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Caucasus Report: March 14, 2002

14 March 2002, Volume 5, Number 10

COULD 'ALTERNATIVE' ISLAM BECOME A FORCE IN MAINSTREAM AZERBAIJANI POLITICS? On 12 January, for the first time since the genesis of the Azerbaijan Popular Front in the summer of 1989, participants in an opposition demonstration in Baku openly displayed green Islamic banners. And a few weeks later, residents of the village of Nardaran on the outskirts of Baku taunted visiting city Mayor Hadjibala Abutalibov with shouts of "Allahu Akbar" (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 5, No. 8, 28 February 2002). At the same time, the prestige and influence of Azerbaijan's official religious "establishment," the Spiritual Board of Muslims of the Caucasus which has been headed since the 1980s by Sheikh ul Islam Allakhshukur Pashazade, is reportedly rapidly evaporating, while that of some other members of the unofficial Muslim clergy is on the rise.

Those developments suggest that Islam is becoming a rallying point for the dispossessed, impoverished, and unemployed, and even simply for those Azerbaijanis who reject many aspects of western culture. Turan last month quoted Zardusht Alizade, co-chairman of the Social-Democratic party of Azerbaijan as saying: "The politicization of Islam has helped drive the secular opposition into a corner. A holy place is never empty, and the population has reached out for the mosques...The politicization of Islam was the reaction of the lower classes to the introduction of such attributes of Western mass culture as beauty contests, the cult of eroticism, the legalization of sexual minorities, and the provocative consumption of the upper classes. The ethical puritanism of the conservative sectors of the population manifested itself in the form of devotion to the Islamic behests of their forebears."

Moreover, it appears to be not the mosques that are directly subordinate to the Muslim Spiritual Board to which believers are flocking, but other mosques, often built with funds from abroad and with self-appointed imams. One of the most influential such mosques is the Cuma or Abu-Bekr mosque in Baku, construction of which was financed by the Kuwaiti foundation "Restoration of the Islamic Heritage," and whose imam, Hadji Hamet Suleymanov, is said to be more popular than Sheikh ul-Islam Pashazade. The mosque was investigated in January for a possible connection with the young Azerbaijanis who went on trial on charges of aspiring to fight as mercenaries in Chechnya (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 November 2001 and 4 January 2002). But the authorities decided against either closing it down or appointing another imam to replace Hadji Hamet, instead imposing restrictions on its activities and banning the sale there of religious literature.

The Abu-Bekr mosque is only one of an estimated 150 built in Azerbaijan since 1992 with funds from abroad. The independent newspaper "Ekho" reported on 16 February that over that period the Turkish government has financed construction of eight new mosques and the reconstruction or repair of two more. The total number of registered functioning mosques, according to State Committee for Religious Affairs chairman Rafik Aliev, is around 1,300.

That committee is currently completing the process, which it began last fall, of reregistering all religious communities in Azerbaijan (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 30, 16 August 2001). Keston News Service on 11 March quoted Aliyev as saying that 120 religious organizations (100 of them Islamic) have been registered to date, while "about 100" applications remain to be considered. He declined to specify how many of the previously registered 406 organizations applied for reregistration, or how many had been refused.

In an interview with ANS TV on 21 January, however, Aliyev said that there are up to 2,000 unregistered religious organizations in Azerbaijan. (The deadline for applying for registration was 1 February.) He also said 22 unregistered and Iranian-funded medreses (religious schools) that had been operating for six-seven years have been closed down because the course of instruction they offered was deemed unacceptable by the Azerbaijani government. (The Iranian influence is also said to be particularly strong in Gyanja, Azerbaijan's second-largest city, which suffers from an almost total lack of basic amenities and very high unemployment.)

In the course of that TV interview, Aliyev also admitted that his committee is concerned at the sums of money being channeled into religious activities. He pointed out that not all the funds earmarked by foreign organizations for the construction or repair of mosques are actually used for that purpose, adding that his committee is trying to establish how the remainder is used. "Ekho," for its part, calculated that the Turkish government claimed to have spent $2.7 million on the 10 mosques referred to above, a sum the paper considered far exceeded the actual building costs.

In addition to funds provided by foreign Islamic organizations for promoting religious activities in Azerbaijan, individual mosques collect considerable sums from the faithful: Turan quoted the independent TV station Space TV as calculating that the monthly revenues of the Bibi-Geybat mosque in Baku amount to 235 million manats ($50,000), while the annual revenues republic-wide total millions of U.S. dollars.

Azerbaijan's opposition parties are well aware that the burgeoning popularity of Islam could both destabilize the domestic political situation, and undercut the degree of support they currently enjoy. Some parties, including the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, have amended their programs to give greater emphasis to the role of Islam in Azerbaijani society, according to the party's deputy chairman for religious affairs, Nariman Gasymoglu. The party advocates compulsory religious education in secondary schools, the establishment of a higher religious college subordinate to the State Committee for Religious Affairs, and a more effective investigation of the financial activities of religious organizations.

