscow, a mass flow of Azerbaijanis from Russia to Azerbaijan is unavoidable. Elkhan points out that Azerbaijanis who have lived in Russia have a quite democratic political worldview; therefore, these people will most probably not be indifferent to political processes in Azerbaijan, once they return. In other words, it means that the ranks of the opposition parties will expand.

(Compiled and translated by Etibar Rasulov)