Thursday, September 25, 2008

Briefly: U.S. on Armenian and Azerbaijani politics, Turkish ruling AKP avoids ban

Washington Briefing
by Yelena Osipova and Emil Sanamyan

U.S. wants Armenian government to succeed on democracy

“It is in the interest of the U.S.-Armenia bilateral relationship and in the interest of the Armenian people to see the new government in Yerevan succeed in deepening Armenia’s democratic development,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David Kramer said in a prepared statement on July 29.

Recalling his tour of the Caucasus earlier this summer (see this page and the editorial page in the June 28 issue of the Armenian Reporter), Mr. Kramer stressed the need for the Armenian authorities to take timely steps – the release of opposition activists, an independent investigation, and dialogue – “to heal the serious divisions in the country that the presidential election and its violent aftermath exacerbated.”

Overall, Mr. Kramer’s remarks on Armenia were a departure from the sharp rhetoric he employed while in Yerevan.

Similarly, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matt Bryza said earlier in the month that while the United States wanted to see the Armenian government do more on democracy, the United States is “seeing some positive momentum” and that “the direction has shifted and is much better.”

Referring to President Serge Sargsian, Mr. Bryza told the RFE/RL Armenian Service in a July 19 interview, “It seems that President Sarkisian understands the challenges that face the country and what issues need some work. We have seen some leadership from him on a number fronts and we appreciate that.”

Mr. Bryza also praised Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian for “setting a good example as he takes on tough issues [such as government corruption] and is advancing a reform agenda.”

For his part, Mr. Kramer singled out Human Rights Defender Armen Harutiunian, appointed by former President Robert Kocharian, for “playing an important role on behalf of democratic reform in the country.”

Congressional human rights commission discusses Azerbaijan

Members of Congress, officials, and activists expressed various degrees of concern with Azerbaijan’s treatment of dissenters during a July 29 hearing organized by the U.S. Commission for Security and Cooperation in Europe (Helsinki Commission) and described as “biased” by an Azerbaijani presidential aide the next day.

The hearing was timed to precede Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev’s widely anticipated reelection on October 15 in balloting seen by most as a mere formality. Mr. Aliyev inherited the presidency after his father, Heydar Aliyev, died in 2003.

In testimony, Chris Walker of Freedom House, a human-rights advocacy group, noted that growing revenues from energy production have emboldened Azerbaijan’s government and diminished any remaining hopes for democratic changes.

Later in the hearing, Commission co-chair Rep. Alcee Hastings (D.-Fla.) quoted Mr. Aliyev as saying recently, “those who say that something is going wrong in Azerbaijan … should look in the mirror at their own country. Attempts to apply pressure will just cause tension in our relations. While several years ago we may not have reacted to this pressure or kept silent, we are not silent today.”

Indeed, speaking for Mr. Aliyev the next day, his aide Elnur Aslanov described views expressed at the hearing as “biased and provocative.”

“Azerbaijan has its own path leading to democracy which conforms to the level of development of state and society,” he told the Trend news agency.

“Senior Azeri officials have already suggested a third term [through 2018] for President Aliyev,” Mr. Walker said, adding that it appears that “the country is laying the foundations for a possible leader-for-life system,” as in most Central Asian states.

Assistant Secretary of State David Kramer expressed U.S. concerns that “political space for dissenting voices has been shrinking over the past few years,” pointing to the continued imprisonment of dozens of political prisoners. They
include journalist Eynullah Fatullayev, imprisoned after being labeled a “traitor” for his visit to Armenia and Karabakh. (See this page in the Nov. 3, 2007, issue of the Armenian Reporter.)

Mr. Kramer dismissed Azerbaijan’s efforts to link all its failings to Armenian misdeeds. “The unresolved conflict … over Nagorno- Karabakh is not a valid reason for either country to avoid respecting media freedom or engaging in other essential components of democratization,” he said.

