Azerbaijan

How We Vote... Not

I voted only once in my life.

In March 2009 Azerbaijan had a referendum. Its results would decide a number of issues, including whether or not to lift the two-term presidential limit.

Everyone knew what the outcome was going to be: the Parliament proposed the referendum on Dec. 19, quickly sent it to the Constitutional Court, which approved it five days later on Dec. 24, which also happened to be President Aliyev's birthday. The judges spent only 37 minutes approving 41 amendments to 29 articles of the constitution - less than a minute for each.

It was a no-brainer, but I still decided to vote.

The voting poll for our district was in a local school less than a mile away from my house, so it took me only 10 minutes to get there. The yard was empty - no lines of voters, no post-voting discussions, just a depressing Soviet-style school yard. The main hallway was not too lively either. School desks were connected into two long tables along the walls on both left and right sides. The school's teachers (mostly women in their 50s and older) were sitting along them, chatting loudly and sizing up the incomers. At the far end of the hallway were voting booths and a plastic see-thru ballot box in front of them.

I approached one of the tables to ask for my ballot. Before I had a chance to say anything, I noticed what one of the ladies at that table was doing. With unruffled composure she was filling out a pile of ballots, checking Yes boxes for each amendment. Once done with a ballot, she would fold it and put aside, into another pile - the ballots she has already filled out.

Very carefully I took out my smartphone and took a picture. The woman who was checking my ID saw what I was doing and elbowed the "ballot filler." The latter looked at me, and, obviously temporarily, put the pile of empty ballots under the table on her lap.

 The "ballot-filler."

The "ballot-filler."

I grabbed my ballot, went to the booth and checked No on all of the proposed amendments. I came back home and uploaded the picture on Facebook. Later that day, dozens of other pictures and videos of this and other kinds of violations flooded news feed.

The amendments were accepted "with the percentage of “Yes” votes between 87.15% and 91.76%."

FPA Blogs: Baku Protests Foreign Policy’s Assertion of Airbase Access for Israel

It’s just so hard to launch an international bash these days. Everyone’s a critic. Just ask Azerbaijan.

Preparations for Eurovision, one of Europe’s biggest song contests to be held in May in Baku, are regularly sidetracked either by criticism of the country dismal human rights record, or allegations of the country’s silent involvement in Iran-Israeli nuclear crisis, though the government continues to deny any role.

Last week, Foreign Policy published an article by foreign affairs analyst Mark Perry that suggested Azerbaijan has expanded its military cooperation with Israel. The article quoted anonymous U.S. officials saying that Azerbaijan has granted Israel access to its airbases, or, as one of the author’s high-ranked sources phrased it: “The Israelis have bought an airfield, [...] called Azerbaijan.”

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Aserbaidschan startet Kampagne gegen Frankfurt

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German Berliner Zeitung has put together a piece about the anti-German video report broadcasted on Azerbaijani AZTV channel on March 5, and linked my blog post on this topic. Here is the article:

Vor dem Eurovision Song Contest prangerten deutsche Politiker Menschenrechtsverletzungen in Baku an. Nun wehrt sich Aserbaidschan mit einer Schmutzkampagne gegen Deutschland. Besonders Frankfurt kommt schlecht weg.

Arbeitslose hausen in Zelten im Schatten der Bankentürme, Frauen müssen in Sex-Shops arbeiten, die nichts weiter sind als getarnte Bordelle, und die Zahl der Drogenabhängigen, die durch die Straßen wanken, steigt stetig.

So berichtete das aserbaidschanische Staatsfernsehens AZTV kürzlich in einer Reportage aus Frankfurt am Main, unterlegt mit Bildern vom Occupy-Protestcamp vor der Europäischen Zentral Bank und einer Kamerafahrt durch das Bahnhofsviertel der Mainmetropole.

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FPA Blogs: Peaceful Activists Arrested, Amnesty International Reports The Torture Fear

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My first post for Foreign Policy Association Blogs as a regular blogger:

The sanctioned peaceful protest that took place in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku on Saturday, Mar. 17 resulted in arrest of three activists. Members of Bulistan band Jamal Ali, 24, and Natig Kamilov, 24, and another activist Etibar Salmanli, 25, were arrested after a fight that broke during Ali’s performance. The singer has used strong language in his song, displeasing some protesters. During the fight he has also insulted President Ilham Aliyev’s late mother. Young men were sentenced to five to 10 days of detention on charges of “petty hooliganism” and are allegedly subject to tortures under custody.

