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Has Azerbaijan Turned A Corner?

  • Liz Fuller
Was the arrest of Turan news agency director Mehman Aliyev a turning point for Azerbaijan? (illustration)

It is conceivable, although judging by past practice unlikely, that the arrest on August 24 of Mehman Aliyev, longtime head of Azerbaijan’s last remaining independent news agency, Turan, may come to be seen as a turning point in that country’s track record of suppression of dissent and media freedom. (The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.)

It is conceivable, although judging by past practice unlikely, that the arrest on August 24 of Mehman Aliyev, longtime head of Azerbaijan's last remaining independent news agency, Turan, may come to be seen as a turning point in that country's track record of suppression of dissent and media freedom.

Aliyev was released from pretrial custody on September 11, but he remains under police supervision and the charges against him of tax evasion and illegal entrepreneurship have not been dropped despite pressure from the U.S. State Department to do so. The Tax Ministry has, however, withdrawn its demand for over 37,000 manats ($21,759) in back taxes that served as the grounds for the charge of tax evasion, the news portal Caucasian Knot reported on September 16.

Four developments may, separately or in combination, have influenced the decision to release Aliyev from pretrial custody. The first is pressure from the U.S. State Department and from international organizations, including the Council of Europe and Reporters Without Borders (RSF). U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (Democrat-Illinois) had proposed adding to a draft bill on foreign aid for 2018 sanctions against the Azerbaijani officials involved.

A happy Mehman Aliyev, with his wife Zemfira Aliyeva (left) and their daughter, Leyla, after his release from prison on September 11.
A happy Mehman Aliyev, with his wife Zemfira Aliyeva (left) and their daughter, Leyla, after his release from prison on September 11.

The second is an investigation by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) that concluded that Baku operated a $2.9 billion slush fund from which bribes or sweeteners were reportedly channeled via shell companies and European banks to European politicians, summaries of which were published in the British newspaper The Guardian and elsewhere in early September.

Ali Hasanov, a longtime aid to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (no relation to Mehman), told the Turkish daily Hurriyet that those "groundless, biased, groundless, and provocative" allegations were concocted and spread by British intelligence and the "Armenian lobby."

President Aliyev’s office similarly issued a statement blaming the “Armenian lobby” and international financier George Soros. It explicitly denied that either President Aliyev or any members of his family “have any relation to the charges contained in the [OCCRP] report.” The release of the Turan head could thus have been intended to counter the negative impact of those damaging allegations.

The third is that Mehman Aliyev had himself written to the president after being assured by staff from the country’s human rights ombudsman that they would do everything in their power to secure his release. Mehman Aliyev told journalists that he informed the president about the work of his agency and its commitment to the highest journalistic standards and professional ethics. He said he asked to be released from pretrial detention but did not engage in any “negotiations” to that end. He also added that he did not wish to be the cause of international sanctions against Azerbaijan.

The fourth and final development was a rare public statement by members of Azerbaijan’s political and artistic establishment implicitly criticizing the authorities’ treatment of Mehman Aliyev. On September 5, the same day that a Baku court rejected a formal application by Aliyev’s lawyer to release him from pretrial custody, a group of 15 parliamentarians, prominent writers, and three journalists appealed to President Aliyev for Aliyev’s release on bail. They stressed his services to his country and the high regard in which he, and Turan, are held abroad.

It is of course possible that that appeal was orchestrated by the presidential administration to create a pretext for apparent magnanimity. But no such public appeal preceded a second, unrelated move: the early release from prison on September 14 of 14 of the 17 men jailed in January in connection with an altercation between Muslim believers and police in the village of Nardaran, a hotbed of radical Shi'ite Islam, in November 2015 during which two police officers died.

Then on September 15, Faiq Amirov, financial director of the opposition newspaper Azadlyq, was released from prison after serving two months of a 39-month term on charges of tax evasion and inciting interethnic hatred to which he had pleaded not guilty. The prison term was commuted to a suspended sentence.

Fuad Aleskerov, an adviser to President Aliyev, told the news portal Caucasian Knot that the release of Mehman Aliyev and the 14 men from Nardaran is in line with “the implementation of the humane ideas and principles” outlined in a presidential edict from February on "making criminal punishment more humane."

Aleskerov did not explain why that edict is being applied so selectively: 157 other Azerbaijani citizens who have been formally designated political prisoners remain in prison. They include Talekh Bagirzade, a charismatic young Islamic theologian serving a life sentence for his imputed role in the Nardaran events; Ilgar Mamedov, leader of the opposition movement Republican Alternative (ReAl); and Gozel Bayramly, deputy chair of the opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front. Bayramly was arrested on May 25 at the border between Georgia and Azerbaijan and charged with attempting to smuggle $12,000 into the country. She is in poor health and, according to her lawyer, can barely walk without the support of her cellmates.

