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Caucasus Report: December 1, 2006

December 1, 2006, Volume 9, Number 40

AZERBAIJANI, ARMENIAN, KARABAKH OFFICIALS COMMENT ON MINSK TALKS. Over the past 12 months, the three co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group that seeks to mediate a solution to the Karabakh conflict have warned repeatedly that the window of opportunity for reaching such a settlement will remain open throughout 2006, but may then close in light of parliamentary elections due in Armenia in 2007 and presidential elections in both Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2008.

In the run-up to those ballots, the co-chairs reason, the two countries' leaders will be reluctant to agree on the serious mutual compromises that a settlement will inevitably necessitate. Consequently, a sense of urgency has imbued successive meetings this year between either the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers or the two countries' presidents. The meeting in Minsk on November 28 between Armenian President Robert Kocharian and his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev was thus widely perceived as the last chance for some time to reach even a preliminary agreement.

The two presidents did not issue any formal statement after their meeting in Minsk. But Aliyev told Azerbaijani National Television on November 29 that since the so-called "Prague process" talks between the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers on approaches to resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict began, the negotiating process has gone through several stages, and "we are approaching the final stage." The first Prague talks took place in April 2004, and Aliyev has met with Kocharian seven times since then; the Minsk meeting was their third this year.

Aliyev said the Minsk talks "were held in a constructive way," and that "we managed to a find a solution to a number of problems we could not agree on before." He added, however, that "divergences remain on crucial points," and that further progress "depends on us ourselves," presumably meaning the conflict sides, as opposed to the Minsk Group. Aliyev stressed that "Azerbaijan's negotiating position remains unchanged," insofar as any solution must preserve Azerbaijan's territorial integrity. He further stressed that Azerbaijani displaced persons (whose number he said exceeds 1 million, compared with UNHCR estimates of 800,000) must be enabled to return to their homes.

Aliyev also said the four resolutions on Nagorno-Karabakh adopted by the UN Security Council (in 1993, and which call for an immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Armenian forces from occupied Azerbaijani territory) must be fulfilled. He said the population of Nagorno-Karabakh "must be provided with the highest form of self-government" possible within Azerbaijan. The constitution of the Azerbaijan Republic defines the Naxicevan Republic as an autonomous republic within the Azerbaijan Republic, with its own parliament, but makes no mention of Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia, however, rules out any "vertical subordination" of the NKR to the central Azerbaijani government.

Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov, who with his Armenian counterpart Vartan Oskanian also traveled to Minsk, similarly described the meeting between the two presidents in an December 1 interview with as having taken place in a productive and open atmosphere. Mammadyarov said that only one issue remains on which the two presidents have failed to reach agreement, but he declined to specify what it is, referring to the need to keep the peace process confidential. He added that he plans to meet in Brussels on December 4-5 with Oskanian and the Minsk Group co-chairs.

Oskanian for his part was more guarded in his comments on the Minsk meeting, telling journalists on his return to Yerevan late on November 28 that "I cannot say concretely whether progress was made or not, but both presidents assessed the meeting as positive in terms of atmosphere and constructive approaches," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on November 29. Echoing Aliyev, Oskanian said the presidents "mainly concentrated on the issues in the document on which no agreement has been reached," presumably an allusion to a half-page document, drafted by the Minsk Group co-chairs and enumerating general principles, that the two presidents discussed earlier this year. Oskanian also said that the elections due in Armenia next spring "will not interrupt" the ongoing peace negotiations, but he admitted that they could make it more difficult to reach any agreement.

Kocharian declined to comment on the talks; his press spokesman Viktor Soghomonian said Kocharian had nothing to add to Oskanian's remarks. In Stepanakert, however, Armen Melikian, an aide to Arkady Ghukasian, president of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR), expressed concern over the implications of President Aliyev's pronouncements. "If President Aliyev is saying that the process is moving in a positive direction, that is quite dangerous in itself," Melikian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on November 30. "To my knowledge, his idea of a positive direction is that Nagorno-Karabakh cannot be an independent and sovereign state."

As outlined by the Minsk Group co-chairmen in June 2006, the draft peace plan under discussion envisages the gradual withdrawal of Armenian forces from territory they currently occupy contiguous to the NKR; the demilitarization of that territory, including the strategic Lacin corridor and Kelbacar, and the deployment of an international peacekeeping force; then, at some future date, the future status of the NKR vis-a-vis the Azerbaijani central government would be decided in a "popular vote or referendum." Insofar as the population of the NKR is overwhelmingly Armenian, such a vote would indubitably register support for independence.

Even so, Melikian admitted to RFE/RL in February 2006 that the Karabakh leadership is not enthusiastic about that draft proposal. He said that any discussion of a referendum is inappropriate in light of Baku's a priori insistence that Azerbaijan's territorial integrity must be preserved at all costs. The Armenian leadership, for its part, has repeatedly made clear that it will not sign any final peace settlement that is unacceptable to the NKR. (Liz Fuller)

AZERBAIJANI AUTHORITIES INTENSIFY PRESSURE ON INDEPENDENT MEDIA. Moves by Azerbaijani authorities on November 24 to curtail broadcasting by sister stations ANS TV and ANS Ch.M radio have highlighted the precarious future of independent media in the country. The most recent action, along with others, has exposed a vague legal framework and the ineffectiveness of a council established to help shield independent media from the state. In Azerbaijan, as in many other CIS states, the electronic media are incomparably more influential than the print media.

