The real European Games have only just begun: Finding the right approach on Azerbaijani prisoners of conscience. By Eske van Gils

globaleurope, Eske van Gils |

The real European Games have only just begun: Finding the right approach on Azerbaijani prisoners of conscience. By Eske van Gils


Last June, Baku hosted the first European Games with much grandeur. Azerbaijan spent great amounts on the Games (dubbed by locals as ‘the Games for Europeans’) and wanted to put the country positively on the map. Yet, it seems that the real European Games have only just begun. On 11 September the European Parliament submitted a motion for a resolution condemning the deterioration of the human rights situation in Azerbaijan. The motion has already caused much uproar in bilateral relations, with Azerbaijan threatening to re-consider its participation in the Eastern Partnership; and once again brings the EU’s value promotion policy into the spotlights. However, Brussels and Baku appear to be playing different games. While the EU believes they are involved in a round of disciplinary hide and seek, Baku runs away in a game of catch me if you can.


The motion was submitted following a number of new convictions of journalists and activists who were critical of the Azerbaijani government; many more preceded them. The resolution calls on the Azerbaijani government to respect human rights (regarding a range of issues), and on other EU institutions to take a more active stance on the matter, including imposing sanctions on the regime. The vote on the motion has not yet been scheduled at the time of writing. At this point, I would like to join the debate. The EU seems to find itself caught between a rock and a hard place, and I hope to shed some light on the context of the issue. I will argue that in the long run, ‘Othering’ and partnership might be necessary to find a successful approach.


Tax evasion, heroin and collaboration with the enemy

The recent convictions should be seen in light of the urge of the Azerbaijani government to maintain stability in the country. Azerbaijan is a state in the South Caucasus that gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. President Ilham Aliyev succeeded his father, the late Heydar Aliyev, in 2003, after the latter had been president of Azerbaijan for ten years. In the past two decades, the country has undergone a major economic transformation – although poverty is still widespread and the country’s oil wealth is distributed very unevenly. It is exactly the concentration of wealth at the top, which one of the convicted journalists, Khadija Ismayilova, tried to expose.


Commentators as well as international organisations have assessed that the state of democracy and human rights has worsened under Ilham Aliyev’s rule. Currently, there are approximately 100 political prisoners in jail in the country. What is important to note is that these journalists and activists have not been persecuted on grounds of their actual critical activities. Instead, people have been arrested on accusations of among others tax evasion, drug possession, or cooperation with the enemy (working in civil society projects in cooperation with Armenia). According to several international organisations these charges have been trumped up.


The regime’s reasons for concealing its real motives are probably firstly Baku’s desire for a positive recognition by the international community. Baku has invested heavily in its diplomatic capacity as well as PR. Also grand events such as the Eurovision Song Festival in 2012, and the European Games in the spring of 2015, can be seen in this light. The regime tries to keep up a discourse of democratisation and the government even denies the existence of any prisoners of conscience, with the argument that the definition of ‘political prisoner’ is still contested within the Council of Europe.


A second probable reason for covering up the nature of the convictions is that the government wants to prevent domestic unrest, to secure its internal legitimacy – which at the same time is the very reason for these prosecutions in the first place. Moreover, by basing the persecutions on ‘legitimate’ grounds, the idea can be upheld that the justice system has operated fairly and merely according to the law.


Criticism on the EU: Oil versus values (but is this really so?)

Back to the current situation: the motion for a resolution by the EP. This is quite a big step by the Parliament, considering that the EU’s overall policy towards Azerbaijan is generally not that outspoken regarding issues of human rights. The EU therefore often receives criticism: it would not be doing enough to address the worrisome situation in Azerbaijan, and would even hold double standards compared to other countries, such as Belarus, where the situation is also concerning but (however wrong this may sound) still better in some regards than in Azerbaijan. It’s often suggested that the EU’s moderate stance is because of its reliance on Azerbaijani oil and gas.


