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The EU's approach to Azerbaijan: short-term gain, long-term pain

By Rebecca Vincent.

Over the past year, the Azerbaijani authorities have engaged in their worst human rights crackdown yet, working more aggressively than ever before to silence critical groups and individuals. By the end of 2014, there were reports of nearly 100 political prisoners in Azerbaijan, including many of the country's most prominent journalists and human rights defenders. The most active local human rights NGOs were shut down, and several international organisations were effectively driven out of the country. Authorities raided and then shut down the Baku office of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, one of the few remaining independent media outlets in the country.

At the same time, the Azerbaijani authorities have increased anti-Western rhetoric at the highest levels. So far, this has largely been aimed at the United States, perhaps because of the comparatively strong position of U.S. officials on human rights violations taking place in Azerbaijan. But European values and initiatives have also been targeted. Most notably, on 3rd December 2014, Presidential Chief of Staff Ramiz Mehdiyev issued a 62-page anti-Western polemic, accusing the U.S. and Europe of applying double standards to Azerbaijan and supporting a "fifth column" of activists, NGOs, and media outlets working to foment instability in the country.

Despite this hostility, Europe has continued to engage in business as usual with Azerbaijan, particularly in the context of energy cooperation, as Azerbaijan's oil and gas resources present an attractive alternative to Russia. In the midst of the unprecedented human rights crackdown, Azerbaijan was allowed to serve as the political leader of the Council of Europe, chairing its Committee of Ministers from May to November 2014. As Human Rights Watch stated, Azerbaijan's Chairmanship set a "new low" for the Council of Europe, and "represented an assault on the institution and everything it stands for".

Moving towards a Strategic Modernisation Partnership

The track record of the European Union (EU) is not much better. The body has done little to address the fact that Azerbaijan has failed to implement many of the democratic reforms outlined in the EU-Azerbaijan Neighbourhood Policy Action Plan. Instead, the EU continues to move towards entering a Strategic Modernisation Partnership with Azerbaijan.

In June 2014, following a meeting with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso stated that the EU wanted to move to "a long-term association grounded on democracy and shared values, in particular fundamental freedoms". However, just moments later, he said that he and Aliyev had "discussed the ways to accelerate and expand the Southern Gas Corridor and we agreed that this will be our mutual priority for the coming year". In the same press conference, Aliyev claimed, unchallenged by Barroso, that "all fundamental freedoms are guaranteed in Azerbaijan. There are free media and free internet…The [sic] freedom of assembly is fully guaranteed in our country. The [sic] freedom of religion is also fully provided in our country".

Indeed, the EU has largely stood idly by as the Azerbaijani authorities have worked to destroy the country's last vestiges of democracy. EU officials have reacted to some of the most serious developments – such as the arrest of investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova. But they more wholeheartedly welcomed a presidential pardon of just a few of the country's scores of political prisoners – a step that hardly represented justice for individuals who never should have spent a single day in jail, nor did anything to stymie the cycle of politically motivated arrests that has continued.

Division within the European Parliament

The most significant attempts by the EU to hold Azerbaijan accountable for its human rights obligations have come from the European Parliament (EP). In September 2014, the EP adopted a resolution "on the persecution of human rights defenders in Azerbaijan". The resolution condemned "in the strongest possible terms" the arrests of a number of human rights defenders and demanded their immediate and unconditional release. It also called for broader human rights reforms "as a matter of urgent priority". In October 2014, detained Azerbaijani human rights defender Leyla Yunus was named as one of three finalists for the prestigious EP Sakharov Prize. Despite the fact that she did not win the prize, the EP called on the Azerbaijani government "to release without delay this innocent woman".

However, despite these positive steps, the EP remains split on Azerbaijan, due in part to lobbying practices described by the European Stability Initiative as "caviar diplomacy". The EP monitoring delegation's statement on Azerbaijan's 2013 presidential election inexplicably declared it to have been "a free, fair and transparent electoral process" (sharply contrasting the findings of the OSCE). A number of Members of European Parliament (MEPs) also took part in dubious private monitoring missions. Although six of these MEPs were later found to have violated the Code of Conduct by failing to declare their participation in these missions, EP President Martin Schulz decided not to take disciplinary action against them, paving the way for more MEPs to be influenced in the future.

Individual officials within the EU system have begun to recognize the need for a different approach to Azerbaijan. In a hearing in October, just prior to taking office as the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini addressed the issue, stating, "The Azerbaijan issue is not an easy one. Just because we are investing a lot on energy in Azerbaijan, and they know it very well, it is going to be crucial also for our diversification of sources. I think we need to stress even more the need for respecting human rights, especially in the field of media and political activities".

Unfortunately, so far, no significant changes have been made with respect to EU policy towards Azerbaijan. But changes could be on the horizon. As Green Party MEP Paolo Bergamaschi said in a recent interview, "I can tell you that the situation in [the] EP lately has changed a lot. Even the voices that were fonder of [the] Azerbaijani government, they now keep silent. They don't dare say anything because the opposition to the crackdown has grown very strong and is still very strong in the EP. So from this point of view I can tell you that either there is a change of strategy, either there are concrete signs or the EP will voice its concern in a much stronger way than what it did so far".

A stronger EP position on human rights violations in Azerbaijan is critically needed, as is a stronger stance by the broader EU. In failing to take action to hold Azerbaijan accountable for its human rights obligations and continuing to turn a blind eye to the on-going repression in the country, the EU is making a serious strategic mistake. Compromising its own values by carrying on with business as usual with Azerbaijan might yield some immediate benefits for the EU, but this strategy is shortsighted. Ultimately, the emergence of strong democratic institutions is the best long-term guarantor of EU interests in Azerbaijan. Continuing to embolden an increasingly authoritarian regime is serving to destroy, rather than strengthen, these institutions, and will result in the erosion of democratic values within the EU itself – similarly to what is already taking place at the Council of Europe.

February 2015