Due primarily to financial constraints -- the limited purchasing power of the 8.3 million population and the relatively undeveloped advertising market -- most newspapers that do not benefit from state subsidies appear in print runs of only a few thousand. Baku Today on July 18 cited an opinion poll that established that a mere 2.8 percent of respondents read newspapers regularly, while 70.8 percent read them only rarely or not at all.

For those Azerbaijanis who do not read newspapers, there are three alternative sources of information: state-controlled Azerbaijani TV and radio, which provide only minimal, and generally biased information about opposition political parties; several private television channels that provide primarily entertainment but little in the way of "hard" domestic or international news; and foreign television and radio broadcasts.

The belated creation, in line with commitments Azerbaijan made when it joined the Council of Europe in 2001, of a public broadcaster on the basis of one of the two existing channels of state television has done little to expand that choice. Azerbaijani Public Television finally began broadcasting in summer 2005 in the run-up to the November parliamentary elections (see "RFE/RL Media Matters," September 30, 2004 and "RFE/RL Newsline," August 30, 2005), and its coverage of the November elections was deemed less tendentious than that of the state-controlled media, although by no means wholly objective (see "RFE/RL Media Matters," November 30, 2005).

But an assessment of its first six months of broadcasting faulted programs for monotony, lack of timeliness, and permitting only "a limited dose of political pluralism," according to the independent daily on March 26. And in early October, the National Council for Television and Radio ordered a halt to the rebroadcasting by local stations of BBC and Voice of America (VOA) programs on the grounds that local media outlets "do not have the right to broadcast the programs of foreign radio stations" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 5, 2006).

Most independent media outlets -- whether print or electronic -- that have struggled over the past 10-15 years to fill the "information gap" by reporting on issues ignored by the state-run media have been repeatedly subjected to arbitrary official harassment and reprisals and, in some cases, to libel suits that have resulted in the imposition of huge fines.

In early October, satirical journalist Mirza Sakit Zahidov, who had criticized President Ilham Aliyev in columns published in the independent newspaper "Azadliq," was jailed for three years on drug charges that his colleagues and international media watchdogs denounced as fabricated (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 5, 2006).. Individual journalists have been beaten up, and Elmar Huseynov, editor of the hard-hitting "Monitor," was shot dead outside his apartment last year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 3, 2005).

In that environment, ANS TV swiftly emerged as the sole reliable alternative source of unbiased information. Established in late 1991, the various components of the ANS media empire, which also comprises a news agency, employ up to 1,000 people. ANS TV had an audience of 2.5 million people in Baku and the surrounding areas, according to the website.As the OSCE Office in Baku noted in a statement on November 24, international election monitors have long considered it the most objective Azerbaijani television station.

In July 2006, ANS Radio began rebroadcasting programs by the Azerbaijani Services of RFE/RL and VOA. The daily on November 25 implicitly paid tribute to the unique role of ANS by titling its report on the suspension of ANS broadcasting "The People Have Been Deprived Of ANS."

Nushiravan Magerramli, chairman of the National Council on Television and Radio that on November 24 adopted that decision, told journalists that the ruling was prompted by 11 separate warnings issued to ANS in connection with infringements of the law on broadcasting. The most recent was the opening of a bureau of ANS Radio in the provincial town of Sheki on the eve of the November 2005 parliamentary ballot without obtaining the required license. Magerramli said a tender would be held within the next week for the frequencies on which ANS TV broadcast, but that in the event that ANS makes a bid for those frequencies, his council is empowered to award them to a rival channel, reported on November 24.

In fact, as ANS President Vaxid Mustafayev told journalists five months ago, the channel's legal situation has been unclear since 2003, when its previous broadcasting license expired, reported on June 20. Mustafayev said he was informed, first, that the license would be renewed after the creation of the National Council on TV and Radio; then after the November 2005 elections; then in the spring of 2006. Not only was the license not renewed, however, but in mid-June the Azerbaijani tax police began checking the company's records and discovered what Mustafayev described as "insignificant errors" for which ANS was required to pay a small fine, reported on June 23. Mustafayev told journalists on October 11 that ANS was the sole broadcaster whose license has not been renewed, reported.

The suspension of ANS broadcasts is, however, only part of a broader emerging pattern of adducing quasi-legal arguments in a bid to silence media outlets not controlled by the government. The independent newspapers "Azadliq" and "Bizim yol" were evicted last week from the premises in central Baku they have occupied for over a decade, ostensibly because they owed $26,000 in rent arrears. The State Property Committee has offered alternative premises that the editorial staff of "Azadliq" has rejected as unsuitable.

