Pounded with threats and sanctions from Russia, Turkey on December 4 went to its Turkic cousin Azerbaijan to get some much-needed love and economic reassurance. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu received not only an ardent, mi-casa-es-su-casa welcome in Baku, but also promises of more business and energy supplies just as Russia is trying to starve Turkey of both of those things.
Sitting next to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, the Turkish prime minister melted into a lengthy toast to kinship between Azerbaijan and Turkey; one country that fate divided in two, he said. Azerbaijan is Turkey’s “soul,” “spiritual homeland,” and Turkey’s ministers are Azerbaijan’s ministers, in Davutoğlu's telling.
For Azerbaijan, which relies on heavily on Turkey for energy transit projects and efforts to reclaimed breakaway Nagorno Karabakh, this means, in theory, that Turkey’s problems are Azerbaijan’s problems. “Turkish-Azerbaijani unity and politics have a stabilizing effect on the region,” said Azerbaijan’s Aliyev.
Yet, mindful of Moscow, Azerbaijan's Soviet-era overlord and still the region's traditional mover-and-shaker, Aliyev avoided calling Russia by name. After all, of late, Baku and the Kremlin have been making nice. Instead, Aliyev noted, diplomatically broadly, that “stability in the region has been regrettably disturbed, with new risks and threats taking shape.”
“We should be ready and we are ready for these challenges," he added, without elaboration.
Azerbaijan plans to take French public television channel France 2 to court for an investigative program that called the Azerbaijani government a “dictatorship” and its leader, President Ilham Aliyev, a “despot.”
"We wondered if, during lunch with the dictator from the Caucasus, one was able to speak of oil and human rights without anyone around the table choking," the voiceover explained.
Nationally broadcast TV programs that question Azerbaijan’s rights record do not arrive at an auspicious time for the country. After hosting the European Games this July and agreeing to take on other mega-sports events, it now is considering whether or not to bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics. The deadline is September 15.
Arguably, Cash Investigation's nearly two-hour-long report would do little to enhance any application Baku chooses to submit. Hinging on a 2014 trip to Baku by French President François Hollande, the story includes footage of police crackdowns on protesters and interviews with recently sentenced human-rights advocate Leyla Yunus and investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova.*
Following an earlier theme, Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry said that the upbraiding by US, British and EU officials, and international human rights groups is nothing but meddling in a sovereign country’s home affairs.
"We categorically condemn and deem unacceptable interference in the trial of Khadija Ismayilova, the attempts to politicize the court decision and also reactions in the form of political statements to what in essense is a purely a matter of law," Report.az quoted foreign ministry spokesperson Hikmet Hajiyev as saying.
The US State Department had said it was "deeply troubled" by the seven-plus-year-long jail sentence handed down to Ismayilova, a freelance investigative journalist who has exposed various questionable business schemes tied to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s family and political circles.
"This case is another example in a broad pattern of increasing restrictions on human rights in Azerbaijan, including curtailing the freedom of the press," the State Department said in a statement, which called for the corruption-busting journalist's release.
Step aside, CNN, and make room, Al Jazeera: an international news network is coming to break the current "monopoly" on news and promote a Turkic point of view.
Media scholars like John Merrill may welcome a diversity of perspectives in the global news flow as a counterbalance to Western news companies and their takes. The caveat is that the latest new channel is a brainchild of four autocracy-prone governments; primarily of Kazakhstan's president-for-life, Nursultan Nazarbayev.
The idea of a pan-Turkic news has been in the can for a while, but on August 18 information ministers signed a memorandum of understanding about the project in the Kazakh capital of Astana.
Kazakh communication officials said that Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkey have reached a conceptual agreement on the network, which will broadcast "Turkic cultural values" in the four countries' languages and English. It is unclear when the channel goes live.
But, already, Ali Hasanov, a senior aide of Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev and the longtime presidential point-man for media matters, has his ideas.
Looking back to this summer’s European Games, he complained that “the great strides” made by his country “are hardly highlighted by some leading global media resources.” Rather, as the country’s star has risen, the “ media attacks based on preconceived, false accusations” only have increased, he claimed, the pro-government Trend news agency reported.
After a period of estrangement, Baku has laid out its terms for getting back on friendly terms with Washington. The suggestions may have come in the form of commentaries from local news outlets, but the medium is the message in Azerbaijan, where most mainstream media is under the government's thumb.
Ultimately, Baku's demands boil down to being accepted for what it is; an increasingly authoritarian regime, by estimates of any international human rights watchdog, and that the US should quit trying to change it.
APA, for instance, in a July 14 piece, construed a meeting between the Azerbaijani armed forces’ Chief of Staff Colonel General Nejmeddin Sadikov and the unnamed US embassy defense attaché as a mutual attempt to mend fences — despite what other outlets, in a copy-and-paste brief, termed the allegedly “destructive” policies of the State Department.
“Azerbaijani Defense Ministry restores ties with Pentagon” read APA’s headline; a bit of a surprise to those not aware that they had ever been severed.
Two days later, in a long and laborious review of US-Azerbaijan relations, Azernews.az announced that "Azerbaijan says yes to the USA`s peace gesture, but . . ."
The closer it gets to the European Union’s May 21-22 summit in Riga, the clearer it becomes that the post-Soviet countries grouped together under the EU’s Eastern Partnership Program will not be making any big steps toward the EU.
