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Dark clouds over Azerbaijan

A decade after the times of “Caviar Diplomacy” when Azerbaijan would buy up support from the delegates of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), the mood among European politicians has turned a full 180 degrees. The Azerbaijani delegation was excluded from the sessions for a year by a clear majority of the votes for the “persistent violation of norms and standards of the institution” and a lack of cooperation with PACE. Is this the beginning of the end of Baku’s participation in the Council of Europe?

April 17, 2024 - Anna Zamejc - Articles and Commentary

Caspian black caviar from Azerbaijan. Photo: Shutterstock

The long faces of the Azerbaijani delegates on display on January 24th left no questions. The hopes that their bad spell would turn around were miniscule. A debate and vote were about to take place a few hours later at the behest of the German representative Frank Schwabe from the SPD. It called for the suspension of Azerbaijan as a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe – an institution that since 1949 has watched over human rights and brought together almost all of Europe’s states (except for Belarus and Russia).

A day prior, the monitoring committee had produced a report that was positive to the motion and most of the parliamentary groups declared their support for Schwabe’s initiative. The head of the Azerbaijani delegation, Samed Seyidov, left the session before it was finished following a number of critical comments from the rest.

The Azerbaijani representatives decided to return to Baku earlier than planned and changed their tickets for Thursday morning, despite the winter session of the parliament ending on Friday. They had no intention to show up to Wednesday’s vote anyway. In a truly PR-like play the delegation decided to remove itself from the Council of Europe, before the Assembly intended to.

In a six-minute long press statement released on January 24th, Seyidov informed the journalists that Azerbaijan joined the Council of Europe in 2001 with hopes that PACE would aid the country in “restoring the rights of hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis who had been impacted by Armenia’s invasion and occupation on parts of the country’s internationally recognized territories”, which would lead to “justice in the name of reaching a lasting peace in the region”. However, over two decades, PACE has done nothing in this regard according to the delegation. Now, following an Azerbaijan’s military victory in Karabakh and the restoration of its territorial integrity, the country “is facing an organized campaign of slander”. Seyidov also accused PACE of being “Azerophobic and Islamophobic” and ended his statement with the announcement of Azerbaijan suspending its membership in the Parliamentary Assembly, until it decides otherwise.

After reading their release the six-person delegation immediately descended on a staircase into the flanking corridors disappearing inside of a symbolic elevator. Three hours later the representatives of PACE delivered the final blow with 76 votes for, 10 against and 4 abstentions, delivering a decision through simple majority that suspended Azerbaijan for 12 months. An important addition was added that stated the representatives could return earlier if there are positive changes in the country. Despite the corruption scandals, after 23 years of an uninterrupted presence in PACE, dark clouds finally appeared above the Azerbaijani delegation.

A time for reckoning

Although the resolution signed by 30 parliamentarians of PACE lists a number of reasons why Azerbaijan deserved to be temporarily suspended from the assembly, the delegation and the Azerbaijani media mostly emphasized the point that condemned the military operation from September 2023, which created an exodus of almost all the inhabitants of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Schwabe, who brought forth the initiative for the resolution, stressed that it was not the events from Karabakh, but rather the lack of cooperation between Azerbaijan and PACE and a year-long failure to fulfil obligations stemming from the membership of the Council that were the main issues.

“We have decided to suspend the rights of the Azerbaijani delegation not only because of the dramatic situation of human rights in the country, but primarily because PACE has no possibility to act in the country. We intended to participate as an observer mission during the snap presidential elections, something that is a duty of the assembly, but we received no invitation. We have rapporteurs writing up important reports that were not allowed to visit several locations, and some were even barred from entering the country”, Schwabe commentated on the social media platform X right after the vote.

Bjarni Jonsson, an Icelandic representative from ALDE who also voted for the suspension of Azerbaijan, confirmed this in an interview with Nowa Europa Wschodnia and Voice of America: “It is a very sad day, but we have reached a point where we had to use radical methods. This decision is good for the Azerbaijani society. The authorities in the country have consistently broken their commitments they were obliged to follow as members of the Council of Europe. We could not tolerate this behaviour, because we would lose credibility as an institution. I hope that the situation in the country is temporary and that it will soon solve its problems so that it can return to the assembly. The ball is now in Baku’s court,” he said.

