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Political Turmoil

The tumultuous period since Azerbaijan achieved independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 has been marked by losses of territory to the combined forces of the Republic of Armenia and the Nagorno Karabakh separatist enclave, political upheaval, and several revolts by the security forces. It has also been marked by substantial international interest and investment in the oil sector.

Armenian forces now occupy up to 20 percent of Azerbaijan, including the former Nagorno Karabakh autonomous oblast and significant territory surrounding it. While a cease-fire has been in effect since 1994, the twelve-year-old conflict is one of the longest unresolved in the former Soviet Union and has resulted in more than 20,000 deaths. The United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that there are currently 795,000 forcibly displaced civilians and refugees in Azerbaijan, although exact numbers vary.1 The very large number ofdisplaced persons in relation to Azerbaijan's total population, estimated at 7.6 million, has exacerbated social tensions and placed a significant burden on the government to provide food, housing, medical care, and education for its uprooted population.

In June 1993, Surat Husseinov, a renegade colonel who had commanded a militia brigade that was loosely incorporated into the newly-created Azerbaijani army, overthrew the Azerbaijani Popular Front (APF) government led by President Abulfaz Elchibey. The APF had come to power in May 1992, and by the time of Husseinov's revolt was besieged over losses in Nagorno Karabakh.2 Husseinov's revolt paved the way for the rise to power of Azerbaijan's current president, Heydar Aliyev, who first had himself installed as chair of the parliament. On October 3, 1993, Aliyev was elected to the presidency in an improbable Soviet-style election in which he received 98.8 percent of the vote. An inexplicably high 96 percent of eligible voters were reported to have participated. President Aliyev named Surat Husseinov prime minister.

Both the Elchibey and Aliyev governments have been characterized by poor human rights records, including harassment of political opponents through arrest and censorship, allegations of beatings and torture by the police, and other violations of basic civil rights. In the fall of 1993 and early 1994, supporters of the APF held public meetings and street demonstrations to protest Elchibey's ousting and some of the policies of the new Aliyev government. Ministry of Internal Affairs forces used mass arrests, beatings, and torture to suppress protesters during and following these demonstrations; in 1994, the Aliyev government imposed a state of emergency that outlawed rallies and public demonstrations altogether. Also arrested were those accused of participation in alleged coup attempts, attempts to carry out sabotage campaigns or terrorist activities, and those accused of being members of "illegal armed formations" or paramilitary brigades formed originally to fight in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. Those arrested included journalists, demonstrators, former senior members of the Elchibey government, and other government officials in Baku, Ganja, Nahkichevan, and other parts of the country.

Members of the security forces attempted several highly publicized revolts in late 1994 and 1995. In October 1994, Surat Husseinov was accused of plotting a Russian-backed coup; Husseinov fled to Russia, but others in the government were arrested.3 This alleged coup attempt was accompanied by an uprising of troops in a special task police unit known by its Russian acronym, OPON.4 The OPON rebelled again in March 1995, with the alleged participation of some pro-Turkish members of the former Elchibey government. The trials of defendants accused of involvement in these incidents became known in the Azerbaijani media as the "Case of the OPONs."

The government denounced various other coup attempts, including alleged incidents that the government made partially public in August 1995, in which a group of high-ranking Defense Ministry personnel allegedly attempted to shoot down President Aliyev's personal airplane with a surface-to-air missile and planted a bomb under a bridge timed to blow up as the president's car passed. The subsequent trial of those accused of involvement became known in the Azerbaijani press as the "Case of the Generals."

In January 1997, Azerbaijan's National Security Ministry, Ministry of Internal Affairs, and Procuracy General issued a joint statement reporting that between October 1994 and January 1997 approximately 2,000 people had been arrested on charges of terrorist activity and plotting to seize power.5 The cases cited above are the most high-profile examples of alleged coup attempts; the frequency of these government denunciations led the opposition to charge that President Aliyev was using the denunciations and subsequent waves of arrests, especially of Interior and Defense Ministry personnel, as an opportunity to brutally purge his opponents from the security forces and other government positions to consolidate his power. The opposition further charged that President Aliyev frequently used the Presidential Special Department, a military counterintelligence investigative body under the president's direct authority, and certain other units of the police, to carry out arbitrary detentions of both military and civilian political opponents.

