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Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan: white gold, black labour

The Azeri Times

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After the global decline in oil prices, Azerbaijan is trying to differentiate its economy betting on cotton industry. In Soviet times the “white gold” was one of the biggest exports of Azerbaijan, today is caracterized by huge violations of workers’ rights

28/08/2018 –  Arzu Geybullayeva

On August 21st, 2018, a regional court in Imisli ruled to release three men under house arrest. All three had been arrested following the mass poisoning of some 200 workers harvesting cotton in the regions of Tartar, Saatli, and Imisli. In total, ten officials were arrested and a criminal investigation was launched by the Grave Crimes Investigation Department of the General Prosecutor Office. Two of the arrested were employees of MKT Production Commercial and CTC Agrp, two companies dominating Azerbaijan’s cotton industry. So far, regional courts have ruled to release six out of ten suspects under house arrest.

Cotton spree

On September 17th, 2016, president Ilham Aliyev visited  Azerbaijan’s once cotton region, Sabirabad. There, he talked about the country’s progress since his election in 2003 and all the work the government has done to achieve regional development across the country. He explained the decline in cotton production as one of the direct outcomes of the market economy and lack of interest in developing the country’s agriculture. This is where the state decided to intervene, he explained. “It was […] decided that since the vast majority of issues related to food production and food security has been resolved […] the state should provide more support for agricultural development and have greater involvement in this area”. The support, explained the president, would help farmers “resolve their problems” while restoring “traditional industries”, which were in recession. A year after president Ilham Aliyev delivered his speech in Sabirabad, a new state programme was signed  on July 13th, 2017, to increase the production to 500,000 tons by 2022.

Pundits believe  , however, that the sudden interest in reviving agricultural infrastructure and in particular cotton industry was not at all related to the authorities’ goodwill and strategic thinking, but to an economic recession at the time. In 2014, Azerbaijan was hit by the global decline in oil prices. The traditionally popular oil industry, that made up 90% of Azerbaijan’s exports, plummeted, and the government was desperate to find other sources of income  .

The cotton industry, often referred to as “white gold”, was one of the biggest exports of Soviet Azerbaijan. In 1981, Azerbaijan produced 831,000  tons of cotton and by 1997 the country made 124 million dollars from cotton exports. But lack of interest in further agricultural development policies, quickly aging technology, and growing indifference with the crop as a result of the lower margins, soon depleted the industry. By 2017, exports had dropped to 24.2 million dollars, while production stood at 207,000  tons according to data by the Azerbaijan State Statistics Committee.

Expired herbicides, poisoned workers, no accountability

On June 10th, 24 workers were reportedly hospitalised in Saatli region. On June 16th, another 14 workers were hospitalised in Tartar region. Four days later, there was another case of workers poisoned. And on June 21st, some 100 workers were taken to a hospital in Imisli region. According to witnesses and other workers the numbers were higher  , but were deliberately lowered by the local officials. Doctors  too said this was not a case of poisoning, but rather a consequence of excessive exposure to the sun. There is still no information on the exact numbers of hospitalised workers, nor on the causes.

A recent investigation by Ifact Georgia, however, tells a different story. There is evidence that Trifluralin, a popular herbicide, was used in Saatli fields. The herbicide should only be handled using special clothing. But workers who were brought to the field in Saatli in June wore little protective clothing – long sleeves, some gloves, and scarves to cover their faces. According to the investigation and the interviews, they had not been informed that the fields were sprayed with herbicides. The same investigation also found out that the pesticide used in Imisli was made in Azerbaijan and produced by Gilan Holding, a company that, as revealed by a recent OCCRP investigation, had links to the two daughters of Ilham Aliyev. The containers found in the fields had March 2012 as an expiration date.

 

The human cost of an ill-assessed government policy

Meeting the goals set forth by the state programme  on cotton growing comes with the cost of a number of violations the regional administration is willing to close its eyes on. Violations of labour rights, underpaid workers, and monopoly over the industry leave workers desperate. Many of those hospitalised returned to work shortly, saying they needed the money  . Workers also often have no contracts or insurance  and make close to nothing, on average 8 to 10 manats (4-10 Euros) per day. There is also forced and unpaid labor. Agriculture expert Vahid Maharramov says  that government institutions are given certain quotas to fill and that is why there have been reports of teachers, students, doctors, and other civil servants sowing the fields in the last two years. One official  at the Ministry of Agriculture acknowledged that state employees and students were sent to pick cotton, however denying any responsibility.

The state programme  for cotton development claims that subsidies in the amount of 0.1 manat for each kilogram of delivered cotton serve as an incentive, but pundits disagree. Maharramov believes  these subsidies make very little difference for farmers, especially when farmers are selling cotton at a set price, which is below market value.

There is another immediate damage on the economy that few officials will talk about. Cotton took up some 50,000 hectares of land that were normally used for breeding. As a result, import of animal products has tripled in the past two years, and so have prices.

While reviving agriculture, and especially the once highly profitable cotton industry, could be good for the country’s economy and employment, such an approach – that lacks a system of checks and balances, transparency, and violates workers’ rights – is all too common for Azerbaijani authorities. An easy solution, unfit infrastructure, and high expectations – all at the cost of human labour and health.

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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