Oil Flows More Freely than Ideas in Azerbaijan

The smell of oil, profits, and risk hang heavily over Baku. To the Western visitor, this port city looks like a boom town. Azerbaijan has discovered new oil reserves in the Caspian Sea which may be nearly as great as those of Kuwait. And outsiders are rushing to town to pump oil and get rich quick, or to service ³the oilies² who are doing the pumping. Because of oil, Baku is now the most prosperous city in the Caucasus. Flush with cash, foreign oil companies, and Azeri nouveaux riches are restoring mansions that once belonged to such turn-of-the-century oil barons as Robert and Ludwig Nobel. American and European supermarkets are springing up. An overabundance of yellow Star taxis ply the streets looking for clients. Vendors at open stalls offer a cornucopia of products imported from Istanbul and Dubai. On almost every street, money changers turn U.S. currency into Azerbaijani manats. Foreign restaurants with names like The Ragin¹ Cajun, Lord Nelson, Dragon Baku, Mullerbrau, and La Dolce Vita are doing a roaring business, profiting from the low level of nighttime crime. The atmosphere has changed dramatically from a few years ago, when Baku was still an impoverished post-Soviet city, marked by poorly stocked stores and a population weary of war with Armenia. The hot war began in 1992 when the government of President Ayaz Mutalibov mounted a military offensive to reclaim the secessionist Nagorno-Karabakh. A small but determined Karabakh army suceeded in repelling the Azerbaijani soldiers, with help from Russia, Armenia, and diaspora commanders like the California-born Monte Melkonian, who was killed in the Karabakh fighting. A series of Azerbaijani military defeats in the spring of 1992, particularly the massacre of the Azeri population in the village of Khodzhali by Karabakh Armenian forces, hastened the downfall of President Mutalibov and contributed to the ascent to the presidency in June of that year of Abulfaz Elchibey, a former dissident who headed the Popular Front democratic movement. In the face of mass demonstrations by Popular Front supporters in Baku, Mutalibov resigned in March 1992 and fled to Moscow. In May, in an uneasy compromise between Mutalibov and the opposition, the old Supreme Soviet ceded its powers to the Milli Medjlis, the Azerbaijani national assembly. A new coalition government was formed, and in early June, Elchibey was elected president of Azerbaijan. As president, Elchibey eliminated the censorship apparatus, allowing a period of free expression, which journalists look back on as ³a golden era.² But Elchibey¹s administration was troubled from the start by domestic lawlessness, government corruption, and ongoing trouble on the Karabakh front. Military defeats forced him to proclaim a state of emergency and to reinstitute ³temporary² military censorship. His presidency lasted only a year. In June 1993, Col. Suret Husseinov, a disgruntled Azeri hero, led an armed rebellion, causing President Elchibey to flee. This crisis brought Heidar Aliyev, an experienced Soviet-era politician, back from his provincial base in Nakhchivan to become speaker of parliament and eventually president, a post confirmed by popular vote later in the year. Aliyev, who is expected to be the leading candidate in the presidential elections of 1998, is using the power of incumbency to suppress the campaigns of opponents like Elchibey. As president, Aliyev has consolidated his power through strong-arm rule. He has weathered conspiracies to unseat him in 1994 and 1995; arrested his principal opponents; dismissed former allies from high posts; prevented the army from gaining excessive power by sacking generals; and involved himself directly in promotions. By manipulating the parliamentary elections of November 12, 1995‹criticized by observers as seriously flawed‹Aliyev¹s cohorts succeeded in stacking the 125-member Milli Medjlis with supporters. Aliyev also packed the judiciary and the bureaucracy with his own people, many of them cronies from Nakhchivan. Aliyev has exercised tight control over the media, which includes opposition and independent newspapers, as well as government organs. Censorship is routine, and opposition newspapers‹the censors¹ primary targets‹often lose several articles an issue. Aliyev has toughened or relaxed controls on the press at critical moments to provide a semblance of free expression and democracy-building. His tools have included the Main Administration for the Protection of State Secrets in the Media, the Soviet-era censorship organization popularly known as ³Glavlit²; financial pressures; legal harassment; and extra-judicial measures. At the same time, Aliyev has allowed non-governmental and human rights organizations to operate in Baku and has lessened the intrusive nature of the political police in day-to-day life. Furthermore, the law¹s formal ban on censorship is qualified from the start by Article 4, which forbids ³abuse of media freedom.² This ³takeaway² article, adopted directly from Article 4 of the Soviet law, lists subjects that may not be publicized: state secrets; classified materials; calls for the forcible overthrow of government and constitution; war propaganda; violence and cruelty; hatred and intolerance of ethnic, social, or class groups; pornography; invasions of personal privacy; and assaults on the honor and dignity of citizens. These subjects are vaguely defined, and open to interpretation. The Azerbaijani law contains several other restrictions, such as the requirement to register with the authorities (Article 8), and not to disclose developments in criminal investigations without written permission from the prosecutor (Article 34). Article 14 provides procedures for closing down mass media in cases of violation of Article 4. Finally, the law contains a list of dos and don¹ts for journalists, which are listed in a separate section titled ³Rights and Obligations of the Journalist² (Articles 35-37). The criminal code, virtually unchanged from Soviet times, limits the criticism of government officials through several articles. Article 121, on libel, punishes ³false and dishonoring² comments; Article 122 punishes insults; Article 188.6 specifically prohibits ³critical comments on the activity² of the president of the republic. Under Article 188.6, four young journalists from the newspaper Chesme were arrested March 3, 1995, and tried and convicted on October 19, 1995. They were pardoned by President Aliyev on November 11, the eve of parliamentary elections, and released.