The tectonic plates that hold together Azerbaijan’s clanocracy have been shifting, but things are still playing out—it’s unclear at this point in time to what degree power will be redistributed and how significant the changes will prove to be to the ruling structure and the country as a whole.
President Ilham Aliyev. (Credit: Presidential Office of Azerbaijan).
In mid-October, Aliyev made an astonishing speech that tore away the veil of official secrecy and ripped into unnamed cabinet members, accusing them of holding up reforms that affected their “personal interests” and even of “blackmail”. The president called the situation inside government “unbearable.”
However, analysts say that if developments mark the demise of the once all-powerful so-called Nakhichevan clan, it may only mean they have handed over to a Baku-based business-political elite.
The net winner of the struggle is the country’s first lady and first vice-president Mehriban Aliyeva and the Pashayev clan to which she belongs. Aliyeva is now chairing meetings on economic issues in the government, observed de Waal. She also lately paid a high-profile visit to Moscow to meet Vladimir Putin.
First Lady and First Vice President Mehriban Aliyeva. (Credit: Presidential Office of Azerbaijan).
Early parliamentary elections to give a stamp of approval to the new course embarked upon by Aliyev are just over three weeks away, due on February 9. Farid Shafiyev, chairman of Azerbaijan’s Center of Analysis of International Relations, was quoted as saying in December that Azerbaijan is in the midst of a “modernisation drive” with a reshuffling of the cabinet of ministers, the parliament dismissed and the snap elections. “New generations of politicians are taking charge of the economic reforms, of bureaucratic reforms. These are young people educated in the West,” he said.
Ilham Aliyev has ruled the energy-rich country of around 10mn since 2003, when he took over from his father, Heydar Aliyev, shortly before he passed away. As well as setting in train an internal power shift in Azerbaijan, a country not formally aligned with or against any major power bloc as it is part of the Non-Aligned Movement, the president has shown little enthusiasm for building relations with the EU in the past year. He has at the same time slammed the bloc’s failure to progress the membership application of “brotherly” neighbour Turkey.
The outgoing Juncker Commission gave up on hopes it could conclude a new trade and political agreement with Azerbaijan in its last two months before Ursula Von der Leyen took over the European Commission presidency.
The EU’s relations with Azerbaijan are based on the 20-year-old EU-Azerbaijan Partnership and Cooperation Agreement. In February 2017, talks started on a new framework agreement. Its conclusion is apparently near, but a few outstanding key issues remain. The EU’s former diplomacy chief, Federica Mogherini, had said in April that Brussels and Baku were in “the final, crucial phase” of talks on the “new, ambitious bilateral agreement”. But with the clock ticking, the deal was not sealed, with Baku reportedly blaming the EU’s short-sightedness. Azerbaijan, according to EURACTIVE, felt offended that the EU was able to conclude a new generation of agreements with countries that Baku sees as having less geostrategic importance and which maintain closer relations with Russia, such as Armenia.
Conversely, the EU reportedly regrets the lack of understanding by Azerbaijan that a new agreement must necessarily include a strong economic chapter. The country is not a World Trade Organisation member and, as seen by Brussels, does not have a serious ambition to join it. This appears to make it much more difficult to advance on the trade chapter. “Azerbaijan is interested to conclude the [new trade and political] agreement, but it doesn’t want to pay the price”, a Commission source told EURACTIV last September. The Commission source said Baku found it difficult to move forward each time that the EU executive made mention of the rules of an open market economy.
Azerbaijan’s economy is heavily based on oil and gas. “Everything which is not hydrocarbons is very under-developed”, the source was also cited as saying.
As regards Azerbaijan’s more than three-decade-old dispute with Armenia over Azerbaijani breakaway territory Nagorno-Karabakh, controlled by ethnic Armenians, hopes of a breakthrough in negotiations with Armenia’s Pashinian administration at the beginning of last year quickly fizzled. In August, Azerbaijan's foreign ministry accused Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian of "provoking" tensions by paying an "illegal" visit to breakaway territory Nagorno-Karabakh, during which in a speech given to thousands of people he described the region as “Armenian, and that’s that”.