A Cypriot representative, Constantinos Efstathiou, a PACE rapporteur on torture, inhumane treatment or punishment, was one of the first signatories to Schwabe’s resolution. He also stressed that Baku has done much to ultimately become suspended from PACE.

“The government of Azerbaijan has not upheld fundamental human rights during all these years, rights such as freedom of speech and the freedom of assembly. We have also seen cases of torture and ill-treatment of prisoners. Azerbaijan is one of the worst members in the Council of Europe when it comes to following the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights. Taking all of this into consideration the day had to arrive when the mandate of Azerbaijan was suspended. This happened on January 24th.”

Akif Qurbanov, a member of a newly created political party in Azerbaijan called the Third Way, claimed that this was a decision with a heavy political impact: “I cannot say that it is good news that Azerbaijan was suspended as a member of PACE, especially with the context of national interest. But of course when it comes to democratization, it is surely a step in the right direction. It is the end of an era where society was manipulated and told that The Council of Europe did not care about values, and where Azerbaijan could go unpunished without fulfilling obligations. On the other hand, it is also a big change in the attitude of PACE which finally decided to speak loudly about problems in the country.”

Not all representatives at PACE believed that suspending Azerbaijan was the right way to solve its problems. One of the members who abstained commented in the lobby after the vote that the decision made by the assembly could be a dangerous precedence. “Instead of having a dialog we will now speak to a wall, as the Azerbaijani representatives will be absent. Who knows who is next – Turkey, Hungary?”, he asked rhetorically. The representative asked to remain anonymous.

End to “Caviar Diplomacy”

Looking at it from a different perspective the representative from Luxembourg, Ives Crutcher, noticed that PACE discussed the exact same problems ten years ago faced by Azerbaijan: strict limits for the functioning of independent media and NGOs, issues of political prisoners and the absence of free and fair elections. However, the mood in PACE a decade ago was very different. In 2013 the majority of representatives dismissed a key report on political prisoners prepared by the Austrian rapporteur Kristof Strasser. The representatives also showed a surprising alignment with Baku in other votes as well.

But nothing happens without a reason. According to a report from the European Stability Initiative, a think tank, Azerbaijan had spent millions of euros on bribes in return for support in 2012-14. These were aimed at European MPs and decision-makers and came in the form of cash, caviar, expensive gifts and luxury hotels in Azerbaijan. This strategy was dubbed “Caviar Diplomacy” after one of the Azerbaijani representatives told the ESI report that many representatives at PACE immediately ask “where the caviar is?” upon greeting them.

In 2017 the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project disclosed a corruption and lobbying scheme set up by Azerbaijan in the EU and the European Parliament. According to the report of the investigative journalists, Azerbaijani politicians and lobbyists had access to a secret fund worth 2.9 billion US dollars to corrupt Europeans. In 2018, 13 members of the Parliamentary Assembly were put under sanctions for “violating the act of conduct of PACE”. This included the Polish representative Tadeusz Iwiński. Two members of the Azerbaijani delegation, Elkhan Suleymanov and Muslum Mammadov were permanently expelled from PACE.

In January 2021, Luca Volonte, a former Italian representative of PACE was sentenced to four years in prison for accepting close to 2 billion euros in exchange for aiding in blocking the report on political prisoners in Azerbaijan eight years prior. The Germen Prosecutors Office are still investigating German parliamentarians for their participation in corruption scandals connected to Azerbaijan. In the years of this “Caviar Diplomacy” sanctions against Azerbaijan for breaking the norms of the Council of Europe were not a realistic option. That does not mean there were not such initiatives.

In December 2015, then Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland, initiated an investigation through the rarely utilized paragraph 52 of the European Convention on Human Rights in order to face the continuous flaunting of the Convention by Azerbaijan. To no avail. Two years later the committee of ministers invoked article 46 against Azerbaijan for not following the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights which called for its authorities to immediately release Ilgar Mammadov, an opposition politician. Article 46, also known as the “nuclear option” could have led to the expulsion of Azerbaijan from the Council of Europe. However, this time the authorities decided to release the politician and clear him of any accusations. It was one of very few cases with a positive outcome.

