Foreign Policy Blogs

Azerbaijan: Fallout from Tagi Murder, New Internet Protest Movement, and an American Ambassador Goes Home

Rafiq Tagi. Credit: APA.AZ

Rafiq Tagi. Credit: APA.AZ

There is no real progress to report on the investigation into the murder of Rafiq Tagi, although as I mentioned shortly after his death, a number of theories—some of them rational, others not—cropped up immediately on social networking sites and internet forums.

My guess is that Tagi was killed by Islamists who were incensed by a piece he had authored shortly before his death. A number of Azeris have scoffed at this theory, pointing out to me that the Iranian fatwah against Tagi was announced years ago, and he had somehow survived since then with no attempts on his life.

Their various theories are unconvincing and overly elaborate, including one favored by many in the opposition: that the assassin was from Azerbaijan and the motive was to sow discord amongst the secular and religious forces who have been more or less united in their opposition to the Aliyev government.

A major proponent of this theory is political analyst Arastun Orujlu, with whom I spoke via Skype in December. While acknowledging that he didn’t “have the facts to blame anyone” in particular, Orujlu speculated that the aim of the attack on Tagi was to weaken the secular and religious opposition factions and blunt the momentum for regime change:

“I cannot imagine that someone in Iran killed Rafiq Tagi. This is something internal. They calculated that after the killing of Rafiq Tagi the secular part of the society, especially the atheistic part, would blame the religious community. And it happened!

“Both sides were blaming each other – the religious community and the liberals…I think now that this mistrust has become much bigger than before. So an Arab Spring has a much smaller chance of succeeding today than before.”

Khadija Ismayilova has written a very insightful piece for Eurasianet on what Tagi’s violent death may mean for public discourse in Azerbaijan. Among other things, Khadija’s article traces how Tagi’s murder has exposed and intensified the fissures between secular writers and political figures and more conservative elements from Azerbaijan’s religious community. (This doesn’t necessarily mean that Khadija agrees with those who posit that Tagi’s murder was designed to to drive a wedge between the two communities. She is laying out for her readers how Tagi’s death has resulted in a schism; these are two different things.)

Meanwhile, Elnur Majidli, the principal organizer of last year’s 11 March “Great People’s Day” has announced a similar effort for 2012. Majidli, who is studying law in France, was charged last year with attempting to overthrow the government after launching the 11 March Facebook page. The Azerbaijani government eventually suspended its prosecution of Majidli.

He tells me that this year’s strategy is more nuanced than in 2011, with a “campaign” planned “in stages”:

“The next stage is the Great People’s Movement currently with 1500+ members and the material is shared among 40,000 members…The movement is strongly supported by the opposition parties in Azerbaijan. Last year we broke the silence in the political atmosphere of the country and I believe this year people will [be] more ready to support and follow through with the movement. I believe this year the end result of the movement and demonstrations will be much more fruitful.”

That remains to be seen, of course. The opposition is in a state of near disarray thanks to the long-term program to discredit it and vigorous police tactics at rallies last year, coinciding with the Arab Spring movement in the Middle East. After talking to a number of opposition youth figures, I’m not sensing a groundswell of support for this year’s iteration of the Great People’s Day Movement,  although it’s still early. A new political variable is the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, to be held in Baku in late May, and it is unclear as to whether protests will be held to coincide with the competition.

Majidli’s Facebook page complements a multi-media web site called “Etiraz,” in English and Azeri, with news and commentary.

Finally, as reported widely in early January, career diplomat Matthew Bryza, US ambassador to Azerbaijan, has left Baku and will not be re-nominated. Bryza was named ambassador by President Obama at the end of 2010 during a Senate recess, necessitated by the fierce resistance instigated by a number of Armenian interest groups and led in the Senate by Robert Menendez (D – New Jersey) and Barbara Boxer (D – California).

Thus Bryza’s tenure in Baku was from the beginning subject to the whims of the Washington political process, and despite a well-argued letter of support addressed to the Senate (and signed by people such as Robert Kagan, Thomas Pickering, and R. Nicholas Burns), Bryza was not re-nominated.