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The Empire Strikes Back: Anti-German Video Report Presented on Azerbaijani State TV

Due to the upcoming Eurovision contest to be held in Azerbaijan in May, German media has been paying a lot of attention to the country lately. A number of major German outlets like Der Spiegel, NWZ Online and ARD have published and broadcasted pieces on human rights violations in Azerbaijan. Today Azerbaijani state AZTV channel decided to strike back. That is what I call Azeri media at its best.

The anchor presents the piece, saying: "Even though Germany is the most powerful country in the EU, homeless and unemployed people there demand bread from their government. The number of drug addicts is increasing."

Then we see AZTV's correspondent in Frankfurt - business capital of Germany.

"This is Frankfurt, and this is the building of the European Central Bank," the reporter starts and promises to show us the other side of the European economic crisis - the one that "hit ordinary citizens in the face."  The guy points out to several tents in front of him (which is actually the Occupy Frankfurt movement, which was never mentioned in the video), explaining that people from all over Europe and Germany in particular, come there to demonstrate their life conditions to the employees of the ECB and European financial institutions.

Then he interviews one of the "protesters". The first guy says he has a degree and a job, but his salary is only enough to afford rent and, occasionally, new shoes. The young man claims he requested financial help from the government, was sent to different institutions and, eventually, denied in one. He finishes his speech by threatening to leave the country if nothing changes any time soon.

Next we see the conditions the interviewee lives in: his tent, his chair, personal belongings.

The next person interviewed is another young German, complaining about Germany's attempts to help other European countries, while the country itself remains in "this condition." "One of our main concerns as protesters is Germany's readiness to help out other countries," he says and mentions the case of Greece.

Once the "super-reliable" and "credible" vox populi proves the inhumane conditions German youth lives in, my favorite part of the video report begins. The editor didn't hesitate to use the same shot three times, probably because there was more text than footage.

Anyway, back to the point.

The reporters hop in the car and start driving around the block with a dramatic background text: "While preparing this video about Frankfurt, Germany we have witnessed scenes, that would drag anyone's attention to the city's streets," promisingly says the journalist. And now, my favorite sentence: "Look, these people are drug addicts. Right in the middle of Frankfurt," says the reporter while the footage shows ordinary people walking the streets. "We had no other choice but to do this filming from our car because it's not even possible to approach them." Then he goes on describing how dangerous these people are and how the journalists were actually going to approach them and ask how they got to this condition, or how they manage to buy, sell and use drugs in the middle of Frankfurt. However, a nice policeman who was hanging around the violent drug addicts and scared Azeri journalists, told them he cannot guarantee their safety. Apparently, not so long ago another group of journalists wanted to interview "them" and got "seriously injured."

Then the journalist ends the "drug" part of the video saying they've been told that nowadays one can even buy drugs right in front of German middle schools and that the age of users is sometimes as little as 13-14 years.

Now we're moving to the next part. The reporters shows us sex shops, calling them "undercover brothels." And even though they have been told that these places are completely legal and even pay taxes, highly upset Azerbaijanis ask the "Azerbaijani viewer": "But who is exploited in these undercover brothels? Women, of course. And let's say these women do what they do voluntarily. What about their freedom, human rights and gender equality that Germany talks so much about?"

The End.

Throughout the report, we neither hear any statistics or opinions of officials, nor see people using drugs, women sell their bodies, or even the policeman advise the journalists. All we see is a couple of dudes riding around in their car, making assumptions and interviewing two random guys.

And that is pretty much what Azerbaijan state media is about.

CNBC Investigations Inc. presents Filthy Rich

CNBC's Scott Cohn together with CNBC Investigations Inc. have put together a video report on corruption in the world. Broadcasted on Feb. 23, the show features Azerbaijan's first family and their offshore wealth. Check out the full show on channel's web page. Here is the teaser.

Azerbaijan-Iran Tensions Continue, Iranian Journalist Arrested

BAKU - Anar Bayramli, reporter for Iranian Sahar TV channel has been arrested on drug possession charges on Feb. 17 in Azerbaijan. On Feb. 20, court sentenced Bayramli for two months of pre-trial detention.

According to the news reports, police has found 0.387 of heroin in Bayramli’s jacket. The journalist denies allegations and claims that police officers planted the drugs. According to Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) report, Binagady District Court sentenced Bayramli for two months. If convicted, he can be facing up to three years.

This is not the first case of journalist imprisonment in Azerbaijan. Within the last years a number of journalists, editors and bloggers have been arrested and served different detention terms. In its 2012 report Freedom House has ranked Azerbaijan ‘not free’ describing it as “the region’s most repressive regime.”

Bayramli’s case also occurs amidst increasing tensions between Azerbaijan and Iran. Azerbaijani authorities unveiled an allegedly Iran-backed terroristic group, which planned attacks on a number of Israeli officials. Soon after that, Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned Azeri ambassador to hand him a protest note against Azerbaijan providing ground for Mossad agents.