Talekh Bagirzade in Baku in 2013
Talekh Bagirzade in Baku in 2013

In presumably giving the green light for the release of Mehman Aliyev and the 14 Nardaran villagers, the presidential administration may have calculated that the PR benefits of releasing from custody a journalist known and respected in the West far outweighed the possible damage his agency could inflict, especially in terms of influencing developments within the country, and that the Nardaran villagers posed little danger given that their influence does not extend nationwide. That pragmatic line of reasoning would also explain why international appeals to release jailed opposition politicians such as Mamedov have gone unheeded.

On the other hand, the releases could reflect the tactic of reprisal followed by concession in the face of international pressure that dates back to the tenure of Ilham Aliyev’s father and predecessor as president, Heydar Aliyev. For example, just four weeks before the November 2000 parliamentary elections, Heydar Aliyev pressured the Central Election Commission to reverse its earlier rulings barring all but five of the 13 parties that applied to contest the ballot under the party list system from doing so. Politicians and observers in Baku suggested at the time that those reversals were in part a response to pressure from the U.S. State Department and in part motivated by concern not to jeopardize Azerbaijan's acceptance into full membership of the Council of Europe. That leniency did not, however, continue after the elections.

It is thus too early to predict whether the release of Mehman Aliyev marks the start of a less heavy-handed policy toward Azerbaijan’s independent media, or was simply intended to deflect the threat of U.S. sanctions. And even if the pressure on journalists and bloggers is relaxed somewhat, pressure on opposition parties, whom President Aliyev branded in February “a fifth column...out to damage most sacred values of the state,” is more likely to intensify in the run-up to the presidential election due in the fall of 2018.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

How Stable Is North Ossetia?

  • Liz Fuller
Vyacheslav Bitarov's grip on power is beginning to look less secure, despite his election victory.

Just a year after his confirmation as Republic of North Ossetia-Alania head, Vyacheslav Bitarov is facing multiple challenges, from claims of fraud in recent elections to the appearance of Islamic State militants. (The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.)

Just one year after his confirmation as Republic of North Ossetia-Alania head, former prime minister and brewery magnate Vyacheslav Bitarov is facing multiple challenges, ranging from allegations that the parliamentary elections held on September 10 were rigged to the presence of militants reportedly affiliated with the extremist group Islamic State (IS).

Those circumstances might strengthen the position of Bitarov's most serious political rival, Vladikavkaz municipal council head Makharbek Khadartsev. The election results could also signal an end to the tacit alliance between Bitarov and Arsen Fadzayev, who heads the local chapter of the Patriots of Russia party.

The parliamentary elections were problematic from the outset. The outgoing parliament had passed legislation late last year under which the 70 lawmakers are now elected not under the previous mixed (majoritarian/proportional) system but exclusively from party lists. Vitaly Cheldiyev of the Patriots of Russia parliamentary faction, who initiated that law, told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service that it would promote the development of a genuine multiparty system, but it was not generally perceived as such. On the contrary, it was widely deplored as the most anticivic law of the year.

Of the 13 parties that initially applied for registration, only eight succeeded. Communists of Russia was barred from the vote on the basis of a formal complaint by its rival, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), that 40 of the 69 candidates on its party list were not residents of North Ossetia. Communists of Russia retaliated by calling for the KPRF to be similarly stripped of its registration for unspecified violations. A court in Stavropol Krai acceded to that request, but Russia's Supreme Court overturned that ruling after KPRF Chairman Gennady Zyuganov lodged a formal protest with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Party of Veterans, Yabloko, the Russian Socialist Party, and the Russian All-People's Union were all denied registration on the grounds that a large proportion of the signatures submitted in their support were deemed suspect.

One deputy head of the Central Election Commission resigned in early August, and a second was dismissed just days before the vote.

Critics of the voting, in which turnout was officially given as 56.6 percent, say it was marred by fraud, including instances of ballot-stuffing and failure to seal ballot boxes; but the Central Election Commission refused to accept as evidence of fraud three videos posted on YouTube of precinct officials cramming stacks of ballot papers into ballot boxes, the news portal Caucasian Knot reported on September 12.

A number of parties have claimed the September 10 elections were rigged.
A number of parties have claimed the September 10 elections were rigged.

Yet despite that apparent intervention in favor of the ruling United Russia party, the official returns showed a 5 percent decline in support for the party, from 64.3 percent in 2012 to 59.23 percent -- the lowest percentage registered in any of the six legislative elections held simultaneously across Russia that day. By contrast, United Russia garnered 70.77 percent in Krasnodar Krai and 68.99 percent in Penza Oblast. But thanks to the switch to the fully proportional system, United Russia nonetheless ended up with 46 parliament mandates, one more than in 2012.

