Azerbaijan, a strategic ally of Turkey, has suspended a national TV station that reportedly planned to broadcast an interview with Fethullah Gülen, the Pennsylvania-based imam who Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan blames for instigating a failed coup.
In a July 19 statement, Azerbaijan’s National Council for Television and Radio announced that it would suspend for one month the privately run ANS TV’s broadcasts “to prevent the provocation aimed at undermining the strategic cooperation relations between Turkey and Azerbaijan, and not to allow the open propaganda of terrorism,” Trend news agency reported.
The Council added that it also would sue to have the station’s license revoked. Prosecutors on July 19 brought in Vakhid Mustafayev, head of ANS’ parent company, and the TV station’s general director, Mirshahin Agayev, for questioning.
Although authorities provided no details about the alleged “provocation,” ANS TV had announced an upcoming broadcast of an interview with Gülen. Station executives have not commented on the suspension.
Azerbaijan has not yet classified Gülen as a terrorist, as has Turkey, but Baku has in the past attempted to cater to Ankara’s stance toward the cleric. In 2014, for instance, the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijani Republic took control of schools and study centers linked to the Gülen educational network. Some officials identified as sympathetic to the cleric were removed from office.
The crackdown on ANS TV came a day after a phone call between Erdoğan and Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev. Signs are emerging that Turkey is pressing for changes, too, to Azerbaijan’s north, in Georgia, where the Turkish consulate in the town of Batumi announced plans to petition the government to cancel the license of one Gülen-linked private school. Tbilisi has not yet responded.
Aliyev has denounced the botched coup against Erdoğan, calling it “a monstrous crime.” His top political advisor, Ali Hasanov, indicated to reporters that the 54-year-old Azerbaijani leader had been up all night on July 15-16 worrying about Turkey.
As well he might.
Turkey was the first state to recognize Azerbaijan’s independence in 1991, and has served as the Caspian-Sea country’s chief ally in Baku’s nearly 30-year struggle with Armenia for control of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave.
“If Turkey had lost, it means Azerbaijan and our Karabakh fight would be lost,” said Panah Huseyn, who served as prime minister in 1993, during the hot phase of the Karabakh war, and who also is a former member of the Azerbaijan-Turkey inter-parliamentary working group.
Turkey and Azerbaijan enjoy close cultural and linguistic ties. But trade also plays a big role in the strategic relationship. Approximately 3,000 Turkish companies operate in Azerbaijan, while nearly 1,600 Azerbaijani companies operate in Turkey. Bilateral trade turnover with Turkey amounted to almost $1.5 billion in 2015, according to official data.
Much of this activity is built on large-scale energy-pipeline projects to transport oil and natural gas to Europe; a railway linking Azerbaijan to Turkey via Georgia will open in 2017.
For Aliyev, supporting the status quo with Turkey carries another critical function – maintaining his own status quo.
Though developed before the July 15 coup attempt in Turkey, Aliyev opted on July 18 to send to the Constitutional Court a proposal for a referendum to reorganize the executive branch of government, and make some tweaks in the legislative branch. One amendment would extend Aliyev’s term of office from five to seven years, while another would replace the prime minister with a first vice president and vice president. At the same time, the president would acquire the right to announce an “extraordinary election” for president, to take place within two months of the announcement.
The 35-year-old age limit for candidates for president would additionally be removed. Also, the age limit for parliamentary candidates would be reduced to 18; the same age, incidentally, as that of Aliyev’s son, Heydar. First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva already holds a seat in parliament.
Human rights activist Anar Mammadli, head of the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center in Baku, believes that Aliyev’s decision to make these plans public now “does not look like a random event.”
“[T]he international community focuses on events in Turkey and the referendum [to overhaul the executive branch] in Azerbaijan will remain in the shadow and won’t get enough attention,” said Mammadli, who spent nearly three years in jail after criticizing Azerbaijan’s 2013 presidential election.
Aliyev’s administration in recent years has carried out a far-reaching crackdown on basic individual rights, and many of his political opponents believe the referendum will be used to strengthen presidential authority in Azerbaijan.
In an unusual turn, the coup attempt in Turkey prompted some of Aliyev’s fiercest critics to join the Azerbaijani president in expressing support for Erdoğan. At the same time, some of the comments made by Aliyev opponents seemed designed to highlight shortcomings in Azerbaijan.
For example, in comments posted on Facebook, Ali Kerimli, the 51-year-old head of the opposition Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan, wrote that Turks’ display of support for Erdoğan “means the government should not dislodge the free press, a free Internet, the political opposition and democratic institutions that showed solidarity with its government.”
International human rights organizations routinely rank Azerbaijan as having one of the worst rights records in Eurasia.
Some Azerbaijani liberals expressed understanding for the Turkish coup attempt, seeing it as an opportunity to end civil rights abuses under President Erdoğan, as well as halt Turkey’s perceived drift away from secularism.
But Natig Jafarli, the executive secretary of the opposition REAL movement, said there was no way to justify the use of undemocratic means in the name of democratization. “A coup attempt is not acceptable,” he said. “There is no ‘but’ when it comes to this issue. The worst civilian and elected government is better than the best military dictatorship.”
Durna Safarova is a freelance journalist who covers Azerbaijan.