President Aliyev has frequently accused Russia of being behind the 1994 and other coup attempts as part of an effort to destabilize Azerbaijan and to allow Moscow to reassert its control over its former territory in what it considers its "near abroad."6 One coup attempt, the "OPON" revolt led by Rovshan Javadov in March 1995, was followed by official denunciations of Turkish involvement, and led to speculation that some elements of the Turkish security forces were involved.7

In 1996 and 1997, many of those accused in coup attempts stood trial. The trials brought to light widespread allegations that the police and other security forces systematically tortured detainees to extract confessions and false testimony against others allegedly involved. Many defendants at trial retracted their signed confessions and testimony against others, and provided detailed descriptions of the systematic abuse they suffered while in the lock-up of the Baku City Police Department as well as in other facilities. Human rights organizations in Azerbaijan also reported that security detainees died while in custody as a result of torture and severe and brutal ill-treatment, and that authorities' denial of urgently needed medical care to others led to further deaths.8

Although these trials drew attention on torture to defendants charged with political crimes, those under investigation for nonpolitical criminal offenses are also routinely subjected to physical abuse in Azerbaijan. Senior Ministry of Internal Affairs officials state that they have been under intense pressure to curb the increased street crime resulting from the sharp deterioration in social and economic conditions the country experienced after independence,9 and arrests followed by systematic torture have occurred in this context.

Oil and the Economy

In September 1994, the Azerbaijani government signed a landmark oil production sharing agreement with the Azerbaijan International Operating Company (AIOC), a consortium of international oil companies led by British Petroleum and Norway's Statoil. The estimated U.S.$8 billion deal represented the largest single foreign investment in the former Soviet Union at the time of its signing, and Azerbaijan's considerable oil reserves have attracted the interest of international oil companies and western governments. The signing set off an intense debate over oil pipeline routes and a flurry of lobbying by Turkey and the U.S. to secure alternative routes through Georgia, with the expectation of eventually extending the line to Ceyhan on Turkey's Mediterranean coast.10 The Russian government reacted with alarm to the deal, and repeatedly urged Azerbaijan to transport the majority of its oil reserves through the existing Russian pipeline system to world markets.11 The Azerbaijani government views exclusive reliance on Russia as an outlet to world markets for its oil as ceding excessive control to the Russian government.

A compromise agreement was reached in late 1995, which called for some of the oil initially extracted by the AIOC consortium to be shipped through Russia, while the remainder would be transported by a second pipeline through Georgia. The sharp drop in oil prices in March 1998 caused the AIOC to delay endorsement of the major export pipeline to Ceyhan, the estimated cost of which ranges from U.S.$2.8 billion to U.S.$4 billion. 12 Also under discussion is the possibility of a natural gas pipeline, heavily favored by the U.S. government, to carry gas produced in Turkmenistan along a similar route, a project that would cost an estimated U.S.$2.5 billion.13

Foreign investment in the oil sector and other credits have so far not led to broad-based economic growth that benefits the majority of the Azerbaijani population. The dissolution of the former Soviet Union took an extremely heavy toll on Azerbaijan's economy, and since independence in 1991, the collapse of industry and losses of markets for goods have resulted in widespread unemployment and underemployment. The total decline in GDP from 1991 to 1995 was estimated at nearly 60 percent.14 Hyperinflation in late 1994 and the collapse of the banking system eroded the life savings of many, while the value of wages and pensions paid by state-owned enterprises and the government dropped to below-subsistence levels.

Concurrent with the near collapse of Azerbaijan's economy was the influx of refugees from Armenia and of internally displaced persons after the losses of territory surrounding the Nagorno Karabakh enclave in 1993 and 1994. There are currently approximately 300,000 displaced persons living in Baku, the capital city. But the vast majority are scattered in approximately sixty-five towns and villages throughout Azerbaijan, many housed in poor conditions in makeshift camps in rural areas, and in communal facilities such as schools, sanitariums, and hotels.

A macroeconomic stabilization plan implemented by the government in conjunction with the International Monetary Fund resulted in control of hyperinflation in 1995, the economy improved slightly in 1996, and there was steady growth in 1997. However, wages remain depressed, with the minimum official wage at U.S.$37 per month. Social services are almost nonexistent, and the majority of Azerbaijan's population-the World Bank estimated 68 percent in 1996-live in poverty.15 Foreign investment has been concentrated in the capital-intensive oil sector, whilethere has been little investment in other sectors of the economy, such as agriculture and light industry, that could lead to job-creation.

