Radio Azadliq underwent a leadership transition after the closure, with a new director, Ilkin Mammadov, put in charge of Azadliq’s Prague office – where RFE/RL is also headquartered – in early 2015.
Mammadov’s arrival kickstarted a process of pushing out journalists who produced content critical of the Azerbaijani government – and producing content that followed the government’s agenda, the six journalists allege.
In turn, they say, Mammadov replaced them with journalists more aligned with Azerbaijan’s ruling authorities – including after they challenged management decisions. openDemocracy approached Mammadov for comment but did not receive a response.
Turkhan Karimov, Radio Azadliq’s former social media head, told openDemocracy that he had been fired in June this year – and then replaced by a new social media editor who had previously worked for Azerbaijani government-affiliated channels in the country.
Karimov, who shot to fame after exposing Baku’s corrupt traffic police on film, says his replacement, Mammadsharif Alakbarov, has previously edited films that appeared to glorify Azerbaijan’s 2020 war in Nagorno-Karabakh – which Azerbaijan won – and praised president Ilham Aliyev.
“After my departure, several journalists were recruited under the leadership of Mammadsharif Alakbarov who didn’t have experience on online media channels but instead had ties to the television networks associated with Azerbaijan’s first lady Mehriban Aliyeva,” Karimov said.
Alakbarov’s Facebook page had contained public posts, seen by openDemocracy, that appeared to support the Azerbaijani government and the Aliyev family’s initiatives in Azerbaijan. His page was deactivated after the allegations against Radio Azadliq first became public on social media.
When contacted, RFE/RL told openDemocracy that Alakbarov had resigned. Alakbarov did not respond to requests for comment from openDemocracy.
Karimov said Mammadov, Alakbarov and Radio Azadliq’s existing editor-in-chief, Zeynal Mammadli, had created a “strategic partnership” that drove personnel and content change at Radio Azadliq.
The corporation said: “RFE/RL makes operational decisions based on a strategic plan, and is guided by how to best reach our audiences with uncensored news.”
These changes have also meant that Radio Azadliq has since 2016 produced fewer corruption stories that focus on the inordinate wealth accrued by Azerbaijan’s ruling class, Karimov alleged.
He also claimed there had been a move away from partnership with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), an international investigative outlet that collaborates with established media to produce and publish stories.
Mammadov, Karimov claimed, “explicitly discouraged” partnership between Radio Azadliq and OCCRP.
“He insisted any cooperation with OCCRP must be pursued outside of regular working hours,” Karimov told openDemocracy, saying there had been a lack of joint projects as a result.
When asked by openDemocracy, OCCRP confirmed it had previously collaborated with Radio Azadliq “a number of years back”, but that the collaboration had lapsed.
“We’re not sure why other than some reporters have said they weren’t given the time they needed to do investigative work,” OCCRP said.
“It also seemed to us that [Radio Azadliq] editorial leadership had little interest in investigative work.”
RFE/RL, however, told us it enjoyed “a productive reporting relationship with OCCRP, and we value our award-winning collaboration”.
Focus on Nagorno-Karabakh
One strand of Radio Azadliq’s coverage has particularly highlighted the changes at RFE/RL, former employees alleged: an excessive focus on Azerbaijan’s 2020 victory against Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh and its aftermath, and a decline in coverage of human rights violations in other parts of Azerbaijan itself.
The victory in Nagorno-Karabakh has been viewed inside Azerbaijan as a justification for the Aliyev regime’s policies, boosting the regime’s image of Azerbaijan’s “military strength”, said Karimov, who accused Azadliq management of “playing to the hand of the Azerbaijani government” by favouring coverage of the conflict over “coverage of internal protests and human rights violations” in Azerbaijan.
Another former Azadliq journalist, Islam Shikhali, echoed these concerns. There is now, Shikhali said, “a conspicuous absence of attention to domestic human rights violations and societal dilemmas [in Azerbaijan],” in contrast to the regular coverage of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The demise of Wagner boss Yevgeniy Prigozhin and the diminishing role of mercenaries in Ukraine has done little to assuage fears inside the North Caucasus of the return of thousands of mercenaries formerly convicted of robbery, rape, and murder.
