Why not to Ignore Elections in Azerbaijan

AlijevIt might slip under many people’s radar but Azerbaijan will be holding parliamentary elections on November 1st. We can already be sure of the winner: President Aliyev’s ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party. The country, located on the Caspian Sea in the South Caucasus, has treaded a fine line between European, Russian and Middle Eastern spheres of influence since its independence 24 years ago. The pattern of election-protests-repression, however, is so familiar in the country’s election cycle you could forgive most Azerbaijanis for ignoring them and staying at home.


Even the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) electoral observers decided their mission was pointless, announcing in September that due to restrictions from the authorities they would not be sending a team to monitor the upcoming elections. The last two years have been the worst in an already dreadful government record of human rights abuses and persecution of dissent. The oil contracts, pipelines and high profile events, however, keep on coming. The situation is indicative of Europe’s weakness, inconsistency and ineffectual policy towards Azerbaijan. With so many other crises occurring, why does ignoring elections in Azerbaijan matter? The Azerbaijani regime thumbing its nose at European institutions can tell us much about the situation on Europe’s borders.


European countries have attempted to bring Azerbaijan into its orbit and facilitate a transition from communism to democracy since its break from the Soviet Union in 1991. The country has been a member of the Council of Europe – the continent’s institution for defending democracy and human rights – since 2001. Azerbaijan is also part of its ‘Eastern Partnership’ and has lucrative energy contracts with the likes of BP. Indeed, both Europe and some in Azerbaijan have benefitted. It might have been expected (or at least hoped) that Azerbaijan would develop some European norms such as liberal democracy, civil society and respect for human rights. As the government and its international supporters claim, it is a very young democracy and is still to resolve its conflict with Armenia. The second point is a salient one. The EU and wider international community has not covered itself with glory here. The two ex-Soviet republics have fought over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region from the late 1980s, through the dissolution of the USSR until a ceasefire in 1994. The EU supports Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, which includes Nagorno-Karabakh and is still controlled de facto by Armenia. Europe has been unable to assert itself on the situation and aid in resolving the dispute. Why? Crucially, Russia backs Armenia and as we have seen repeatedly, views ‘frozen’ conflicts in its near abroad as in its interests. Other examples include Transnistria in Moldova, South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, and now Donbas in Ukraine. It has also supplied Azerbaijan with weapons, assisting in a dangerous arms build-up in the region. Russia’s actions in Ukraine, with little effective response from the EU, have acted as a further catalyst for oppression in Azerbaijan. The post-Soviet space functions through links between the corrupt elites in power. A change in the status quo, for instance a transition to democracy, would upset this entrenched system. Since Vladimir Putin took office in 1999 we have consistently seen Russia push back against any state that has threatened to become more liberal and more democratic.


Things could have turned out so differently. Modern Azerbaijan was founded in 1918, as a short-lived republic based on democratic values, secularism, universal suffrage and women’s rights. It can proudly claim to be the first country in the region to grant women the right to vote. The country was then swallowed up into the Soviet Union for 71 years, until its independence in 1991. Hopes were again high during the early 1990s when the country’s ‘Popular Front’ was swept to power, replacing the ruling communists. The 1992 election was relatively free, although this would go into reverse. To say Azerbaijan has no experience of democracy, therefore, is false. It also has, regrettably, many more years of experience with the KGB and an all-powerful and corrupt ruling clique. After the instability of the Popular Front years and a series of reverses in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, former communist-era leader and ex-head of Azerbaijan’s KGB, Heydar Aliyev, was asked by the country’s president to mediate the crisis caused by an effective coup in the second city of Ganja in 1993. He assumed leadership of the government, and soon after the presidency, and did bring some stability to the country. A ceasefire was signed with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh (although this has been continually broken) and Aliyev signed the ‘contract of the century’ with Western oil giants such as BP to exploit oil reserves in the Caspian Sea.