With the exception of the compulsory reregistration of religious organizations -- which many unofficial religious communities appear to have ignored -- few suggestions have been made as to how to stem the rise of "parallel" Islam. But Nazim Imanov of the Azerbaijan National Independence Party proposed last November to the newspaper "Zerkalo" that all persons aspiring to the position of mullah should undergo a public attestation with the aim of barring those who are either corrupt or who have only a rudimentary knowledge of the Koran. (Liz Fuller)

WORLD BANK WARNS GEORGIA. Following a two-day visit to Tbilisi last week, Judy O'Connor, who is the World Bank's country director for the South Caucasus and East Asia, warned on 8 March that the Bank may cut its support for Georgia by up to 20 percent next year, from $130 million for the three-year period beginning in 2003 to $100 million, unless the Georgian government takes effective measures to tighten financial discipline. O'Connor called for improvements in tax collection, the reorganization of the energy sector to ensure that customers pay for the electricity they use, measures to resolve social problems, improving the business environment, and tougher measures to combat corruption. She pointed out that Georgia does not always make the most effective use of international loans, and that some projects for which the Bank has earmarked funding have not yet been implemented. (The Bank's permanent resident in Tbilisi, Tevfik Yaprak, made the same point during a meeting in early February with Djorbenadze, pointing specifically to a World-Bank funded program to repair Georgia's highways.)

O'Connor also rejected a request by Georgian Minister of State Avtandil Djorbenadze to consider financing post-conflict reconstruction projects in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Presidential economic adviser Temur Basilia described the Bank's assessment as "one of the toughest ever." President Eduard Shevardnadze sought, as always, to downplay the possible impact of a cut in World Bank aid, affirming that "we will not die" as a result.

Meeting with Shevardnadze in Washington last fall, World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn had warned that the Bank's future assistance to Georgia would depend largely on "tangible results" in implementing a reform program that would serve as a basis for sustainable economic development. (Liz Fuller)

ARMENIANS IN DJAVAKHETI DENY SEPARATIST AMBITIONS. An Armenian nationalist group operating in Georgia's southern Djavakheti region rejected on 11 March the latest Georgian accusations of separatism that followed its renewed calls for greater local self-rule. The Virk party, which has been denied registration by the government in Tbilisi, said that the claims made by Georgian politicians and the media "mostly do not correspond to reality" and aim to "prepare the ground for external interference in the region's life."

"The population and political organizations in Djavakheti have never demonstrated separatism, and the region has always been one of the most peaceful corners of Georgia," Virk leaders said in a statement distributed through A-Info, a local news agency.

The statement said Virk will not take any steps that could destabilize the situation in the Armenian-populated districts of Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda where public discontent with wrenching living conditions has run high for the past 10 years (see "End Note," "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 September 1999). It said the party and its allies are only campaigning for a "higher status of local self-government."

The heads of local administrations are appointed by the Georgian government. The two districts are in turn part of the larger Samtskhe-Djavakheti province which incorporates surrounding Georgian-populated areas. The Samtskhe-Djavakheti governor is also named by Tbilisi (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 5, No. 5, 31 January 2002).

The calls for Djavakheti's autonomy, which have never been backed by Armenia, led the Georgian parliament's Committee on Defense and Security to hold an emergency meeting late last month. Its chairman, Giorgi Baramidze, has reportedly accused nationalist groups in Djavakheti of having ties with unspecified foreign intelligence services. He has also stressed the fact that none of those groups is officially registered with the Georgian Ministry of Justice.

But the Virk statement countered that the authorities in Tbilisi themselves refuse to register the party, citing "unfounded justifications." That refusal is a "blatant violation of human rights," it said.

Virk leaders, like the vast majority of Armenians in Djavakheti, are vehemently opposed to the closure, which Tbilisi is insisting on, of the Russian military base in Akhalkalaki. The base is the single largest employer in the unemployment-stricken area. The locals also regard it as a security guarantee against neighboring Turkey. The future of the facility is a major bone of contention in uneasy Russian-Georgian relations, with Moscow pushing for the right to keep the base for another 12-15 years.

The authorities in Armenia, which also has a common border with Djavakheti, have so far avoided any interference in the dispute, saying that it is Georgia's internal affair. Yerevan has also sought to distance itself from the autonomy demands. (Emil Danielyan)

MANUKIAN PARTY TO SEEK ALLIANCES FOR 2003 ELECTIONS. The opposition National Democratic Union (AZhM) will seek to form an alliance with other parties to contest next year's parliamentary elections, its chairman, Vazgen Manukian announced at a news conference on 14 March. In a first indication of his pre-election plans, Manukian said it is "preferable" for the AZhM to run for the parliament in a bloc. He admitted that his party, weakened by a series of splits, will find it hard to become a key player in the political arena without gaining strong allies.

Manukian would not say who his potential allies are. But he ruled out the possibility of teaming up with the Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh), the former ruling party which is also looking to form an electoral alliance (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 5, No. 9, 7 March 2002).

Once the main opposition force in the country, the AZhM has seen its political clout diminish considerably since 1998, when Manukian fared much worse than expected in the preterm presidential elections that followed the forced resignation of President Levon Ter-Petrossian. It has gone through two devastating rifts over the past year. One AZhM splinter group protested Manukian's reluctance to cooperate with the authorities, while the other complained that his anti-government stand is too soft.

Manukian, who headed Armenia's first non-Communist government in 1990-91, sought to end the perceived ambiguity of his political line, launching a strong verbal attack on the current authorities. He said the country's future will be in jeopardy if they manage to cling to power after next year's presidential and parliamentary elections. "If after the 2003 elections the same individuals and groups stay on in power, Armenia will be doomed," the former prime minister said.

Manukian similarly avoided an explicit answer to a question about his participation in the 2003 presidential ballot, saying only that he does not yet see political leaders who fully share his vision of Armenia's future and are capable of making that vision a reality. (Hrach Melkumian)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "The OSCE and its Minsk Group are unable to resolve the Karabakh problem." -- Democratic Party of Azerbaijan General Secretary Sardar Jalaloglu, quoted by Turan on 9 March.

"We do not have magic wands." -- OSCE Minsk Group co-chairman Nikolai Gribkov, quoted by Noyan Tapan on 11 March.