Mr. Hastings pointed to his criticism of the Bush administration and wondered whether he could “still be walking around Baku” had he done something similar in Azerbaijan.

In a telling response, Azerbaijan’s ambassador, Yashar Aliyev, said, “I don’t know.”

“I think that is a fair answer to perhaps what was a rhetorical question,” Rep. Hastings went on amid laughter in the room. “And that is that my butt would be in jail.”

Commission members Sen. Robert Burr (R.-N.C.) and Rep. G.K. Butterfield (R.-N.C.) focused their remarks on the imprisonment of former millionaire government member Farkhad Aliyev, who fell out with the Azerbaijani president in 2005; Rep. Hilda Solis (D.-Calif.) raised concerns over prosecution of Christian minorities, and Sen. Ben Cardin (D.-Md.) made general observations about the need for reform.

No concerns over anti-Armenian hate speech in Azerbaijan were raised as part of the hearing.

Wiesenthal Center notes “confusion” over Rabbi Cooper’s Azerbaijan comments

This column last week reported on the visit by Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Los Angeles–based Simon Wiesenthal Center to Baku during which he heard anti-Armenian hate speech from Azerbaijan’s religious leader and was reported by Azerbaijani media as praising the country for its “tolerance” and even “condemning” Armenians.

Contacted by the Armenian Reporter last week and this, Rabbi Cooper was not available for an interview. But the Center’s public relations director Avra Shapiro facilitated the following comment on behalf of Rabbi Cooper via e-mail: “My visit to Baku [was in part] to brief religious leaders who will shortly be visiting the U.S.... I read the article [from Azerbaijani media] that was written very carefully. It seems that whoever wrote the headline may have confused the comments of the [Azerbaijani] Parliamentary Chairman [condemning Armenians] with mine. For the record, what I did state was that the systematic destruction of any houses of worship would be an outrage.”

Rabbi Cooper has not so far provided comment on the Azerbaijani religious leader’s hate speech toward Armenians and how that fits into his reported praise of Azerbaijan’s tolerance.

The latter claim was this week sited by an Azerbaijani presidential aide as evidence of his country’s good behavior and in response to criticism of Azerbaijani government during the U.S. Helsinki Commission hearing on July 29.

Turkish ruling party avoids ban, gets off with “warning”

Turkey’s Constitutional Court did not endorse a proposed ban on the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) but decided to cut half of its state funding in a ruling made on July 30, news agencies reported.

Six judges voted in favor of banning the party, four voted for financial penalties, while one judge rejected the case, CNN reported. Seven votes were required for the court to approve the ban.

The case was filed by the country’s chief prosecutor in March, as part of the struggle between the mildly Islamist AKP and Turkey’s secular elite, which includes the military and the judiciary.

Despite the rejection of closure, the case issued “a serious warning” to the party, court chair Hasim Kilic said.

Mithat Sancar, a law professor at Ankara University, told the New York Times that the ruling does not mean the party is cleared of charges. “Cutting the party’s treasury funds means that the evidence for their anti-secular activity was there but not substantial enough to impose a ban,” he said.

More than 20 parties, mostly pro-Islamist or pro-Kurdish, have been banned by the courts for posing a threat to Kemalist secular principles. However, this was the first case against a party with a large parliamentary majority.

The court decision came just days after a heretofore unknown group set off two bombs in an Istanbul residential area, killing 17 passers- by including five children, and
wounding some 150.

The attack, on July 27, came shortly after six people – three police officers and three assailants – died in an attack near the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul on July 9.

It was the worst case of terrorism in Turkey since two synagogues, a British consulate, and a bank were bombed in November 2003, acts of terror blamed on local Islamic radicals.

Turkish officials said they suspected that the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was responsible for July 27 attack, with the PKK itself denying any involvement.

Writing for the Jamestown Foundation, Istanbul-based journalist Gareth Jenkins noted that neither PKK nor Islamic radicals have been known for random attacks on residential areas in Turkey.

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