In March, to the great surprise of Azerbaijani people and the international community, 400 people including 51 political prisoners were released. The economy agenda of the country was dominated by the meeting of Azerbaijan and Russian ministers over gas issues. Meanwhile, the foreign policy agenda of the country was stable except for the meeting scheduled for March 29 between Aliyev and Pashinyan.
International pressure or government reform?
On March 16, Azerbaijan released more than 400 people, the majority of which being political prisoners.
Pardoning prisoners on the eve of Novruz holiday has become a tradition in Azerbaijan. However, surprisingly this time 51 political prisoners were among the released individuals as well. The decree, signed by Aliyev on March 16, included the release of human right activists, several journalists, and members of different youth groups. Among them, there was former Minister of Health Ali Insanov, journalist Fikret Faramazoglu, opposition Musavat Party member Alikram Xurshidov, and the deputy chairpersons of the opposition Popular Front Party, Gozel Bayramli and Fuad Qahramanli.
In the following two weeks, different interpretations were spread around about the mass pardon. Some people see the decree as a success of international pressure, while others as a sign of internal pressure. In contrast, some people are hopeful about Aliyev’s intent to reform the government.
One of the main sources of this pressure is considered to be the EU-Azerbaijan Cooperation Council, which is scheduled for April 4. After the pardon, the EU published a report, which praises the economic and political progress in Azerbaijan. However the document also mentions the need for improvement in human right issues. Maja Kocijancic, the EU External Action Service’s Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy called this pardon “a welcome step” and added that “The European Union expects that further similar steps will follow in future in line with Azerbaijan’s international commitments”.
Furthermore, Freedom House released a statement praising this step, though stating that “… it does not signal a fundamental change” because “… close to 80 other political prisoners remain behind bars, including Fuad Ahmadli, Seymur Hazi, Afghan Mukhtarli, and many others; we continue receiving reports of ill-treatment of imprisoned activists, most recently of Abbas Huseynov and Taleh Bagirzade”. Another statement by the US embassy called on Azerbaijan “… to take additional positive steps in the months ahead, consistent with Azerbaijan’s international obligations and commitments to protect the fundamental freedoms of its citizens”.
It should be noted that, according to the Freedom in the World 2019 report, Azerbaijan has an aggregate freedom score of 11 out of 100 and is labelled as “Not Free”.
Compensation on loans
On February 28, President Aliyev signed a decree on compensation for problematic loans. Vusal Gasimli, Director of the Center for Analysis of Economic Reforms and Communications, indicated that 700 million manats (about $411 million) will be allocated to address the issue, which 800,000 people are expected to benefit from.
Issues related to loans date back to the beginning of 2015 and result from the decline in oil prices and devaluation of Azerbaijani manat. People who took loans in dollars before the devaluation faced difficulties paying their loans back with the new exchange rate. According to the decree, the difference will be compensated from public funds. If the compensation is not enough to pay the debt, the rest of the loan will have a lower interest rate.
Russian Oil in the STAR Refinery
According to a local news agency, on March 18, Azerbaijan’s Energy Minister Parviz Shahbazov and Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak had a meeting and discussed the supply of Russian oil to the STAR refinery in Izmir, Turkey. Moreover, the current situation on the oil market and the bilateral energy agreement were on the agenda. After the meeting, a memorandum of understanding was signed by the ministers.
Later on, General Manager of STAR Refinery, Mesut İlter stated that all the experiments have been completed in the refinery and it is expected to export around $500 million of petrochemical raw materials per year. Prime Minister of Azerbaijan, Novruz Mammadov said that the refinery “…will bring $850 million of annual profit to the country”.
TAP – almost completed
The construction of the Trans Adriatic Pipeline project, which started in 2016, is 85.7% completed at the end of February. According to the TAP AG consortium, the construction is “in line with the project construction steps and schedule”.
Starting from the Caspian Sea, moving through Northern Greece, Albania, and the Adriatic Sea, and connecting to the Italian gas network, the Trans Adriatic Pipeline is one of the valuable energy projects for the European Union. Once completed fully, this important Southern Gas Corridor route will offer cost-effective transportation of Azerbaijani gas to Europe.
After a year and a half, the first round of Nagorno-Karabakh settlement talks at the highest level happened on March 29. Being the initiative of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs, the face-to-face meeting between Aliyev and Pashinyan was held in Vienna, Austria. Until then, leaders had met several times in informal settings; however, this meeting was the first official meeting of the heads of states.