By Arzu Geybullayeva*
Despite all the show and the glamor of the European Games, 2015 went down as one of the most challenging years full of disappointment and resentment for the people of Azerbaijan. Leaving behind 2014’s problems with arrested journalists and the silencing of civil society, there was much hope that the year 2015, and the first European Games, would see some progress on the human rights and freedom of expression front– the country’s two most problematic and highly criticized features. However, little did the Azerbaijanis know what their government had in store for 2015. Between the increasing government crackdowns on civil society and human rights, and the effects of the plummeting oil prices, 2015 ended up being one of the most difficult ones in Azerbaijan’s modern history.
The year kicked off with the sentencing of Azerbaijani journalist Seymur Hazi to five years in prison on “aggravated hooliganism” charges. Then in February (2015) we saw the Azerbaijani Manat devalue after years of being pegged to the dollar and relying heavily on oil exports. Overnight, the currency lost 33% of its value against both the US dollar and the Euro. Naturally people became concerned over their savings and loans. Price hikes on foodstuffs added to the people’s frustration. The president Ilham Aliyev, however, played it very calm and smooth; he even said to the public that the Manat was stronger than ever.
In the meantime, despite the currency devaluation, preparations for hosting the inaugural European Games continued. Afterall these were the first ever Euro-Olympics for which Azerbaijan was the only bidder as no one else had the interest or the financial resources to host the event. While the Azerbaijani authorities failed to disclose full transparency reports they cited a figure of 1 billion Manats ( approx. $1.2 billion), independent reports estimated the total cost of the games (which included all expenses paid trips for the 6000 athletes competing in the games) at 6-8 billion Manats (approx. $8+ billion).
In March 2015, President Aliyev signed one of the annual presidential pardons, which saw the release of four political prisoners– Bashir Suleymanli, Orkhan Eyyubzade, Anar Gasimli, and Ramil Valiyev. However, the revolving door tradition for political prisoners in Azerbaijan continued to move in its usual fashion. In April 2015, Intigam Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s prominent human rights lawyer, landed in jail on a 7.6-year sentence. Also in April, another prominent human rights activist Rasul Jafarov was sentenced to 6.5 years in jail (Jafarov’s sentence was reduced to 6.3 years in June just two days before the one year anniversary of his arrest).
In May, just a month before the games were scheduled to kick off, a fire in Baku killed 15 while injuring more than 50 residents. The main cause of the fire was the poor quality external coverings used on the facades of many of the residential as well as commercial buildings across the country as part of the government’s beautification project for the Euro-Olympics. While many Baku residents expected the immediate resignations of some of the capital’s chief politicians, including the Baku mayor himself, the city officials did not budge. No one resigned or took responsibility, with the exception of few middlemen. The authorities walked away choosing to cover up the matter given that the games were about to begin in few weeks time and no public commotions over the matter were to be tolerated.
The European games came and went, and so the two weeks of major inconveniences were over for the residents of Baku and its 65 administrative districts. After all, the list of government-imposed restrictions was grand and ranged from a ban on hanging clothes on the balconies to not allowing district cars to enter the city out of fear that foreign guests might see the worn out cars (and of course to keep the cars from causing traffic).
And given the successful crackdown on independent civil society organizations which were actively engaged in raising international awareness on the ongoing human rights and freedom of expression troubles during the Eurovision song contest, there was no one left to advocate this time on behalf of 80-plus political prisoners and the deteriorating living conditions in Azerbaijan.
But the most memorable moments of the European Games were not the grand opening and the finale but the fake euphoria built around it. The faux euphoria was skillfully picked apart by international media which exposed the crackdown, the stories of political prisoners, and the hidden truth beneath all the glitz and glamor. Even a fake British tourist couldn’t help not rescue the country’s already poor image. (The individual turned out to be an Azrebaijani young man pretending to be a visitor from Great Britain who went out of his way to say nice things about Azerbaijan to visiting journalists.)
Shortly after the games the trials of the most prominent imprisoned civil society activists began. On August 13, veteran civil society activists, Leyla and Arif Yunus, were sentenced to 8.5 and 7 years in prison, respectively. Just four days before that, a young journalist Rasim Aliyev died following the injuries sustained from a brutal beating. The relatives of a soccer player, Javid Huseynov, sought revenge on the journalist who had put up a post on Facebook criticizing the player’s on-field attitude.
