An hour into an interview, Eynulla Fatullayev pulls out a cigarette and – making sure the interviewer does not mind – lights up. Azerbaijan has laws prohibiting smoking in offices, but Fatullayev says with a laugh, “We’re journalists – the law isn’t for us.”
Fatullayev has a complicated relationship with the law, and it is one he seems to embrace. In one corner of his office, there is a poster for a film about the four years he spent in prison on defamation charges because of his critical reporting. That case turned him into Azerbaijan’s most prominent political prisoner at the time, and a cause célèbre for European human rights activists.
Next to the movie poster hangs a 1955 photo of Alexander Solzhenitsyn in a Soviet prison camp. And above his desk is a portrait of Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev. The dissident and authority figure appear to happily coexist on the walls of his space.
Since getting out of prison in 2011, Fatullayev’s attitude toward the government has shifted, and he now seemingly serves as the president’s hatchet man. He is the editor-in-chief of Haqqin.az, a news website he founded shortly after his release, and his journalism is now aimed not at the government, but its foes. The enemies list includes liberal Western critics of Azerbaijan, members of Azerbaijan’s own domestic opposition, and government officials who have fallen afoul of the leadership.
Roughly 20 political, media, and diplomatic officials in Baku, including several of his former friends and allies, were queried about Fatullayev for this article, and not one wanted to be quoted. No one liked Haqqin, most hated it, but nearly all read it regularly. A number used the same reasoning as to why they read it: they wanted to see “who’s next,” that is, which government official has fallen out of favor and is soon to be fired.
An illustrative case is that of Arif Mammadov, a senior Azerbaijani diplomat serving in Brussels. In May 2015, a fire in a Baku apartment block killed 16 people; it quickly emerged that the cause of the blaze was low-quality materials attached to the building to make an attractive facade. Mammadov wrote a Facebook post blaming government corruption for the tragedy. “Officials are making millions on the suffering of our people, and if they are not afraid of the wrath of the people, let them fear the wrath of God!”
Mammadov’s reaction was more emotional than, but not significantly different from, President Aliyev’s own reaction. “Representatives of relevant government agencies have repeatedly told me that all the materials used are of good quality and fireproof. But the incident has shown that this information is false,” the president said.
Despite the rough similarity of the comments, the reprisal against Mammadov was swift – and it started at Haqqin. In an article headlined “The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry Calls for a Revolution Against Ilham Aliyev,” Fatullayev called Mammadov a “traitor,” and wrote that he “despises not only the state, but all of Azerbaijan. ... We don’t need these critics and enemies in Brussels.”
Days later, Mammadov was removed from his post and a number of criminal charges were levied against him. Several fellow diplomats who had “liked” Mammadov’s post were fired.
Mammadov publicly blamed Fatullayev for the incident. “The national provocateur and clown of Azerbaijan, Eynulla, having received another order from his masters ... has generously poured out on the pages of his well-paid miserable paper new dirty revelations,” Mammadov wrote in an open letter.
That pattern has been repeated with a number of other senior officials, as well as other perceived enemies. When the government decided to attack the National Democratic Institute, the international arm of the US Democratic Party, it began with a 3,600-word assault published by Haqqin, again bylined by Fatullayev, accusing the group of fomenting a “Facebook revolution” in Azerbaijan. The group was subsequently kicked out of Azerbaijan.
Asked about this pattern, Fatullayev argued that it was the byproduct of hard-hitting journalism. “Aren’t people afraid to be in the Washington Post, too?” he asked. “Of course, no one likes to be criticized, but everyone reads it.”
Many in Baku believe that Fatullayev is operating under the sponsorship of Fuad Aleskerov, the chief of intelligence in Aliyev’s administration, and that Haqqin’s attacks on regime enemies are orchestrated from there. But Fatullayev attributes his scoops to Haqqin’s popularity. “If your publication is popular and readable, then someone who wants to ‘blow up an information bomb’ will turn to you, and not to anyone else,” he said. “And so you’re constantly blowing up.”
He fetched his laptop from his desk and pulled up the opposition newspaper Azadliq, where there happened to be an interview with Mammadov, headlined “Aliyev’s Great Crime and Error.” Fatullayev pointed out a page-view counter that showed that 32,000 users had visited that day, then went to Haqqin, where its counter indicated 92,000 visitors.
