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EXILED MEMBERS OF AZERBAIJAN’S CIVIL SOCIETY IN TBILISI

The Azeri Times

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By VALENTIN LUNTUMBUE*
New Eastern Europe

Walking uphill from the Heydar Aliyev enbankment, along the Koura river, we were strolling the grounds of Tbilisi’s Saburtalo district. After passing shiny modern buildings under construction, we arrived early on Almasiani street, a dusty lane squeezed in between two huge concrete Soviet habitation blocks. We were going to meet exiled members of Azerbaijan’s shrinking civil society.

Once there, I go to the nearby store looking for something to nibble and come back holding a churchkhela, Georgia’s national candy, a sort of sausage made of fried grape juice. I share it with our small group. Our professor, biting his cigarette, declines the offer.

Our contact, Lala Aliyeva, arrives a few minutes late. She is a journalist, working for Chai Khana, a new media online platform tackling a variety of subjects related to life in the South Caucasus in five languages (English, Russian, Azerbaijani, Georgian and Armenian). Lala takes us to one of the building blocks, into the offices of the Caucasus Civil Initiatives Center, a local NGO, where we meet Zohrab Ismayil. Back in Azerbaijan, he was the chairman of the Public Association for Assistance to Free Economy (PAAFE), a Baku-based NGO focusing on transparency, government accountability, economic freedom and respect for property rights.

In the years 2013 to 2015, following the Maidan Revolution in Ukraine and the shady re-election of Azeri president Ilham Aliyev (son of previous president Heydar Aliyev), for a third term, the Azerbaijani government, already one of the most restrictive dictatorships of the European continent, introduced a series of new laws and regulations affecting NGOs, their funding, and their activities. This allowed for an unprecedented crackdown on the NGO sector between 2014 and 2016.

Zohrab was summoned twice to the Prosecutor General’s Office to be interrogated. His NGO’s bank accounts were seized after a closed court hearing, and his own assets were frozen. And Zohrab’s case was far from isolated: journalists and media outlets (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty for example), human rights advocates, and political activists were pressured or prosecuted, forced into exile, or, on the contrary, forbidden to leave the country. NGOs, including international ones such as Oxfam, or the Open Society Foundation, as well as tens of local Azerbaijani NGOs faced prosecution, had their accounts seized and their offices closed. Most of the prominent figures of Azerbaijan’s civil society ended up behind bars or in exile. If some like journalist Khadija Ismayilova, human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev, or human rights activists Anar Mammadli and Rasul Jafarov have been released, their criminal records remain, and in the case of Intigam Aliyev, his travel ban as well. To this day, there are still around a hundred political prisoners in Azerbaijan.

Zohrab has been in exile since August 2014. He worked as a fellow at Michigan State University for a year before joining other Azeri activists in Tbilisi, such as Amin, a young lawyer, also a member of the Caucasus Civil Initiatives Center. There, they conduct and publish research, organise regional projects and training for young activists, advocate for transparency and extract information – from the Panama Papers for example.

Azerbaijan can be described as a captured state, a concept fathered by the IMF to describe a form of grand corruption. State capture means the entire decision-making process and state apparatus is only used to serve the private interests and the enrichment of a small cast of oligarchs. And Azerbaijan is Europe’s most captured state. Its fragile economy rests solely atop its oil reserves. The oil rent, however, does not benefit anyone but the Aliyev clan, their minions, and its vanity architectural works in Baku, part-Dubai-style-pet-projects, part-money-laundering-schemes. Most of the oil rent isn’t shared, and serves no other purpose than stabilising the Azerbaijani currency, the manat, which was devaluated by 97% in 2015. Nothing has been achieved to properly solve the socio-economic crises following the decline of oil prices, no tangible economic progress has been seen on the ground – Azerbaijan entered recession in 2016. The average monthly salary is 515 AZN (or 270 €), a lower number than both of its South Caucasus neighbours’ – Georgia and Armenia. “Oil corrupts, it corrupted political systems everywhere. Azerbaijan isn’t different.” Zohrab tells us. “If we get rid of oil, we can rebuild a state. Azerbaijan is not a state, it is a mafia.”