It is very likely that the EU indeed limits its criticism on the Azerbaijani regime because of the trade deals between these two actors (note, however, that this concerns mostly individual EU member states, rather than ‘the EU’ as such). But it would be too simplistic to state that the EU doesn’t do a thing because they need the oil. Firstly, energy does not take up such a dominant position as is sometimes suggested: bilateral relations do consist of much more than that. Secondly, the EU does voice criticism, and does make considerable efforts to promote its norms on democracy and human rights in Azerbaijan, despite the fact that this does lead to frictions with the regime.


The European Parliament has always been relatively vocal and critical of the situation in Azerbaijan; Embassies of several member states were present at the trials of the people convicted; and the EU Delegation in Baku closely follows the situation, and is in almost daily contact with the Azerbaijani government on these issues. As soon as the motion was submitted, the Head of the Delegation was summoned by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The fact that these actions are taken nonetheless, show that the EU is not afraid to confront Aliyev’s government. Even though, indeed, the damage to relations remained limited so far; and while, indeed, the EU could potentially do more.


Sharpening the knives for a gunfight?

The problem of all this, however, is that open and public criticism does not seem to work in the case of Azerbaijan. Experts on the ground have argued that it even works counter-productive. Despite – or possibly even in reaction to – the motion for a resolution, several new arrests of journalists have taken place in the past week since the motion was submitted.


Exactly because Azerbaijan is so much concerned with its image in the international community, it will not accept such accusations and any criticism coming from international political actors or media is consistently followed by counter-moves from the government and defensive public statements in the media. Despite many years of EU democracy and human rights promotion in Azerbaijan, there are more prisoners of conscience now than ever before.


It seems that the ‘silent approach’, which is simultaneously applied by the EU and EU member states, may be more effective in reaching the goals of norm-promotion in Azerbaijan. This approach consists of consultations and discussions behind closed doors, as well as (less visible) support to civil society organisations in the country. Such approach fits much better with the notion of ‘Othering’, the process of acknowledging one another’s national interests, problems, and priorities in bilateral relations. Othering would be a necessary step if the EU wants to achieve a genuine partnership with Azerbaijan, because the current approach of bluntly promoting its own norms and values in another state is not only in conflict with the whole idea of partnership; but it also has not lead to any results. And it probably never will be effective, because Azerbaijan is becoming an increasingly strong actor in international politics who demands a more equal position in the relations.


Between the devil and the Caspian Sea

As a consequence, it seems that the EU currently finds itself in between two problematic options and that it will need to choose the lesser of two evils. Either it can hold on to its model of being a value promotor in the world, thereby risking relations with Baku but also the chance to end up with a deadlock. In that case it cannot have any positive effect on the situation in Azerbaijan anyway, since the government will respond to any EU condemnations only more fiercely.


The second option would be to follow a pragmatic course whereby the two actors build on the principles of partnership and find a compromise, e.g. implementing democracy and human rights promotion but only behind closed doors using the ‘silent approach’. This could potentially be more effective in terms of outcome in the long run, but the EU will appear to be giving up one of its core principles and let down those who are in prison – is remaining silent also being guilty of the crime?


This is a question I don’t know the answer to. One the one hand, the only possibility I see for the release of Khadija Ismayilova, Leila and Arif Yunus, Rasul Jafarov, Intigam Aliyev, Anar Mammadli, and many others who are sitting in a cell while you are reading this, is through pressure coming from the international community, notably the EU.  Naturally, the EU cannot let this go unnoticed. The question is however how public this pressure should be, as it risks working counterproductively, no matter how well we mean.


At the same time, I believe that partnership would be the only way in the long run. The current situation, in which the EU unilaterally keeps pushing for its own norms in Azerbaijan – and Azerbaijan not being very impressed by this at all – has so far only led to a deadlock with no results. Perhaps it is therefore time that Brussels and Baku start playing the same game, and search for common rules and shared norms.

Eske van Gils is a doctoral student at the University of Kent.