Pashinian's speech was "aggressive" and a "major blow" to internationally mediated negotiations to settle the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, it added. The Armenian foreign ministry responded that Baku was "unable to maintain norms of diplomatic ethics", was making "personalised attacks" and "creating threats to the security and existence of the people" of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Azerbaijan in 2019 was again categorised as “Not Free” by the annual Freedom in the World survey. The latest ranking took a point off the country’s Aggregate Freedom Score. It now stands at 11/100 (100 = “Most Free”). Azerbaijan also does badly in internet censorship, according to Comparitech's censorship map.
Amnesty International in May last year said Azerbaijan must not be allowed to “sportswash its appalling human rights record” by staging high-profile football matches. Upping pressure on European football’s governing body, Uefa, over how Armenian citizen and then Arsenal midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan opted not to travel to the May 29 Europa League final in Baku amid fears for his safety, the human rights organisation pointed out that the venue for four games in the 2020 European Championship is also in the Azerbaijani capital.
“We must ensure that Azerbaijan isn’t allowed to sportswash its appalling human rights record as a result of the football fanfare,” Amnesty International’s UK director, Kate Allen, said.
She added: “Azerbaijan is in the grip of a sinister human rights crackdown, with journalists, bloggers and human rights defenders being ruthlessly targeted. Unfair trials and smear campaigns remain commonplace. LGBTI people have been arrested, and even people fleeing the country have been harassed and pressured to return. Fans, players and backroom staff can help prevent Azerbaijan’s likely attempt to sportswash its image by informing themselves about the human rights situation behind the glitzy facade of [the Europa League final] match.”
In mid-October, Human Rights Watch (HRW) criticised Azerbaijan for what it claimed was the violent dispersal of two peaceful protests in central Baku. Police rounded up dozens of peaceful opposition and civic activists, beating and roughing them up while forcing them onto buses and into police cars, HRW said in a report on events in the tightly controlled country.
Among those detained was the leader of the opposition Popular Front Party, Ali Karimli. He reportedly sustained numerous injuries at the hands of law enforcement officers while detained for several hours. “Once again, the Azerbaijani government has shown complete disregard for people’s right to hold peaceful protests,” said Giorgi Gogia, associate Europe and Central Asia director at HRW. “The authorities should immediately release all protesters and investigate any allegations of ill-treatment by law enforcement.”
The National Council of Democratic Forces, a coalition of opposition parties and activists in Azerbaijan—which struggles to make any ballot box impact given Azerbaijan’s highly controlled political environment—organised the first demonstration in central Baku. They called for the release of political prisoners and for free and fair elections and protested growing unemployment and economic injustice. A day later, several dozen women’s rights activists held a protest over violence against women and femicide, and killings by domestic partners.
In early November, prominent Azerbaijani rights activist Oqtay Gulaliyev was left in a coma after being hit by a car in Baku. Gulaliyev is the coordinator of nongovernmental group Committee Against Repressions and Torture that defends inmates' rights in Azerbaijani prisons. Colleagues and opposition activists alleged authorities were behind an attempt to kill him, but Baku police responded that Gulaliyev was injured in an ordinary traffic accident. Gulaliyev's son, Ali, told Current Time that his father faced threats from unknown people when he was defending dozens of people arrested in July 2018 after deadly protests in Azerbaijan's second-largest city, Ganca.
In mid-December, the 47-nation Council of Europe watchdog said Azerbaijan needs to respect freedom of expression, improve access to lawyers and uphold the rights of internally displaced persons.
Azerbaijan (green) vs Central Asia & Caucasus, GDP growth. Source: World Economic Outlook, IMF DataMapper.
