Azerbaijan’s Democracy Charadex

Sam Williams 08/06/2019

“None of my political opponents is in prison.”

 “There are no political prisoners in Azerbaijan.”

 “Nobody is arrested in Azerbaijan on political grounds.”

 “Freedom of assembly is fully provided, freedom of media also.”

 “We have free Internet…and there is no censorship.”

 “All the political parties function openly, freely.”

 “We fulfill completely all our [Council of Europe] obligations with respect to democratic development, human rights, and all the freedoms.”

 All of these are claims made by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev during a press conference on 21 June 2013 in Brussels, following his meetings with top EU officials.

 Vladimir Lenin famously said, “A lie told often enough becomes the truth.” This idea seems to have become the driving force behind Azerbaijan’s foreign policy when it comes to democracy and human rights.

 Comments like Aliyev’s are not unusual; when facing international scrutiny, government officials often insist that Azerbaijan is committed to democratic development and respect for human rights. But such claims are far from the truth.

 The real human rights situation in Azerbaijan is alarming, and continues to worsen in the run-up to the October 2013 presidential election. The fundamental freedoms of expression, assembly and association are particularly under attack. In recent months, the Azerbaijani parliament has adopted regressive legislation extending criminal defamation provisions to online content, steeply increasing the penalties for organizing or participating in unsanctioned protests, and restricting the ability of independent NGOs to operate.

 Journalists, bloggers, human rights defenders, civic and political activists, and even ordinary citizens face harassment, threats, blackmail, violence, and imprisonment for expressing opinions critical of the authorities or taking to the streets in protest. There are currently more than 80 political prisoners in the country. Despite Aliyev’s claims that Azerbaijan is fulfilling its Council of Europe obligations, there is ample evidence that it has failed to implement these obligations on many counts.

 In the face of this growing evidence of democratic backsliding and violations of human rights, it is difficult to accept that international policymakers really believe Azerbaijan is a democratic, or a democratizing country. But the fact that President Aliyev and other top government officials talk the talk when it comes to democracy gives them the necessary wiggle room – and perhaps a sense of plausible deniability – to continue business as usual with Azerbaijan. As long as the government maintains at least a rhetorical commitment to democracy, cooperation on other fronts – namely energy and security – remains more palatable to policymakers from democratic countries.

 This certainly seems to be the case with the EU. Just over a week prior to Aliyev’s visit to Brussels, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling for the immediate release of detained opposition presidential candidate Ilgar Mammadov, as well as a number of broader human rights reforms. Many NGOs issued open letters to European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, highlighting violations and imploring them to make human rights a priority in their talks with Aliyev. At the same time, Freedom House released its annual Nations in Transit report, confirming Azerbaijan’s status as a “consolidated authoritarian regime.”

 And yet the statements made by Van Rompuy and Barroso following their meetings with Aliyev focused largely on energy cooperation and made only limited, weak references to human rights. This is not the first time the EU has failed to take a stand on human rights at a key opportunity; as recently as February 2013, amidst what I have called an unprecedented attack on civil society, the EU failed to speak up on ongoing violations and instead enhanced its Memorandum of Understanding on Energy with Azerbaijan.

 But not everyone buys into the façade. President Aliyev’s comments in Brussels prompted strong responses from social media users and media outlets, ranging from skeptical to outraged. Human Rights Watch’s European Media Director Andrew Stroehlein turned to Twitter, asking “Can you find one sentence [President Aliyev] said in Brussels about human rights in Azerbaijan that’s true?,” while Turan News Agency covered the remarks in a story titled “Ilham Aliyev denies the obvious.”  

 It is time for the international community – and the EU in particular – to stop the charade and make democracy and human rights priority issues in their relations with Azerbaijan.

 Rebecca Vincent is an American-British human rights activist and a former U.S. diplomat who has worked with a wide range of international and Azerbaijani human rights and freedom of expression organizations. You can follow her on Twitter via @rebecca_vincent.