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#Azerbaijan president back in power with landslide

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Azerbaijan’s incumbent president Ilham Aliyev has been swept back into power with the overwhelming backing of 86% of the electorate, writes Tony Mallett in Baku.

Exit polls after the vote closed on 11 April estimated totals of between 83-86% in the incumbent’s favour and these were effectively confirmed this morning (12 April) by the country’s Central Election Commission.

While these are officially preliminary results, they represent some 92% of votes cast.

Countrywide turnout was around 75% of the more than five million citizens eligible to vote, with Aliyev’s nearest rivals polling around 3% each.

The winner will now begin his fourth consecutive term as the nation’s head of state.

Some 800 observers were invited by the Central Election Commission of Azerbaijan, including a delegation from the European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR), the third-largest grouping in the European Parliament.

Speaking to journalists today, ECR delegation leader and Polish MEP Kosma Zlotowski said: “It is our evaluation that the elections themselves were conducted in accordance with the national legislation.

“Eight candidates ran for the office of president, ensuring a politically diverse and competitive environment.”

ECR member David Campbell Bannerman said: “We didn’t see anything that concerned us.”

The British MEP also praised the measures used to identify voters and guard against inaccuracies, saying: “I was impressed with the security measures – ID cards, left-thumb prints and the fact that they had to sign after voting. There were no postal or proxy votes like in some European elections, which can pose security problems.”

Asked whether the UK had anything to learn from the system in Azerbaijan, Campbell Bannerman said that this was a two-way learning process but that security methods were “better than in the UK in terms of identifying actual voters”.

He also said that the enthusiasm to vote among Azerbaijanis was noticeable.

The ECR group pointed out that some political parties boycotted the elections which the delegation felt had “affected the inclusive nature of the process, as voters were encouraged to refrain from participating”.

The election took place several months ahead of schedule due to a presidential decree made public on 5 February. The declaration drew criticism from opponents who claimed it gave them little time to prepare for a ballot.

The original election date was set for 17 October, 2018.

Another group of observers, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Turkic Speaking Countries (TURKPA) and the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States (Turkic Council) said in a joint statement: “The mission did not find any evidence of intervention of administrative or law enforcement authorities in the work at the polling stations.”

It added: “All necessary administrative measures were taken to ensure the free will of the people during the voting day.”

The statement continued: "We affirm that the election of the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan was open, transparent and competitive, and complied with the national legislation of the Republic of Azerbaijan and generally accepted international election standards."

Azerbaijan is predominantly Muslim but secular under its constitution. A survey  conducted before the election, undertaken by pollsters Arthur J. Finkelstein and Associates, indicated that the primary concern of voters is national security and that Aliyev is seen as particularly strong in a country surrounded by the powerhouses of Russia, Iran, and Turkey and partially occupied by Armenia.

The Armenian occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding territories – which has resulted in more than a million displaced Azerbaijanis – was a key topic for voters with the majority believing that Aliyev is “keeping the country safe” and “representing the nation well internationally”.

The occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh has been roundly condemned by the international community and the UN, which passed four resolutions calling for the unconditional withdrawal of Armenian troops from the Azerbaijani territories. The conflict between the two countries began when Armenia made territorial claims in 1988.

George Birnbaum, who is executive director of the Arthur J Finkelstein & Associates polling company, said last week that the “positive recognition for the job the president is doing is the reason he has the electoral support of the nation”.

Independent of the USSR since 1991, the Republic of Azerbaijan has been ruled by Aliyev since 2003. He was preceded in the role by his father, Heydar, who was president for a decade.

In recent years the Republic has worked hard to sell its ‘European’ credentials. Despite some human-rights concerns, this effort has been largely supported by Europe and has seen the country host various events such as the Eurovision song contest and major European sports tournaments.

Azerbaijan will also see its capital, Baku, act as a key football venue for the Euro 2020 football tournament and will host the Formula One Grand Prix on the city’s streets at the end of April.

Armenia

Armenia-Azerbaijan clashes kill at least 23, undermine regional stability

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On Sunday (27 September), fighting erupted along the Line of Contact in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict zone, regrettably causing military and civilian casualties. At least 23 military members and several civilians were killed in the heaviest clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan since 2016, reigniting concern about stability in the South Caucasus, a corridor for pipelines carrying oil and gas to world markets, write Nvard Hovhannisyan and Nailia Bagirova.