Independent economist Gubad Ibadoglu has said that a massive restructuring of the economy is needed to benefit ordinary citizens. He pointed out that in the 2019 budget 39.9% of expenditures were going into construction, a big driver of corruption, while just 4.2% were being put into healthcare and a mere 0.06% were earmarked for environmental protection.
Where growth is concerned, the World Bank now expects Azerbaijan to record growth of 2.3% in 2020. The figure was given in the latest edition of its Global Economic Prospects report issued on January 9. In the previous edition of the report, issued in June last year, it anticipated a GDP expansion of 3.5%. The institution estimated that in 2019 growth in Azerbaijan stood at 2.5%, a drop of 0.8 percentage points on what it anticipated six months ago. In 2018, the economy managed 1% of growth.
Expanding natural gas production and steady growth in non-energy sectors supported Azerbaijan’s economy in the first half of 2019, the World Bank said. But it added that “activity in Azerbaijan is expected to be dampened by the effects of subdued oil prices and lingering structural rigidities in the non-oil sector. Longer term growth depends on continuation of domestic reforms to enhance private sector development and address fragilities emanating from the financial sector, as well as investment in human capital to boost the quality of education and reduce skills mismatches.”
As growth prospects slowed last year, the central bank introduced a series of small rate cuts. On December 13, the key interest rate was reduced to 7.50% from 7.75%.
Azerbaijan can at least celebrate a growing population. Azerbaijan’s population had expanded by 71,688 people, or 0.7%, since the beginning of last year to reach 10,053,145, the country’s State Statistical Committee said in mid-December. The gain stands in marked contrast to the declines reported by other post-Soviet countries.
Whether coming generations will enjoy fairer wealth distribution remains to be seen. At the mid-point of last year, Azerbaijan’s sovereign wealth fund (the State Oil Fund of Azerbaijan, or Sofaz), which plays an important role accumulating and managing the country’s oil and gas earnings, reached a value of $42.5bn, its highest yet and a 10% increase over June 2018. Sofaz helps Azerbaijan weather economic crises and, through transfers to the state budget, support Baku’s efforts to diversify from hydrocarbons.
Azerbaijan (green) vs Central Asia & Caucasus, Current account balance, % of GDP. Source: World Economic Outlook, IMF DataMapper.
For Azerbaijan, the scores (where 10 represents a synthetic frontier corresponding to the standards of a sustainable market economy) were given as Competitive – 4.39 in 2019, 4.22 in 2018; Well-governed – 5.79 in 2019, 5.75 in 2018; Green – 5.35 in 2019, 5.35 in 2018; Inclusive – 4.94 in 2019, 4.94 in 2018; Resilient – 3.97 in 2019, 4.10 in 2018; and Integrated – 5.59 in 2019, 5.60 in 2018.
For “Well-governed” the report said that in Azerbaijan the score largely reflected “better perceived protection of private property rights and stronger frameworks for challenging regulation and protecting shareholders’ rights”.
Finally, in the black market, one side-effect of the US “economic war” that is being waged on Azerbaijan’s neighbour Iran has been to collapse the value of the Iranian rial and thus create a “bandit zone” in the Iranian-Azerbaijani border area. It appears to have become a dangerous environment with aggressive black market traders. In one related incident, last year saw a suspected Iranian smuggler and an Azerbaijani patrol soldier shot dead in two incidents during one day in the zone. The Azerbaijani State Border Service and Iranian counterparts have been working to address the situation driven by hard-to-resist trade bargains.
Banking and finance
State-run International Bank of Azerbaijan (IBA), Azerbaijan’s largest lender, is embarking on a three-year development strategy to prepare it for a delayed privatisation. There were reports in October that it has completed a crisis recovery with a debt restructuring process. The bank also plans to set up its own investment company.
