Special for the Armenian Weekly
The last two months have seen an unprecedented crackdown on one of the pillars of the Aliyev regime in Azerbaijan, the Ministry of National Security (MNS). Since the Oct. 17 dismissal of Minister Eldar Mahmudov, some 250 of his subordinates, including most of the senior staff, have been dismissed. Several dozen of them have been arrested and one of them, the former deputy director of the national counter-terrorism center, was reported to have committed suicide last week by hanging himself in jail.
The direct successor of the Azerbaijani branch of the Soviet State Security Committee—better known through its Russian initials, the KGB—the MNS has always had a larger-than-life significance in Azerbaijan, not least because it was the alma mater of “national leader” Heydar Aliyev, the father of current President Ilham Aliyev. While most of the MNS’s work has focused on fighting inter-clan wars, to which its leadership apparently has fallen victim to, and suppressing domestic dissent, the MNS has also been involved in a number of Armenian-directed espionage and propaganda efforts.
Over the last decade these included recruitment of a number of Armenian citizens by Azerbaijani operatives, sometimes posing as representatives of third countries. Some of these cases led to:
- the February 2005 arrest of Zvartnots Airport engineer Andrey Maziyev, who was charged with spying for the Georgia-based MNS operatives for over five years;
- the December 2005 arrest of Russian citizen Rustem Veliahmetov, who was charged with espionage;
- the October 2009 arrest of Lt. Col. Gevorg Hayrapetyan, who was dismissed from the military in 2007, on charges of attempting to pass information to Azerbaijani operatives through an Iranian citizen;
- the June 2013 arrest of army contract service member Mane Movsisyan, who was in touch with an Azerbaijani operative pretending to be a Turkish Armenian via social media;
- the January 2014 arrest of Col. Khachik Martirosyan, retired from police in 2011, who reportedly offered services to the Azerbaijani Embassy in Tbilisi, Georgia;
- And just days ago, the arrest of Maj. Garik Marutyan—dismissed from the military in 2014—for sharing “secret” information with Turkey-based Azerbaijani operatives via social media.
Last summer, an Armenian Weekly article mentioned the existence of a Glendale, Calif. bank account connected to the MNS, possibly pointing to its efforts to recruit area residents that also include former Armenian government officials.
At the same time, the MNS helped jail a number of “Armenian spies,” including several dozen Azerbaijani military personnel (most of them former POWs), an ethnic Azerbaijani Georgian citizen, and several domestic critics of the Aliyev regime that most recently included Arif and Leyla Yunus and journalist Rauf Mirkadyrov. In recent years, all Armenian military prisoners and civilian hostages captured in Azerbaijan were presented as either political defectors or spies, resulting in at least two deaths in custody.
The MNS has also been active in netting Azerbaijani citizens with Armenian relatives or professional connections—real or manufactured—and blackmailing these people for money. In one of the more egregious cases, following the 2009 Eurovision, the MNS harassed individuals who had voted for Armenia’s entry in the song contest.
On Dec. 15, Aliyev formally disbanded the MNS, establishing in its place two agencies: the State Security Service (SSS), which will inherit most MNS functions including the Israeli-supplied surveillance apparatus, and the Foreign Intelligence Service (FIS). To be sure this move had nothing to do with the MNS’s multitude of human rights transgressions, including the assassination of government critics and the jailing and harassment of hundreds of others. But the move does offer a form of “rough justice”: the MNS official who reportedly committed suicide this week was involved in blackmailing the country’s leading investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, now serving a 7.5-year prison sentence.
The SSS will now be led by Madat Guliyev, 57, who, like his predecessor Eldar Mahmudov, spent most of his life in the police force. Guliyev was awarded the “National Hero” title for his loyalty to the Aliyev regime during its crackdown on the special-designation police (known by its Russian acronym OMON) in March 1995. Guliyev led the Interior Ministry’s organized crime and narcotics divisions at the time when Interior Ministry personnel were actively engaged in extrajudicial assassinations, kidnappings, and racketeering, which were publicized through the so-called Haji Mamedov case in 2005 (ironically, Mahmudov and his people delivered the “rough justice” in that case). Since 2011, Guliyev has been chief of Azerbaijan’s prisons, which house more than 22,000 inmates with an estimated 100 political prisoners among them.
The new FIS head, Orkhan Sultanov, 38, is less known. According to Azerbaijani media, he previously worked for the MNS foreign intelligence directorate, including under diplomatic cover at the Azerbaijani Embassy in London between 2007 and 2012. Between 2008 and 2014, Sultanov was also a Ph.D. candidate at King’s College London, working on a dissertation about the Karabagh conflict. According to his lead academic advisor Prof. Domitilla Sagramoso, while Sultanov did not complete his Ph.D., “He was a brilliant student, with a sharp mind, and an ability to express himself clearly and convincingly. He was very objective and ready to learn new ideas and concepts. But above all he was a very kind and generous person.” Sagramoso expressed hope that Sultanov would complete his degree in the future.
Another member of academia who met Sultanov in London also described him as “smart, discreet, focused, and calm.” Speaking on condition of anonymity, the academic said that unlike other Azerbaijani students he had met, Sultanov was “very courteous and formal, not combative or defensive.”
Both Guliyev and Sultanov are political lightweights that appear to be compromise figures intended to placate the major rival clan groups in Azerbaijan. While they project a degree of intellectualism, the now-ousted Mahmudov did the same at the time of his appointment. It remains to be seen if these replacements will result in any changes to the heavily propagandistic style of their predecessors that has been dictated by the political leadership. What is clear is that they will continue to keep targeting what Aliyev termed Azerbaijan’s “number one enemy”—the Armenians.