Azerbaijan joined the Council of Europe in 2001, partly because other member states did not want to be seen as giving Armenia special treatment, which had also applied for membership. Meanwhile Aliyev passed control over to his son Ilham in 2003, after a disputed Presidential election. Since then oppression has steadily increased, as has – curiously – Azerbaijan’s influence in the Council of Europe. The pattern has been set with contested elections, international monitoring reports of irregularities and protests at the results, followed by a government crackdown on dissent and jails swelling with political prisoners convicted on trumped up charges. Election fraud is seen by observers as particularly flagrant in Azerbaijan, even by autocratic standards, but criticism from the EU and other European institutions has been muted, and even that has declined. By 2011 the oil-rich country was operating what the European Stability Initiative – a think tank – memorably coined ‘Caviar Diplomacy’, buying off members of the Council of Europe. Instead of the Strasbourg-based institution converting Azerbaijan to its norms, it had essentially been captured, winning votes not to sanction it over electoral malpractice. Member after member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) incredibly became converted into supporting the country’s claims to transparency and due process.


As Azerbaijan’s wealth grew on the back of its oil reserves, it began to turn Baku into a mini-Dubai, spending some of its cash on hosting the Eurovision Song Contest in 2012, the inaugural European Games this year and a Formula One Grand Prix next year. Not unreasonably, the years of independence, oil wealth and joining the Council of Europe, as well as being part of the EU’s much vaunted ‘Eastern Partnership’ from 2009, had given Azerbaijanis hope they would be living in an increasingly open and democratic society. Many of these were spurred on by the ‘colour’ revolutions in the region, particularly Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004. For such a small population (9.5 million) it has produced a number of notable civil society activists, including journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who has documented the corruption at the heart of the regime and how it has spent its ill-gotten gains. For instance, the President’s 12 year old son allegedly acquired £30 million worth of property in Dubai while the president himself owns a mansion in London valued at around $25 million. In the run-up to Eurovision there were a number of protests, hoping to capitalise upon the attention on the country and help highlight electoral fraud and human rights abuses, political prisoners, as well as the forced evictions that had occurred to make way for the ‘beautification’ of Baku. Most prominent was young activist Rasul Jafarov’s ‘Sing for Democracy’ campaign, which attracted the attention of the foreign press. Jafarov was visited by only one of the contestants, however, Swedish singer Loreen. To add to the authorities’ embarrassment over the protests and negative coverage in the international media, Loreen rather inconveniently won the competition.


After 2012 the regime has cracked down hard. There would be no repeat of 2012’s protests before the European Games this year. The number of political prisoners is staggering and there seemed to be no end to who the government would target. On August 13th, after an indecently short trial ended in Baku, Leyla and Arif Yunus were sentenced to eight and a half and seven years imprisonment respectively, on politically motivated charges. Leyla, a winner of France’s highest decoration the Legion of Honour and a renowned human rights defender, and her husband Arif – a respected historian – were convicted of trumped up charges of fraud and tax evasion. The couple – in rapidly declining health – still face separate charges of treason that could carry life sentences.


The Yunuses are the latest in a host of other prominent Azerbaijani civil society members to be imprisoned. Rasul Jafarov and Intigam Aliyev – Azerbaijan’s most respected human rights lawyer and a regular advocate at the European Court of Human Rights – were both imprisoned earlier this year on charges of tax evasion and fraud. Anar Mammadli, who worked with the Council of Europe as an election monitor, was jailed in 2014 on similar charges. Khadija Ismayilova was unsurprisingly targeted and sentenced recently to seven and a half years imprisonment on the regime’s favourite charges of fraud, although "illegal entrepreneurship" and "hooliganism" are also often used. The silence emanating from both the Council of Europe and heads of European governments – with the exception of Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Nils Muižnieks and a few Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) in Brussels such as Marietje Schaake and Ulrike Lunacek – is deafening. There have been no sanctions or even opprobrium from European leaders. The weak EU response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support for rebels in Donbas appeared to give the Aliyev regime the green light for an intensification of its crackdown.


