Azerbaijan in recent months has launched a clear assault against various civil-society activists and non-governmental organizations. While rough treatment of critics is nothing new in this energy-rich South-Caucasus country, one question remains unanswered: Why pick up the pace now?
Even in the best of times, the Azerbaijani government is not a talkative bunch. But their stone-wall silence after northern neighbor Georgia triumphantly confiscated roughly $175-million worth of liquid heroin on the Georgian-Azerbaijani border has sparked questions about the reasons for their reserve.
Baku is gaining international recognition as a center of cutting-edge architectural design thanks in part to a major award given recently to London-based architect Zaha Hadid for her Heydar Aliyev center. The Azerbaijani capital’s new look has plenty of local fans, but also some detractors.
Russia is putting the moves on Azerbaijan, as the South Caucasus country’s two neighbors, Georgia and Armenia, prepare to formalize partnerships with rival unions. But ever the pragmatic belle, Baku is resisting Russia’s advances.
Amid growing concern about its treatment of government critics, Azerbaijan on May 14 assumed the rotating chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the 47-member Council of Europe, the continent’s main human-rights body.
There are few outward signs to indicate the Azerbaijani city of Sumgayit, a Soviet-era hub for the petro-chemical industry, is a seedbed of Islamic militancy. Shops and restaurants sell alcohol, and residents dress casually.
The April 19 arrest of prominent Azerbaijani newspaper correspondent and political analyst Rauf Mirkadirov could put an end to efforts by Azerbaijani and Armenian civil society activists and journalists to maintain some form of contact, and bury their so-called “citizen diplomacy.”
The Azerbaijani government has never welcomed such exchanges, but previously never seriously harassed those few Azerbaijanis who took part in them, either. But the espionage charge against Mirkadirov, who had traveled occasionally to Yerevan for conferences, could strongly discourage their continuing. The charge carries a potential life prison sentence.
Rauf Mirkadirov, 53, had worked as the Ankara correspondent of the Baku-based Russian-language Zerkalo (Mirror) daily for the last three years. His articles and op-eds were often critical of both the Azerbaijani authorities and the Turkish government. He was detained on April 19 and deported to Azerbaijan after his press accreditation was suddenly canceled. In Baku, he was arrested upon arrival.
The fact that Mirkadirov was deported just a few days after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Baku made many in Azerbaijan, including Mirkadirov’s lawyer, Fuad Agayev, believe that the journalist’s arrest is the result of an agreement between Ankara and Baku.
Mirkadirov’s family – his wife and daughter – has also left Turkey and is now in another country.
Azerbaijani prosecutors state that Mirkadirov is suspected of having transferred to Armenian intelligence between 2008 and 2009 classified information about Azerbaijan’s political and military sectors, “including photos and schemes to be used against Azerbaijan.” They claim that these supposed meetings occurred in Armenia, Georgia and Turkey.
Mirkadirov’s attorney, Agayev, stresses that his client did not have access to classified information and that, therefore, these charges are groundless.
The deadline is over a year away, but Azerbaijan is sprinting to complete preparations for the European Games, an Olympics-like competition for athletes from 49 European countries. In sprucing Baku up for the event, officials are taking a softer approach to urban renewal than during the run-up to the Eurovision song contest just under two years ago.