Azerbaijan joined the Council of Europe in 2001. According to the Monitoring Committee of the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) country reports Azerbaijan's democratic record is in decline. More importantly the country failed to fulfill its membership obligations. In May 2014, Azerbaijan took over the rotating chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. During its chairmanship, Azerbaijani government continued imprisoning prominent figures from opposition on bogus charges. In his most recent report, Nils Muiznieks, the Human Rights Commissioner of the Council of Europe expressed his concern over "the apparent intensification of ... unjustified and selective criminal prosecution of people expressing dissenting views, including journalists, blogers and activists." In September of last year, the European Parliament issued its harshest statement yet on Azerbaijan calling on the government to respect its obligations and for an immediate release of all political prisoners. Azadliq Radiosu spoke to Paolo Bergamaschi from the Green Party at the European Parliament about the Azerbaijans strong lobby in Europe, the silence of the Council of Europe and EP's patience running thin.
Azadliq Radio: What has been the reaction in the European Parliament?
Paolo Bergamaschi: the European Parliament (EP) expressed its opinion in a very clear manner on September 18th last year. At the time of the continued crackdown - first Mammadov, then Leyla Yunus, then Rasul Jafarov – the EP adopted a resolution that never was as clear as the one adopted.
[In the resolution] we requested the Azerbaijani government: to liberate all political prisoners, to comply with all the conventions of the Council of Europe to which Azerbaijan is a party and to urge the European Union (EU) to take action – [calling on] the European External Action Service to follow closely and monitor all the trials of [Aliyev’s] opponents.
In the case of Leyla Yunus we had her among the candidates to the Sakharov prize – she didn’t win the prize but the Conference of the Presidents of the EP decided to follow closely the developments - to send a delegation over there and now you probably know the whole story of doctors who are visiting Leyla Yunus in prison.
The attention is there – in light of recent arrest of [Khadija] Ismayilova that is even casting further, darker shadow on Azerbaijan.
This [attention] could be partly softened by this pardon that took place [in December of 2014] but of the 80 prisoners [pardoned] very few were political prisoners, we all know that.
Having said that we are looking forward to the new initiatives by the Council of European Union, by the Human Rights representative of the EU and we are [not sure if it makes sense because so far we have been disappointed a few times] still counting on the second wave of pardons announced in the spring will include all the people we care about.
Q: So you are hoping the next pardon will include the names of all political prisoners?
Yes or the most prominent ones. This is a wish, an expectation, call it whatever you want. We are working for that and we hope that our calls are taken into account.
Q: What about reactions from Azerbaijan to EP’s resolution?
We have been following Azerbaijan for 20 years so I know their reactions. There are typically two kinds of reactions. First one is this phobia that is circulated artificially that foreign agents are trying to destabilize Azerbaijan for different geopolitical purposes. This is the most rhetorical one. The second one is the question of double standards - we [Azerbaijan] cannot accept lessons from Europe because Europe is turning a blind eye on our refugees, on our displaced people from Nagorno Karabakh. And at the same time they [Azerbaijani authorities] are accusing us of not respecting civil liberties, democracy and so on. This is the most used excuse I would say.
I am speaking myself, belonging to a group that has always been clear on the question of Nagorno Karabakh. I acknowledge that the EU has been very ambiguous on the whole story because you cannot invoke the principle of territorial integrity for all the countries in the Eastern Partnership except for Azerbaijan. That doesn’t make sense. This is inconsistent. This is wrong. We always said it in the EP so many times and we repeated it and we wrote it. But this is one thing. Acknowledging or recognizing that - that’s not a justification for the crackdown on opponents and human rights activists because there are some principles that should be respected.
And frankly I don’t understand the reactions of Azerbaijani parliament threatening with any kind of boycott relations with the EP or EURONEST assemblies. Their reactions have been in this direction so far.
We hope they get back a little bit of common sense and understand whatever is happening there is simply intolerable for any country whose ambition is to deepen and to develop further relations with the EU. They should know very well, either they care really to improve relations with the EU or EU will simply be a client of their oil and gas and that’s it.
Q: Is this something EU can do - just be Azerbaijan’s client? And turn a blind eye on the human rights situation?
Many analysts and observers say that Azerbaijan looks more and more like Belarus the only difference being in Azerbaijan you have oil and gas while there is nothing like that in Belarus. That’s why we have sanctions on Belarus and we don’t have sanctions against Azerbaijan. This is partly true. You must take into account the fact that the Azerbaijan authorities have always shown certain willingness to engage with the EU at least in their declarations and statements.
In my opinion and I have been following Azerbaijan and if I take a look at the bordering countries I can tell you that 10 years ago or even 5 years ago the situation in Azerbaijan concerning democracy and human rights was much better than now. And if I take a look at Armenia it’s the other way around. 10 years ago or 5 years ago the situation of human rights in Armenia was much worse than now. The two things are asymmetrical. Both countries are in a state of war but on one hand Armenia is improving the situation of human rights on the other hand you don’t see any improvement in Azerbaijan.
If it was for me I would start really threatening with sanctions because that’s the only instrument that’s left in the hands of the European Union but the logic is different unfortunately at the level of the Council. They are not willing to take that step that should be taken according to me because time has come to show what we mean with our threats.
Q: If the Council of Europe is unwilling there is little hope?
Council of Europe is different from the EU. The EU can if it wants to step up the pressure, even at economic and trade level. We have the instruments to do that. The CoE unfortunately, they cannot do that. So this is the difference. That’s why now EU can play a bigger role in the whole issue but unfortunately as of now we are not able to do that. The situation is stuck really and Azerbaijanis understand it and they feel they can do whatever they want.
CoE is an organization of all the European countries that is based on the process of integration and democracy, human rights, the convention of social rights and things like these. It is a separate body compared to EU.
Azerbaijan is a member of the CoE. Its committed to respect all the conventions that Azerbaijan is party to. And yet they are not doing it.
Q: While Azerbaijan was chairing the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe it jailed many people.
Of course and no one raised this question inside the Council of Europe. And this is problematic as well for the reputation of the CoE which has always been supportive of human rights and democracy in all the countries of the members of course.
Q: Is this the result of Caviar Diplomacy?
That’s correct. I can see that also in the European Parliament. The Azerbaijani lobby is very strong and powerful.
Q: Is there a chance Europe would boycott the European Games of 2015?
I think the next two - three months will be crucial for that. I am sure that either we have concrete signs that some things are changing or there is some sort of indulgence towards political prisoners or I am sure the voices in the EP invoking or calling for a boycott will grow stronger and stronger. And then they would not be stopped. And then whatever will happen - if there is a position of the EP calling for the boycott and the position to that could grow strong, then it would be really difficult to have a regular organization of those games in Baku.
We are trying to mobilize all the instruments we can in order to improve the situation, in order to soften the situation, in order to show that there is a strong support for the people in Azerbaijan who really aspiring to liberty, to freedom, to protection of human rights and so on. We are trying to do our best of course. But not all the bodies in the European Union are acting the same way. And this is the challenge, to convince the Council to take action.
I can tell you that the situation in EP lately has changed a lot. Even the voices that were fonder of Azerbaijani government they now keep silent. They don’t dare say anything because the opposition to the crackdown has grown very strong and is still very strong in the EP. So from this point of view I can tell you that either there is a change of strategy, either there are concrete signs or the EP will voice its concern in a much stronger way than what it did so far. This voice will be heard by the CoE. Because the Council and Mogherini cannot simply turn a blind eye on what’s going on just because the oil is cheap and the gas is necessary for the economy of the EU especially now as I said before its no problem to find gas because the offer in the market is widespread.