President Ilham Aliyev last week signed the new legislative amendments that would further tighten official control over non-government organizations, despite an outcry from local civil groups and western partners, urging him to return the law to parliament and bring it in line with international standards.
Baku has long been criticized by international partners for serious shortcomings in meeting its human rights commitments, however there are some increasing concerns that the government has toughened his line against dissent since Aliyev’s winning of a third presidential term in October. Miriam Lanskoy, Director for Russia and Eurasia at the National Endowment for Democracy, a US-based rights group dedicated to the growth and strengthening of democratic institutions around the world, commented on the current human rights situation in Azerbaijan, as well as the latest move on NGO law, in an interview with TURAN’s Washington correspondent, Alakbar Raufoglu.
Q. Independent civil society groups in Azerbaijan believe that recent adoption of legislative amendments against NGOs is aimed at weakening them. How do you think the latest move would affect the conditions for public associations in the country?
A. I've seen the appeals that have been written by over a hundred of local organizations saying that the latest amendments are very dangerous to them. There is the case of Anar Mammadli [imprisoned chairman of the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center, a leading independent election monitoring group in Azerbaijan], which was launched at the same time and is extremely worrying. He is clearly being held for political reasons, as well as several others. So the NGO law has been criticized already with different people, including by the US Ambassador, saying it shouldn't go through…
Q. The US Mission to OSCE has publicly urged President Aliyev to return the law to parliament and bring it in line with international standards. Any idea why the government felt a need to rush through with it and why now?
A. It has been a terrible year in Azerbaijan. There is just a general tendency, where they are putting in place one restrictive measure after another… There have been measures against journalism, tightening of laws, and foreign broadcasters, and all these things where we've looked at it and said, “Ok, that's before the elections, and we are very nervous about the elections.” And it's continuing, we are just nervous in general.
Q. Neighboring countries, for example, Russia, also last year toughened the NGO law against foreign NGOs in particular, categorizing them as "foreign agents" if they are funded from abroad. Why are western NGOs or their local partners targeted in this part of the world?
A. It's very interesting, because the laws are different: Azeris didn't really pass a “foreign agent” law like Russians did, but the reality about the Russian law is that NGOs have been resisting it very effectively, in a very unitive way -- They've simply refused to register as “foreign agents”, and have said that they don't conduct political activities; “this law doesn't apply to us, and we shouldn't have to do this.” So, the Russians have actually very strongly resisted that law. The Azeri [government], as it is sort of paradoxical, in some way did it worse. The case of Anar Mammadli, for example, doesn't have parallels. They have started the cases about GOLOS, but GOLOS actually was still able to find ways to continue to work, while in Azerbaijan what we are seeing are very brutal kinds of methods -- all kinds of corruption, tax evasion charges, I think, very cynical charges that Mammadli has falsified election results. We haven't seen such an outrageous case as the one of Anar Mammadli, in Russia. So, it's coming down to the same thing, but the methods are different.
The other interesting thing is that this kind of thing with government identifying them as a threat, it actually makes them unite, which I have seen in Azerbaijan as well. They are trying very hard to see the appeals coming from hundreds of NGOs together, and that's very important, that's their best defense.
Q. There were intensive diplomatic efforts by the West, even at the level of the US Ambassador, to convince President Aliyev to not sign the NGO law… There are some rumors among western analysts that it is getting difficult for the international partners to deal with Azerbaijan. Would you agree with that?
A. I think people deal with them in different capacities. I don't know how to answer that question in terms of different institutions intersecting with the Azeri government in their specialized ways. We don't have any specific relationship with the Azeri government, and may be part of the problem – whether one issue starts to influence a different issue. For instance, in one of the reports there was a note that they signed a gas deal, just as Anar Mammadli was being arrested. I think, still we are seeing that there are different tracks: energy track, security track, democracy track, but at some point, one track starts to influence the others.
Q. The timing is also interesting with Mammadli’s case, as it happened right after the election and Baku officials’call to the West to "open a new page in the relationship". In the meantime, major election watchdog official was arrested in the background of the government's ongoing chasing after the foreign NGOs... How do you see this trend and whether it affects Azerbaijan's image and future relationship with the West?
A. What we are seeing is increased number of political prisoners across the categories: NGO activists, youth activists, religious people… So there is a contradiction between Azerbaijan, which is becoming in reality closer and closer to Central Asia, and Azerbaijan being with European Institutions. And how that gets worked out, I mean, surely at some point Azerbaijan will be held accountable, but it might take time.
What we are seeing is increased number of political prisoners across the categories: NGO activists, youth activists, religious people…
I know, people are disappointed, that the Council of Europe hasn't done more over the course of last year. It might be more now, I don't actually know if there are specific mechanisms immediately in place, but in general, I mean, how can it go on for a long time. This degree of departure from the north had no criticism, no reaction from the European bodies.
Q. Do you see any effect of the Vilnius summit results as well as Ukrainian uprising for the Azeri democratic transition?
A. I don't think so. I think Azeris have stayed away; they had the technical track of the European association, but not the political track. The events in Ukraine are sort of crucial to the region in general. It will in a sense influence the region as a whole by inspiring some people, by discouraging others, by showing an example. I’m not sure how that affects Azerbaijan in the short term. It is showing again that massive protests might be able to lead to a sort of a changing government. I think we've seen situations like that before. The revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan… There have been moments like that for Azerbaijan as well. For numerous reasons for over a year now they have been cracking down more harshly than in previous years. They feel more insecure than they used to, because they are using support internally. Therefore internal factors are important.
Q. Last month two top Senators -John McCain and Ben Cardin --introduced a new bill that extends the reach of the 2012 Magnitsky Act, aimed to block human rights abusers from any country, not just Russia, from entering the U.S. and using its financial institutions. What should be the message of the new bill to the rights violators in the countries like Azerbaijan?
A. Absolutely, they should be aware that there can be sanctions in the future and there has been talk like that, even suggestions on the government level, I believe that the Obama administration also were interested in measures that were similar to Magnitsky, but would apply to everywhere, not just to Russia.
In the long term, I think there are all kinds of measures in the US, European and OSCE and so on institutions that it will be stalled on the international level.