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Senior Azeri Official Sacked in Spillover From Turkish Internal Strife

Leaked emails used to claim that some senior figures in Baku are linked to influential Turkish cleric.

The battle between Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Islamic movement led by Fethullah Gülen has spilled over into Azerbaijan, where the highest-profile victim so far is a member of the president’s administration.

A corruption investigation targeting Turkish government figures in December is, Erdoğan claims, a plot by the Hizmet movement and its exiled leader Gülen to overthrow the government. The prime minister has deployed thousands of police to clamp down on Hizmet and root out its followers from official institutions.

In Azerbaijan, both government and opposition news sources reported in late February that a similar “parallel structure” existed in Baku as well. Newspapers called on the Azerbaijani government to purge itself of Gülen’s influence. The Turkish embassy in Baku and the Azerbaijani consulate in Istanbul reportedly provided the government with a list of local Hizmet sympathisers.

“The Turkish government is concerned that the Hizmet movement is expanding in Azerbaijan through its wide network of educational establishments and businesses, as well as by placing figures loyal to the Hizmet movement in high-level posts in government,” the Musavat daily reported on February 28.

In early March, emails purportedly sent by senior Turkish and Azerbaijani officials from Turkey, and apparently showing they had ties to Gülen, were leaked on the internet. Among others, the leaks implicated, Elnur Aslanov, chief of the political analysis and information department in President Ilham Aliyev’s administration.

Commenting on the allegations of Hizmet influence, Aslanov’s colleague Ali Hasanov, who heads the department for social and political affairs in the presidential office, called for vigilance.

“The representatives of those trends should know that attempts to adapt the state policy to their interests will fail,” Hasanov told a religious affairs conference in Baku on March 7.

Aslanov was sacked on March 17.

Analysts said that Aslanov and Hasanov had long been involved in a struggle for influence, and that the latter appeared to have exploited concerns about Hizmet to get rid of his rival.

“This is how the battle between senior government officials manifests itself. There will be plenty more signs of this kind of dispute in future,” Arastu'n Orujlu, director of the Baku-based East-West Research Centre, told IWPR. “The Hizmet movement was just used to raise the issue and shape public opinion.”

“This isn’t a genuine reason,” he continued. “The Hizmet movement has been in Azerbaijan for years now. If it really was a threat, the government would have taken serious steps years ago.”

Aslanov was a younger official who was seen as unusually open. Many journalists were sorry to see him go.

“He was the only official in the presidential administration whom I could freely call up and interview. He even apologised when he wasn’t available,” said one freelance journalist, who asked not to be named.

The issue has become so controversial in Azerbaijan that some political analysts are reluctant to discuss it on the record. One expert who asked not to be named said that in reality, Aslanov and others implicated by the leaked emails probably had nothing to do with Gülen.

“The Hizmet movement and its activities in Azerbaijan can be very easily exploited in a domestic power-struggle,” he said, adding that the dispute played into Erdoğan’s hand, as it suggested that his enemies were active elsewhere, too.

The Hizmet movement was one of the first foreign organisations to move into Azerbaijan after the break-up of the Soviet Union. Heydar Aliyev, the late president and father of Ilham Aliyev, supported the emergence of Turkish schools as a way of raising educational standards.

Hizmet currently runs 11 high schools, 14 primary schools and the Qafqaz (Caucasus) University in Azerbaijan.

The anonymous expert said schools and colleges linked to Hizmet might now be subject to investigation or closure.

The schools are not universally popular in Azerbaijan. Most people cannot afford to pay the fees, so it is mainly the children of businessmen and top officials who go there. That raises suspicions that the schools are indoctrinating a new elite with Gülen’s teachings.

Nermin Rehimli, a graduate of Qafqaz University and co-founder of the Positive Changes youth organisation, dismisses such fears as “nonsense”.

“The graduates from our university include different people from various religious backgrounds and with varying beliefs,” Rehimli told IWPR.

She said people educated at Turkish schools were in high demand from employers purely because of their education.

“The educational level is higher… than at other Azerbaijani colleges. Various projects, intensive courses and extracurricular activities help students develop as professionals,” she said. “Having a warm and friendly teacher-student relationship, rather than a hierarchical one, helps create an environment that allows students to grow as individuals.”

Lamiya Adilgizi is a freelance journalist from Azerbaijan currently based in Istanbul.
 

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