The clashes between the two former Soviet republics, which fought a war in the 1990s, were the latest flare-up of a long-running conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, a breakaway region that is inside Azerbaijan but is run by ethnic Armenians. Nagorno-Karabakh said 16 of its servicemen had been killed and more than 100 wounded after Azerbaijan launched an air and artillery attack early on Sunday.

Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh declared martial law and mobilised the male population. Azerbaijan, which also declared martial law, said its forces responded to Armenian shelling and that five members of one family had been killed by Armenian shelling.

It also said its forces had seized control of up to seven villages. Nagorno-Karabakh initially denied that but later acknowledged losing “some positions” and said it had suffered a number of civilian casualties, without giving details. The clashes prompted a flurry of diplomacy to reduce the new tensions in a decades-old conflict between majority Christian Armenia and mainly Muslim Azerbaijan, with Russia calling for an immediate ceasefire and another regional power, Turkey, saying it would support Azerbaijan. President Donald Trump said on Sunday the United States would seek to end the violence.

“We’re looking at it very strongly,” he told a news briefing. “We have a lot of good relationships in that area. We’ll see if we can stop it.” The US State Department condemned the violence in a statement, calling for an immediate halt to hostilities and any rhetoric or other actions that could worsen matters.

US Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden said in a statement that hostilities could escalate into a wider conflict and urged the Trump administration to push for more observers along the ceasefire line and for Russia “to stop cynically providing arms to both sides.”

Pipelines shipping Caspian oil and natural gas from Azerbaijan to the world pass close to Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia also warned about security risks in the South Caucasus in July after Azerbaijan threatened to attack Armenia’s nuclear power plant as possible retaliation. Nagorno-Karabakh broke away from Azerbaijan in a conflict that broke out as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

Although a ceasefire was agreed in 1994, after thousands of people were killed and many more displaced, Azerbaijan and Armenia frequently accuse each other of attacks around Nagorno-Karabakh and along the separate Azeri-Armenian frontier. Slideshow ( 5 images ) In Sunday’s clashes, Armenian right activists said an ethnic Armenian woman and child had also been killed.

Armenia said Azeri forces had attacked civilian targets including Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital, Stepanakert, and promised a “proportionate response”. Slideshow ( 5 images ) “We stay strong next to our army to protect our motherland from Azeri invasion,” Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan wrote on Twitter. Azerbaijan denied an Armenian defence ministry statement that said Azeri helicopters and tanks had been destroyed, and accused Armenian forces of launching “deliberate and targeted” attacks along the front line. “We defend our territory, our cause is right!” Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, said in an address to the nation.

Turkey said it was talking to members of the Minsk group, which mediates between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Russia, France and the United States are co-presidents. Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone to Pashinyan but no details of the conversation were available, and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan spoke to Aliyev. Erdogan, promising support for traditional ally Azerbaijan, said Armenia was “the biggest threat to peace in the region” and called on “the entire world to stand with Azerbaijan in their battle against invasion and cruelty.”

Pashinyan hit back, urged the international community to ensure Turkey does not get involved in the conflict. The European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) urged both sides to stop military actions and return to negotiations, as did Pope Francis. At least 200 people were killed in a flare-up of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in April 2016. At least 16 people were killed in clashes in July.

High Representative/Vice President Josep Borrell said: "The European Union calls for an immediate cessation of hostilities, de-escalation and for strict observance of the ceasefire. The return to negotiations of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict settlement under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs, without preconditions, is needed urgently."

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Armenia

PKK’s involvement in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict would jeopardize European security

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The alarming reports that Armenia has been relocating Kurdistan Working Party (PKK) terrorists from Syria and Iraq to the occupied territories of Nagorno-Karabakh to prepare for future hostilities and train Armenian militias is news of the sort that should keep you awake at night, not only in Azerbaijan but also in Europe, writes James Wilson.

Changing the demographics of the occupied territories by bringing in refugees of Armenian origin from Lebanon, Syria and Iraq is one thing, even though unlawful, but populating Nagorno-Karabakh with PKK militants, classified by all Western countries, including the US and the EU, as a terrorist organisation, is another.