The economy's sharp deterioration, combined with the influx of international oil investors vying to secure contracts with the government, has contributed to rampant corruption.16 The government has proven unwilling to prosecute officials for corruption, and relies heavily on intricate patronage networks to maintain itself in power.17 And although street crime has dropped dramatically since 1994, white collar crime-including bribery-involving senior and lower-level government officials and members of the security forces has reached unprecedented levels.18 In 1997, Control Risks, a British consultancy firm, ranked Azerbaijan as the fourth most corrupt country in the world in which to do business.19

Recent Human Rights Developments

In 1996, Azerbaijan began the application process for membership in the Council of Europe. But the government's poor human rights record-not only on torture-has made it clear that membership is premature.

In February 1998, the Azerbaijani parliament adopted legislation banning the death penalty, and President Aliyev issued a decree on promoting human rights, which among other things called for further cooperation with human rights organizations. A June 18 presidential order established a state program on human rights that called for improvements in a number of areas. In December 1998, the parliament adopted a law enabling individuals to sue for damages caused by officials in the criminal justice system, although presumably its full implementation must await amendments to the civil procedure code. But in other regards, there has been little improvement. During the first half of 1998, the government continued to stifle political dissent and civil society through official pre-publication censorship, arrest and harassment of journalists, onerous licencing requirements for the broadcast media, and by denying nongovernmental organizations the right to register. Although the government lifted pre-publication censorship in August 1998, under international pressure in advance of the October presidential elections, it continued to suppress freedom of the press through politically-motivated libel suits and beatings and detentions of journalists at the end of the year. The Ministry of Justice has repeatedly refused requests from human rights organizations, religious organizations, and lawyers' associations for registration, required for them to operate legally.

A series of elections in Azerbaijan characterized by widespread fraud has seriously undermined public confidence in government institutions. The November 1995 parliamentary elections, roundly criticized by internationalobservers,20 produced a parliament that is overwhelmingly dominated by members sympathetic to the government: of 124 members, only eight were members of the opposition. Subsequently, some ruling party parliamentarians have joined an opposition bloc, raising the number of opposition parliamentarians to approximately nineteen. International observers, including the OSCE and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, concluded that the elections were marred by extensive fraud. The government has violated constitutional provisions that mandated that municipal elections were to have been held by no later than November 1997, and such elections are scheduled for late 1999.

1 According to UNHCR estimates that include refugees from other FSU countries. The Azerbaijani government estimates the total number of displaced persons and refugees as a result of the conflict to be 1 million. All parties to the conflict, including ethnic Armenian forces, committed serious violations of international humanitarian law. See, Human Rights Watch/Helsinki,Azerbaijan: Seven Years of Conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1994); Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, "Bloodshed in the Caucasus: Indiscriminate Bombing and Shelling by Azerbaijani Forces in Nagorno Karabakh," A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 5, no. 10, July 1993; and Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, Bloodshed in the Caucasus: Escalation of the Armed Conflict in Nagorno Karabakh (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1992).

2 The Azerbaijani Popular Front represents a broad movement of disparate nationalist interests that unified to advocate Azerbaijan's independence from Russia. See Audrey L. Alstadt, "Azerbaijan's Struggle Toward Democracy," in Karen Dawisha and Bruce Parrott (eds.), Conflict, Cleavage and Change in Central Asia and the Caucasus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), which describes the Azerbaijani Popular Front's development as a cultural movement among Baku intellectuals in the 1970s that reevaluated Soviet history and Russian colonialism in Azerbaijan, and eventually moved to assert Azerbaijani political independence from Russian control.

3 Russia extradited Husseinov to Azerbaijan March 26, 1997. He was subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment on February 15, 1999, after alleging that he was physically and psychologically abused prior to trial while in Azerbaijani custody. One month before the alleged coup attempt, four former government officials detained on high treason and other charges escaped from the Ministry of State Security's isolation unit. They were former Defense Minister Ragim Gaziyev, Alikram Gumbatov, who had called for the creation of a Talish-Mughan Autonomous Republic in southern Azerbaijan in June 1993, Baba Nazarli, and Arif Pashayev. The minister of state security at the time, Nariman Imranov, as well as several other employees of the ministry were also arrested and charged with assisting the attempt.

