September was remarkable for the civil society in Azerbaijan. It was a month of the dropping charges and the jailed activists releasing. The autumn beginning also brought several promising deals in economy, as well as in the foreign relations.
Domestic Policy. Drop of politically motivated criminal charges
In September, in the context of the imprisoned civil society activists, there were some noticeable breakthroughs.
The charges in several politically motivated cases were dropped almost simultaneously. Aleksandr Lapshin, a blogger who visited Nagorny Karabakh without the consent of the Azerbaijani government, was released; as well as Mehman Aliev, a head of the independent “Turan” Information Agency, charged for the tax evasion in August; Faig Amirli , an assistant to the head of an oppositional party. The U. S. State Department released a statement welcoming the drop of criminal charges against Mehman Aliev.
At the same time 14 other people who faced criminal charges for the crimes related to the events in Nardaran, were also released. On 26 November, 2015 the law-enforcement authorities conducted a special operation in Nardaran (https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/eur55/5633/2017/en/), a religious village 25 km away from Baku. During the operation the police met an armed resistance. As a result, four residents were killed and the several others were injured, two police officers died. The detained activists were accused of public unrests organizing and attempts to seize the power through violence. Though the villagers themselves claimed to have participated in a peaceful praying gathering in one of the houses at the time of a special operation. The event were seen as an attempt of the secular authorities to strangle the Islamic opposition in Azerbaijan.
The increased development of the relations with the EU and also the increased international pressure toward the government of Azerbaijan played an important role in the release of the jailed activists.
Economy. EBRD invests in small business in Azerbaijan
On 7-8 September, the president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development paid a visit to Azerbaijan and met President Aliev. At the same time, the bank disclosed the amount of its investments in different sectors of Azerbaijan’s economy. The EBRD invested in many small non-energy projects in the private sector, contributing to the establishment of the new small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and improving existing entrepreneurs’ skills. Up until today, $294 mln investment was allocated to SMEs by the EBRD through the private banks and directly. The bank also indicates a potential $61 mln investment to the local economy and small business.
The information comes at a time when Azerbaijan is willing to invest in its non-oil sectors and improving the business environment in the country. Following the drop in oil prices, the central government had to reevaluate its policies of the economic reforms and diversify the economy. At the end, it will lead to the improved relations between the government and the international financial institutions.
Foreign Policy. Renewal of the “Contract Of The Century”
The Azerbaijani state-owned national oil and gas company SOCAR and BP (United Kingdom), Chevron (USA), INPEX (Japan), Statoil (Norway), ExxonMobil (USA), TP (Turkey), ITOCHU (Japan) and ONGC Videsh (India) signed a contract extending the development of the Azerbaijan’s Azeri-Chirag-Gunashli (ACG) oil fields up to 2049.
In the new contract, the SOCAR’s share increased up to 25%. The participating interests will be as follows: BP – 30.37%; SOCAR – 25.00%; Chevron – 9.57%; INPEX – 9.31%; Statoil – 7.27%; ExxonMobil – 6.79% and others.
As a part of the new deal, the Azerbaijani government will receive a $3.6 bln bonus which will be transferred to the State Oil Fund.
This is the renewal of a so called “Contract of the Century” signed in September, 1994, by the SOCAR and the British multinational oil and gas company BP. The deal regulated the extraction of the Azerbaijani oil from three platforms and its transportation to the oil market by the ways avoiding the Russian pipelines. In the 1990s, the contract had real geopolitical and economical significance for Azerbaijan and its international partners, connecting the Caspian Basin to the Mediterranean and farther, eliminating the Russian monopoly over the oil and gas transport.
The renewed agreement also comes following the repeated statements of Azerbaijan to provide the alternative energy routes to the EU countries in order to aid it in resolving its energy security issues.
New transport corridor through Azerbaijan
On 8, September the heads of the railway companies of Poland, Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Iran signed a new deal on forming a Coordination Committee for a new North-South railway transport corridor. The corridor aims to connect the Persian Gulf seaports of Iran to Europe, hence creating a path between Europe and India. As it was mentioned by the head of the Azerbaijani railways, the rout de-facto already exists. Although the existing “North-South Transport Corridor” connects the Iranian seaports to the Baltic Sea ports of Russia. It seems Azerbaijan is interested in diversifying of its transport route and delivering goods to the European markets without passing over the Russian territories.