An informed Washington source, who probably doesn’t want his name revealed, told me that re-nomination is at this juncture not an option: “It is way too late for that. The administration appears to just have dropped the ball and not even pushed with Menendez and Boxer, as suggested by the failure to push for a vote. If they wanted to persuade anyone they had a year to do it. [Bryza] has left Baku and it’s over.”

I won’t rehash the litany of complaints lodged against Bryza, but will simply say that there is zero evidence that he has ever been less than objective and thoroughly dedicated in his previous role with the OSCE Minsk Group. In my view, he did an excellent job in attempting to hammer out a final agreement over the frozen Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and it’s a pity that he has been robbed of a chance to truly leave his mark as ambassador to Azerbaijan.

Speaking of US ambassadors to Baku, I’d like to close by apologizing to former ambassador Anne Derse for something I wrote last year (not that she is ever going to read this).

In February of last year, I posted an article on this blog in which I dismissed allegations coming from that the US Department of State had concluded that former Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrossian, among others, was personally profiting from the sale of narcotics in the Caspian region.

The source, according to the Armenian news site, was a Wikileaks cable released by Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten.

So I did some digging, talked to some sources, and called the Baku UNODC (UN Office on Drugs and Crime) branch, which was mentioned in the article. Notably, the specific source of the sensational allegations against the former president was redacted in the Aftenposten’s version of the cable.

Aftenposten, like the New York Times and other press outlets, has a policy of redacting the names of sensitive State Department sources, and for good reason: these people, many of whom are citizens of host countries, have in some cases taken risks in order to give US embassy contacts their unique perspectives. Removing the names of these sources is something I fully agree with on ethical grounds.

But curiously, Aftenposten has, in a seemingly random fashion, also redacted information, not simply the names of protected sources. And it was Aftenposten who released the cable I referred to in my blog post.

Here is the Aftenposten version of the relevant portion of the cable:

[TEXT REMOVED BY AFTENPOSTEN ] observed that Armenia is “starved for hard currency,” and alleged that UNODC as well as Azerbaijani officials believe that senior Armenian political and government officials, including former President Tar-Petrossian, are personally profiting from this trade. (Note: [TEXT REMOVED BY AFTENPOSTEN ]. End Note).

Since September of 2011, the unredacted versions of all 250,000+ cables are now widely available. Here is the complete version of the cable I referred to in my story, with the name of the UN source removed by me:

[Name removed] observed that Armenia is “starved for hard currency,” and alleged that UNODC as well as Azerbaijani officials believe that senior Armenian political and government officials, including former President Tar-Petrossian, are personally profiting from this trade. (Note: [Name removed] is an ethnic Azeri, and his lurid assertions about Armenia need separate confirmation…)

The “note” at the end is critical, since it shows that the US embassy was, quite properly, skeptical of the source’s “lurid assertions.” Had I been aware of the contents of the redacted segment, I would not have leapt to the conclusion that “neither [Derse] nor anyone at the embassy injected a note of skepticism prior to sending the message to Washington.”

While the main focus of the post is still valid, namely that US embassy personnel have never alleged that former Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrossian was complicit in the regional narcotics trade, I was dead wrong about Ambassador Derse’s assessment of the accusations coming from the UNODC source.



Karl Rahder

Karl Rahder has written on the South Caucasus for ISN Security Watch and ISN Insights (, news and global affairs sites run by the Swiss government. Karl splits his time between the US and the former USSR - mostly the Caucasus and Ukraine, sometimes teaching international relations at universities (in Chicago, Baku, Tbilisi) or working on stories for ISN and other publications. Karl received his MA from the University of Chicago, and first came to the Caucasus in 2004 while on a CEP Visiting Faculty Fellowship. He's reported from the Caucasus on topics such as attempted coups, sedition trials, freedom of the press, and the frozen Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. For many years, Karl has also served as an on-call election observer for the OSCE, and in 2010, he worked as a long-term observer in Afghanistan for Democracy International.

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