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Azerbaijan escalates “U.S. spy” rhetoric, arrests another journalist

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Azerbaijan’s pro-government media has been ramping up its anti-U.S. rhetoric and the government is publicly musing about banning the activities of USAID, the U.S. government’s international development arm. 

campaign against supposed “U.S. spies” continued with the arrest of a fourth media manager in a week’s time.

The sharp anti-U.S. turn is in line with Azebaijan’s recent rejection of Western mediation of the peace talks with its rival Armenia and increasing preference for settling the conflict in a bilateral format or through the mediation of authoritarian regional powers like Turkey and Russia. 

On November 27, the U.S. embassy in Baku canceled a planned meeting with Azerbaijani alumni of U.S. universities. The decision came shortly after pro-government outlet Qafqazinfo alleged, without providing evidence, that the event’s invitees had been recruited to spy for the U.S. during their studies.

“According to our information, the law enforcement agencies of Azerbaijan are already aware of the issue, it is reported that the event will be monitored in order to expose the participants in the future,” it read. 

In its statement to local news outlet Turan, the embassy did not address the allegation. 

“The embassy looked forward to celebrating the anniversaries of our two flagship educational and cultural exchange programs, as well as highlighting the achievements of the Azerbaijani community of US-educated graduates and their contributions to their communities,” it said. “We look forward to rescheduling soon.”

Many in Azerbaijan are not taking the allegation seriously. Some observers have noted that many current government officials have studied in the U.S. 

“Articles about U.S.-educated graduates are cheap publicity. These are baseless, low and ridiculous accusations. There are a large number of foreign-educated personnel who serve this government wholeheartedly,” political analyst Anar Mammadli wrote on Facebook.

“The number of foreign-educated personnel in the opposition camp can be counted on one hand. The government is offended by the Biden government and expresses its resentment in this low form. They should demonstrate their resentment in a more coherent and logical way and explain the points they disagree with.”

Azerbaijan’s law enforcement made no statement on Qafqazinfo’s report about the alumni gala. 

But arrests of independent media managers have continued amid the pro-government media’s campaign of painting independent content creators as “U.S. spies.”

On November 27, police arrested the chief of Kanal13 internet television, Aziz Orujov, and searched his house. A criminal case was launched against him on charges of illegal construction. He was placed in pretrial detention for three months. 

photo of Orujov saying goodbye to his young daughter during his arrest went viral on social media.  

“It’s not a photo of the day, it’s a photo of the era. It symbolizes [President] Ilham Aliyev’s policy to make us more like Central Asia,” opposition leader Ali Karimli wrote on Facebook. “It’s 2023 on the calendar, but feels like 1937,” he said, referring to the nadir of the Soviet purges. 

It wasn’t Orujov’s first arrest. He was jailed in 2017 on charges of illegal entrepreneurship and abuse of power, and released on probation a year later. 

Kanal13 is the first internet television in Azerbaijan, founded in 2008. Its YouTube channel has 1.59 million subscribers and publishes some content in English. 

Orujov’s arrest follows those of the senior management of the investigative news outlet Abzas Media. Director Ulvi Hasanli, Editor-in-Chief Sevinj Vagifgizi, and Deputy Director Mahammad Kekalov were charged with smuggling after law enforcement claimed to have recovered 40,000 euros of cash at Abzas’ office in Baku. Each of the three were given pretrial detention terms of roughly four months. 

After the arrest, pro-government news agency Report.az published a series of articles targeting Abzas and other independent outlets, arguing that they were funded by the U.S. One such piece specifically attacked Abzas Media and provided a list of its alleged Western donors. 

On November 28, the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry summoned the ambassadors of the U.S., France, and Germany.

“In the meetings, it was brought to the attention that AbzasMedia news portal carried out illegal financial operations with the participation of organizations registered in these countries, as well as that the embassies of the mentioned countries were also involved in this activity, and a serious objection was expressed to this activity,” the foreign ministry said in an English-language statement.

Azerbaijani pro-government media’s attacks against “U.S. spies” started after the country’s relations with the U.S. deteriorated over disagreements on peace negotiations with Armenia and Washington’s move to boost support for Armenia. That support is aimed at aiding Yerevan’s attempt to pivot away from its traditional strategic ally Russia and helping it accommodate the 100,000-some Armenians displaced from Nagorno-Karabakh after Azerbaijan’s offensive to take over the region in September. 

On November 21, Hikmat Hajiyev, President Ilham Aliyev’s senior advisor on foreign affairs, took exception to USAID administrator Samantha Power’s criticism of Azerbaijan’s military operation, and declared: “There is no place for USAID operation in Azerbaijan any longer!”

On November 28, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken had a phone conversation with President Aliyev. According to the readout on the Azerbaijani presidential website, the sides agreed to allow visits by high-ranking officials to each other’s countries. 

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