The artificial resettlement policies of Armenia following the explosion in Beirut on 4 August this year and the Syrian War in 2009, aim to change the demographics of Nagorno-Karabakh and to consolidate the 30-year-long Armenian occupation. They represent a violation of international law, the Geneva Convention and various international agreements. Professionally hired militants and terrorists being resettled to Nagorno-Karabakh would be designated as an war crime under international law, putting peace and stability in the region at risk.

According to Cairo24 News Agency and other reliable local sources, Armenia went so far as to let its top-level career diplomats negotiate a transfer plan for the terrorists with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the most militant wing of the Kurdish establishment led by Lahur Sheikh Jangi Talabany and Bafel Talabani. This followed a first failed attempt to negotiate a plan to create a corridor to send Kurdish fighters to Nagorno-Karabakh with the Kurdistan Autonomous Regions leader Nechirvan Barzani.

Reportedly, Armenias efforts led to the transfer of hundreds of armed terrorists from Suleymaniyah, considered to be a stronghold of the PKK in Iraq, to Nagorno-Karabakh via Iran. A separate group of YPG militants, seen by many as the Syrian wing of PKK, were sent to Nagorno-Karabakh from Qamishli region on the Syrian-Iraqi border while a third group of PKK/YPG militants, which was formed at the Makhmur base in the South of the Iraqi city of Erbil, was first deployed to the headquarters of Hezbollahs Iraqi wing to Baghdad before being transferred to Nagorno-Karabakh via Iran. 

According to intelligence, special camps were established by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards to train the militants on Iranian soil before sending them to Nagorno-Karabakh, where they have also access to training camps at a safe distance from the PKKs Kandil base, which has been increasingly raided in recent years.

This is not the first time Armenia has been recruiting terrorists and paid mercenaries for its own interests.  Such was also the case during the Nagorno-Karabakh war in the 1990s. Even back in the Soviet times, Kurds were instrumentalised by Russia and Armenia, the former having established the autonomous region of Red Kurdistan in Nagorno-Karabakh in 1923-1929 to facilitate the resettlement of Kurds living in Azerbaijan, Armenia and Iran to the region. 

However, the current Armenian administration shows itself more and more belligerent towards Azerbaijan, thwarting the negotiation process between the two nations because of internal political considerations, including an unprecedented health and economic crisis. Not only did the current Armenian administration refuse to adhere to the OSCE framework agreement, which was agreed upon in principle, but asked for a start-over of peace negotiations from scratch. As Armenians increasingly refuse to send their children to the frontline, the Armenian administration seems to be determined to minimise personal losses through the use of militants from terrorist groups. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan even announced the peoples militia initiative in the country, dangerous examples of which were seen in other conflict-torn parts of the world, such as Burkina Fasso.

Under his leadership, the Caucasus has seen the worst hostilities in the last few years when the Armenian armed forces used distillery fire to attack the Tovuz district of Azerbaijan on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border on July 12th.  The attack resulted in 12 Azerbaijani deaths, including a 75-year-old civilian, leaving 4 injured and causing serious damage to Azerbaijani border villages and farms. On 21 September, one Azerbaijani soldier fell victim to new skirmishes in Tovuz region, as Armenia once again failed to respect the ceasefire.

Recognized by the UN as an Azerbaijani territory, Nagorno-Karabakh and its seven surrounding regions, have been under Armenian occupation for 30 years despite 4 UN resolutions calling for the immediate withdrawal of Armenian armed forces. The growing militarization of Nagorno-Karabakh as well as the involvement of mercenaries from paramilitary groups in the Middle East would lead to the internationalization of the conflict, putting regional powerhouses at odds.

 The dangerous actions of Armenia risks to further destabilize the region, which has a strategic importance for Azerbaijan and Europe, as it provides energy and transport links to Georgia, Turkey and Europe for the Azerbaijani oil and gas as well as other export commodities. By jeopardizing major infrastructure projects, such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline, Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, Armenia could put European energy and transport security at huge risk.

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Azerbaijan

SOCAR as one of the cornerstones of Azerbaijan's statehood

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Recently, The USA Tribune reported that Azerbaijan has become the main supplier of gas to Turkey. Just 10 years ago, such a forecast could only cause scepticism among the global players in the oil and gas market. However, one of the latest statements by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev testifies to the country's increased role in the world energy market.