Sahar TV, Iranian broadcast channel that employs Bayramli, has been repeatedly accused of spreading pro-Iranian propaganda by Azerbaijani authorities.

Azerbaijan — A Scene For Israeli-Iranian Spy Games

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With the prospect of an Israeli-American attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, Azerbaijan appears to be dragged in the conflict by becoming a scene for Israeli-Iranian spy games. According to recent news, the post-Soviet country is hosting dozens of Mossad agents and has arrested alleged Iranian terrorists suspected of attacks on the Israeli figures. Although Azerbaijani authorities haven’t openly taken sides in the possible conflict, their position is becoming more obvious with increased tensions with Tehran. Azerbaijan and Iran have a long history of mutual hostility. The two countries used to be part of the Safavi Empire. Later Russo-Persian Wars divided them, leaving 9 million Azeris in modern-day Azerbaijan and an estimated 20 million in northern Iran, which Azerbaijanis call southern Azerbaijan. However, ethnic kinship between Azerbaijani population in Iran and in Azerbaijan is seen as a risk by Iranian authorities.

Today, the Azerbaijanis of Iran are often subject to oppression and human rights violations. They’re not allowed to study in their native language. Their activists are detained and executed on a regular basis. Nevertheless, Azerbaijani authorities always voted against UN’s resolutions to stop ethnic minority oppressions in Iran.

Another point that adds to already difficult relations is Iran’s partnership with Armenia – Azerbaijan’s biggest enemy. The country, which occupied Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh region, is in close economic cooperation with Tehran.

Iran is also seen as a potential Islamic influence by Azerbaijan’s secular government.

In November 2011, Rafig Tagi, an Azerbaijani writer who published an anti-Islamic article in 2006 and was known for his anti-Iranian views, has been stabbed on his way home in Baku. He later died in the hospital. Azerbaijani media sources quickly reminded the public about the fatwa (proclamation) issued by senior Iranian cleric Ayatollah Lankarani six years earlier. Although official Tehran denied any connection, the cleric’s son released a statement congratulating the Muslim world for the writer’s death.

None of these events seemed to bother official Baku as much as they should have… at least not until war loomed on the horizon.

Tension between the neighboring countries increased within the last couple of years with Azerbaijan’s crackdown on religious and pro-Iranian groups. The incident was openly condemned by Iranian clerics.

It continued to grow in 2012 when last month Azerbaijani and Iranian hacker groups exchanged attacks on a handful of official sites in each other’s country.

On Jan. 24 Azerbaijan’s National Security forces had foiled a two-man terrorist group that planned attacks on country’s prominent Jews for alleged reward of $150,000 from Iranian intelligence. According to the reports, two Azerbaijani citizens have been arrested on connection to alleged killings. Even though Tehran has denied any connection to this incident, it was more than enough to infuriate Azerbaijan.

On Feb. 1 a 15-minute video report on ATV, Azerbaijani’s state-controlled channel, reminded the public about the long, difficult history of Azerbaijani-Iranian relations. The narrative underlined Iran’s “political jealousy” toward its neighbor and the “dirty ways” of the “Mullah regime.”

In addition, a group of Azerbaijani lawmakers proposed to rename the country as Northern Azerbaijan the following day—a clear message meant to annoy Iran.

On the other side there is warm Azerbaijani-Israeli relationship. Despite the fact that Organization of Islamic Conference doesn’t recognize Israel as a country and thus restricts Azerbaijan from having a diplomatic presence there, one-fifth of Israel’s oil imports come from Azerbaijan. This strong economic cooperation has boosted Israel to one of Azerbaijan’s five biggest partners in only 10 years and is also often criticized by Iranian authorities.

When the London Times published an article on Feb. 11 about an anonymous Mossad agent nicknamed Shimon Iran reacted quickly. According to the agent, Mossad has increased its presence in Azerbaijan in recent years so it would be closer to Iran.

The next day, Iran summoned the Azeri ambassador and gave him a protest note, which angered official Baku. The country’s foreign ministry called Iran’s allegations a “slander” and an “absurd reaction.”

Despite the fact that Azerbaijan has always announced impartiality in the U.S.-Iranian conflict, this time it seems to be dragged in it nevertheless.

It is still not clear whether Azerbaijan will allow the allies to use its military bases, which the U.S. has been using for its Afghanistan mission or whether it will openly admit its involvement in a military operation against its powerful neighbor anytime soon. However, one of the factors Azerbaijan will need to take into consideration is safety of its people on both sides of the border.