Azerbaijan – Closed Space?

On the occasion of the exhibit "Drawing for Freedom", a discussion titled "Azerbaijan - Shrinking or Lost Spaces for Opposition" was held on 22 June 2017 at the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung in Berlin. International experts Gerald Knaus, Rebecca Vincent, and Berit Lindeman spoke with Anar Mammadli and other representatives of Azeri civil society about the critical human rights situation in the country, ways to potentially solve it, and European strategies

The list of exiled journalists, or those imprisoned in Azerbaijan, is long[1]. It is practically impossible for major foundations to work in the country, and the neighbouring country of Georgia is no longer safe for critics of Ilham Aliyev. The West has not only looked on without taking action for years, but has let itself be co-opted by the Aliyev clan as illustrated in the ongoing corruption scandal plaguing the Council of Europe. Hence the sobering state of affairs as presented by the exhibit "Drawing for Freedom" - a cooperation between the Norwegian Helsinki Committee with the Oslo National Academy of the Arts, presented at the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung in Berlin until 1 July.

In 2014 twenty students from the National Academy of the Arts in Oslo took on the task of creating art about the situation facing political prisoners in Azerbaijan. The emphasis lay on the personal stories of political prisoners. After presentations in Oslo, Paris city hall, and Stockholm, part of the exhibit can now be seen in Germany for the first time. An exhibition at the Council of Europe was previously prevented by the President of the Parliamentary Assembly Pedro Agramunt, who is currently suspected of corruption and who has since been deemed untrustworthy[2]. The completed portraits were used for human rights campaigns, among other things, some of which were instrumental in the successful release of political prisoners in Azerbaijan. This seems particularly relevant in light of the fact that the holders of power in Baku highly value the protection of their image abroad while they attempt to deface their opponents, according to the initiator of the exhibit Berit Lindeman, Senior Advisor of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee.

Real or virtual Azerbaijan

The Aliyev regime has spared no expense at polishing his image both domestically and internationally. Bolstered by the strong fossil fuel economy, Azerbaijan's lobbying costs exceed those of most other states. Major events in the capital Baku, such as the most recent Formula 1 race, are part of the standard repertoire, although Azeri foundations and companies sponsor large educational, cultural, and athletic activities mainly in Europe and the USA. One of the images on display references these interrelations by depicting the Gothic cross-in-square dome of Strasbourg Cathedral, the restoration work of which (as well as that of the Louvre and Vatican, among others) was sponsored by the Heydar Aliyev Foundation. The country's rulers have always focussed on presenting despotically ruled Azerbaijan as a progressive, economically successful, and tolerant state that places great value in culture and public welfare.

"We used to have 4000 election watchdogs, and now we have 600. But we have to keep acting. Even if only 50 people are listening, it's worth it." Anar Mammadli was imprisoned from December 2013 to March 2016, and he has organised independent election monitoring in Azerbaijan since 2001.

He believes that the country has changed drastically since late 2013, as NGO and party legislation and the freedom of association and the press have been extremely restricted. He says that the government is also attempting to create a political climate of fear. The suppression of all dissent and of the independent media[3], arbitrary imprisonment and interrogation have practically eliminated the free space for civil society and the free expression of opinions. With this unprecedented infringement the government faced a reduction in oil and gas profits, says Mammadli, in the fear that civil society would become more active in stagnation. The difficult socio-economic situation is illustrated by the devaluation of the currency by 50 %, among other factors. The future development of the situation depends on Azeri society and the reaction of the international community.

"There is no longer any opposition in parliament and no debates on television. The government has created two Azerbaijans - one real, one virtual. And we are part of the virtual Azerbaijan ... sadly." According to Anar Mammadli's statement, he has not had an office since his imprisonment and meets with colleagues at home or in cafes. These circumstances have forced many dissidents to emigrate. The remaining groups who want to change policy through peace are fighting merely to survive. According to Reporters without Borders, there are currently at least 15 journalists in prison, dozens are blocked from leaving the country, and the number of political prisoners is estimated to be 147[4].