“The government of Azerbaijan has for years ignored all the warning signs from the Council of Europe, continuing to arrest dissidents, introducing restrictive laws incompatible with European norms. It was notorious in how it avoided to cooperate with the institutions of the Council and the rapporteurs of PACE. In Azerbaijan the initiative put forward by Schwabe is presented as the first attempt at sanctioning the authorities, but this is simply not true. All the previous motions were bound to fail because of the corruption and immense Azerbaijani lobbying efforts.”, says a political analyst and experienced observer of the Council of Europe who requested anonymity.

What now?

Already a day after the vote on Schwabe’s initiative, Azerbaijani pro-government press agencies stated that the delegation from Azerbaijan could leave PACE on its own accord if the vote expelling them went through. In conversations behind the scenes in the Strasbourg Palais, the headquarters of the institution, there were mainly voices that said it was improbable because of Baku balancing between Russia and the West. On the other hand, the growing tension in bilateral relations with France in the context of Karabakh from September 2023, could lead to Azerbaijan limiting its cooperation with the EU and a retreat from some western organizations.

According to Akif Qurbanov, the authorities in Baku are still too closely tied with the West to resign from the Council of Europe. “The immediate reaction of the government will be firm: you can pressure us, but we will do what we please. In a long-term perspective the decision will be more rational, because the elites have close economic and financial ties with the West, especially Europe. The authorities also understand that it is not the entire Council of Europe that suspended the Azerbaijani delegation, but the Parliamentary Assembly”, says Qurbanov who is sceptical towards the threats out of Baku.

The mood in the Council of Europe regarding future cooperation with Azerbaijan is much more conciliatory than in the Parliamentary Assembly. There were even attempts of mediation in the hallways to deescalate the conflict between Baku and PACE, but these were fruitless. A similar situation took place in 2018-19, when PACE attempted to expel Russia from the Assembly without the agreement of other institutions of the Council of Europe. The committee of ministers, the main executive branch of the council, tried to foster dialogue both inside and outside the institution. The full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 solved this issue finally and Moscow removed itself from the Council of Europe on March 15th 2022. A day later the committee decided to expel Russia from all its institutions with immediate effect.

Harry Hummel, a Dutch member of Cure – a coalition of 18 European NGOs working to reform the Council of Europe – says that the fate of Azerbaijan in the Council depends largely on decisions in Baku.

He also emphasizes that the interactions between PACE and other institutions of the Council of Europe, especially the committee of ministers and the office of the secretary general will also play a role.

“The Parliamentary Assembly has given a large and clear signal that there is a problem with Azerbaijan. Now there should be a reaction from the committee of ministers and a logical consequence would be a serious discussion on the so-called joint complementary procedure used in the event a member state fails to uphold norms it has agreed to follow. These are made up of several steps that allow for intensified monitoring of the situation in the country and high-ranking visits. The ultimate solution in case there are no results would be expulsion from the structures of the Council of Europe. But the idea behind this procedure is that it would not come to that and the goal is to find a solution that would be accepted by both sides.”, Hummel explains.

“Last October, PACE adopted a resolution mentioning Turkey and Azerbaijan as potential candidates for a joint complementary procedure. As you can see, it clearly didn’t work because PACE decided to take a step on its own and suspend the Azerbaijani delegation. This is the same step that was taken in the past against the Russian delegation, without clear coordination with other bodies of the Council of Europe: in addition to the committee of ministers, the secretary general should play a mediating role if there is a systematic problem with one of the members,” Hummel adds.

Theoretically, there is still a chance for the Azerbaijani delegation to return sooner than next year – the country held parliamentary elections this year and Azerbaijan could hypothetically submit an application for recognition of powers of attorney in PACE with a new team of deputies. But without changes in domestic politics, PACE representatives are unlikely to reach a settlement so easily.

Gerald Knaus, co-founder of the ESI think tank and author of the report on Caviar Diplomacy, called for even more specific actions on the X platform: “Now the governments – the committee of ministers – should go a step further and impose conditions on [Azerbaijan]: the release of political prisoners, an end to torture and inhuman treatment, and an end to threats against other countries of the Council of Europe … The alternative is suspension as a member. We need to show that Europe will defend human rights. That they matter. The Council of Europe matters. This is the end of “Caviar Diplomacy.”

Translated by Daniel Gleichgewicht

Anna Zamejc is a freelance journalist and an expert on the South Caucasus.

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