With the socio-economic situation worsening, repression strengthens to defend a fragile stability. But with a silenced opposition, and an entire state apparatus de facto answering to the Aliyev clan, the Azeris have slowly lost the will to openly oppose their government. Half of them work, in one way or another, for the government – in the Army, in the oil sector… In every family, at least one member is a state employee. They will face repercussions, be forced to resign, have their advancement blocked or be fired if one of their relatives is whispered to be a member of the opposition. There are not many opportunities, or space in the media for the opposition to exist, nor is there any money. Nevertheless, the opposition is there, but almost in worse shape than under the Soviet Union, when it could only exist underground. Join it today and you’ll get your manager reporting on you, your university sanctioning you and your mother losing her job. There isn’t much to join anyway. Too few opposition parties, too weak to properly oppose the government, no free unions… The Azerbaijani state has successfully created cynical citizens, willing to protest, but unable to do it, repressed by social pressure and fear. “We have lost, as a nation, the will to gather together.” explains Amin.

And when protest is in the air, the Aliyev regime has got a secret weapon up their sleeve: Nagorno-Karabakh – the neverending “frozen conflict” with Armenia over the disputed separatist region. No one quite benefits from the Karabakh conflict like the Aliyev family. Not only does it give them legitimacy as defendors of Azerbaijan, but it also chokes the entire public political debate. When in April 2016, after several years of socio-economic crises and growing critiques of the government, the Azerbaijani armed forces launched an offensive over Armenian positions in the mountainous region, the opposition mainly fell in line and unanimously supported the troops. No prominent opposition force (or potential opposition force) in the country thinks Azerbaijan should give up Karabakh. As Zohrab puts it: “Many Azeri believe that if Azerbaijan has a strong economic development, a strong democracy, a strong army and real power, it will be useful for the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.” Even when it comes to economic development, it remains a means to an end – getting Karabakh back.

The picture wasn’t always that grim. Azerbaijan has already been a democracy in the past. When it declared its first independence from the Russian Empire in 1917, it was the first democratic republic in the Turkic world, and the first Muslim-majority country to grant women equal political rights to men, and one of the first countries ever to allow them to vote, in 1918. It had a free and diverse press, including a famous progressive satirical journal, Mollah Nasreddin. At the fall of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijani civil society was strong and active. When Heydar Aliyev took power in the 1990s, he was opposed by huge political organisations and “republican” movements. Azeris are proud of that heritage, and they suspect that European Institutions do not pressure the Azerbaijani state the way they do Belarus because they are afraid it will turn into an Islamic republic without Aliyev in power. Amin and Zohrab keep on emphasising that Azerbaijani society and the opposition are deeply secular and there is no will to see the rise of a religious party.

They both have hope. The opposition who challenged Heydar has survived. Even if the still underdeveloped civil society sector has been crushed, it has survived. The state cannot reach them everywhere, particularly in Azerbaijan rural areas, where the state is less present there is room for them to act. They have observed Ukraine and Georgia, and learned from their successes and mistakes. The next time Ilham’s power is shaken they will be ready to act, they assure us. “Political rights are okay, but when you work 60 hours a week, you don’t need values. We should focus more on economic and social rights than political rights.” Zohrab says. A lesson that seemed directed at the European Union.

When talking about LGBT and gender issues, among the many other issues tackled by Chai Khana, Zohrab deems them “not a priority” but is cut by Lala, who adds “For now”. As we all try to repress a smile, seeing him apologise to the young woman, he concludes “It will come. First we need to address torture and freedom of assembly, then that.”

This piece was originally posted on the Natolin Blog – a blog curated by students of the College of Europe’s Natolin campus in Warsaw.

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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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