On 10 March, a paid-for press release issued through PRWeb boasted “Over 200 LibDems get into the swing at the TEAS jazz reception.” According to the press release, The European Azerbaijan Society
(TEAS) hosted the reception
on 8 March at the Liberal Democrats Spring Party Conference in York.
TEAS, which promotes itself as “a UK-registered pan-European organisation dedicated to raising awareness of Azerbaijan and fostering closer economic, political and cultural links between that country and the nations of Europe,” is headed by Tale Heydarov, son of Azerbaijan’s Minister of Emergency Situations Kamaladdin Heydarov. TEAS has organized many cultural events in Europe, including similar receptions at other party conferences in the UK.
Emma Hughes, who works for the London-based organization Platform, commented, “Once again we see TEAS using Azerbaijan’s wonderful jazz heritage to woo our MPs. TEAS always states that 200 MPs turn up to its political conference events, but the actual number is normally much lower. Nevertheless, TEAS uses these events to befriend MPs and legitimate Azerbaijan's repressive government in the eyes of UK MPs. This is one reason why MPs from across all three political parties have close links with Azerbaijan's repressive regime and the UK is happy to do business with them.”
As I have written before, cultural diplomacy in itself is not a problem. Azerbaijan indeed has a rich cultural heritage that Azerbaijanis are right to be proud of. What is problematic is the use of cultural diplomacy initiatives, like these TEAS events, to draw attention away from the alarming human rights situation in Azerbaijan, and to influence foreign politicians to turn a blind eye to the ongoing and widespread human rights violations taking place in the country.
Unfortunately, many UK parliamentarians seem far too willing to be influenced. Lord Kilclooney currently holds a paid role as a member of the TEAS advisory board. Lord Laird and Conservative MP Mark Field formerly held paid roles with the TEAS advisory board, and have taken multiple trips sponsored by TEAS. MPs Bob Blackman, Stephen Hammond, Stephen Hepburn, Chris Pincher, Gerry Sutcliffe, and Craig Whittaker, as well as Lord Addington, Baroness Eccles, Viscount Eccles, and Lord Rogan have also declared trips they have taken sponsored by TEAS. Labour MP Fiona Mactaggart accepted “hospitality” at the Royal Windsor Horse show worth about £1,000 from TEAS in 2012.
Although he has recently been suspended from the party, in the years that MP Mike Hancock was a member of the Liberal Democrats, he consistently spoke in defense of the Azerbaijani regime at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). He was also a constant volunteer for PACE’s election monitoring missions to Azerbaijan, and painted a rosy picture of the country’s 2008 and 2013 presidential election, and 2010 parliamentary elections. Hancock’s former aide, Ekaterina Zatuliveter, accepted a £3,000 payment from TEAS in 2009, which she claimed had been arranged by Hancock “for the lobbying and consultancy work that [she] had done for them as his parliamentary researcher.”
In contrast, few UK MPs have taken a stand on human rights issues in Azerbaijan. Most notably, Labour MPs Paul Flynn and Helen Goodman have sponsored events and motions for debate addressing human rights violations in Azerbaijan, and have consistently spoken up on human rights issues in the country.
It is time to address this imbalance. Politicians from all UK parties should be more discerning about what events they attend, what gifts and trips they accept, and which causes they directly or indirectly support. Those who are receptive to Azerbaijani cultural experiences should be equally receptive to learning about the true state of affairs in the country.
Platform’s Emma Hughes agrees. “It's time that MPs took a stand. Which party is going to be the first to distinguish itself by refusing to allow TEAS at their conferences? They should instead invite Azerbaijani democracy activists to host events alongside Azerbaijani musicians who are not being paid off by TEAS. Let’s keep Azerbaijani culture in our political conferences, but let’s take the repression out,” she said.
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