A new reality

Azerbaijan's government critics previously felt relatively safe abroad. "Journalists have been imprisoned and extradited in Turkey in the past. But a red line was crossed with the abduction [of journalist Afgan Mukhtarli from Tbilisi to Baku on 29 May 2017]."[5] The regime now wants to "project autocracy abroad", says one guest. Hours after the kidnapping and abuse by presumed Georgian officers and Azeri security forces, Mukhtarli was imprisoned while security footage in Tbilisi allegedly disappeared. All of these are signs of the "new reality", he says.

In a resolution[6] the European Parliament demanded clarification from Georgia and the release of Mukhtarli by Azerbaijan, and the European Court of Justice responded as well. The EU Commission has yet to react. Unfortunately this is not a lone instance, as other activists fearful of tailing and home visits have already left Georgia - where many Azeris live - for the West. But even in the heart of Berlin the studio of independent Azeri broadcaster Meydan TV was attacked in 2014. Employees received threats.

It's time to stop business as usual

The release of Anar Mammadli, Hadija Ismailova, and other critical journalists from prison in late 216 shows how effectively political pressure can be exerted on Azerbaijan by human rights campaigns. The fulfilment of human rights obligations by Azerbaijan should thus be consistently demanded. To this end European, and not lastly German, politicians who want to retain credibility must also be held accountable, says Rebecca Vincent, former diplomat and Director of Reporters without Borders in London.

The current desolate situation was caused by years of inaction by European politicians, says Berit Lindeman. The elections were deemed free and fair by the Council of Europe in 2013, despite all of the criticism. This had disastrous consequences in Azerbaijan and ultimately dealt considerable damage to the European institution.

Gerald Knaus, Chairman of the European Stability Initiative (ESI), emphasises the grotesque, simultaneous developments in 2014: while Azerbaijan chaired the council of ministers of the Council of Europe for one half-year, the Vaclav Havel Award was granted by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe to Anar Mammadli, who had just been imprisoned as an Azeri defender of human rights.

Since 2012 the ESI has disclosed "Caviar Diplomacy", i.e. Azerbaijan's corrupt entanglements, and illustrates how a credible Azerbaijan strategy and integrity of the European institution can be ensured. Through reports Gerald Knaus was able to show that Baku "has worked very hard on manipulating assessment by international institutions." Only in 2016 did the second report[7] show its effectiveness: it triggered a minor revolution in the Council of Europe. Searches through the Strasbourg office uncovered incriminating material showing that parliamentary whip of the EVP Luca Volontè collected around 2.4 million euros from Azeri Council of Europe diplomat Elkhan Suleymanov for his support. Is that merely the tip of the iceberg? Impeachment proceedings are currently underway against President of the Parliamentary Assembly Pedro Agramunt, face of client politics and correspondent for Azerbaijan since 2010. The gravest crisis in the Council of Europe since its establishment makes one thing clear: "Strasbourg's failure at defending fundamental European values is now haunting Europe."[8]

The frequent objection to a hard approach - that Azerbaijan is a stable strategic partner in the field of energy security, as a transit corridor, etc., despite all of its flaws - is easy to refute, says Knaus. Europe is not at all dependent on resources[9] from Baku, and a cooling of relations poses no risk to trade. Europe also has an overriding interest in credible institutions and should take any potential reaction from Azerbaijan into account. In the event of violations, travel blocks and other specific sanctions should be imposed against specific, responsible individuals in order to create credibility - the speakers are unanimous on this point. A state that systematically disregards international obligations, where legality is eroding, cannot be considered a reliable partner. Gerald Knaus finds remarkable the number of young people who, despite meagre support from abroad and repression, form groups, stand up for human rights and political prisoners, and represent an active indigenous scene. The collapse of a regime can never be predicted, he says, although a civil-social opposition with the capacity to act has always been the key to peaceful transformation.

Ultimately Europeans should show critics of Azeri authoritarianism that their issues are just as close to Europe's heart as that which Vaclav Havel and sympathisers did in the '80s - and not just for humanitarian reasons.


[1] Long-time partners of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, such as the chairman of the opposition movement REAL, Ilgar Mammadov, are among those currently imprisoned.

[3] The daily newspaper Azadliq, Meydan TV, and Radio Liberty, among others were forced into exile.

[4] The list of political prisoners was compiled by the Working Group on a Unified List of Political Prisoners in Azerbaijan…

[9] After expanding all planned gas pipelines, this may make up a total of 2-3 % of European requirements.