Azerbaijani officials, in turn, have sought to portray that rejection as an attempt to "politicize" a purely commercial dispute and to depict the paper as the victim of unjust persecution. For example, Aydin Mirzazade, a parliament deputy from the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party, argued on November 27 that ANS should take measures to ensure its activities comply with the law rather than "politicize" its closure. Similarly, presidential administration official Ali Gasanov was quoted on November 29 by as saying that President Aliyev is not empowered to intervene in the workings of, or to overrule decisions by, the National Council on Television and Radio.

Ali Kerimli, chairman of the progressive wing of the opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP) of which "Azadliq" was once the formal mouthpiece, told journalists on November 27 that the Azerbaijani authorities' rationale for the eviction was that they consider him a dangerous challenger to incumbent President Aliyev in the 2008 presidential ballot, RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service reported. That statement is largely wishful thinking, however, given the constraints on opposition activity: Kerimli himself admitted on to on November 30 that the eviction has further limited his party's ability to communicate with mobilize its grassroots members.

Mehman Aliyev (no relation to the president), head of the information agency Turan that had offices in the same building as "Azadliq" and the AHCP and was also evicted, told last week that it is rapidly becoming impossible for independent newspapers to continue publishing. Mehman Aliyev said he fears that very soon only pro-government media outlets will be left. Elchin Shikhli, editor of the independent daily "Ayna/Zerkalo" and chairman of the Union of Journalists of Azerbaijan, concurred on November 24 that Mehman Aliyev's prediction might prove accurate.

The heads of independent media outlets joined forces last week to form a Coordinating Council in Defense of Freedom of Speech, reported on November 22, a move that implicitly calls into question the future of the Press Council established in 2003 with the same proclaimed objectives. The Press Council has reportedly declined to intercede with the authorities on behalf of media outlets under pressure, including both "Azadliq" and ANS.

Meanwhile, experts both in Azerbaijan and abroad continue to puzzle over the rationale for the authorities' crackdown on the independent media. (The timing of that decision seems particularly inept in light of the agreement Azerbaijan recently signed with the EU.) The online daily on November 28 quoted police who participated in the forced eviction of "Azadliq" and Turan from their editorial offices as saying they were acting on orders from the country's top leadership. But if true, that admission does not necessarily preclude the possibility that one faction within the leadership may be out to discredit a rival faction, or even President Aliyev personally.

On November 29, ombudsman Elmira Suleymanova publicly called on President Aliyev to allow ANS to resume broadcasting, reported. She argued that the channel's closure reflects badly on the country's image. Whether her statement is corroboration of a split within the leadership, or is part of a broader campaign intended to create the impression that the threat to freedom of speech is not as draconian as some independent journalists fear, remains unclear, however. President Aliyev told Azerbaijani National Television on November 29 that he has "always supported strengthening freedom of speech." At the same time, he stressed that ANS is obliged to operate within the law, and hinted that the suspension of its broadcasts may be lifted if it manages to resolve, "in a business-like way and with good will," its differences with the National Council for Television and Radio. (Liz Fuller)

ARMENIAN OPPOSITION LEADERS LAUNCH 'PRO-DEMOCRACY' MOVEMENT. Two prominent opposition leaders launched on November 25 what they describe as a broad-based civic movement that will strive to transform Armenia into a democratic and rule-of-law state. Vazgen Manukian, a veteran oppositionist who headed the country's first post-Communist government in 1990-91, and former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian held the founding conference of the movement attended by hundreds of supporters and representatives of other opposition groups. Both men again insisted that the anti-government initiative is not a prelude to the establishment of an electoral alliance. They said they are only trying to end widespread popular apathy which the Armenian opposition says facilitates erosion of civil liberties and a repeat of fraudulent elections.

"We want to build a rule-of-law state where the citizen is the king, where the citizen is free and proud," Hovannisian said in his speech at the gathering. "Our aim is to rally the entire society around a number of simple principles," Manukian told reporters. "First of all, I believe that there is no constitution in Armenia. We live under a constitution which has been twice rigged, and disdain for laws stems from that."

The initiative was welcomed by several prominent public figures and other opposition leaders who attended the conference. "Even in the most remote village, nobody feels protected by the state," said Larisa Alaverdian, Armenia's former human rights ombudswoman. "Human rights are violated everywhere, on a daily basis and in all spheres."

It remained unclear, however, what concrete actions the movement's leaders will take in the run-up to next spring's parliamentary elections. Manukian and Hovannisian said only that they plan to hold rallies and meetings across the country in the coming months. They also urged other major opposition parties and non-governmental organizations to join the initiative. "Either we will fight together or will have no achievements," said Hovannisian. (Astghik Bedevian)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "Should we protect the territorial integrity of every regime that chooses to kill its own citizens?" -- U.S. Ambassador to Serbia Michael Polt, commenting on Belgrade's arguments against granting Kosova independence (quoted by the radio station B92 on November 21).

"Putin cannot get rid of the whole lot of us [Chechens] -- there isn't enough polonium!" -- Chechen human rights activist Mayrbek Taramov in an interview with ChechenPress (November 28).