Since the April developments [flare-up in fighting] in Nagorno-Karabakh, anti-Russian sentiment and pro-Western orientation have been increasing among the people of Azerbaijan. This situation is very worrying for the Kremlin, which is demanding that Baku make up its mind about its foreign policy priorities. The problem theme of Nagorno-Karabakh has recently been discussed at a security forum in Groznyy.
The 7th International Forum, devoted to regional and international security issues, has been held in Grozny. Among the participants in the forum were the secretaries of security councils, ministers, presidential and prime ministerial aides for national security, and heads of intelligence services. Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev led the Russian delegation.
Azerbaijan was represented by presidential chief of staff Ramiz Mehdiyev and Fuad Alasgarov, deputy chief of staff for work with law-enforcement bodies. During the visit Ramiz Mehdiyev held talks with Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the Chechen Republic, which the latter announced on Instagram.
Introducing the successor?
Ramiz Mehdiyev's participation came as a surprise to many people. At least, the Azerbaijani press learned about his visit to Grozny after the forum had started.
Ramiz Mehdiyev is not just the Azerbaijani president's chief of staff, but also Security Council secretary. However, for the second year running, there have been persistent rumours that he is leaving.
That is why the figure of Fuad Alasgarov, who was in the Azerbaijani delegation, has drawn the attention of experts.
"Fuad Alasgarov has overseen all law-enforcement bodies in Azerbaijan since 1998. He is effectively the second grey cardinal in the republic after Mehdiyev," says Arif Mammadov, Azerbaijan's former ambassador to the EU and the Council of Europe. "Because of his age, Mehdiyev will have to leave soon. Therefore, it is quite possible that at this forum the Azerbaijani president's chief of staff was introducing Alasgarov to Nikolai Patrushev as his successor."
It should be noted that passions have been running really high in Azerbaijan. A source in Baku says that Fuad Alasgarov, being responsible for the entire legal department in the Azerbaijani president's office, has strengthened his position in the elite hierarchy with the launch of the ASAN service, which has made it easier for citizens to obtain documents and eliminated corruption in this area. This achievement has had a positive effect on public support for the country's current president. At the same time, Alasgarov is viewed in Azerbaijan as a pro-Russian official. And he is
among those vying to replace Ramiz Mehdiyev.
In other words, Fuad Alasgarov is a figure certainly familiar to high-ranking officials in the Russian corridors of power, including Nikolai Patrushev. And at the meeting in Grozny, he may been introduced as Ramiz Mehdiyev's successor for the first time. However, not everyone agrees with this theory, saying that Ramiz Mehdiyev has his own candidate to succeed him, although they do not specify who it could be.
What did they arrive at?
Irrespective of whether or not he was introduced as Ramiz Mehdiyev's
successor, Fuad Alasgarov is of great interest to Moscow. Alasgarov
information Moscow needs to coordinate the fight against terrorism.
Because of the presence of the terrorist threat, which may grow in direct proportion to the defeat of the militants in Syria, one of the themes at the talks was joint operations by Russian and Azerbaijani intelligence services, including the sharing of information on people who become of interest in the context of the Syrian and Iraqi events.
Russia is not the only one to be concerned about the influence of militants on the North Caucasus. The problem is acute for Azerbaijan as well.
Even though Mubariz Qurbanli, head of the State Committee for Work with Religious Entities, has recently announced that there have been almost no cases of Azerbaijani citizens joining ISIL, in reality the situation remains difficult. For example, on 27 May, militants released an online video carrying threats against Azerbaijan's religious figures.
The haqqin.az portal says that the video was called "Message from the Lands of Ribat to Occupied Azerbaijan ("ribat" means "frontline", haqqin.az explains)." The video features a Russian-speaking militant from Azerbaijan who calls himself Abdulla the Caucasian. He claims to have been in Syria for three years, fighting initially with the Al-Nusrah Front and now ISIL.
Since 2014, the authorities of Azerbaijan have been reacting painfully to their citizens joining militant ranks. In October 2014, Ramiz Mehdiyev expressed his attitude to the wearing of the hijab, which caused mixed reaction among Muslims in Azerbaijan and Russia.
The secular system in Azerbaijan also became an irritant for ISIL leaders, who, in early 2015, announced that hostilities would switch to Azerbaijan. Nevertheless, the authorities of the republic have been able to control the process of militants influencing the population. It was decided that there would be criminal liability for citizens taking part in internal military conflicts in foreign countries.
However, the north (Zaqatala Rayonu, Qax Rayonu, Saki Rayonu) and the northeast (Xacmaz Rayonu and Sabran Rayonu) remain a special risk zone.
Topping the list is Sumqayit, from where more than 40 people have left to fight in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Syria in the past five years. The majority of them have been killed. Around 230 people are being monitored.
The causes of people's radicalisation are quite prosaic. One of them is socio-economic problems, which have deteriorated since the start of the crisis on the oil market. According to Arif Mammadov, there are still quite a few Wahhabis in Sumqayit, with people ready to travel anywhere as a result of the difficult economic situation in the country.
Rafiq Aliyev, a Doctor of Philosophy and former head of the State Committee for Work with Religious Entities, says that the subject of fighting terrorism was clearly among the main ones at the Azerbaijan delegation's meeting with Nikolai Patrushev. The situation in the north of Azerbaijan remains tense. Recruitment attempts are being made not just by ISIL (terrorist organisation banned in Russia), but also the Al-Nusrah Front. However, he says, they are currently behaving very carefully because the process of formation of the new bodies that emerged on the ruins of the Azerbaijani Ministry of National Security is under way.
The Ministry of National Security was disbanded in late 2015. It was replaced with two bodies -- the State Security Service and the Foreign Intelligence Service. Sulhaddin Akbar, former deputy minister of national security and current chairman of the Democratic Initiatives Party [Free Democrats Party], takes a negative view of potential interaction between the security bodies of Russia and Azerbaijan.
"Cooperation between Azerbaijan and Russia requires caution, especially in the areas of security, military cooperation, and cooperation between intelligence services," he told Gazeta.ru. "Azerbaijan was granted independence by Russia, but the main threats to Azerbaijan's territorial integrity and sovereignty come from its northern neighbour. Cooperation between the two countries, including in Dagestan, is dangerous for Azerbaijan itself. Russia wants to send peacekeepers into Karabakh, which is very dangerous for our republic. Moreover, this interaction will hardly give Azerbaijan anything positive."
As for the Karabakh theme at the talks, opinions about it differ. A number of experts believe that the talks participants would not have been able to avoid this issue. The April escalation showed that the conflict is ready to grow into a full-scale war.
Azerbaijan and Armenia are bracing themselves for new clashes. Military forces are being transferred towards the conflict zone.
Because of that, the talks in Grozny are special. After all, if the confrontation reaches full-scale hostilities that spill over beyond the borders of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Collective Security Treaty may be activated. Russia and, therefore, Chechnya may become a party providing support to Armenia.
"Ramiz Mehdiyev's participation in such forums is a good opportunity to discuss the Karabakh problem, especially as Nikolai Patrushev also took part in this event," expert Rovsan Huseynov says. He is sure that if the Karabakh war resumes, there is no need to fear that Chechnya will get involved in the conflict "because Azerbaijan will not violate Armenia's borders."
Arif Mammadov believes that the subject of Karabakh may have been heard, but would not have been dominant at the meeting. According to him, there will be another escalation in Karabakh, but Baku is holding talks on this subject at a different level, including through [Russian Deputy Prime Minister] Dmitry Rogozin.
"There are players that have an interest in a war, which is why it will be hard to avert it. In particular, this is Turkey, a country that needs the pressure on its borders to ease. The results of this war will determine the local geopolitical set-up in the region and probably the future of Central Asia," Mammadov says. For Russia, the resumption of the Karabakh war is a big risk because the situation can get out of control, which may have an extremely negative effect on the North Caucasus.
According to Mammadov, Russia can expect from Azerbaijan not the continuation of a multidirectional course but an unambiguous decision on who it will be with in the upcoming confrontation.
"Azerbaijan is very vulnerable from the north. There are Lezgins there, who mainly follow Wahhabi ideology. And Russia can easily create problems for us in that area," the expert says.
A Gazeta.ru source who requested anonymity believes that the Karabakh issue occupied a special place at the talks. "Russia is very concerned and does not understand Azerbaijan's recent policies: What happened in the conflict zone in early April, the meeting between the defence ministers of Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey, Western diplomats' visit to Baku, [and] the changed demands concerning the resolution of the Karabakh issue.
Moscow needs to know how far Baku will go on these issues.
And Ramiz Mehdiyev can provide an answer to all of that, he says. According to him, the Kremlin expects Azerbaijan to switch to a "who are we friends against" format. "It will be hard for Baku because following the April developments the approval rating of the republic's president has grown a lot. At the same time, anti-Russian sentiment and pro-Western orientation have been increasing among the population," the source says.
[Groong note: the above was translated from Russian]