The stats suggest Haqqin is the most popular website not only in Azerbaijan, but in the entire former Soviet space, excluding Russia, Fatullayev said. Independent assessments do not bear out that claim, however: according to the web analytics tool liveinternet.ru, which provides Haqqin’s page view counter, Haqqin was Azerbaijan’s 16th-most popular site over the past month.
Nevertheless, it is true that Haqqin is popular and readable, even if it appeals mostly to Baku’s Russian-speaking elite, interested in political infighting. Even those who hate what Fatullayev writes acknowledge that he is a skilled writer, with rich and allusive Russian. Haqqin demonstrates verve that is uncommon in Azerbaijan’s media sector: the news sections have cheeky headings like “Good News,” “Bad News,” “Good for Some, Bad for Others.” Its headlines about the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russia-led security bloc, invariably refer to it as “Putin’s NATO.”
“There are two kinds of journalists: artists and craftsmen,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to be an artist, never a craftsman.”
In Baku, there are two prevailing theories for why Fatullayev changed his tack so dramatically, from watchdog to attack dog. One is that he made a deal with authorities for a reduced sentence in exchange for doing some of their dirty PR work. The other is that he chose this road himself in the belief that it would be the smoother route to status and power – that he traded prestige in Europe for power at home in Azerbaijan.
Fatullayev, though, says it only makes sense to adapt to a rapidly shifting world. “The world is changing before our eyes. Could you have imagined five years ago that Trump would be president of the United States? Never. Could you have imagined that friends of Vladimir Putin would come to power in France? And that Russia would be bombing Syria? Never. So people aren’t supposed to change?”
He describes his conversion as intellectual rather than political. “When I went to prison, there was so much I didn’t understand about the world,” he said, attributing his professed shortcomings to reading only parochial Azerbaijani media. But while in prison, he started reading the foreign press – the New York Times, the Washington Post, Novaya Gazeta, Der Spiegel. “And I started to look at the world and global politics in a different way. I began to understand that Azerbaijan doesn’t decide anything in the world. ... Countries like Azerbaijan, everything here is decided from outside.”
Fatullayev said that he himself believes in liberal values, and remains grateful to the many in the West who supported him while he was in prison. “Of course, I felt the great support of western NGOs, and governmental organizations as well – the Council of Europe and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe played a great role in my release,” he said.
But the values that liberals espouse, he argues, are unsuitable for Azerbaijan at the moment. He estimated that if the country had truly free elections, Islamists would win at least 40 percent of the vote. “Look at what happened to Syria in just five years! We don’t need that in Azerbaijan,” he said.
Georgia is another cautionary tale for Azerbaijan, Fatullayev said. “Georgia broke liberalism in Azerbaijan. When we saw that a shareholder in Gazprom [former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili] became the boss of the country, when we saw how [former President Mikheil] Saakashvili, who took Georgia from such poverty, a country that was ruled by thieves and bandits, it was a destroyed, plundered country. Saakashvili put in a civilized government. And now his whole team is in prison. It’s a disaster.”
“And after this we had to think about everything, and it turns out that there is a natural, historical process. And you can’t fight it,” he added.
At the same time, Fatullayev argues that liberal critics of Azerbaijan do not treat the country fairly. Asked about an assessment by the Committee to Protect Journalists that Azerbaijan is the fifth-most censored country in the world – in the same company as Eritrea and Turkmenistan – he called the ranking “an absolutely unjust assessment.”
Opening up his laptop again, he went to Facebook and to the page of Ali Kerimli, one of the leaders of Azerbaijan’s decimated political opposition. Fatullayev pointed out that many of Kerimli’s posts were sharply critical of Aliyev. “Could you do this in Turkmenistan or Eritrea? What would happen to someone who said something like that about the president and his family?” he asked. “And look how many are commenting, and all are insulting the president. And they don’t punish these people. Do they have this kind of Internet in Turkmenistan or Eritrea?”
“If we’d had Turkmenbashi in Azerbaijan... I would fight so that my country doesn’t turn into Turkmenistan,” he continued. “But our president is a European-thinking person, with Western values. He’s a European by his character, his thoughts.”
What does “European” mean to Fatullayev? “Secularism, Voltaire, Silicon Valley, contemporary industry, modern medicine,” he said. “That’s the direction in which we need to look, and the president is calling us to look in that direction.”
Joshua Kucera is the Turkey/Caucasus editor at EurasiaNet, and author of The Bug Pit.