Many politicians and commentators cite the geopolitical importance of Azerbaijan for Europe’s soft approach, positioned between Russia, Iran and Turkey while possessing a large repository of energy resources, including much vaunted oil and gas possibilities. Most observers believe this is the real reason for the failure to condemn the country’s actions. Azeri gas is, however, currently more a possibility than a reality. The Nabucco gas pipeline that will run from the Caspian Sea to the EU through Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey may be – according to one study – providing gas that will not be needed by 2050. In 2013-2014 Azerbaijan provided the EU with 4.08 per cent of its oil imports. This relatively small fraction of the EU’s energy needs is apparently enough to turn a blind eye to internal repression that contravenes the rules of its sister institution. EU accession has helped to change candidate countries’ policies towards European norms. Currently the carrot of EU membership – and the associated wealth attainable as well as transition funds – are pulling Balkan countries such as Bosnia and Serbia into its orbit. The prize of visa-free travel encouraged policy change in Moldova. So the admission of Azerbaijan into Europe’s human rights institutions, only to ignore its rules and practices, undermines the continent’s values and norms.


Europe has a problem with rules and the consistency in their application. In the Eurozone they are apparently enforced vigorously – as long as you forget France and Germany’s deficit violations of 2003 – much to the chagrin of Greece. The EU dithered over Crimea but subsequently sanctioned Russia over it and Donbas. The EU has also punished Belarus for electoral fraud and human rights violations, and Moldova (well Transnistria) for its intransigence in settling its own ‘frozen’ conflict. Uzbekistan was sanctioned over a horrendous massacre in 2005 but these were quietly dropped four years later, although it remains an autocracy in the Soviet tradition. In Azerbaijan, however, despite the huge number of jailed dissidents that would make even the most self-respecting despot blush, there is barely a blink of an eye. The rules of the Council of Europe, albeit not Europe’s best-known institution, are now not worth the paper on which they are written. This inconsistency leads to instability. Meanwhile the Azeri regime continues to persecute with impunity.


The misdeeds of countries like Azerbaijan, for many politicians and thinkers, are of little import with so many other crises concurrently happening, whether Ukraine, Syria, migration, or the strife in the Eurozone. Recently some writers have been calling for a renewed emphasis in foreign policy on realpolitik. However, this will not help stability in Europe, where soft values are one of its core areas of strength. Turning a blind eye to events in Azerbaijan certainly will not help the political prisoners languishing in its jails. Human rights, however, seem to be a declining concern in the international relations of European countries. The current mood is of narrower national interest. An article by the European Council of Foreign Relations this year argued that the EU should make overtures to heavily sanctioned Belarus in order to pull it away from Russia’s grip, on account of it only having a few political prisoners. In fact Belarus’s President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has distanced himself from Russia in the past year and released its remaining political prisoners in August. The Presidential election that took place on October 11th 2015 drew little criticism from the EU - despite Lukashenka’s unabashed victory with 83.5 per cent of the vote - as a result. Lukashenka has become adept at working both sides. In this respect he is a role model for Azerbaijan’s President Aliyev.


A report this year by the influential German think tank, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, suggested that we are now entering a new era of foreign affairs based on interests, rather than values, that is to say a realpolitik turn. A piece in The Guardian in January said that the West should more constructively engage with the Azerbaijani government and that it may respond to suggestions about its crackdown on civil society better if it was “open advice from a friend and partner.” There is little evidence to date that shows engagement with the Aliyev regime will help the human rights defenders behind bars or produce free and fair elections. In fact the opposite appears to be the case: the meeker the approach to Azerbaijan, the harsher the policies of the regime. The Azeri authorities consistently divert criticism of it to the lack of assistance it has received in resolving its territorial dispute with Armenia. It is true that the EU should be more constructive on this issue, but that the perceived linkage between the conflict and domestic civil rights are illegitimate.


The allure of European values such as liberal democracy, respect for human rights and freedoms played its part in bringing down communism in Central and Eastern Europe. The incorporation of this region into Europe’s institutions has been one of the EU’s (and Europe’s other bodies such as the Council of Europe) greatest achievements of the last 25 years. Surrendering its values over Azerbaijan, including turning a blind eye to probable electoral fraud next month as well as its appalling human rights record, only weakens Europe and its stability.


Robert Ledger is a freelance researcher and writer on British and European politics. He holds a PhD from Queen Mary University in London.