“While a year ago Azerbaijani gas was in the 4th or 5th place in the Turkish market, nowadays we are in the first place, which is very important for us and for Turkey, since gas ensures the energy security of any country. Today gas is supplied to Turkey from the brotherly country, and additional measures will be taken to increase its volumes,” Ilham Aliyev said the other day.

Just two decades ago, Azerbaijan could not even imagine in the dreams that someday the country would become one of the largest gas exporters to one of the largest gas markets in Europe. However, in just twenty years the situation has changed: both within the country itself and the role of Azerbaijan in the world arena has increased, and not only in the oil sector.

Baku has been known as one of the centres of the world oil industry since the late 19th century. However, being first a part of the Russian Empire and then the USSR, Azerbaijan could not dispose of oil revenues.

Azerbaijan began to extract oil in industrial scales in the middle of the 19th century. In the middle of the twentieth century, it was in Azerbaijan that they first began to extract oil from offshore fields.

The first step towards the establishment of Azerbaijan as one of the world's oil centers, was the signing on September 20, 1994 of a contract known as the "Contract of the Century" for the development of the Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli complex of fields. This contract became the basis for Azerbaijan's oil strategy, which was laid down by Heydar Aliyev. It is important that this particular contract opened a gate to foreign investors to the oil and gas resources of the Caspian region.

With this contract, an economic miracle took place in Azerbaijan. The proceeds from the implementation of the contract exceeded $ 150 billion.

It is reminder that while in the mid and late 1990s, SOCAR was exclusively an Azerbaijani company with a little world level of production, then after a couple of decades it became a significant player in the world oil market. The history of oil contracts shows that initially SOCAR had a nominal 10% in production sharing agreements, including in terms of financial costs reduction.

Today SOCAR is ready to participate in parity shares in the development of fields: an example is the Abheron and Karabakh fields, which are being developed jointly with Total and Equinor. Moreover, SOCAR independently began to develop the Umid and Babek gas fields.

“The work in the Umid-Babek projects, where SOCAR takes part independently,  is progressing as planned. These are also very promising projects, and we expect to increase the investment potential of these projects and production, since we need energy resources for internal needs, while our export potential will be ensured. There are other promising projects as well. In general, I can say that although the 'Contract of the Century' was signed in 1994 and many contracts have been signed since then, 26 years have passed, but the interest in the oil potential of Azerbaijan in the world is not decreasing, but on the contrary, is growing”, Aliyev said.

Over these years, SOCAR has grown into a large oil and gas company conducting businesses in several countries – Switzerland, Romania, Ukraine, Georgia, Turkey, UAE, Russia and other countries.

Turkey holds a special place in SOCAR's investment projects, where the company acquired a large Petkim petrochemical complex, built STAR oil refinery, and is developing transport and logistics line of business.

According to the company's latest audit report, in 2019 SOCAR's turnover amounted to $ 50 billion. It is worth of noting, that 93% of this turnover falls on operations in foreign markets.

In addition to oil and gas businesses, SOCAR is actively operating in the chemical complex, becoming the largest exporter in the non-oil sector. This is mainly contributes by the activities of SOKAR Methanol and SOCAR Polymer.

It is essential to add that SOCAR is also massively funding culture and sports. The company takes care of its employees. For instance, the average salary in SOCAR exceeds $700, which is twice higher than the national average. In addition to that, the company's management allocates funds to meet social needs of the company's employees and provides them with apartments.

"Oil sector workers have always enjoyed great respect in Azerbaijan. This is the case today; the work of oil workers is real heroism. The profession of oil miner is respected and at the same time risky, dangerous, and I want to repeat once again that their work is real heroism," said Ilham Aliyev, who himself worked for SOCAR for nine years.

"Oil workers take on a huge role in the successful development of our country. Today, the bulk of the country's economy is associated with the oil and gas sector, and it will be so for many years to come. We  don't mean that other industries are not developing - they are, but no matter how they are developed, they will not be able to generate in the near future the same income as oil and gas do,” Aliyev said.

It is clear that if it were not for the will to implement the 'Contract of the Century' and the oil strategy in general, it would be difficult to achieve such impressive results.

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