More than four months after Azerbaijan’s October 2013 presidential election, the ramifications of the actions of some Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) who observed the election are not over for the European Parliament.
In a hearing on 11 February, the European Parliament’s Advisory Committee on the Conduct of Members began examining the cases of eight MEPS who took part in election observation missions to Azerbaijan in October 2013. These MEPs have allegedly failed to declare their trips as required by the European Parliament’s code of conduct.
The names of the MEPs being investigated have not been disclosed; however, EurActiv.com
published an article initially containing a list of nine names, then later seven, which it subsequently removed and acknowledged was wrong.
In October 2013, the European Voice published an article naming nine MEPs who had travelled to Azerbaijan to observe the election as part of missions separately from the official European Parliament delegation. Although some of these MEPs had disclosed who had funded their trips, others had not.
A source within the European Parliament confirmed that that the Advisory Committee has indeed initiated proceedings in the cases of eight MEPs. Once the Committee has concluded its investigation, it will issue a recommendation to European Parliament President Martin Schulz, who will then announce his decision in a plenary meeting, likely by the end of March or early April.
As stipulated by the European Parliament’s Rules of Procedure, the MEPs in question face a range of possible disciplinary measures, ranging from a reprimand to suspension of parliamentary activities. Further, the mere announcement that an MEP has violated the code of conduct can damage an MEP’s chances of being re-elected – a real possibility for the eight MEPs under scrutiny, with the next European Parliament elections set for May.
Elkhan Suleymanov, the head of Azerbaijan’s delegation to the Euronest Parliamentary Assembly, responded quickly and angrily to reports related to the alleged misconduct of MEPs:
“Although 4 months has passed since the elections, such claims are intentions of a number of international power centers to continue pressure to Azerbaijan in a new way and context. Thus, those international power centers tried to present Azerbaijan as an authoritarian country, and the government as illegitimate one, following Presidential elections of 9 October in Azerbaijan. However, their crafty purpose failed, Azerbaijani nation made its choice, and except OSCE/ODIHR team, which implements the order of powerful states and low-ranking state officials, all international election observation missions, including PACE’s and EP’s EOMs stated that Presidential elections in Azerbaijan were conducted in a democratic and transparent way,” Suleymanov stated.
A divided EU
Indeed, the European Parliament’s official monitoring delegation drew the same inexplicable conclusion as some of the individual MEPs being examined, claiming in a joint statement with the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe’s delegation that they had observed a “fair, free and transparent electoral process.” This sharply contrasted the findings of professional election observers, including the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), and the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center, the country’s largest and most experienced domestic monitoring organization.
But the delegation’s statement did not have the support of the broader European Parliament. A resolution on the European Neighbourhood Policy adopted on 23 October 2013 included language supporting the OSCE/ODIHR’s findings: “The European Parliament…Regrets the fact that, according to the conclusions of the ODIHR long-term mission, the latest presidential election, held on 9 October 2013, once again failed to meet OSCE standards, with restrictions being placed on freedom of assembly and expression; calls, in view of this, on the Azerbaijani authorities to address and swiftly implement all the recommendations included in present and past ODIHR/OSCE reports.”
This discrepancy between the stated position of the observation delegation and the language agreed by the broader European Parliament is one of many examples of a divided European Union that cannot seem to decide just how much importance it should attach to human rights and fundamental freedoms in its relations with Azerbaijan. Individual steps towards holding the country accountable for its human rights obligations, such as the aforementioned resolution, remain too few and far between in a relationship clearly dominated by other interests – namely energy.
As founding Chairman of the European Stability Initiative and author of the reports Caviar Diplomacy: How Azerbaijan Silenced the Council of Europe and Disgraced: Azerbaijan and the End of Election Monitoring As We Know It, Gerald Knaus sees it, “One of the most disturbing trends in the past decade has been the growing number of Western apologists of autocracy and repression in Azerbaijan. And the only effective remedies are the vigilance of civil society, media and other democrats, to expose and challenge this. Only this can preserve the credibility of human rights norms. The European Parliament has reacted to the threat of caviar diplomacy undermining its authority.”
Indeed, actions such as this to hold individual MEPs accountable for behaving ethically are welcome and much-needed steps in the right direction. Naming and shaming corrupt politicians and sending a clear signal that such actions will not be tolerated could serve as a starting point for broader reforms within this and other regional bodies, such as the Council of Europe, putting an end to caviar diplomacy-style practices once and for all.
Rebecca Vincent is human rights activist and former U.S. diplomat.
The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL