By Shahin Abbasov,

BAKU. January 30, 2013: A series of videos depicting graft inside the
halls of power in Azerbaijan could have serious implications for one
of the country's most influential officials, 74-year-old presidential
Chief of Staff Ramiz Mehdiyev.

The scandal, known as Gulargate, erupted last September when the
former rector of Baku's now-closed International University, Elshad
Abdullayev, published an online video showing himself discussing the
$2-million price tag for a seat in parliament with Gular Ahmadova, an
MP for the governing Yeni Azerbaijan Party and her assistant, Sevinj
Babayeva. Abdullayev is said to have secretly recorded the video in
2005. It appears to implicate Ahmadova in the sale of parliamentary
seats, and seems to identify Ramiz Mehdiyev as a beneficiary.

Abdullayev, now a political refugee in France, has since published
10 more videos that purportedly reveal widespread corruption in
Azerbaijan's executive branch, judiciary system and law-enforcement
agencies. All of them place Mehdiyev in an unfavorable light. Some show
Abdullayev negotiating for the return of the $2 million after he lost
the 2005 parliamentary elections; others document his negotiations
with a Supreme Court judge and Interior Ministry mediators about
bribes and a ransom for the release of his brother, Mahir, a senior
official at the Ministry of National Security, from kidnappers.

In interviews with Azerbaijani media outlets, Abdullayev has pledged to
release about 800 more such videos during the run-up to Azerbaijan's
October presidential elections. His aim, he claims, is to find out
what happened to his brother, who was kidnapped in 2003, and whose
whereabouts remain unknown.

But local experts and politicians believe that Abdullayev's real aim
is to undermine Mehdiyev. And some suspect that he isn't acting alone.

A patriarch of Azerbaijani politics and an important ideologist
for the incumbent administration, Mehdiyev is widely seen as one
of the most powerful public figures in Azerbaijan after President
Ilham Aliyev. A former Communist Party ideologist, he has been a
top presidential aide for nearly 18 years, beginning under Ilham
Aliyev's father, Heydar. Aside from his executive-branch role,
Mehdiyev wields considerable influence over legislative matters,
law-enforcement agencies and the country's regional administrations.

Mehdiyev repeatedly has denied involvement in the bribery schemes
discussed in the videos, and dismissed Abdullayev as a "criminal"
with a reputation for "selling diplomas." As yet, he has not been
questioned by investigators.

President Aliyev has not yet commented publicly on the scandal. But
political analyst Elhan Shahinoglu, director of the Baku-based Atlas
research center, predicts that if more videos appear, Aliyev will
have to address the issue before Azerbaijan's October presidential
elections. Following recent riots in the town of Ismayili and protests
in Baku over perceived abuses of power, the government, arguably,
must tread gingerly in an election year.

"Honestly, even if Ilham Aliyev wins a third term in October, I do
not see Ramiz Mehdiyev in his administration after it [the election],"
Shahinoglu said.

At the same time, law-enforcement agencies are unlikely to make
Medhiyev the subject of a corruption investigation while he remains
in office, Shahinoglu added.

Economist Natik Jafarly, one of the leaders of the opposition group
REAL, is among those who don't believe that Abdullayev, a man not
known as being a trailbazer for transparency, is acting alone. "I do
not think that Elshad Abdullayev is just an angry person who lost his
brother, university and lots of money. ... It is a political process."

The Public Chamber, a mainstream group which unites the country's
two largest opposition parties, Musavat and the Popular Front Party
of Azerbaijan, does not conceal that the videos will be a focus of
their upcoming presidential campaign.

Who exactly stands to gain from any fall from power by Mehdiyev
remains an open question.

Opposition-linked Azerbaijani media have speculated that the videos'
release could be tied to First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva's relatives,
who form the backbone of the influential Pashayev clan. The group has
interests in several important financial sectors, including banking
and insurance.

Jafarly suggested that Pashayev's involvement in the scandal stretched
the limits of credibility, given that the videos, viewed collectively,
paint an unappealing picture of Azerbaijan's ruling elites. "[I]t is
like shaking a boat in which they are all sitting," he commented.

"Abdullayev's videos are harming not only Ramiz Mehdiyev's reputation;
they show how corrupt the whole government and the system are."

In response to the videos' appearance, the General Prosecutor's Office
has launched a corruption investigation against Ahmadova, who has lost
her parliamentary seat and YAP membership, and has been placed under
house arrest. In addition, a Supreme Court judge, Aghababa Babayev,
has been fired.

Ahmadova's assistant, 41-year-old Sevinj Babayeva, died from heart
failure in an Istanbul hospital in late December - an event that only
intensified speculation about the scandal. -0- * Shahin Abbasov is
a freelance reporter based in Baku.

From: A. Papazian