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The difference between Armenian and Azerbaijani lobbying activities in Europe

Both Armenia and Azerbaijan were looking for other ways than diplomacy to make their voices heard in Europe during the latest conflict between the two.

November 16, 2020 - Anna Barseghyan - Analysis

Armenian diaspora demonstrating in Paris. Photo: Office of the High Commissioner for Diaspora Affairs of Armenia

The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh is again a top priority for the South Caucasus and the international community. The war, which began on September 28th, was not viewed as a surprise by Armenia. For the country, Azerbaijani rhetoric, discourse, and physical action made it clear that a new war was always likely. Since there are hundreds of publications discussing the disputed region’s history and who is to blame for the conflict, this article instead focuses upon both sides’ non-military tools in Europe. Except for diplomacy, there are several ways in which Armenia and Azerbaijan have attempted to make their voices heard and gain support in international society. 

Besides diplomacy, public diplomacy and lobbying within various international organisations and national governmental bodies are vital for governments. Despite this, such activity can often verge on breaking the law.

The case of “caviar diplomacy” is an interesting example of this problem. The term began to be widely used in 2012, when the European Stability Initiative published an investigation report entitled “Caviar Diplomacy—how Azerbaijan Silenced the Council of Europe”. According to the report, “caviar diplomacy” describes the set of tools used by Azerbaijani officials as part of their international lobbying. This often involves personal remuneration for individuals involved, including cash in envelopes, paying for the restoration of churches in old European cities and holding international conferences on religious tolerance. At the same time, Baku has also provided funding for pro-Azerbaijani think tanks headed by former MEPs as a reward for supportive voting and has wired millions of euros to the private accounts of Western politicians via offshore companies for luxury trips to the country.

According to the Freedom Files Analytical Centre’s report “European values bought and sold”, Azerbaijan’s lobbying aims to promote the following ideas:

  • Azerbaijan is an important player for the EU’s energy security
  • The West should support Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity
  • Azerbaijan is a secular state with an Islamic majority 
  • Azerbaijan is a role model for multicultural tolerance (In particular, Baku’s cooperation with Israel and outreach to Jewish organisations in other countries are often highlighted) 
  • Azerbaijan is a young democracy which needs time to develop democratic institutions and should not be judged too harshly

Overall, these goals appear to have been achieved. Azerbaijan has largely positioned itself in Europe as an important part of the EU’s energy security despite it providing only one percent of the organisation’s gas demand. The most important hub for Azerbaijani lobbyists is Strasbourg, where they not only have easy access to the European institutions, but also members of national parliaments serving as PACE deputies.

One of the key players within the Azerbaijani lobbying machine is the European Azerbaijani Society (TEAS), which hires top European PR professionals, ex-MPs, and former ministers. For instance, they have donated money to the UK Parliamentary Group “Conservative Friends of Azerbaijan” and have funded many British MPs’ trips to the country. Recently, British independent journalist Andre Walker revealed on his YouTube channel that Westminster was bribed by Azerbaijan before the invasion of Nagorno-Karabakh on September 27th.

However, these investigations rarely lead to serious consequences. The “Azerbaijani Laundromat” case remains a key example of the country’s ability to lobby with little pushback.

Several high-ranked European officials who have been involved in such ‘laundromat cases’ have received  millions of dollars for their pro-Azerbaijani activities. Of course, the most scandalous case was uncovered by PACE’s Independent Investigative Body, which discussed allegations of corruption within the organisation in 2017. According to the case, several members of the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly broke the body’s rules on ethics and are “strongly suspected” of corruption. Sanctions were subsequently put in place against these members.

As the evidence of these investigations shows, Azerbaijan uses oil money to buy influence in Europe and create favourable conditions for its military and non-military activities against Armenia.

On the contrary, Armenia’s most important resource is human capital both inside and outside the country. Overall, Armenia and especially Armenian diaspora communities use strong personal connections and grassroot organisations to pressure EU institutions, the Council of Europe, OSCE, and national governing bodies. The main advocacy topics include the recognition of the Armenian Genocide, condemnation of Turkey, and the fundamental right of the population of Nagorno-Karabakh (often named Artsakh in Armenian sources) to determine their own future. Whilst recognition of the Armenian Genocide and promoting self-determination for the disputed territory remain the country’s main foreign policy objectives, Armenian grassroots organisations are also working towards securing EU assistance for Yerevan. These groups also support Armenian parliamentary delegations in their unilateral and multilateral activities within European countries and organisations.

Since the outbreak of the war, Armenians in Europe have organised peaceful demonstrations in many countries. They have demanded that their governments place sanctions on Turkey, which recently increased its militrary support for Azerbaijan. It is also worth mentioning the huge demonstrations that took place in Brussels in front of EU institutions on October 7th before the start of the European Parliament’s debate on the disputed region. Armenian lobbying activities are quite successful, especially given that EU institutions have no executive power. On a declarative level the EU’s official announcements are quite pro-Armenian. However, when it comes to action, EU interests speak otherwise. For instance, during the parliament’s plenary session regarding the conflict, 60 out of 65 speaking MEPs spoke in favour of Armenia and Artsakh. On the contrary, the European Commission’s declarations are quite neutral or pro-Azerbaijani. Due to this, many Armenians in Europe decided to draw attention to the conflict by closing various roads across the continent. This includes key roads connecting Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland. Although civic activism has helped raise awareness within the local media, on a wider scale these actions have had little influence.

In conclusion, it appears that both Azerbaijani and Armenian lobbies are very active across Europe. However, their ‘toolkits’ or means of influence remain quite different and often controversial. It reflects the internal level of democracy and curroption. Armenia as a young democracy  is trying to use democratic means in it’s foreing policy  arsenal. Meanwhile  Azerbaijan being one of the most currpoted countries of the world (126/180)  tries to “export” its  internal “political traditions” outside its border. Overall, whilst Azerbaijani lobbying has been quite successful in influencing the EU’s decision-making process, Armenian lobbying has found more success in civic activities.

And here the main question remains. Is the EU based on values (Art 2 of the Treaty of the European Union) or the interests are the main drivers?

Anna Barseghyan is a political analyst, focusing on the South Caucasus and the European Neighbourhood Policy. She holds master’s degrees from the College of Europe in Warsaw, Poland. Since 2012  Anna has been working as a political analyst in various think tanks. Having completed a research internship at the European Parliament, she actively contributes to a number of publications on European Neighbourhood Policy.

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