Patriots of Russia placed second with 15.71 percent of the vote, down from 20 percent in 2012, which translated into 12 mandates, three fewer than before. A Just Russia placed third with 10.1 percent of the vote and seven mandates, up from 7.1 percent and five mandates in 2012; the KPRF received 6.61 percent, marginally less than in 2012, and retained its five mandates.

Claims Of Fraud

Cheldiyev rejected the official returns, telling the local Alania broadcasting company that Patriots of Russia actually won the election, the news agency Regnum reported. Margarita Kulova, who was second on the Patriots of Russia party list, has relinquished her mandate to protest what she described as "large-scale ballot-stuffing."

Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) Chairman Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whose party reportedly received only 2.5 percent of the vote, has demanded a recount. Oleg Eydelshteyn, who heads the LDPR chapter in North Ossetia, told the news agency Regnum that his party received 10 percent of the vote.

Fadzayev, a former wrestling champion who enjoys considerable popular support, has not made any formal comment on the election results. In 2012 and for the duration of then-republic head Taymuraz Mamsurov's second term, Patriots of Russia was the republic's most influential opposition party. But Fadzayev threw his backing behind Bitarov when the latter was installed as republic head last year.

Neither has Khadartsev publicly commented on the election outcome. A former business rival of Bitarov -- he owns the republic's second-largest brewery -- Khadartsev came out openly against Bitarov following the appointment early this year of a new republican election commission from which all the candidates proposed by the Vladikavkaz municipality were excluded. (The city is home to approximately half of North Ossetia's total population of 704,000.) Khadartsev also took Bitarov to task for naming as republican health minister a Russian from outside North Ossetia who immediately dismissed the chief medical officer at the republic's largest hospital. At least a dozen medics resigned in protest and were immediately offered jobs by Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov.

The website On.Kavkaz reported in early March, citing unnamed "sources close to the government," that Khadartsev, hitherto aligned with United Russia, was considering running for parliament on the ticket of Party of Action (Partia Dela) which is virtually unknown in North Ossetia. That information proved wrong, however; the Party of Action did not even apply to register for the ballot.

Bitarov's Increasingly Shaky Grip

Khadartsev did, however, initiate a new attack on Bitarov in the run-up to the September elections. In late August, the Vladikavkaz municipal council addressed a letter to North Ossetia's law enforcement agencies deploring the criminal charges brought against former Mayor Sergei Dzantiyev. A search warrant was issued for Dzantiyev late last year, and he has been charged in absentia with squandering some 75 million rubles ($1.299 million) from the city budget; the municipal council says those expenditures had been officially approved.

Even assuming that Ella Pamfilova, chair of the federal Central Election Commission, chooses not to probe the reported irregularities as ruthlessly as she did analogous alleged violations last year during voting in Daghestan for the Russian State Duma, the outcome of the North Ossetian vote is likely to compound popular antagonism to Bitarov, which has reportedly grown steadily as a result of his failure to kick-start the republic's stagnating economy and reduce its massive state debt. That failure is seen by some as at least partly the result of Bitarov's political experience and a chronic shortage of personnel qualified to serve as ministers or deputy ministers, according to a local journalist quoted by On.Kavkaz.

One further factor, however, suggests the Kremlin may not dismiss out of hand the mounting dissatisfaction with Bitarov's leadership. In what appears to be a classic example of what French scholar Olivier Roy recently termed "the Islamization of radicalism," three young men from North Ossetia who had converted to Islam a few years ago were shot dead last week in a counterterror operation in the North Ossetian village of Chmi, south of Vladikavkaz. The three had recently uploaded to the Internet a video clip in which they formally swear allegiance to IS head Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

A man from Daghestan subsequently identified as a member of the same militant group died in a shoot-out with police in Vladikavkaz later the same day. The four were reported to have been planning either to stage terrorist attacks or to have extorted money from local businessmen.

In December, an aide to Bitarov said eight men from North Ossetia were among the Russian citizens fighting in Syria on the side of the opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; seven months later North Ossetian Interior Minister Mikhail Skokov told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service the number of people from North Ossetia wanted for their alleged involvement with IS was 35. Two suspected IS recruiters have been apprehended trying to enter North Ossetia so far this year.

That IS should appear to be making inroads in North Ossetia is all the more surprising given that the majority of the population are Orthodox Christians; just 25-27 percent are Muslims, including Fadzayev. The Muslim community has been lobbying for the past seven years to regain the use of a 19th-century mosque in Vladikavkaz that was converted into a planetarium after the 1917 October Revolution but has been standing empty since the collapse of the U.S.S.R. Meeting with believers in late June to mark the end of Ramadan, Bitarov categorically rejected that request.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.