With Azerbaijan’s prisons increasingly full of government-detractors, it might have seemed to many only a matter of time before Azerbaijani prosecutors would again focus on Khadija Ismayilova, a prominent journalist known for her exposés of government corruption. Speaking from Strasbourg, Ismayilova told EurasiaNet.org that she expects to be arrested on October 3, upon her return home to Baku from a trip to Europe.
Ismayilova received a court summons on charges of criminal libel during this trip, travel intended to relay what is widely seen as a wholesale crackdown on civil society in the energy-rich, ex-Soviet republic. An award-winning RFE/RL reporter who also has worked for EurasiaNet.org, Ismayilova needs to appear in court the day she returns to Baku.
“I will be arriving with a lawyer and my main lawyer will be waiting [in Baku],” she said.
Her trip was closely watched in Baku. At one human-rights talk in Warsaw, hosted by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Ismayilova and several other participants, wearing t-shirts with the photos of Azerbaijani political prisoners, turned their backs on a presentation on human-rights issues, which, they charged, lacquered over ongoing repressions. Azerbaijan’s government-linked media was quick to attack Ismayilova, claiming she was commanding a group of people from Armenia, the country’s longtime foe.
Authorities in Azerbaijan are seeing red after a democracy-watchdog activist they jailed received an international award from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Granting the Vaclav Havel prize for civil society activism to Anar Mammadli constitutes outside pressure on an independent state, Ali Hasanov, a key aide to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, declared on September 30.
In a familiar line, Hasanov attributed the award to contrivances by Azerbaijan’s enemies. He said that such steps serve to “support the fifth column underwritten by certain foreign forces” [a frequent euphemism for enemy-neighbor Armenia] and that Azerbaijan is free to arrest those who violate the law. “It is quite obvious that certain organizations, acting behind the façade of human-rights advocacy, are not at all independent and follow very concrete instructions,” he declared, the pro-government APA news agency reported.
Azerbaijan, however, currently chairs a committee within one of the "certain organizations," the Council of Europe, the continent ’s main human-rights body, and the award put the CoE in an awkward place. (Azerbaijan holds the seat until November.) Many critics argue that the 47-nation forum is not the place for Azerbaijan, which recently has detained scores of journalists, civil-society leaders and activists who criticize the government.
Many would guess Russia, but it is actually Argentina. Data on direct foreign investment shows that Argentina now ranks as the largest foreign spender in this South Caucasus country, better known for its politically prohibitive economic reliance on Moscow.
The official stats, reported by Hetq Online, suggest that Armenia’s trade, development, and even foreign policy options may not be as limited as its long dependence on Russia may suggest.
For years, Russia has been the single largest foreign investor in Armenia until France took over the title in 2012. A year later, Russia got pushed further down the list, below France and Argentina, which is now in the lead with just just under $118 million.
One man could be behind the seemingly unlikely Armenian-Argentinian connection. The full detail of Argentina’s investment projects in Armenia is not readily available, but Argentinian billionaire Eduardo Eurnekian, an ethnic Armenian by descent, could be behind the hike.
Argentina’s second richest man, Eurnekian is committed to turning Armenia into paradise on earth and has called on fellow members of the far-flung Armenian Diaspora to shoulder the task. The octogenarian airport and investment magnate has invested in upgrading and expanding Yerevan’s international airport, Zvartnots, and gifted an airplane to the new airport in Nagorno-Karabkh, the ethnic-Armenian-controlled breakaway territory.
The killing of an 18-year-old Georgian fighter in Syria has displayed Georgia’s homegrown radical Islam issue, just as this South-Caucasus country tries to contribute to the US-led efforts against Islamic-State terrorists.
Beso Kushtanashvili reportedly became the sixth Georgian to die fighting in Syria. Like all others, Kushtanashvili was from the largely Muslim Pankisi Gorge, an isolated area to the northeast of the capital, Tbilisi.
Whether or not he was fighting for ISIS is not clear. Villagers from the Pankisi Gorge told Georgian television channels that they last saw Kushtanashvili at a summer high-school graduation party before he left for neighboring Turkey. Friends and relatives say they are clueless about how he ended up in Syria.
Earlier on, one Pankisi resident Leila Achishvili lost two of her sons in the Syria war. She told Rustavi2 TV that she had travelled all the way to Syria to beg her sons to come back.
“I was telling them that this is not our war,” Achishvili told Rustavi2. She said that she even met Tarkhan Batirashvili, the Pankisi native who, under the name of Omar al-Shishani, commands a unit within the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The US recently placed Al-Shishani on its black list of terrorists.
No official information has been released about the number of men who have gone from Pankisi to fight for the so-called Islamic State or other radical Islamic groups.
There still might be room for a substantial partnership between the European Union and Armenia, says Brussels, but it will depend on how exclusive the Caucasus country’s relationship is going to be with the Eurasian Union, Russia’s planned alternative trade bloc.
But, ever the jealous lover, Russia wants exclusivity. If Armenia cold-shoulders the bloc, that could mean a Ukrainian-like upheaval, a Russian envoy warned this week.
In the year since it spurned the first EU's advances for those of the second EU, Armenia, putting its chess prowess into practice, has tried to keep its options still open. But things are getting confusing.
