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ANOTHER PRO-GOVERNMENT TV STARTED BROADCASTING IN AZERBAIJAN

The Azeri Times

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Originally published by Eurasianet

A new, all-news television station has started broadcasting in Azerbaijan. And as is the norm in the oil-rich dictatorship, the network has taken a strongly pro-government line.

What has surprised many in Azerbaijan, however, is that the new station, Real TV, appears to have been built at least in part on the remnants of the country’s last independent television station, ANS.

The co-founder of ANS, Mirshahin Aghayev, is the general director of Real TV. Several ANS reporters now work for Real, and even the set design for the new station bears a strong resemblance to that of the old.

“The style is totally ANS, since our team is running it,” said one former ANS and current Real employee, who asked to remain anonymous. (Disclosure: I worked at ANS for a stint in 2011.)

Azerbaijan’s government shut down ANS in 2016, shortly after the coup attempt in Turkey, a close ally to Baku. ANS had been planning to air an interview with Fethullah Gülen, the United States-based cleric whom Turkey blamed for the failed coup.

ANS’s independence was always limited; it never criticized the country’s senior leadership. Aghayev was the subject of much mockery when, after ANS was shut down, he publicly appealed to former president Heydar Aliyev – who had been dead for 14 years – to intercede on the station’s behalf.

But the network was nevertheless a relatively rare place where lower-level problems in Azerbaijan could be discussed. And the station’s ownership was independent of the government; it was owned by Aghayev and his two co-founders.

Real TV, by contrast, appears to be indirectly controlled by the family of President Ilham Aliyev, according to investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova. “We can’t identify [all of the] owners […] but two are known to us, as they were registered before the company ownership information became unavailable: Modern Group of Companies and Mega Insurance,” Ismayilova wrote in a March 5 Facebook post. “Both were founded by Yashar Gurbanov. Gurbanov is also a member of the Expressbank board of directors. Expressbank belongs to [the] Aliyevs.”

That makes a fundamental difference between ANS and Real, many observers note.

“The employees who will work there [at Real] understand quite well that it is a government project. Therefore it is wrong to say that ANS has reopened,” said Sevinc Osmanqizi, a former editor at ANS who is now based in the U.S. and working on another independent news channel. She also noted that ANS’s equipment and property, which had been seized by the government, has not yet been returned.

“The reason that ANS was closed down is still there,” Alasgar Mammadli, a media expert, told Eurasianet, referring to Turkish pressure on Baku. “What is happening now has nothing to do with the previous ANS.”

The station has already taken a noticeably pro-government line, featuring interviews with presidential adviser Ali Hasanov and several other senior officials.

The controversy around the new station has led many of the transfers from ANS to try to hide their involvement. Two former ANS reporters contacted by Eurasianet denied that they were involved in Real, despite the network releasing promotional videos featuring them.

But Aghayev’s role is public, and controversial. He has attacked dissidents on the air and notoriously got into a Facebook fight with Netherlands-based activist Orduhan Temirhan in which he insulted Temirhan’s mother and sister.

In another Facebook post, Aghayev hit back at critics and argued that the station was needed to defend Azerbaijan against foreign enemies. “People are trying to explain how television works to me, one of the founders of independent television in Azerbaijan,” he said in a March 12 Facebook post. “This is the time to support me and those who are on the same side as me. The propaganda aggression that the state has been exposed to externally must be resisted by the real fighters. As a television director, I know what kind of weapon it is and how to wield it.”

Osmanqizi, the former ANS editor, said the station appeared to be aimed at blunting the effect of opposition media abroad, like the Berlin-based Meydan TV, as well as independent bloggers and social media activists.

“Real became a necessity because of the growing strength of bloggers and the internet media from abroad,” Osmanqizi said. “The authorities realize that many media outlets are not working and have lost trust among the population.” She said Real appeared to be formed out of “desperation” ahead of presidential elections, scheduled for April.

“In order to become an alternative to Meydan in any other form, they should try to be like it, rather than to fight against it,” said Mammadli, the media expert. “But it’s clear that Real will not take the same line as Meydan.

Lamiya Adilgizi is a freelance Azerbaijani reporter.

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Corruption

UK aims at shady Azerbaijani money – but is it missing the target?