4 Otryad politsii osobogo naznacheniya.

5 "Azerbaijan Says Prevented Coup, Dozens Arrested," Reuters, January 28, 1997.

6 The government has protested Russia's lack of cooperation in extraditing alleged participants in coup attempts, including Azerbaijan's first leader at the time of its independence, former President Ayaz Mutalibov. Mutalibov, who has been granted political asylum in Russia, has denied on several occasions the government's allegations that he has been involved in coup attempts. Human Rights Watch strongly opposes the extradition of most Azerbaijani citizens from Russia to Azerbaijan. As this report details, they have a well-grounded fear of being subjected to torture.

7 See Thomas Goltz, Azerbaijan Diary: A Rogue Reporter's Adventures in an Oil Rich, War-Torn, Post-Soviet Republic (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1998), p. 451, regarding speculation of involvement of rogue elements of the Turkish security forces.

8 See for example, "Deaths of Political Prisoners in Azerbaijan," report by the Human Rights Center of Azerbaijan, Baku, December 15, 1995.

9 Human Rights Watch interview with Col. Nasimi Gojayev, Chief of Investigation, Sadiq Guselov, Chief of Information Department, and Col. Abdul Akhmedov, Chief of Foreign Relations, Baku, November 21, 1997.

10 See, John Roberts, "Caspian Pipelines," an occasional paper published by The Royal Institute of International Affairs (London, 1996), p. 34.

11 Since independence Azerbaijan has been one of the few former Soviet republics to decline agreements that would allow Russian troops to guard it borders or station troops on its territory, with the exception of a small contingent of Russian troops who staff the Gabala air station, an early warning station for missile attacks on Russia's southern flank.

12 "Political Pressure Won't Speed MEP Construction," Caspian Investor, R.I., Inc., (Los Angeles) November/December 1998.

13 "Trans-Caspian Gas Pipe Plans Advance," Caspian Investor, R.I., Inc., November/December 1998.

14 Country Report: Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, 1st Quarter 1996, The Economist Intelligence Unit, London, p. 35.

15 World Bank, Azerbaijan Poverty Assessment, February 24, 1997, Report No. 15601-AZ, vol. 1, p. 16. This is the percentage of individuals found to fall below the "food only" poverty line during research in 1995 and 1996, which measured those individuals and households whose actual food expenditures fell below a nutritionally-adequate food basket.

16 The negative impact of sudden oil and natural gas booms on economic development, which includes rent-seeking and corruption by government officials as impediments to institutional reform and to the development of non-oil sectors of the economy, in countries with economies and political systems as disparate as Iran, Nigeria, Mexico, Algeria, and Venezuela, has been widely examined in political economy literature, including, Terry Lynn Karl, The Paradox of Plenty: Oil Booms and Petro-States (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997).

17 See for example, U.S. State Department 1998 Country Report on Human Rights: Azerbaijan, which states "Economic growth has been spurred by substantial foreign investment in the hydrocarbon sector, but it is offset by a highly organized system of corruption and patronage."

18 On December 22, 1997, in the Concluding Observations of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: Azerbaijan, 22/12/97, E/C.12/1/Add.20, the committee expressed concern "that a large proportion of the resources necessary to finance social programs is diverted by corruption, which pervades state organs and the sectors of the economy that are still under state control." The committee recommended that as a matter of urgency the government address basic needs of the population, such as safe drinking water, food, health care and affordable housing.

19 "UK: Ex-Soviet Viewed as a Hotbed of Corruption," Reuters, November 3, 1997. The Control Risks ranking, based on surveys of one hundred major multinational corporations, ranked Russia, Nigeria, and Ukraine as the first, second, and third most corrupt countries respectively in which to do business in 1997.

20 The OSCE/UN joint electoral observation mission report on the November 12, 1995, parliamentary elections and referendum on the constitution stated that the mission had, "serious doubts as to the fairness of the election," and concluded that the elections "had in many respects not corresponded to international norms." The report cited the exclusion of several parties from participation, interference from local authorities, police in polling stations, and inflation of the required minimum turnout. OSCE/UN Joint Electoral Observation Mission in Azerbaijan on Azerbaijan's 12 November 1995 Parliamentary Election and Constitutional Referendum, The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the UN, Warsaw: January 1996.

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