In April, a 38-year-old resident of Tskhinvali (Tskhinval), South Ossetia, was stabbed to death in the streets.
Soslan Valiyev, known locally as ‘Tsugri’, was known to have developmental disabilities and was generally loved by his community, with current President Alan Gagloyev and former president Eduard Kokoity condemning his murder and offering their condolences to his family.
His killer, Giorgey Siukayev, was arrested the following day. Siukayev had already served time for murder in 2014 after shooting dead a soldier in Donetsk. He had barely spent a few weeks in prison before he was set free, after agreeing to serve in Wagner, a Russian state-backed private military company founded by the late Yevgeniy Prigozhin.
He has since gone by the callsign ‘Arbalet’ and had been stationed in Ukrainian territories occupied by Russia, taking part in its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
Siukayev was among thousands of Wagner mercenaries to be given freedom in exchange for fighting in Ukraine. Many mercenaries were convicted of murder, rape, and other grave crimes, stirring concerns about their return to civilian life once the fighting dies out or their contracts expire.
In January, Prigozhin announced that the ‘first wave’ of formerly convicted Wagner mercenaries had completed their military service. Shortly after, many of them were decorated by President Vladimir Putin.
Prigozhin claimed in February that his group had stopped recruiting prisoners and later announced that 32,000 former convicts had fulfilled their contractual obligations with Wagner in June.
In a separate interview with Konstantin Dolgov, a pro-Kremlin political strategist, Prigozhin claimed that a total of 50,000 convicts had joined Wagner’s ranks, about 20% of whom had died fighting in Ukraine.
Before this year, Russia’s penitentiary service, the Interior Ministry, and the General Prosecutor’s Office regularly published statistics about crimes committed, including by former Wagner members. The end of this has forced journalists to find different sources or to rely on information issued by the few remaining non-profit organisations in Russia.
Wife killer, drug addict, war hero
In another high-profile case in the Caucasus, the Wagner recruited a former North Ossetian police officer, Vadim Tekhov, from a penal colony. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison for the brutal murder of his ex-wife, violating restraining orders, and taking part in a mass brawl with Ingush people in North Ossetia.
CCTV footage shows Tekhov stabbing his ex-wife, Regina Gagiyeva, 21 times. She succumbed to her wounds six days later, having not regained consciousness.
Thousands of people have attended Regina Gagiyeva’s funeral procession.
Thousands of North Ossetians took part in her funeral procession as local feminist activists condemned the authorities for not guaranteeing her safety. Gagiyeva had reportedly sought protection from the police since November 2017, and Tekhov, who was wearing an electronic tracker when he attacked her, was supposed to be under house arrest.
Fighting in Ukraine did not appear to rehabilitate Tekhov; as soon as his contract with Wagner ended, he was caught trafficking drugs in Ukraine. He dodged a prison sentence again by striking up another deal with Prigozhin’s forces.
Once his second contract expired, Tekhov returned to his home in downtown Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia. His ex-wives’ relatives fear retribution against them for having pushed for his incarceration.
‘We can’t get an answer from the prison warden where Tekhov was held’, Roksana Gagiyeva, Regina’s sister, tells OC Media. ‘How was he released?’
‘He is a particularly dangerous criminal, a repeat offender’, she added.
Tekhov’s reception in Vladikavkaz after his return from Ukraine indicates concerns people feel about Wagner’s recruitment and subsequent release of dangerous convicts back to their communities.
Crimes committed by former Wagner members throughout Russia have been put under scrutiny, says North Ossetian journalist Rooslán Totrov, who refers to convict-turned-mercenaries as ‘loose cannons’.