The Azeri Times

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Some have expressed concern that the UK’s first use of the “unexplained wealth order” targeted someone already out of favor with the Azerbaijani government.

The announcement that the wife of an Azerbaijani banker is the first target of British efforts to crack down on foreigners’ illicit wealth was welcomed by good government advocates, but raised concerns that London may only be aiming at figures who are out of favor with their home governments.

On October 10, British media reported that the target of Britain’s first “unexplained wealth order” is Zamira Hajiyeva, the wife of Jahangir Hajiyev, the former head of the International Bank of Azerbaijan. The order is a recently introduced instrument allowing British law enforcement officers to demand explanations when a person’s wealth does not correspond to their declared income. It is aimed at cracking down on the vast amounts of ill-gotten wealth – much of it from the former Soviet Union – parked in London.

There is no shortage of dodgy Azerbaijani money in the UK. The investigation into the “Azerbaijani Laundromat,” for example, found that shell companies based in the UK played a key role in the Azerbaijani political elites’ money-laundering and influence-buying operations.

The Hajiyevs, meanwhile, had already been cast out of the Baku political elite: In 2015, Hajiyev was sentenced by an Azerbaijani court to 15 years in prison for misuse of funds.

The government-friendly Azerbaijani press – not typically a fan of stories about Azerbaijanis falling afoul of investigators in the West – widely reported the news about Hajiyeva. “All of England is talking about Zamira Hajiyeva,” crowed a headline on Haqqin.az, a news site connected to Azerbaijan’s security forces.

Two days before the news broke in the UK, in fact, Haqqin had already reported that Hajiyeva was the target of the order. The story cited the Telegram channel Banksta – a Russian-language channel covering banking affairs – but a sister website of Haqqin, Azeri Daily, had named Hajiyev as early as July.

That Hajiyeva was targeted, out of the many potential subjects of the order, raised some consternation among observers.

“There is an interesting issue with the case of Zamira Hajiyeva,” tweeted Anar Mammadli, an Azerbaijani human rights activist. “After all, she and her husband, Jahangir Hajiyev, are not the first Azerbaijani civil servants to buy property in London. Will the other official-families’ ‘contributions’ to the British economy be investigated? After all, they are not alone!”

“What a can of worms,” tweeted John Heathershaw, a professor at the University of Exeter who studies post-Soviet financial ties with the West. “Many thousands more potential cases. Or are we just going to look at those who have fallen out of favour with their home governments?”
“What a can of worms,” tweeted John Heathershaw, a professor at the University of Exeter who studies post-Soviet financial ties with the West. “Many thousands more potential cases. Or are we just going to look at those who have fallen out of favour with their home governments?”

“Hajiyev and his wife have already fallen foul of the system in Azerbaijan. I don’t imagine the Azerbaijani regime will be overly concerned to see this investigation. Who knows, maybe they even had a hand in triggering the investigation,” tweeted analyst Alex Nice.

“My take on the UWO is that it looks like a missed chance to send a big message,” tweeted Oliver Bullough, a journalist who has extensively covered post-Soviet wealth in the UK. “Jahangir Hajiyev had already been jailed in Azerbaijan so why not use the standard asset recovery route, as with Gulnara Karimova? UWOs are supposed to be for assets that can’t be seized otherwise.”

Nevertheless, the move was welcomed by good government advocates. “UWOs should now be used more widely to pursue more of the £4.4 billion worth of suspicious wealth we have identified across the UK,” Duncan Hames, director of policy at Transparency International UK, told the BBC.

And some in the region wondered if their oligarchs would be next. “It seems that investigators from the National Crime Agency started from the letter ‘A,’” joked Uzbekistani writer Hamid Ismailov on twitter. “Uzbek ‘nouveau riches’ might think that they are last in the running order:) in between Uganda and Zambia.”

Joshua Kucera is the Turkey/Caucasus editor at Eurasianet, and author of The Bug Pit.

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Politics

Political émigré who returned home to visit critically ill father arrested on fraudulent drug-related charges

The Azeri Times

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Azad Hasanov, Musavat party member and political exile living in Lithuania, has been arrested during a short return to his home country and charged with drug trafficking.

According to his lawyer, Osman Kazimov, the Khatai District Court sentenced him to four months in detention on drug-related charges. Under Article 234.4.3 (illegal manufacturing, purchase, storage, transportation, transfer or selling of sale of drugs), Hasanov faces between five and twelve years in prison.

