By Jacqueline Hale
The recent revelation that Azerbaijan has pursued a policy of bestowing gifts of caviar on parliamentarians and officials at the Council of Europe comes as no surprise to those who follow the interactions of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) with the Caspian petro-state.
Amid growing evidence of Azerbaijan’s deteriorating human rights record and entrenching authoritarianism, voices continue to speak out in favour the regime.
A recent PACE vote to define “political prisoners” in response to Azerbaijan’s obfuscation on the issue came down to a knife-edge after intensive lobbying by the government trying to magic away the problem with the help of its allies among the elected assembly.
Officials in the EU, which conducted a human rights dialogue with Azerbaijan last week, admit privately that caviar has also been on the menu in Brussels. Whilst there has been no concrete evidence of bribe-taking linked to policy outcomes, Azerbaijan’s relations with parts of the European Parliament are cosy.
The largest political grouping in the parliament, the European People’s Party, held a February conference attended by Azerbaijan’s foreign minister during which some of its leading members extolled the virtues of Azerbaijan’s political reforms and the fact it “has made clear its intention of building democracy.”
In comparison to other neighbours, the EU appears to practice a form of exceptionalism towards Azerbaijan.
Though both feature side by side in various democracy indices and ongoing repression in the two countries is in many ways comparable, Belarus comes in for censure while Azerbaijan receives fulsome praise.
Ashton’s congratulatory statement on Azerbaijan confirms the argument that the European Union is taking a different posture towards its neighbours depending on whether or not they have energy to sell.
In the event, Ashton welcomed the release of nine political prisoners under amnesty but neglected to mention that a further 60 remain behind bars.
Following May’s Eurovision song contest, pressure on activists has intensified. Arrests continue, including blogger Zaur Garbanli on drugs charges, days after he criticised the inclusion in school text books of a poem by the president’s daughter eulogising her grandfather and former president.
Senior government officials have targeted democracy activists and independent media calling for a campaign of public hatred against them.
Activists involved in the recent Sing for Democracy campaign point to arrests of their colleagues on politically motivated charges, including photo-journalist Mehman Huseynov, who was targeted as a warning to others.
Two journalists – Avaz Zeynalli and Hilal Mammadov – have been sentenced to prison terms on trumped up charges, bringing the number of journalists in detention to nine, according to the Baku-based Media Rights Institute.
Repression is also being stepped up in the regions, away from international scrutiny and the recent UN Internet Governance Forum, held in Baku, offered further opportunity for arrests and intimidation.
With intensive diplomatic efforts underway by the EU to secure a Southern Energy Corridor, Baku – presenting itself as a kingmaker in the initiative – poses a policy challenge to EU officials and parliamentarians, sharpened by the economic crisis and Europe’s strategic interest in energy diversification.
Commissioners travel to Baku to pay court or scold, depending on their portfolio.
This is often, and incorrectly, framed as a values-versus-interests dilemma.
The Arab spring demonstrated that when it comes to EU foreign policy towards its neighbours, values and interests are deeply intertwined, rather than mutually exclusive.
Azerbaijan may be riding high on new gas discoveries at Shah Deniz and other fields which will likely fill the shortfall in hydrocarbon revenues as its oil output declines. But as much as the EU remains hooked on foreign gas, energy-dependent Azerbaijan, which sources 90 percent of its revenues and 47 percent of annual GDP from hydrocarbons, also craves legitimacy.
Besides Eurovision, its overtures to join key international bodies, such as the UN Security Council, its failed bid to host the future 2020 Olympics and its attempt (with the help of a bribe) to secure a boxing gold medal at the recent London Olympic Games, attest to this need to seek the appearance of having met the standard – whatever it takes.
Both in Brussels and Strasbourg a more vocal response to abuses and an end to the indulgence of Azerbaijan’s ever increasing authoritarianism is needed.
For the EU this means putting its new “more for more” policy into meaningful practice by spelling out that it expects Azerbaijan to improve basic human rights and fight corruption in return for more direct investment and closer economic ties with the 400-million-strong consumer market.
The EU’s human rights dialogue can play a role, by establishing benchmarks against Azerbaijan’s performance on core rights issues, and by making them public – following the example of commissioner Neelie Kroes’ critical speech to the Internet Governance Forum in Baku.
For the Council of Europe, the continent’s premier rights institution, it means putting an end to the caviar-fuelled farce and showing Azerbaijan the door.
Jacqueline Hale is a senior analyst at the Open Society European Policy Institute in Brussels