One day after the dismissal and arrest of Economic Development Minister Farhad Aliyev, President Ilham Aliyev has fired two other high-ranking government officials in a move that has observers scrambling for explanations.
Health Minister Ali Insanov, one of the founders of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party, and Akif Muradverdiyev, the influential manager of the presidential administration responsible for financing the state-run Khalg Gazeti newspaper, were summarily dismissed from their posts on October 20. Ogtay Shiraliyev has been named as Insanov's replacement. No official reason for the decision has been made public.
The decree, coming just 17 days before the country's November 6 parliamentary elections, shocked ordinary Azerbaijanis and has fueled considerable speculation among journalists, politicians and political experts as to its significance.
While ex-Economic Development Minister Farhad Aliyev had a popular image as a reformer, and was seen as pro-Western, Insanov and Muradverdiyev have no such reputation. Fifty-nine-year-old Ali Insanov ran the health ministry for 12 years, and was seen as the chieftain of a political clan of Azerbaijanis who hail from Armenia, a clan that also is believed to have included Muradverdiyev. Opposition media frequently charged Insanov with favoritism in awarding jobs to doctors and with corruption in running the country's healthcare system.
Experts say that tensions have existed between Insanov and Ilham Aliyev since the latter came to power in 2003, and that Aliyev has long struggled against the health minister's clan. Some argue that, given the allegations against Insanov, his removal could increase President Aliyev's popularity and have a stabilizing effect on the political situation in Azerbaijan after the October 19 arrest of Farhad Aliyev.
An October 20 statement released by the Ministry of National Security and the General Prosecutor's office has outlined the official reasons for Aliyev's arrest and that of his brother, Rafig Aliyev, president of the Azpetrol oil company. According to the statement, both men were in regular communication with Rasul Guliyev, the exiled leader of the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, to arrange financing for a coup. Guliyev, who planned to return to Baku on October 17 after nine years in exile in the US, was detained on Monday pending an extradition request from Azerbaijan when his plane from London to Baku stopped in Simferopol, Ukraine for refueling.
In what the statement terms a "voluntary indication," former Finance Minister Fikret Yusifov, arrested on October 17, has allegedly testified that he met repeatedly with Guliyev and Aliyev, and that the former economic development minister supported Guliyev's plans for what the General Prosecutor's office terms "a violent capture of power."
During a July 2005 trip to St. Petersburg, the statement reads, Yusifov "received [a] phone call from Rasul Guliyev. Guliyev informed Yusifov that he [had] charged Farhad Aliyev as a person responsible for financing [a] coup in Azerbaijan." One month later, Yusifov allegedly met with Aliyev in Azpetrol's headquarters in Baku "and the latter confirmed this information," the statement continues. On October 15, two days before Guliyev's planned return to Azerbaijan, the statement charges, "Farhad Aliyev personally gave 100,000 euro to Fikret Yusifov for the organization of [a] public meeting of Rasul Guliyev in [the] Baku airport on October 17."
The General Prosecutor's office has charged Aliyev under four articles of the Criminal Code: misappropriation of budgetary funds during Azerbaijan's privatization process; abuse of power; organization of disorders; and attempting a coup.
One law enforcement agency source, who requested anonymity, told EurasiaNet that 25 people so far have been detained in connection with the investigation into Farhad Aliyev, including his brother, Alipanah Aliyev, who oversees the Icheri Sheher district historical monuments in Baku's Old City.
Meanwhile, Rasul Guliyev has denied that he has any connection with Farhad Aliyev and Fikret Yusifov. "I never met these people and have no links with them. All these allegations are totally untrue," Aliyev said at an October 20 briefing for journalists in Simferopol's airport. A Ukrainian court released Guliyev from custody on Thursday and the opposition leader has since proceeded to Kiev to hold meetings with several Ukrainian politicians and government officials. Isa Gambar, leader of the opposition Musavat Party and Guliyev's partner in the Azadlig election alliance, has reportedly left Baku to meet with Guliyev in the Ukrainian capital.
Diplomats and representatives of international organizations have as yet remained relatively tight-lipped about the firings, and focused instead on other recent events. In statements at Baku State University on October 20, Daniel Fried, Assistant US Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, stressed American concerns about the arrests of opposition activists and parliamentary candidates in connection with recent unsanctioned demonstrations and about the use of expanded security forces on the streets of Baku. "All of this is prejudicial to the commitment of the government to conduct democratic elections," Fried said.
In an October 19 statement by the head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) mission in Baku, Maurizio Pavesi, said that "the increasing number of violent incidents, the use of excessive and unjustified force against demonstrators, as well as questionable detentions and mass arrests are a major concern for us." [See the EurasiaNet archive.]
With little as yet known about the October 20 dismissals, local experts differ on possible reasons for President Aliyev's removal of Insanov and Muradverdiyev. Some argue that a connection exists between Farhad Aliyev's arrest and the firing of the two officials; others argue that ex-Finance Minister Fikret Yusifov's supposed phone discussion with Guliyev in St. Petersburg was "a gift" to Azerbaijan's government by Sergei Lebedev, chief of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, who met with President Aliyev on October 20.
Meanwhile, with television broadcasts showing soldiers armed with automatic rifles stationed outside Baku's government buildings, other experts simply confine themselves to a straightforward conclusion that "the process" in Azerbaijan is still "developing."