Also in August, a young man was reported dead outside of the police headquarters in town of Mingachevir. While the police said that the young man committed suicide by jumping out of the window, friends and relatives suspected he was tortured and later killed to hide the evidence of his heavily sustained body injuries. Unhappy with the response of the local police chief, the residents took to the streets. As a result 22 men were detained out of which 16 received administrative detention while the police chief was reprimanded.
On September 1st, Azerbaijan’s internationally renowned investigative reporter, Khadija Ismayil was sentenced to 7.6 years in prison on bogus charges of tax evasion, abuse of power, and illegal entrepreneurship. Ismayil was arrested in December 2014 on charges of inciting a man to attempt suicide. A wave of criticism from the international community ridiculed the charge and criticized the arrest of Ismayil. Shortly after, Ismayil was charged with a series of new criminal offences, the usual allegations frequently used against many other prominent men and women working in the field of human rights in Azerbaijan. Although Ismayil’s innocence was proven on each charge, the presiding judge dismissed the evidence when sentencing her.
In October, the minister of National Security, Eldar Mahmudov, was sacked together with 250 other employees. On top of this, a former general was arrested along with 20 other high-ranking officials from within the ministry. Because of this the ministry was shuttered and replaced by two new security organizations: an external investigation bureau and internal national security service. The scandal at the ministry was followed by contested parliamentary elections, which took place on November 1, 2015. For the first time in the election history of independent Azerbaijan the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE ODIHR) did not send an observer mission following disagreement over the number of international observers it was allowed to send to Azerbaijan. Earlier in 2015 the OSCE country mission was downgraded. The opposition boycotted the election while electoral violations were reported extensively on social media.
Some good news followed shortly after the elections when Arif Yunus was conditionally released from prison due to his deteriorating health while in prison. Another first in the country’s modern history was a security operation that was carried out in Baku’s village of Nardaran (a traditional Shi’a stronghold) resulting in deaths of six people, two of whom were police officers. Over 70 residents were arrested including a renowned theologian Taleh Bagirov. In protest, residents took to the streets, burning tires and demanding the release of their family members, as well as information on their whereabouts. In response to these uprisings riot police entered the village and surrounded all entrance and exit points. The police takeover of the village lasted three days. Only on January 22, 2016 all arrested residents, with an exception of Taleh Bagirzade and 14 others who are currently facing criminal charges including treason, were released.
The last month of the year saw another tragedy in Azerbaijan. A fire erupted on one of Baku’s oil platforms on the Caspian Sea–killing seven workers. Twenty-nine workers went missing, and while the bodies of six were found over the next week, the rest of the Guneshli platform workers are still missing. As is becoming a custom, none of the officials took responsibility or the blame for this tragic incident.
The authorities continued to take no responsibility when the Manat devalued for a second time forcing the country’s ruling government to shift to floating exchange rates, devaluing itt by almost 100%. Despite the initial government reassurances, which were in place following the first devaluation earlier in the year, officials began to use a new narrative, claiming that the currency devaluation was a natural result of the falling global oil prices. In Azerbaijan, the consequences have been devastating so far. Currency exchange points have closed down, commodity prices have increased, and residents have been left helpless trying to figure out how to survive the stagnating economy.
Lastly, on December 28, 2015 veteran journalist Rauf Mirkadirov was sentenced to 6 years in jail. And by the end of the year none of the political prisoners’ names made it to the pardoning decree signed by the president.
Looking ahead, there is little hope for any substantial positive changes in Azerbaijan in the short-term. 2016 has already begun with a wave of protests shaking the country’s leadership so much that the talk of economic reform is becoming a heated topic of discussion at each governmental level. The reality is stark: the country is far behind in implementing any reforms, which it should have undertaken some fifteen years ago. The lack of planning, soaring corruption, thriving monopolies, and self-serving leadership styles have left the country unprepared for a crisis that was bound to hit this energy-dependent country eventually. This devastating economic downturn comes despite the fact that both at home and abroad Azerbaijan’s leadership was reminded over and over again, that its economy had to diversify. Azerbaijan is now paying a high price for not listening and turning the other way.
The worst part is still ahead, this is only the beginning of Azerbaijan’s financial crisis. Azerbaijan has already requested assistance from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Some in Azerbaijan see this as an opportunity to reform and drive positive change, but it is hard to tell whether the drastic change Azerbaijan needs is possible in the near future.
About the author:
*Arzu Geybullayeva is an Associate Scholar at the Project on Democratic Transitions. Based in Istanbul, Turkey, Arzu holds a Master’s in Global Politics from London School of Economics and Political Science and serves as managing editor and co-director of Imagine Center for Conflict Transformation.
This article was published by FPRI.