Speaking from Brussels with reporters via a video-link, one senior EU official laid out priorities for the summit that likely will prove a disappointment to Georgia. The EU’s biggest fan in the South Caucasus is not going to get the much-touted visa-free arrangement with the EU this time around. Nor is it clear when Georgia, which signed an EU Association Agreement last June, should expect to get it.
Armenia and the EU will be weighing cooperation options that are limited by Armenia’s membership in the Moscow-led EU alternative, the Eurasian Economic Union. The EU official, who declined to be named, said that much of the future economic dealings between the EU and Armenia, will actually be dealings between the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union, rather than with Armenia per se.
Freewheeling Azerbaijan is essentially going to Riga to bargain on energy supplies to Europe. At the summit, EU is like to emphasize the importance of Azerbaijan as an energy partner. Not unpredictably.
Many observers see a slow-down in the EU’s interest in the region, as Russia becomes more aggressive in Ukraine and tries harder to keep the former Soviet area in its sphere of political and economic influence.
Azerbaijan, faced with growing tensions with Armenia over Nagorno Karabakh, has not yet indicated a willingness to buy. But Iran’s offers for military cooperation go in other directions, too.
At a press-conference on April 21, Iranian Ambassador Mohsen Pak Ayeen said the two neighbors will set up a joint mechanism to tackle defense challenges.
“There are developments in the world and in the region that have an impact on our region,” the ambassador said after Dehqan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev agreed that there is room for expanding military cooperation between their countries. “Threats coming from ISIS and al Qaeda have been discussed [by Azerbaijani and Iranian officials]. It was decided to make joint efforts to tackle religious fundamentalism,” APA reported Pak Ayeen as saying.
Prominent Azerbaijani media-rights activist Emin Huseynov has been living in the Swiss embassy in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, since last August, the Swiss government has acknowledged.
Huseynov, a government-critic who previously had been detained and badly beaten by police, had fled to the embassy to escape possible arrest.
The embassy granted Huseynov shelter on humanitarian grounds, the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs wrote the Swiss television program Rundschau in a letter the program made public on February 11. The department confirmed that the Swiss government is in talks with Azerbaijan “to find a solution” for Huseynov’s situation.
After reports surfaced last August from Azerbaijan that he had been arrested, 35-year-old Huseynov, who ran the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, a frequent source for EurasiaNet.org stories, was known to be in hiding at an undisclosed location.
Having been denied exit from Azerbaijan, Huseynov already had seen the telltale signs of a pending arrest — his bank account had been frozen, his office raided by police.
Foreign Policy’s Michael Weiss, drawing on an exclusive by "sources close to Huseynov," reported that the activist, whose wife is an American, had first approached the US embassy for help, but allegedly had been refused by Chargé d’Affaires Dereck Hogan. (The US mission to the OSCE did call on Azerbaijan to stop its crackdown on “peaceful activists,” including Huseynov.) The State Department did not respond to requests for follow-up comment, the magazine reported.
The United States embassy in Baku has categorically denied a report in The Times which claimed that Washington and Tehran will conduct “secret talks” in Baku this week about restoring some form of ties between the United States and Iran after an almost 35-year break.
Citing an anonymous Iranian government advisor, The Times’ Hugh Tomlinson reported on November 10 that the supposed talks would cover setting up in Tehran “an umbrella office for US trade” or, possibly, “a cultural office, purely for academic exchanges.”
The Times wrote that Mohammad Reza Sabzalipour, head of Iran’s World Trade Center, would lead the alleged talks with the US side in Baku. Azerbaijani officials so far have not made any comments.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is set to visit the Azerbaijani capital on November 12 for a state visit, but no public indication has been made that Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev intends to play intermediary for the US.
In a statement to the pro-government Azerbaijani news agency Trend, however, the US embassy to Baku rejected The Times story as “completely untrue.”
“[W]e have had no conversations, and have no plans to engage in conversations, in trade talks or any talks similar to those described in this misleading news story,” read the statement, published on November 11.
Sabzalipour, however, had his own take. On November 11, he remarked that “reciprocal visits by the Iranian and the US economic delegations” are "on the agenda" of Tehran's World Trade Center. Details will be forthcoming "when the grounds are prepared," he added.
Azerbaijan has chipped in a million dollars to the United Nations' Ebola response effort in what appears to be the latest installment in the ongoing campaign to promote Baku’s credentials as a responsible member of the international community.
As this donation underlines, the time when Azerbaijan was a war-ravaged, post-Soviet country relying on foreign aid is long gone. In recent years, whether schools for Georgia or restoration jobs for France, it has been steadily building up its donor activities.Oil and gas wealth helped changed everything, from the skyline of the capital, Baku, to the country’s military supplies and economic credentials abroad.
But one thing that has not changed, critics claim, are the Soviet, totalitarian ways, and, according to a growing choir of human-rights watchdogs, it is getting worse.
Critics of President Ilham Aliyev's government — at least those who remain at large — believe that Azerbaijan’s handouts for international development and charity serve primarily to blanket over international criticism of its dismal democracy record.
The government, of course, even as it hires one American PR guru, Liz Mair, to make its case in Washington, rejects the notion that it has any such need.