The Aliyev administration ordered the privatisation of the bank in 2015 after a clean-up to get rid of distressed assets resulting from poor management. Two years later IBA put forward a plan to restructure $3.3bn of its debt. Approval from creditors holding 93.9% of the affected debt was secured. The debt restructuring was completed with the support of the government. Officials want to increase the market value of IBA before the planned privatisation. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) has previously said it might be interested in buying a stake in IBA. The bank’s assets rose to 9.3 billion manats ($5.5bn) as of the end of September from 8.3bn manats a year previously, while its loan book stood at 2.25bn manats from 1.7bn manats.
Zamira Hajiyeva—the wife of jailed former IBA chairman Jahangir Hajiyev and who made international headlines as the woman who spent £16m at Harrods department store in London—in mid-December launched a legal challenge to try to overturn the UK’s first unexplained wealth order (UWO). The UWO, one of a set of new laws nicknamed “McMafia laws” after the BBC organised crime drama, would force Hajiyeva to reveal the source of her fortune. Hajiyeva complained to an English court of appeal that the UWO was “intrusive” and based on the “grossly unfair trial” of her husband, Jahangir Hajiyev, who served as chairman of state-controlled IBA between 2001 and 2015. Hajiyev was convicted of defrauding the bank out of up to £2.2bn. Hajiyeva, 56, is subject to two UWOs on her £15m five-bedroom Knightsbridge home in London and a £10.5m Berkshire golf course. The residence is located 100 metres from Harrods.
Moody’s Investors Service rates the government of Azerbaijan's long-term issuer and senior unsecured debt ratings at Ba2. The rating agency said it has been encouraged by financial and fiscal sector reforms made by Baku and is observing Azerbaijan’s efforts to guard against over-reliance on hydrocarbon exports.
The big Azerbaijani ambition of achieving pipeline gas flows to the European Union market will not occur until at least October this year. And a gas supply company in Azerbaijan may end up facing a big bill because of the delays. That much became clear on in November from comments made by the head of the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) consortium.
The Southern Gas Corridor, made up of three interconnected pipelines stretching 3,400 km, will deliver Caspian Sea gas from Azerbaijan to a terminus in southern Italy.
Gas supplies from Azerbaijan’s giant Shah Deniz field in the Caspian Sea are to reach Europe via the $40bn Southern Gas Corridor (SGC), supported by the European Union as a major step in diversifying energy supplies away from over-dependence on existing sources such as Russia and Norway. The SGC links the 692-km South Caucasus Pipeline (SCP) running from Azerbaijan to Georgia, TANAP, which runs 1,850 km from the Georgian border through Turkey to the Greek border and the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP), an 878 km pipeline which traverses Greece and Albania and an Adriatic seabed route to southern Italy.
“It is not TANAP, but the other parties that have not yet reached project completion,” TANAP chief Saltuk Duzyol said in an interview with Reuters, cautioning: “Commercially, according to our gas transportation agreements, we are entitled to issue invoices starting from July 1 next year.” He added: “Commercial deliveries of Azeri gas to Europe can begin no earlier than October 2020, since the construction work on the TAP pipeline can be completed by this date,” Duzyol added.
Under the Shah Deniz II gas sales deal, Azerbaijan Gas Supply Company (AGSC)—formed by Azerbaijan’s national energy company Socar and its Shah Deniz project partners and which manages gas sales from the Shah Deniz field—has to pay fines to gas buyers if they do not get supplies by July 1, 2020.
Turkey and Azerbaijan formally marked the completion of TANAP on December 1.
Azerbaijan’s oil production stood at 764,000 barrels per day in 2019, marking a reduction of 3.6% y/y, the country’s energy ministry said on January 13. In 2018, the country was producing 792,600 b/d. Officials linked the fall in oil production to OPEC commitments. The 15-member OPEC cartel signed an agreement in December 2018 to reduce output by 800,000 b/d, while non-OPEC countries agreed to contribute with 400,000 b/d. In July, the agreement was prolonged until the end of the first quarter of 2020. To meet the requirement agreed with OPEC, Azerbaijan must maintain daily production at 769,000 b/d from the start of this year.
