The Pen Is Mightier Than These Legal Swords

Despite their best efforts to keep such discussions under wraps (or just suppress them altogether), a confusing web of stories have emerged this week regarding what is arguably the Azerbaijani government’s worst human rights violation: the restriction of the foreign and domestic press.

As I’ve previously discussed, Reporters Without Borders recently ranked Azerbaijan as the 160th least free country (or 20th most restrictive, depending on how you look at it) in their World Press Freedom Index. (For perspective, Burma, Russia, Singapore, and the Central African Republic were more highly ranked.) The Azeri government is notorious for silencing dissent by passing laws that ban certain kinds of speech, or detaining journalists for months if they are thought to be writing pieces that might undermine the government.

Of course, this “criticism of government” (read: repression) extends to discussion on sensitive topics to the Azeri government, such as Nagorno-Karabakh. On April 10th, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced new policies for foreign “mass media representatives” that had, in fact, been approved and gone into effect a week prior. The Ministry’s new policy dictates the following:

“The Foreign Ministry will revoke the accreditation of foreign mass media representatives in case they violate the rules of accreditation, work against the territorial integrity, independence and sovereignty of the Republic of Azerbaijan, visit Azerbaijani territories occupied by the Republic of Armenia, without the consent of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or disseminate distorted or false information or this information is approved by the court decision.”

Hmm. What types of reporting could possibly fall under this law?

It certainly has nothing to do with another story from the 10th, in which Baku declared New York Times reporter Seth Kugel an official persona non grata for his “distortion of the real situation in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan” and “showing a clear disrespect to the readers of the newspaper.” Earlier this week Kugel, a writer for the NYT’s “Frugal Traveler” column, published an article about his trip to Nagorno-Karabakh from February.

The spokesman for the foreign ministry, Hikmet Hajiyev, expressed his disappointment at Kugel’s “failure to mention that such transnational crimes as human trafficking, production and sale of drugs, illicit arms trafficking, training of terrorists are organized in these territories,” and his enmity towards the New York Times for publishing a “biased” article that paints Nagorno-Karabakh as a pleasant “tourist trap.” Because Kugel visited Nagorno-Karabakh without explicit approval from Baku (yet another Azeri law), he is now blacklisted (which may or may not actually mean anything). While I’ll let you be the judge of whether Kugel’s piece is “offensive,” it’s worth noting that Hajiyev is overall correct – but he should probably save his displeasure for something more threatening.

All of this follows another article where Baku did, in fact, permit a foreign reporter – BBC journalist Rayhan Demytrie – to visit Nagorno-Karabakh and report on the “struggles and hopes” of the people living there. Yerevan, which has similar rules for reporters, did not approve the request. Hajiyev released a statement, this time praising Demytrie and the BBC’s professionalism, although he did note that “some points in the prepared video reportage are controversial.” Her video report on the “frozen” conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh can be found here.



Ah, Yes – THAT Great Patriotic War

Following a (relatively) recent report published by the State Service for Mobilization and Conscription (SHXCDX), the media announced that 1291 Great Patriotic War veterans are still alive in Azerbaijan. Approximately one quarter of these veterans still live in Baku, and a handful of veterans live in all districts except for Beylagan and Khojavand. Of course, none of them are from the separatist republic of Nagorno-Karabakh or the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan (of which parts are occupied by Armenians) in Armenia, because Armenians can never be considered patriotic.

Chances are you’re probably fuzzy on your noncontiguous Azeri territory and forgotten where Nakhchivan is. With the exception of the Armenian-occupied northern exclave of Karki (which is an exclave within an exclave), Nakhchivan is governed as an autonomous republic of Azerbaijan.

If you’ve lost track of which Great Patriotic War or Conflict the media is referring to, fear not: the meaning has mutated over time. The term is currently used in reference to the Eastern Front of World War II, which lasted from June 22nd, 1941 to May 9th (or 11th, if you include the liberation of Prague) 1945. The term is not typically used outside of the former USSR, although it should be noted that the Eastern Front never crossed into what was once Azeri territory.

Of course, this was not the first Great Patriotic War – in fact, it was the third. The first Great Patriotic War occurred in 1812, in which Napoleon ultimately failed to take Russia during the Napoleonic Wars. The Russian troops were not well-equipped, but employed scorched-earth tactics to starve the woefully underprepared French troops. The Great Patriotic War later referred to the First World War, in which Russia fought both the German and the Austro-Hungary Empire – again managing to outlast better-trained and equipped officers. With the prospect of another large and difficult war looming with the breaking of the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, the term “Great Patriotic War of the Soviet People” began circulating in 1941 as a propagandist way to inspire Soviet resistance (which, as we know today, was quite impressive).

So why does this mean anything to Azerbaijan? It’s not clear – while relations with Russia have typically been strong in the post-Soviet world, both nations are competing for oil exports and Russia’s weakening economy has led to a degree of distancing. At the same time, playing up the Soviet connection could be advantageous if relations with Armenia continue to deteriorate and Baku needs to call on its ally.

(Or maybe Azerbaijan just wants to pretend that they’re relevant on the global stage.)


In other news, Azerbaijan is unhappy that NATO is planning to hold a Parliamentary Assembly in Yerevan. Vice-Speaker Ziyafet Asgerov, the head of the Azeri delegation to NATO, has written a formal letter protesting the locale. (They have suggested Belgrave instead.)

Baku is also pleased with the progress made between Iran and the P5+1 group in regards to the Iranian nuclear program. With Iran as Azerbaijan’s only buffer to the increasingly unstable and chaotic Middle East, such a deal will (hopefully) combat destabilization in the region. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs commented on the matter:

“We are confident that this political framework will open up an opportunity for the development of peace, security and stability in the region and beyond. The Azerbaijan Republic supports efforts and political will of the international community regarding the constructive resolution of international issues basing on the norms and principles of the UN Charter and international law.”

In light of Yemen’s collapse, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has also extended its deepest thanks to Russia for evacuating Azeri nationals from Yemen to the embassy, and later to Moscow. It helps to have allies!