‘These are absolutely unguided shells that are fired from the fiery furnace into as yet peaceful Russian cities’, Totrov tells OC Media. ‘These people will suffer from PTSD, which is not surprising, and, among other things, they have a record of especially grave crimes’.
Back to their old ways
Convicts released from their Wagner contracts have been known to have committed various crimes in Russia; these range from robbery to extortion, blackmail to assassination attempts, and murder.
In the Caucasus in late April, Kirill Chubko and Tatyana Mostyko, both 18 years old, disappeared in Krasnodar Krai. A search team of 500 volunteers set out to search for them after news of their disappearance, eventually finding their bodies a few days later.
The police apprehended Demyan Kevorkian, a 31-year-old former convict who had served a stint in Ukraine with the Wagner Group, on suspicion of their murder.
Many in Krasnodar Krai were left wondering how Kevorkian had his 18-year sentence commuted, despite serving time for extortion, robbery, car theft, and murder.
In Volgograd, Arsen Melkonyan, sentenced to 11 years in prison for beating a person to death in 2020, was given a new lease on life for serving with Wagner. He was sentenced to prison yet again on his return to Volgograd for threatening to murder his ex-wife and his daughter.
While in May, Sergei, a 42-year-old from Novosibirsk, was charged with raping two girls aged 10 and 12, mere days after his contract with Wagner expired.
Before his death, Prigozhin confirmed that the man had served in his private military company, dismissing the gravity of his allegedly committed crime.
‘Well, guys, these rapists, there are just immense numbers of them, rapes — they just happen 20–50 a day’, Prigozhin said at the time.
Prigozhin had always defended former Wagner members in the face of legal scrutiny, claiming that convicts employed by his group had only committed a total of 83 crimes as of June 2023.
‘[That is] 80 times lower than crimes committed by those released from prison for a similar period without a contract with the Wagner Group’, said Prigozhin.
With no open access to statistics about crimes committed by former Wagner members, some in Russia remain sceptical about the likelihood that former convicts who had fought on the frontlines would return to cause trouble in Russia.
But Yana Sherova-Ignatiyeva, a trauma psychologist based in Saint Petersburg, says that while war can contribute to increased violence in societies, especially if combatants do not seek psychological support after deployment, it is too early to tell how this could affect Russia.
‘We cannot know whether there is a difference in the number of crimes committed among convicts who were at war and those who simply served their time’, Sherova-Ignatiyeva tells OC Media.
‘The existence of a problem has to be recognised somehow, and there is no demand for it’, she tells OC Media. ‘This is not the problem of each combatant, but the problem of the society around them’.
‘There is no need for demonisation’, says Sherova-Ignatiyeva. ‘We all realise that horror happens and horror will happen. It never stays in a box; it spills out. War fundamentally changes society.’
‘Washing away their sins with blood’
With Prigozhin’s death, and his Wagner group appearing to have been neutralised, fears over the return of convicts to society have not disappeared.
Prigozhin had already announced earlier this year that Wagner had stopped recruitment drives in Russian prisons. At the same time, reports indicate that most convicts who had served with Wagner had already fulfilled their contracts or were dismissed following July’s mutiny.
However, it appears that Moscow is unwilling to let go of Prigozhin’s legacy, with the State Duma passing a bill that would allow convicts to clear their criminal records in exchange for directly serving in the Russian Armed Forces.
Since the start of the war, there have been reports that ethnic and religious minorities in Russia — including in the North Caucasus — are being drafted disproportionately compared to those from predominantly ethnic-Russian regions.
For North Ossetian journalist Rooslán Totrov the return of convicts from the front is a real concern.
He says that try as they might, former convicts serving in Ukraine cannot ‘wash away their sins with blood’.
‘I do not believe that any “heroic” deeds in war, which involves the unjust invasion of someone else’s land, write off previous crimes’, he says.
For ease of reading, we choose not to use qualifiers such as ‘de facto’, ‘unrecognised’, or ‘partially recognised’ when discussing institutions or political positions within Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and South Ossetia. This does not imply a position on their status.