Since gaining independence, Azerbaijan has signed 20 production sharing agreement (PSA) contracts, requiring $60bn of investment, with foreign investors to develop its oil industry.
BP has said it believes it may be sitting on another giant gas field in the Azerbaijani part of the Caspian Sea. The UK energy major and its partners spent $28bn bringing online the second phase of Azerbaijan’s Shah Deniz field. But Shah Deniz may only be the start. BP was reportedly working on drilling six new exploration wells in Azerbaijan by 2020. If expectations prove realistic the company could find a new gas play that’s about the same size as Shah Deniz, a field in the Caspian Sea that’s as large as Manhattan.
In November, Hungarian oil firm MOL said it was poised to land a stake in Azerbaijan’s biggest oil project through a $1.57bn deal with US major Chevron. MOL said it had struck a deal to buy Chevron’s 9.57% stake in the Azeri-Chirag-Gunashli (ACG) oil project—a cluster of oilfields operated by BP in the Caspian Sea. It will also secure Chevron’s 9.6% share in the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, used to pump ACG’s oil to the Mediterranean coast where it can be loaded onto tankers for export.
In early December, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that Tehran was actively pursuing the creation of offshore oil projects with Azerbaijan in the Caspian Sea.
In August, Iran said it was opposed to the construction of the Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline due to ecology concerns. An official from National Iranian Gas Company (NIGC) said the plan to connect Turkmenistan’s gas fields with Azerbaijan with a subsea pipeline would cause serious ecological damage in the Caspian Sea. The Turkmen would like to see their gas transited through the Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline so that it can flow on to European markets via Azerbaijan. Iran has an eye on tying neighbouring Turkmenistan into Iran’s gas network, a move that would allow Tehran to accrue transit income from gas sent further afield to export markets.
Azerbaijan’s big bet on building plants to produce petrochemical exports was set to produce revenues of $241mn last year versus $190mn in 2018. The country is relying on substantial petrochemical investments to diversify its economy away from over-reliance on oil and gas revenues, having taken a recession-making economic hit from the slump in world oil prices seen five years ago. Azerbaijan's petrochemical industry benefits from cheap feedstock made from the nation's abundant gas resources. In the 12 months up to August last year, Azerbaijan, working through national oil company Socar, finished construction on polypropylene, carbamide (urea) and high-density polyethylene plants. Azerbaijan also produces methanol and other petrochemicals and Socar plans to begin construction of a new petrochemicals plant in Turkey to produce various materials in partnership with BP at the end of 2020. There are also plans to construct a second carbamide plant in Azerbaijan with Tekfen.
Azerbaijan’s leading gold mining company, Anglo Asian Mining, stated on January 14 that its gold output declined 4% in 2019 to 70,098 ounces from 72,798 ounces in 2018. The London-listed company produces gold at Gedabek and other Azerbaijani mines in a joint venture with the state in which Anglo Asian Mining holds 51%. The company plans to make its final debt repayment in early February, delivering on its strategic plan to be debt free.
Saudi Arabian utility developer ACWA Power said in early January this year that it has signed a $300mn contract to produce 200 MW of power in Azerbaijan.
The Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR) has become a fast land transport route which can bring Chinese goods to Europe in some 20 days, substantially faster than what can be achieved on the sea route, Rafiq Abbasov, a professor with the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences, was quoted as saying by Xinhua in September. The TITR connects China with Europe via Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Currently, Azerbaijan is working with the countries along the route to cut tariffs and shorten custom clearance times to attract more international goods to the transit option.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has previously observed that the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad, running from Azerbaijan through Georgia to Turkey, opens up the shortest transportation route to bring goods from China to Europe and vice versa.
Countries participating in the 7.200-km International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) at the start of December met in Baku to discuss implementation of the multi-mode project linking trade routes between the west coast of India and northern Europe. The full extent of the corridor, running via Iran, Azerbaijan and Russia, is very much dependent on rail links fanning out from Iran’s only oceanic port, Chabahar—being jointly developed by New Delhi and Tehran in a project that enjoys a US sanctions waiver.