“For [a] broad and new definition or redefinition of our relations, we need to have a complete overview and idea from the Armenian side as to what they can do in the new circumstance created by Armenia’s membership in the Customs Union,” Peter Stano, spokesperson for the EU Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle, told RFE/RL on September 24.
Armenia itself would like to know these details. It is not yet a member of the Customs Union, the core of the planned Eurasian Union. The specifics of Armenia’s likely terms of engagement with the bloc remain unclear and a subject of dispute among the current Customs-Union members, Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus.
Armenia also has some hesitation. For one, about what the Customs-Union deal will mean for ethnic Armenian, breakaway Nagorno Karabakh, which depends on Armenia to keep it de-facto apart from Azerbaijan. There is also a dose of homegrown backlash among pro-Western circles against Armenia alienating the European Union.
But Moscow does not want to be dumped. Particularly, not again.
The arrest of 26 Azerbaijanis for allegedly joining armed Islamic groups in Syria and the wider region may help Azerbaijan place its strategic importance to the United States above criticism of its growing autocratic reputation.
The September-23 detentions mark this Caspian-Sea country’s largest operation against alleged Islamic extremist fighters since reports began to circulate over the past year about a steady flow of recruits from Azerbaijan for the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Azerbaijan’s Ministry of National Security said that the detainees have joined several paramilitary groups in Pakistan, Iraq and Syria. Some were alleged members of Azeri Jamaaty, a jihad group in Syria made up of Azerbaijani nationals.
In short profiles of the suspects, the ministry claimed that one of the detainees, Taleh Soltanov, allegedly led Taifa al-Mansoura, a jihadist group affiliated with the Pakistani Taliban movement. En route to Syria, Soltanov was detained in Iran and deported to Azerbaijan. His wife and mother-in-law, though, made it to Syria with the help of local fighters, the ministry reported.
Another arrested individual, Vyugar Dursunaliyev, is accused of sending his juvenile son, Elvin, to Syria to join the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the terrorist group commonly known as ISIS.
The arrests were reported on the same day that US President Barack Obama mentioned Azerbaijan among the countries notorious for crackdowns on civil society.
Taxpayer-expensed Botox and hair-removal procedures are among the Georgian government’s latest charges of alleged misappropriation against ex-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, whose property in Georgia was seized by police late last week.
And not only his. His wife and mother’s Tbilisi apartments and his grandmother’s 17-year-old Honda Accord were among the items seized on September 19 as apparent compensation for some $5-million worth of state funds prosecutors claim the ex-president misused for things like facials, spas and fancy clothes.
The case has not yet gone to trial, but prosecutors claim that the refusal of Saakashvili, now based in Brooklyn, to face a court in Georgia justified the seizure of his wider family’s property. “[T]here was a reasonable suspicion… that he would transfer or otherwise conceal his and his associates’ property to obstruct compensating for the damage to the state,” the General Prosecutor’s Office said in a September-19 statement.
But some are raising eyebrows at that reasoning. Saakashvili’s Dutch-born wife, Sandra Roelofs, said on Friday that she had purchased her Tbilisi apartment long before her husband became president in 2004, from funds derived from the sale of another flat which her father had given her as a wedding gift.
Scotland’s dabbling in secessionism has been closely watched in the ex-Soviet Union, the Shangri-La of separatism. From Transnistria to Karabakh to Crimea, all eyes have been on the UK recently, in hopes that the Scottish example would change hearts and minds about claims to independence.
In South Ossetia, approaching, on September 20, the 24th anniversary of declaring itself independent from Georgia, many were inspired by the “peaceful and civilized” conduct of the Brits. Abkhazia produced a video, in which a group of people unfurl a giant Scottish flag to the sound of Mel Gibson bellowing “Freedom!” in Braveheart.
Yet with Scotland’s September-18 vote to stay with the United Kingdom these public expressions of separatist-solidarity with Scotland have suddenly fallen silent. Only Nagorno Karabakh, which itself has seen a referendum proposed as part of the solution to its differences with Baku, issued a statement, observing that “regardless of the result,” the Scottish referendum had shown that letting people decide their own fate is “the norm in a democratic society.”
In an initiative new to Muslim Azerbaijan, its parliament has broached the topic of legalizing civil partnerships. A group of lawmakers believe that recognizing such partnerships as legal unions is needed to protect the often neglected rights of the growing number of children born out of wedlock. Also, the change will help ensure the “genetic health” of the nation, parliamentarians say.
As part of that “genetic health” campaign, Azerbaijan also plans to introduce mandatory premarital health checks. A set of amendments to what is known as the Family Code is meant to toughen requirements that couples inform each other of their medical conditions before their wedding-day.
“Making these amendments to the Family Code does not conflict with human rights, as we are talking about a healthier national genetic pool and healthier children,” Parliamentary Commission on Social Policies Chairperson Hadi Rajabli told the Interfax-Azerbaijan agency.
The Code’s Article 13.3 states that concealing from a spouse a diagnosis of HIV/AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases provides grounds for the annulment of a marriage. Rajabli proposes expanding the list of medical conditions that must be reported before a wedding.
He said that the idea of premarital checkups had been dismissed before on concerns that couples, especially in rural parts of the country, could simply buy a health certificate from a doctor — an understandable concern in what is often rated among the world’s most corrupt countries. Henceforth, though, physicians will face charges if they sell fake certificates, Rajabli said.