Italy's murky ties with Azerbaijan exposed by Volonte trial

Italy's murky ties with Azerbaijan exposed by Volonte trial
Azerbaijani lobbyists allegedly bribed Council of Europe parliamentary representatives to block sanctions for its human rights violations. / Photo: Council of Europe
By bne IntelliNews February 1, 2017

The Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) will commission an external investigation into allegations that Azerbaijan has corrupted some of its members. In a public statement released a day before the decision on January 27, the body that is commissioned with overseeing human rights in Europe and its neighbourhood admitted that allegations about how Azerbaijani lobbyists bribed former PACE members to block sanctions for its human rights violations, whether substantiated or not, undermined its credibility and image.

PACE's hand has been forced by a chain of events that it could no longer control, including a trial for corruption against former PACE member Luca Volonte in Italy and the release of a widely-read report by the European Stability Initiative (ESI), a Berlin-based think tank, into alleged corruption at the human rights watchdog.

Azerbaijan's chairmanship of the Council of Europe in 2014, at a time when President Ilham Aliyev's regime was mounting an unprecedented crackdown at home, drew strong criticism from rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as the international media. Critics complained that appointing a frequent human rights violator as the temporary chair of the council validated its actions at home and discredited the institution over which it was to preside.

Baku's appointment to the helm of the Council of Europe took place more than a year after ESI released the first of its two reports about the country's links with the European institution, documenting how PACE representatives had been allegedly bribed to vote down resolutions criticising Baku for its political detentions. In the second part of its report released in December 2016, ESI provides further details on how Luca Volonte, former leader of the European People's Party faction at PACE, the largest political grouping there, allegedly received €2.4mn in payments from Azerbaijan between December 2012 and December 2014 to lobby on behalf of Baku.

Titled "The European Swamp - Caviar Diplomacy Part II", the report accuses Volonte of helping the Azerbaijani representative at PACE, Elkhan Suleymanov, to create a network of Baku-friendly members that repeatedly repealed motions against the country and supported its bid to take over the temporary chairmanship of the Council of Europe. The group included Spain's Pedro Agramunt, Poland's Taseuq Iwinski and British PACE representative Michael Hancock, according to ESI. Baku allegedly compensated these representatives with lavish gifts and cash wired through shell companies and foundations. All the representatives deny the allegations.

The council's secretary general, Thorbjorn Jagland and another PACE commissioner at the time, Christoph Strasser, reportedly opposed Azerbaijan's chairmanship, but were sidelined by the lobby. Strasser, who had prepared a report detailing Baku's jailing of opposition politicians, journalists, dissidents and other critics, was subsequently banned from entering Azerbaijan.

The money trail

According to Il Corriere della Serra, the Italian justice system caught on to Volonte's doings after his bank, a branch of the cooperative bank BCC located in a commune close to Milan, sounded the alarm over the €100,000 in monthly payments that the politician was receiving from four different firms registered in tax havens such as the British Virgin Islands, Seychelles and Belize. The transfers were made to Volonte's human rights foundation.

Volonte argued at the time that the money represented payments for "agri-business consulting" and presented the bank with a fake invoice. The bank nevertheless signalled the suspicious transfers to the prosecutor general in Milan, who began investigating Volonte. The EPP politician subsequently changed his tune, claiming that Suleymanov, the Azerbaijani PACE representative, had indeed paid him for "research, petitions, initiatives and printing of brochures".

Volonte is now on trial for money laundering; the corruption charges initially made against him were dropped, because they are covered by his parliamentary immunity under Italian law.  But the court nevertheless contends that he swayed the vote of his faction at PACE in favour of Azerbaijan, based on Strasser's testimony and an email exchange between Volonte and another Azerbaijani politician, Muslum Mammadov.

Strained relations?

Italy and Azerbaijan are the best of friends. Cemented by sizeable trade - Italy is Azerbaijan's top export destination, purchasing a quarter of its total oil and gas sales - and frequent bilateral visits between former Italian prime ministers Silvio Berlusconni and Matteo Renzi and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. In some ways, the two countries are a match made in heaven. Azerbaijanis love Italian luxury, food and lifestyle; while Italians love Azerbaijani money and oil and gas.

Italy is also the end-destination for an interconnected network of pipelines that will deliver Azerbaijani gas to Europe starting in 2019. But that is where the peace and harmony ends. For the trial against Volonte in Italy and protests from civil society groups in Puglia, the region where the last of Azerbaijani gas pipelines will surface, have put a dent in bilateral relations.

While Baku had focused its attention on building ties with Rome, it failed to account for the plurality of voices in Italy - such as that of Michele Emiliano, the governor of the Puglia region. A stark opponent of the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP), as the leg of the conduit carrying Azerbaijani gas from Greece to Italy has been dubbed, Emiliano also has a host of non governmental organisations (NGOs) on his side that have launched an environmental campaign against the pipeline.

Azerbaijan and the TAP Consortium, the organisation tasked with building the pipeline, have insisted that construction works are continuing and that the pipeline will be completed on schedule and as planned. However, the Renzi administration's failure to push forward with constitutional amendments in a December referendum - which eventually led to Renzi's resignation - raise question marks about the pipeline's future - and that of Baku-Rome ties.

Meant to reform the division of powers among regions, the central government and municipalities, the referendum received a resounding "no" from Italian voters. Had it passed, the central government would have had total control over the production, distribution and infrastructure related to energy in the country. But since voters rejected the changes, regional governments like Puglia's maintain their veto power over the use of land for infrastructure and energy projects.

Both Rome and the TAP Consortium have gone the extra mile to appease Emiliano's environmental concerns. So much so, that they even moved some 200 olive trees that would have been affected by construction works to preserve them. But the governor remains unwavering in his opposition.

Despite reassurances to the contrary, TAP's future is not as certain as its proponents make it out to be. The regime in Baku seems well aware of that fact, which may explain why, in the summer of 2016, it reached out to a number of Balkan countries - Albania, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Macedonia - to revive a pipeline project that had been buried, the Ionian Adriatic Pipeline (IAP), to carry the gas from Greece to the Balkans instead of Italy.

The small and energy-dependent countries in the Balkans embraced the project as a way to relieve some of their dependence on Russian gas. But no one seems to question why the scheme is even in the talks this far in the construction of the pipelines - the agreement on the gas transport project was reached in December 2013, and did not feature the Balkan countries in any way.