Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Azerbaijan: Secret Videos Threaten Top Presidential Aide

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Azerbaijan: Secret Videos Threaten Top Presidential Aide

by Shahin Abbasov

A series of videos depicting graft inside the halls of power in Azerbaijan could have serious implications for one of the country’s most influential officials, 74-year-old presidential Chief of Staff Ramiz Mehdiyev.

The scandal, known as Gulargate, erupted last September when the former rector of Baku’s now-closed International University, Elshad Abdullayev, published an online video showing himself discussing the $2-million price tag for a seat in parliament with Gular Ahmadova, an MP for the governing Yeni Azerbaijan Party and her assistant, Sevinj Babayeva. Abdullayev is said to have secretly recorded the video in 2005. It appears to implicate Ahmadova in the sale of parliamentary seats, and seems to identify Ramiz Mehdiyev as a beneficiary.

Abdullayev, now a political refugee in France, has since published 10 more videos that purportedly reveal widespread corruption in Azerbaijan’s executive branch, judiciary system and law-enforcement agencies. All of them place Mehdiyev in an unfavorable light. Some show Abdullayev negotiating for the return of the $2 million after he lost the 2005 parliamentary elections; others document his negotiations with a Supreme Court judge and Interior Ministry mediators about bribes and a ransom for the release of his brother, Mahir, a senior official at the Ministry of National Security, from kidnappers.

In interviews with Azerbaijani media outlets, Abdullayev has pledged to release about 800 more such videos during the run-up to Azerbaijan’s October presidential elections. His aim, he claims, is to find out what happened to his brother, who was kidnapped in 2003, and whose whereabouts remain unknown.

But local experts and politicians believe that Abdullayev’s real aim is to undermine Mehdiyev. And some suspect that he isn’t acting alone.

A patriarch of Azerbaijani politics and an important ideologist for the incumbent administration, Mehdiyev is widely seen as one of the most powerful public figures in Azerbaijan after President Ilham Aliyev. A former Communist Party ideologist, he has been a top presidential aide for nearly 18 years, beginning under Ilham Aliyev’s father, Heydar. Aside from his executive-branch role, Mehdiyev wields considerable influence over legislative matters, law-enforcement agencies and the country’s regional administrations.

Mehdiyev repeatedly has denied involvement in the bribery schemes discussed in the videos, and dismissed Abdullayev as a “criminal” with a reputation for “selling diplomas.” As yet, he has not been questioned by investigators.

President Aliyev has not yet commented publicly on the scandal. But political analyst Elhan Shahinoglu, director of the Baku-based Atlas research center, predicts that if more videos appear, Aliyev will have to address the issue before Azerbaijan’s October presidential elections. Following recent riots in the town of Ismayili and protests in Baku over perceived abuses of power, the government, arguably, must tread gingerly in an election year.

“Honestly, even if Ilham Aliyev wins a third term in October, I do not see Ramiz Mehdiyev in his administration after it [the election],” Shahinoglu said.

At the same time, law-enforcement agencies are unlikely to make Medhiyev the subject of a corruption investigation while he remains in office, Shahinoglu added.

Economist Natik Jafarly, one of the leaders of the opposition group REAL, is among those who don’t believe that Abdullayev, a man not known as being a trailbazer for transparency, is acting alone. “I do not think that Elshad Abdullayev is just an angry person who lost his brother, university and lots of money. … It is a political process.”

The Public Chamber, a mainstream group which unites the country’s two largest opposition parties, Musavat and the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan, does not conceal that the videos will be a focus of their upcoming presidential campaign.

Who exactly stands to gain from any fall from power by Mehdiyev remains an open question.

Opposition-linked Azerbaijani media have speculated that the videos’ release could be tied to First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva’s relatives, who form the backbone of the influential Pashayev clan. The group has interests in several important financial sectors, including banking and insurance.

Jafarly suggested that Pashayev’s involvement in the scandal stretched the limits of credibility, given that the videos, viewed collectively, paint an unappealing picture of Azerbaijan’s ruling elites. “[I]t is like shaking a boat in which they are all sitting,” he commented. “Abdullayev’s videos are harming not only Ramiz Mehdiyev’s reputation; they show how corrupt the whole government and the system are.”

In response to the videos’ appearance, the General Prosecutor’s Office has launched a corruption investigation against Ahmadova, who has lost her parliamentary seat and YAP membership, and has been placed under house arrest. In addition, a Supreme Court judge, Aghababa Babayev, has been fired.

Ahmadova’s assistant, 41-year-old Sevinj Babayeva, died from heart failure in an Istanbul hospital in late December – an event that only intensified speculation about the scandal.

Editor's note: Shahin Abbasov is a freelance reporter based in Baku.