Azerbaijan looks set to see greater use of its airports by foreign carriers following the country’s decision to open up landing rights and offer free services and subsidies to some visiting airlines. Since the start of the year, Azerbaijan has opened up fifth and seventh freedom rights to some 40 countries in Europe, North America and Asia. A 100% discount on airport services for any new airline in its first year of operating in Azerbaijan is provided. It falls to 70% in the second year, 50% in the third and 30% in the fourth. The move is reportedly part of an attempt by Azerbaijan to become a transport and logistics hub between Asia and Europe, a strategy that has been successful for Kazakhstan. Under the new rules, all foreign airlines will have the same rights as the national air carrier, AZAL.
Azerbaijan officially saw an 8.2% y/y increase in visitor numbers during the first eight months of 2019, with just over 2.1mn people arriving in the country during that period. As usual the largest numbers of visitors were from Russia and Georgia—30.6% and 22.1% of the total, respectively. Substantial numbers also came to Azerbaijan from Turkey (9.5% of the total), Iran (7.7%), Saudi Arabia (4.0%), the United Arab Emirates (2.2%) and Ukraine (1.8%). Azerbaijan has been working on achieving a big increase in high-spending Saudi visitors.
Sweden’s Ericsson and Azerbaijani communications provider Azercell Telecom have signed a three-year 5G memorandum of understanding (MoU) spanning the joint deployment of 5G projects, trials and instances of use, Ericsson said in December. The two companies have already partnered to deliver a test 5G network in central Baku and a pre-commercial 5G pilot zone in the downtown Fountains Square area of the capital city. The 2020-22 MoU will include the extension of the pilot zone, including 5G use instances, as well as the introduction of Internet of Things (IoT) technology in the mining industry, agriculture, manufacturing, housing and communal services, Ericsson said.
The Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States (Turkic Council) in late November hailed the start of construction of the Trans-Caspian Fiber Optic Line between Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. The project is one of the main components of the Trans-Eurasian Information Super Highway (TASIM). Initiated by Azerbaijan in 2008, it is expected to be operational by the end of 2021. The joint construction of fiber optic transmission lines—with a length of around 380-400 kilometres (around 240 miles) along the bottom of the Caspian Sea on the Azerbaijan-Kazakhstan route—is managed by Azerbaijan's telecom operator AzerTelecom and Kazakhstan's operators Transtelecom JSC and KazTransCom. It is expected to allow the transmission of data with a capacity of at least 4-6 terabits per second.
The e-commerce segment in Azerbaijan has almost doubled in just one year, but it still accounts for just 0.2% of total retail trade in the country, according to the Center for Analysis of Economic Reforms and Communication (CAERC). It blamed the low level of internet penetration in the country. Delegates at the World E-Commerce Eurasia 2019 Baku Forum in November were told that at the current penetration level e-commerce can only reach around 7% of the retail market.
More countries are turning to the use of blockchain technology as a platform to verify identities, and Azerbaijan is the latest to do so, Coingeek wrote in early November. The country was reportedly on the verge of completing a blockchain-based digital identification system to be implemented some time in the first quarter of 2020. Azerbaijan’s central bank said the system would help to protect personal data transferred between credit organisations while greatly upping the efficiency of the transfer procedures.
Azerbaijan’s auto production continues to expand. It rose by 4.8 times year on year in January to July to 1,304 vehicles. A release entitled Market Analysis Azerbaijan 2019 from the national statistical committee said that production in the automotive industry of Azerbaijan would reach a value of $20mn in 2019 and $70mn by 2022. There are three auto manufacturing plants in Azerbaijan, namely Khazar plant in Neftchala, the Ganja Automobile Plant and a plant in Nakhchivan. Khazar plant has been operating since last March. Ganja manufactures trucks of Belarusian and Russian companies. The Nakhchivan plant assembles eight Lifan car models designed by China’s Lifan Group.