On 11 October, Musavat deputy chairman Sakhavat Soltanli reported that Hasanov had disappeared and was likely arrested. He has been a member of the Surakhany Musavat branch since 2003 and had relocated to Lithuania in 2014, where he was granted political asylum.

He returned to Baku on 10 October, upon learning that his seriously ill father was about to die.

According to his spouse, Tarana Hasanova, he did not have any problems flying into Baku airport: “His father has been seriously ill and is about to die. He arrived on 10 October during the night. He did not have any problems crossing the border and stayed with his father until noon. He later went to the Mosque to pray. That’s where people in civilian clothes stopped him and forced him into a car. When his brother tried to help him, they pushed him aside and told him they are from the police.”

Hasanov’s fate recalls the case of lawyer Emin Aslan who was forced into a car by people in civilian clothes a few days after returning from his studies in the US. He later was found to be held at the Office for Combating Organized Crime, and spent 30 days in detention for failing to obey a police officer’s orders.

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Society

European film festival in Baku: a Dutch cat, a Hungarian horse and a ‘faceless’ French artist

The Azeri Times

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The 9th European Film Festival has officially begun in Baku.

The event is organised by the European Union in Azerbaijan and will end on 21 October, until which time the public is invited to view 19 European films free of charge.

Here are some of the films we recommend:

The documentary film Wild Amsterdam, accompanied by director Mark Verkerk and producer Ignas van Schaick, will be screened at the festival. The film centres around the animals of Amsterdam, but not in a way you might expect: the story is told from the perspective of a cat, who shows us how squirrels, pigeons and waterfowl live in Amsterdam’s canals and parks.

The directors say that the consultation with ecologists and other specialists took half a year by itself. The film is a viewing wonder, dynamic and modern. For example, one scene depicts the retrieval of bicycles from the bottom of the canal with the help of special machinery. The scene looks as if it has been cut right out of a thriller because of how it traumatises the crabs living on the bottom.

The film Kincsem – Bet on Revenge is from Hungary, and also concerns the fate of an animal – a racehorse who belongs to a broke aristocrat forced to earn money through racing. However, the film is not about horseracing, but rather about competition between members of high-class society in the Austrian Empire. The film’s action revolves around the young aristocrat who becomes involved in a dispute with an Austrian officer, whose daughter later falls for the main character.

Barbara, a film by Christian Petzold, is a drama shot in 2012 which takes viewers back to 1980 when Germany was still divided by the Berlin Wall. The main heroine of the film lives in the German Democratic Republic and dreams of leaving. Forced to work in the country and under constant surveillance, she methodically prepares her plan to escape. At first it seems everything will work out and that nobody can prevent her from leaving, including the all-powerful Stasi. However, an inconvenient and unexpected attachment to one of her colleagues jeopardises her escape.

Latvian film Dream Team 1935 by Aigars Grauba was also shot in 2012 and also offers an excursion into the past – to the pre-war period of 1935 when the first European Basketball Championship took place in Geneva. Participation in the championship was a great chance for national teams to go down in sports history. The Latvian team seizes the opportunity, though young trainer Baumanis soon comes to understand that it is far more important to overcome oneself than one’s enemy…

Halima’s Path is the work of Croatian director Arsen Anton Ostoyich, and is dedicated to one of the bloodiest wars of the second half of the 20th century – the war in former Yugoslavia. The action takes place in the post-war years in Bosnia. A woman by the name of Halima who lost her husband and son (though not biological) dreams of finding their remains in order to give them a proper burial. She is only able to do this with the help of DNA analysis. While she is able to find her husband’s remains, she finds it difficult to do so in the case of her son. Halima must then go through some hardship to find the biological mother of her son in order to find him.

The French film See You Up There is also devoted to war and its consequences. This time, the action takes place during World War I. The story begins in the final days of the war, when two young soldiers – an artist from a wealthy family, Edouard, and a former bank employee, Albert – are forced to go to their certain deaths on the orders of a malicious captain. Edouard, whose face has been disfigured, saves Albert, which firmly binds the two friends together: now Edouard is an ‘invisible’ artist, and Albert his impresario.

In addition to film screenings, the festival includes workshops and discussions with European directors.

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