Official Baku says it sees its future in the European community, sharing its values. Azerbaijan offers its oil and gas to support European demand for energy. But many obesrvers believe that in return Azerbaijan is asking Europeans to stay away from its internal political affairs and the on-going crackdown on civil society and media. Can Europe accept this formula and meet Baku’s demands for “special treatment”? Radio Azadliq asked Brussels based Eldar Mamedov, the political adviser for the group of Social-Democrats in the foreign affairs committee of the European Parliament who spoke in his private capacity.
Azadliq Radio: Azerbaijan gets along with EU policy makers especially in the European Commission. How do you see the situation?
EM: A predominant perception so far is that Azerbaijan is the bulwark of Western interest in the wider geography of the Middle East. This view is promoted very seriously and intensely by Azerbaijani officials, the government and the country’s diplomats. Azerbaijan is promoted as a kind of secular, pro- Western pillar [especially] against such regional neighbors as the Islamic Republic of Iran.
When Azerbaijani representatives get challenged about the human rights situation in their country their favorite line is to emphasize the difficult geopolitical environment the country must operate within. Often Iran is a very convenient excuse because Iran is not popular in the West. Azerbaijan often is seen as Western ally against the threat.
Because of this mindset, Azerbaijan easily justifies arrest of people introducing them as agents of the Islamic Republic. In many cases this defies credibility [of Western organizations] especially when you look at people who are currently in jail – Ilgar Mammadov, Anar Mammadli, Rasul Jafarov, Intigam Aliyev and more recently Khadija Ismayilova. These people are secular liberals and have nothing to do with the Islamic segments.
Unfortunately Azerbaijani partners use the two arguments – religious extremism and complicated geography- interchangeably.
There is an additional pitch here in Brussels and that is, if greater liberalization allowed, then it is going to be the radical Islamists taking over Azerbaijan rather than the liberals.
But what Western politicians overlook is that repressive policies only contribute to making this threat much bigger than it would otherwise be. And there are abundant examples of it. Egypt’s current regime of general Sisi, who turned out to be a lot more repressive than Mubarak’s regime has ever been. [Sisi’s government] justify [violence] with the need to fight Islamic extremism and they count Muslim Brotherhood (MB) as the root of all evil. MB is not a violent organization. Its undoubtedly Islamist, committed to sharia laws but it is not violent, nor it is terrorist. You may dislike their agenda, social views of women and religious minority but they are not violent. However an adoption of harsh, repressive policies and measures against them finally turns them into radical and extremist organizations such as the Islamic State.
I do not want to say the situation in Azerbaijan is somehow similar to the situation in Egypt but there are some historical lessons that we should be wise enough to learn.
The West has little understanding of nuances and differences within the Islamist movement but there is a lot of fear towards anything that smells of political Islam. Therefore there is unfortunately tendency to downplay repression when it Islamists as opposed to secular activists. In my view this is pretty shortsighted and counterproductive but that’s a reality.
Q: So are these the kind of perceptions which impact Western attitude towards Baku?
EU has become in a way hostage to its own rhetoric. In a way this notion that EU has no leverage over Azerbaijan has become some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. In reality it isn’t just Europe interested in Azerbaijan’s hydrocarbon resources but also the other way around. If I am not mistaken up to 90% of Azerbaijan’s export revenues come from hydrocarbon and energy sales. EU is a 500million market; it is also a predictable buyer and trustworthy client so countries like Azerbaijan need partners like the EU. It is not a one-sided dependency there.
On the other hand, in current geopolitical situation, when Russia is waging war against Ukraine, there is a strong demand for alternative energy resources and that makes policy makers to downplay the situation of human rights in Azerbaijan and to avoid putting this issue at the center of EU relations with Azerbaijan.
Q: And what was the thinking before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?
Well even before Russia, Azerbaijan was seen as a potential important alternative for energy supply. Ukraine crisis only exacerbated this perception.
The situation with regard to human rights was bad but not as dramatic as it is now. On one hand, it was easier to downplay and put all hope on engagement, on step by step improvements and etc. On the other hand believe it or not, there is still pervasive orientalism in the thinking of many western policy makers. It sounds a bit like this: Azerbaijan is sandwiched somewhere there between Chechnya and Iran; it is not a European country fully, so why would we set the same standards, criteria and demands for Azerbaijan and measure it by the same benchmarks as we measure Belarus for instance. Because Belarus is in the center of Europe, Belarus has four political prisoners [as opposed to 98 in Azerbaijan], and then the perception is it is unacceptable to have such things happen in the center of Europe. While Azerbaijan is somewhere in the east, it is somewhere between Chechnya and Iran as I said, and they really can’t and shouldn’t make the same demands on Azerbaijan. That’s how Azerbaijan gets a free pass.
Q: Even though it sounds simple, it still feels there is not enough incentive to demand from Azerbaijan to begin with?
I think certainly EU can do more if there was a political will there - political consolidated will from all 28 member states. But that is obviously not the case. There are countries with very close relations with Baku. There are countries that have important economic interests. So in this sense I am not very positive about EU as a whole adopting a tougher position and going beyond the EP resolutions. And again, I wouldn’t underestimate the orientalist perception of democracy being good for some people or being luxury for other people depending on geography.
Q: How much of this perception is the result of lobbying in Europe?
I really don’t know whether I can give an objective answer to this. I haven’t seen or I don’t know whether objective studies exist on how lobby campaign has changed image of Azerbaijan in the west and if it did in what ways it did so. But what I can say, definitely the amounts being invested in cultivating important policy makers, members of the PACE, CoE and EP, do have an impact because there are huge resources that are available and invested.
There are sleek campaigns promoting Azerbaijan as a land of tolerance, religious tolerance, as modern majority secular Muslim society, with a remarkable culture of jazz and etc. I do not see uniformly negative development in these. All countries do that. Azerbaijan has indeed a lot to be proud of, and has a lot to show off in terms of cultural and musical heritage, I wouldn’t mind it only if all this - the image that’s being promoted - indeed corresponded to the reality.
On the one hand you see all these things - jazz concerts, exhibitions and etc., on the other hand you do have the reality of the political prisoners and the lack of political freedoms in the country and you cannot turn a blind eye to it. So I would say promoting country in itself is nothing bad. What is more important is rather than promoting the image of the country to improve things on the ground. To ensure that people in Azerbaijan can say and write whatever they want on electronic media, on social media. That people are not arrested for political reasons and kept in prisons under ridiculous accusations. That people have fair trials, that elections are free and fair – all of these. Once these things are improved then the image of the country will automatically improve without the need of allocating so many resources.