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Azerbaijan Report: April 20, 2001

20 April 2001
The Fight For Azerbaijan, or, Illusions Again?
Recent commentaries in the official and independent press in Azerbaijan suggest that the media are again willingly or unwillingly trying to delude the public with new interpretations of Azerbaijan's role in US-Russian relations, as well as predictions concerning the future of the Karabakh peace talks.

"Yeni Azerbaijan," which is published by the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party, as well as "Zerkalo" and "525," which are semi-independent papers, showed unusual solidarity by claiming that there is a fight going on between the superpowers, specifically between the United States and Russia, for influence over Azerbaijan. They argue that during the peace talks in Key West earlier this month, President Aliyev managed to turn around entire political thinking in Washington concerning U.S. policy towards Azerbaijan and Armenia. Official Washington, they claim, made changes in its priorities, namely the U.S. administration decided to abandon Armenia and support Azerbaijan instead. Wishful thinking rules again in Azerbaijan.

Repeating the theory advanced by "Yeni Azerbaijan," "Zerkalo" and "525" claim that there is a race and competition for influence between U.S. and Russia in the South Caucasus, and that both superpowers are trying hard to gain the support of Azerbaijani leadership. For that reason, the papers reason, both countries are prepared to support the Azerbaijani position in the Karabakh peace talks.

The newspaper "525" goes even further, declaring in its 19 April issue that the public in Azerbaijan should not be afraid of any peace acccord concerning Karabakh, since, as newspaper put it, "Aliyev is not a king (anymore) who has the ability to sign any kind of agreement on Karabakh without consulting his own people. Today Aliyev appears to be a president who is ready to take into consideration the will and opinion of his own people and he will sign a peace accord only if Azerbaijani people approve it."

That is a very interesting and very unusual statement. It is possible that the arguments about a struggle between the superpowers for influence in Azerbaijan, as well as the arguments about President Aliev's victorious trip to Key West, are aimed at the domestic public, not for outside consumption.

Commenting on the Key West talks in its latest issue, the "Economist" takes a quite different look at the "confrontation between the superpowers." The "Economist" noted "a rare example of cooperation among the big powers" in their shared attempt to resolve the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. Three newspapers of different political orientations and one clear pattern. It is an unusual solidarity even in Azerbaijan, where it is hard to find anything unusual. Illusion or reality? There is no clear answer to this question. But it is obvious that President Aliyev is ready to sign a peace acord with Armenia and the struggle (and propaganda campaign) for public opinion has started.

It is clear that the Aliyev leadership is clearing the way and preparing the ground for a peace accord with Armenia. Why have they started to persuade the public so early, and why so hard and why so persistently? There is no clear answer to that question either. It is possible that President Aliyev is going to make far-reaching concessions (maybe too painful for the public in Azerbaijan to accept) in the Karabakh issue and he needs public support: or if not real support, at least expressions of support on the pages of different newspapers.Whether the leadership will be successful in its attempt or fail, remains unclear.

Carey Cavanaugh, the U.S. co-chairman of the OSCE Minsk Group, told Reuters he has to admit that: "The populations are not as far along as the presidents, and it will certainly be a daunting task. The most difficult issue is convincing the populations of both countries on the merits of making significant compromises to achieve peace".

Mr. Cavanaugh is right. The public mood in Azerbaijan, especially in regard to an emotional issue like Karabakh, remains unchanged, to judge by the latest opinion polls: the majority of people in Azerbaijan want peace, but not at any price. This is the message we hear today. Will President Aliyev manage to change this mood? Will he manage to convince the public of the merits of making peace? And if he does not, will the Azerbaijani president act in accordance with the mood of Azerbaijani people, as newspapers claim he will? We shall have to wait until June to answer this question.

(Mirza Xazar)

More Details Of New Karabakh Peace Plan?
In an article entitled "Crossroads in Karabakh?" published in its most recent issue, the "Economist" reveals some details of possible deal between Azerbaijan and Armenia: " The contours of possible deal are becoming clear.The Armenians would give Azerbaijan back six of the seven regions they captured. Nagorno Karabakh and the adjacent Lachin region that links it to Armenia would be granted self-governing status. Azerbaijan would be compensated with an internationally protected road, linking it to its isolated exclave of Nakhichevan.

A Thaw In Russo-Azerbaijani Relations?
Azerbaijani media continue to discuss signs of an improvement in relations between Azerbaijan and Russia since President Vladimir Putin's visit to Baku in January. Several weeks ago, the Azerbaijani authorities extradited some Chechen criminals who were wanted in Russia. Azerbaijan Communist Party parliament deputy Rafig Kurbanov proposed during the last session that Azerbaijan to join Russia (see "RFE/RL Azerbaijan Report," 17 April 2001). But that proposal was rejected by the majority of deputies in the Milli Mejlis.

An RFE/RL correspondent asked experts in Baku to comment on the latest developments in relations between the two countries. Political analyst Rasim Musabekov said that there is no clear indications of an improvement in relations between Baku and Moscow. With the exception of Azerbaijan's position in extraditing Chechen criminals and the fact that Russia did not impose a visa regime on Azerbaijan (although it did on Georgia), all the disputed questions and problems between Azerbaijan and Russia remain unsolved. Rasim Musabekov does not believe Azerbaijan will give up its relations with the West in order to improve relations with Russia. According to Musabekov, Azerbaijan's geopolitical interests require that it preserve close ties with the West.

(Samira Gazieva)

Turkish Embassy Issues Note To Azerbaijani Government
The Turkish Embassy in Baku submitted a diplomatic note to the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry protesting against the destruction of sanitary facilities at the Mosque near the Shahidlar Khiyabani (the cemetary for victims of the January1990 tragedy in Baku and the Karabakh war). According to the note, the facilities were built legally in 1996. They were recently destroyed on the order of the new mayor of Baku.

(Zarkhanym Ahmedli)

Structural Reform of Government Continues
The structural reform of some ministries in Azerbaijan is continuing in accordance with a decree seigned by President Aliyev on April 18. That decree provides for the creation of the Ministry of Fuel and Energy, a State Committee on Land and Cartography, Ministry on Youth issues, Sport and Tourism was created. The Ministry of Press and Information and State Committee on National national relations were abolished.

Musavat Party Criticizes Structural Reform
Gubad Ibadoglu, the head of the Musavat Party's cconomic policy commission, presented a draft of proposals on structural reform on April 19. According to Ibadoglu, there are similarities and differences between the Musavat party's program and the structural reforms embarked on by Aliev.

The Musavat Party proposed cutting the number of ministries from 14 to 12 and the number of state committes from 18 to 16. Ibadoglu attacked the structural reforms implemented by government, comparing them with a purges within the government. He suggested that the recent structural reform serves a political purpose.

(Natig Zeynalov)

Azerbaijan Democratic Party Demands Release of Political Prisoners
The Azerbaijan Democratic Party will stage a protest demonstration in Baku on April 21 to demand the release of political prisoners and creation of normal cconditions for the return of its chairman Rasul Quliev from exile. Quliev, a former parliament speaker, has lived in New York since he was forced to resign in September 1996. Officials from Baku City Council rejected the request for permission to convene a demonstration, saying that there are political prisoners in Azerbaijan. The party said it will go ahead with the demonstration despite the ban.

(Almaz Nasibova)

Railway Workers Protest Illegal Dismissal
Employees of the Railway Department in Khachmaz Raion staged a demonstration on April 19 to protest illegal dismissals. Solmaz Mehdieva, a representative of the Human Rights Research Center in Khachmaz, told an RFE/RL Azerbaijani Service correspondent that there was a conflict between the Railway Department management and employees because the latter have not received their wages for the last 10 months. The protesters created a committee to protect the rights of railway workers and demanded that the management pay their back wages, whereupon the management fired them.

(Zhala Mutallimova)

Number of People Infected With HIV Virus Increased
According to the AIDS Center in Baku, there are 287 people infected with HIV in Azerbaijan. Twenty of them are foreigners and 267 are Azerbaijani citizens. The center said long-distance drivers and prostitution are the main reasons for the growing number of HIV infections.

(Maarif Akberov)

The Milli Mejlis discussed on April 20 problems with changing the names of some Azerbaijani districts and villages. Deputy Shamil Gurbanov reported that the historical names of some 38 Azerbaijani villages in Georgia have been changed by the Georgian government. The deputies also discussed problems with tobacco production and consumption in Azerbaijan. Mais Safarli (Yurddash Party) acccused a certain group of having a monopoly on producing and selling tobacco products in Azerbaijan.

(Zarkhanym Ahmedli)

The independent newspaper "168 hours" reported the arrest of Anar Aliev, President Aliev's brother's grandchild. Anar Aliyev was arrested in February 2001 on charges noted in the article 234 of Criminal Code of Azerbaijan. Article 234 envisages keeping, selling and consuming drugs. His lawyer in an interview with the newspaper accused certain people of "a setup" to discredit President Aliyev and his family.

The opposition newspaper "Azadlig" reports on spread of wahhabism in the northern parts of Azerbaijan where representatives of different nationalities reside. According to the newspaper, harsh economic conditions and poverty contribute to the success of wahhabi misssionaries in the region.

The opposition paper "Yeni Musavat" discussed the latest moves by new Baku mayor Hajibala Abutalibov. The paper described Abutalibov's efforts to rid the capital of illegal small shops as dangerous. The paper claimed that mayor's moves could create a revolutionary situation in Azerbaijan, becaause they have deprived thousands of people of their sole source of income. But "Yeni Azerbaijan," which is controlled by the ruling party, says the accusations against Abutalibov are politically motivated.

The opposition newspaper "Hurriyyet" writes that Baku Mayor Hajibala Abutalibov is close to Ramiz Mekhdiev, head of President's Office. The paper claims Mehdiev's goal is to remove people who are close to Ilham Aliev, the president's son.

(Samira Gaziyeva)

Compiled by Mirza Xazar in Prague and Samira Gaziyeva in Baku