FPRI scholars and contributors have frequently used the case of Azerbaijan to support the argument that in today’s world too frequently geopolitics trumps democratization. The oil-rich geostrategically important Azerbaiajan has been somewhat of a “sweetheart” of the West for many years. This has been the case despite its ruling Aliyev regime’s worsening track record of human rights abuses, along with a recent trend of overall consolidation of the autocratic regime. FPRI’s Melinda Haring has pointed out the apparent hypocrisy of US democracy promotion programs in Azerbiajan, where US taxpayer money reportedly has been spent on empowering an illegitimately elected parliament. A recent article by Gerald Knaus outed the European Council for supporting the Aliyev regime, concluding that “the autocratic regime of President Ilham Aliyev in Azerbaijan has managed to steal the soul of Europe’s most important human rights institution, the Council of Europe.”
While to the Western governments Azerbaijan seems to be an important strategic partner, the rest of the international community has become quite vocal about the torture and imprisonment of the innocent Azerbaijanis. Freedom House, in its Nations in Transit report, concluded that in 2015 “Ilham Alyev’s regime brought a new intensity to its multiyear crackdown on activists and journalists” many of whom were jailed “on fabricated charges like hooliganism or possession of weapons and drugs.”
This international scrutiny has only added fuel to the fire. For instance, crackdowns on freedom of speech continue to worsen. Most local critics are still locked up and silenced, while representatives of international organizations are forced to leave the country. The Aliyev regime has already banned the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and National Democratic Institute (NDI) to name just a few. The Council of Europe scandal ended with the its announcement that it was pulling its human rights working group out of Azerbaijan.
Just this past summer FPRI’s Christine Philippe-Blumauer wrote about democratic backsliding in Azerbaijan and the grim outlook for the future of freedom and democracy there. Now the story continues as the Aliyev government gears up for the upcoming parliamentary elections; the observers are reminded that international scrutiny will not be tolerated. This week Amnesty International joined the group of international organizations no longer welcome in Azerbaijan. On October 7th the international human rights watchdog announced that its representatives had been deported from Azerbaijan.
According to Amnesty International “there are at least 20 prisoners of conscience in Azerbaijan, locked up for criticizing or challenging the authorities…. Many other activists and campaigners have fled the country, while those who remain are often too fearful, because of threats to themselves or their families, to speak out against human rights violations committed by the authorities. Independent media is now almost non-existent, while newspapers and television stations owned or controlled by the government are used to smear critics. This allows abuses by the authorities to go unchecked.”
The two AI representatives, both Georgian nationals, had been engaged in first-hand research, campaigning and high-level advocacy to achieve the release of those lawyers, activists and journalists who have been wrongfully imprisoned in Azerbaijan. One of the deported AI employees, Levan Asatiani, spoke to FPRI on October 8th, explaining that while AI does not have permanent representatives inside Azerbiajan, its Europe and Central Asia Program at the International Secretariat in London covers the work on that country. According to Mr. Asatiani AI’s work on Azerbaijan primarily focuses on freedoms of expression, association, and assembly. Mr. Asatiani has worked for AI as a Campaigner in the Europe and Central Asia Program for almost two years. In addition to Azerbaijan he covers Ukraine, Georgia and Armenia.
In his conversation with FPRI Mr. Asatiani described the incident:
“My colleague and I were planning to meet with civil society representatives, including activists, journalists and opposition leaders in Azerbaijan to receive up-to-date information on the human rights situation in the country. Amnesty International had informed the authorities about our visit but never received a reply.
As we approached the passport control at the Baku Heydar Aliyev International Airport, the immigration officers took away our passports and told us that we were prohibited from entering the country. We were deported the same day, after spending several hours at the Airport. The immigration officers did not provide any explanation for our deportation.”
According to Mr. Asatiani “this is yet another [piece of] evidence that Azerbaijan is closing down to any type of international scrutiny.”
Mr. Asatiani describes the human rights situation in Azerbaijan as dire:
“[it] has reached its lowest point in Azerbaijan. Over the last two years the authorities have imprisoned dozens of journalists, lawyers and human rights defenders, including at least 20 prisoners of conscience–individuals incarcerated solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression. Those who remain outside the bars are constantly intimidated, harassed and threatened. As of today, Azerbaijan is pretty much left without any independent voices.”
To the question of what is to be expected from Azerbaiajan’s November parliamentary elections, Mr. Asatiani replied with pessimism:
“Azerbaijani political parties operate in the climate of fear and intimidation where freedoms of expression, association and assembly are constantly muted.
On top of that, the November elections will take place without any comprehensive national or international monitors. The head of the major national election monitoring NGO–the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center–Anar Mammadli has been imprisoned since 16 December 2013 on trumped-up charges and the major international election-monitoring mission from the OSCE/ODIHR had to be cancelled due to the restrictions imposed by the Azerbaijani authorities.
The upcoming parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan could hardly be free and fair when the human rights repression continues unabated; the country is left without any independent voices or national and international monitors.”
While Azerbaijan appears to gradually close its doors to well-wishing outsiders, whether it is non-profit, democracy, or human rights focused organizations, it still gladly welcomes those who are interested in doing business there. The World Bank’s “ease of doing business” index for Azerbaijan improved by 8 points in 2015. Foreign Direct Investments make up a large portion of Azerbaijan’s wealth. In 2014, FDI flows reached US$8 billion. Over 83 percent of these investments were intended for the oil and gas sector. In hopes of attracting positive international attention Azerbaijan hosted the European Games this past summer and did not disappoint. Baku has been developed into what looks like a mini Dubai, with beautifully and creatively designed buildings like the new Aliyev Center, posh shopping districts, and a world class airport. Thus it comes as no surprise that Azerbaijan places a high value on its international image, forcing President Aliyev to take truly extraordinary measures to keep it from tarnishing. As FPRI’s Arzu Geybullayeva recently reported, President Aliyev even sued a French TV channel for calling him a despot.
According to Mr. Asatiani the Western democracies have a lot of leverage over Azerbaijan, and it is time they use it to put an end to the rampant human rights abuses there.
“Last month, when the European Parliament adopted the resolution condemning Azerbaijan’s human rights record and called for the release of the detained human rights defenders, Baku reacted with hysteria. This is a clear example that Azerbaijan’s government is highly sensitive when it comes to its international image. Therefore, instead of the usual silent diplomacy, the Western democracies must be more outspoken and should publicly call on the Azerbaijani authorities [and take advantage of] every available opportunity to stop the human rights crackdown. The western leaders must also use their political and diplomatic leverage to encourage Azerbaijan to respect basic freedoms and rights. After all, it is within the long-term interests of Azerbaijan and its government to have a strong and independent civil society, which can play its positive role in the development of the country.”