Carmen Valache in Baku -
EU-Azerbaijan relations hit a new low as Azerbaijani lawmakers on September 14 responded to a damning resolution passed by the European Parliament over the deteriorating human rights situation in the country by voting to review Baku’s cooperation with the EU’s flagship policy to forge closer ties with countries in the South Caucasus.
Despite the EU’s decades-long efforts to tie Azerbaijan to the West through energy and trade ties, the authoritarian country’s turn toward Russia has been noticeable for some time, with the latest spat in danger of accelerating that drift away – much to the consternation of those who regard the South Caucasus country and its oil and gas as crucial in the EU’s struggle against Russia. The question at this point, say analysts, is how far that drift will take Azerbaijan.
On September 14, Azerbaijani lawmakers voted to suspend the country’s participation in Euronest, a parliamentary forum of the EU and its eastern neighbours, as well as calling for a broader revision of Baku’s cooperation with Brussels through its flagship Eastern Partnership programme. According to Eurasianet, Azerbaijan has told a delegation from the European Commission not to bother visiting Baku as had been planned.
The tit-for-tat was in response to a resolution adopted by the European Parliament on September 10 that condemned the deteriorating human rights situation in Azerbaijan and called for a temporary suspension of its funding for programmes that are not related to civil society or education until the situation improves.
The move comes after repeated statements in recent weeks out of the European Commission over verdicts against the journalists and human rights activists, Khadija Ismayilova and Layla and Arif Yunus, who received prison sentences ranging from seven and a half to eight and a half years on charges of embezzlement, tax evasion and fraud, after trials that the EU deemed as "falling far short of international standards".
On September 1, the EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini and Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Johannes Hahn issued a joint statement calling for the Azerbaijani authorities to review Islamyilova's case "in a transparent process, in full respect of the country's international commitments, including on media freedom", because her "trial raised fundamental questions on the impartiality of the court and the legality of the accusation."
The former head of the Azerbaijani service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and radio show host Ismayilova has suffered harassment by the security services since her 2010 reporting on high-level corruption in Azerbaijan implicating the country's first family. Two of her articles covering this topic were named "Best Investigative Reports" in 2010 and 2011 by RFE/RL. The Yunus' are well-known human rights activists, whose work has advocated for, among other things, the reconciliation with Armenia and the protection of evacuees subjected to forced evictions in Baku in 2008.
The recent court rulings were the tipping point that led to the European Parliament’s adoption of the resolution, but the six-page document also includes a comprehensive list of incidents deemed anti-democratic, such as the jailing of 100 other journalists and civil rights activists, the death of journalist Rasim Aliyev, the limitations placed on NGO operations, the closing of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) office in Baku, and the banning of peaceful protests in the capital.
The European Parliament also voted to put on hold negotiations over a Strategic Partnership Agreement with Azerbaijan; called on the European Council to consider targeted sanctions and visa bans on Azerbaijani officials involved in political persecution, and urged EU member states to refrain from observing Azerbaijan's November parliamentary elections; on Baku to investigate the high-level corruption cases brought to light by Ismayilova; and on the European Commission to reevaluate its funding for programmes in Azerbaijan, and to temporarily halt any for initiatives not related to education and civil society.
This is by far the most critical stance the EU has taken on Azerbaijan since the surge in human rights violations began last summer. Baku did not take long to retaliate, and on September 14 its parliament, the Milli Majlis, drafted a resolution to withdraw from the Euronest Parliamentary Assembly, as well as review its Eastern Partnership programme. The document also "informally banned" the European Parliament’s president from traveling to Azerbaijan, and threatened to respond to sanctions by imposing travel bans on all MEPs responsible for sanctioning Azerbaijan.
“I am not sure these incidents will necessarily accelerate Azerbaijan-European estrangement, but that is largely because that gulf is already yawning and rapidly widening,” says Michael Cecire, associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute's Project on Democratic Transitions and columnist for bne IntelliNews. “By his statements, President [Ilham] Aliyev either is happy to sacrifice Azerbaijan's Western partnerships in service of bolstering his regime, or actually believes that Azerbaijan has more leverage over Europe than it actually does”
Judicial reform, together with education and rural development, are the pillars of the EU's collaboration with Azerbaijan, with the Caspian country expected to receive up to €94mn in EU funding by 2017 to develop these areas. So far, Brussels has invested in consolidating the rule of law and promoting the independence of the judiciary, by supporting training and research programmes for Azerbaijani legal professionals.
In a September 9 interview with bne Intellinews, the head of the EU delegation to Baku, Malena Mard, noted that her department, "has been exploiting various channels to engage in an effective and value-based approach with Azerbaijani officials on human rights and democracy, which are of utmost priority for the EU." In its resolution passed the day after, Brussels bluntly pointed out the lack of "progress as regards the human rights situation in the country," despite the EU's engagement with Baku, and called on the European External Action Service to "step up this dialogue with a view to making it effective and results-oriented".
Traditionally a cooperative EU partner, Azerbaijan has responded more testily to increased criticism in recent months coming out of not just Brussels, but also from the US, UN, international media, and NGOs like Freedom House and Transparency International. Instead of reinforcing its position as a strategic Western partner in the region and a tolerant Muslim country, like it used to do, Baku has been pushing back against what it deems as an "international smear campaign" and an attempt by "foreign forces" to undermine the country.
The fact that Baku's efforts to organise the first European Games in June attracted more criticism than support, and that the event was snubbed by most European leaders except authoritarian leaders like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russia's Vladimir Putin was also not lost on the Azerbaijani leadership. “Azerbaijan and the West have quite officially entered a period of mutual acrimony and suspicion, ironically sealed during this past June's European Games in Baku,” says Cecire.
Baku has continued to cultivate ever closer ties with Russia and Turkey, the regional powers that never interfere with its domestic affairs. As recently as September 1, President Aliyev expressed his desire to “effectively and successfully develop bilateral relations" between Azerbaijan and Russia “even further” – a wish that visiting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov seconded.
The question at this point, say analysts, is how far that drift will take Azerbaijan. “Baku's ties with Moscow and Tehran are rapidly warming in inverse proportion to the deterioration of Western relations,” says Cecire. “However, it is still an open question to what degree Azerbaijan will allow itself to integrate into the Russian or Iranian regional systems, given past histories of varying tension with both. But as the Azerbaijani regime avails itself of Russian and (to a lesser extent) Iranian cooperation as Western ties shrivel, it will be harder for Baku to resist pressure to associate somehow, if not join outright, key Moscow-led structures.”
Conversely, others believe Azerbaijan's joint economic projects and high trade levels with the EU may prove to be strong enough deterrents to the country's tendency to turn eastwards in order to avoid criticism from the West. The EU delegation in Baku seems to be of the same mind. Asked to share their views on the recent tensions between the EU and Azerbaijan, the representative encouraged observers “not to get carried away by singular events, and to keep a long-term perspective on EU-Azerbaijan relations”.
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