At a cabinet meeting in mid-July, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev lashed out at the European Parliament for supposedly conducting a “dirty campaign” against Baku. The shrill tone of Aliyev’s comments indicate that European pressure on Azerbaijan to respect basic rights is stinging the Aliyev administration.
The latest EU parliamentary resolution critical of Azerbaijan came in June, when European officials called for the release of Ilgar Mammadov, a jailed leader of the opposition Republican Alternative movement. Euro-criticism in 2012 included the loud and public condemnation by European MPs of an officially orchestrated smear campaign against independent investigative journalist Khadija Ismailova. [Editor’s Note: Ismailova has worked as a contributor to EurasiaNet.org].
Aliyev, who is expected to travel to Brussels to confer with top EU officials in the fall, showed himself to be sensitive to criticism. At the July cabinet meeting, he dismissed the recent European assessments of Azerbaijani policy as the work of a jealous few. “There are still prejudiced people, [European] parliamentarians who do not accept Azerbaijan's success, and they are systematically trying to make attacks on Azerbaijan," he groused, according to comments broadcast on state television.
While official statements critical of Baku’s behavior have succeeded in vexing government officials, if European criticism is actually going to be effective in getting Aliyev & Co. to change its authoritarian ways, it’s important for European officials to dispel some persistent myths among Azerbaijani policymakers surrounding EU actions.
Here are a few widely held assumptions in Baku that European officials should keep in mind as they consider taking the next steps: 1) European criticism of Azerbaijan´s human rights record is the work of the pro-Armenian lobby and other actors who wish to undermine Azerbaijan´s "independent foreign policy". Not true. There is no evidence that the members of the European Parliament who are critical of Azerbaijan´s rights practices have any connections to the Armenian lobby or to Russia, which is believed to want to re-integrate Azerbaijan into its own sphere of political and economic influence. In fact, some critical Euro MPs, such as the Austrian Green Ulrike Lunacek, are on record as demanding the withdrawal of Armenian forces from occupied Azerbaijani territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh. The reason for European criticisms is simple: the situation of the human rights is deteriorating, in spite of the commitments undertaken voluntarily by Azerbaijan. When the EU offers criticism, it is simply assessing the country on its own merits.
2) Demands for democratization and respect for human rights are nothing but a smokescreen to promote the regime change. Not by a long shot. The last thing the EU wants is a new source of instability in an already combustible part of the world. In fact, the EU is quite comfortable with the Aliyev administration, as long as it delivers on energy cooperation and regional security -- particularly counter-terrorism, Afghanistan and Iran. But for the sake of its own credibility, the EU cannot completely ignore human rights issues. It is also in the EU´s self-interest: it needs a government in Baku with enhanced domestic legitimacy as its partner. Its message to Aliyev seems to be: better to start reforms today, while you can manage a controlled transition from a position of strength, rather than to risk a popular explosion tomorrow. But if the government persists in tightening the screws, and in the meantime, a viable opposition emerges, the calculus might shift in favor of the latter.
3) Azerbaijan is unfairly singled out and is a victim of double standards. Yes, there are double standards, but they actually work in favor of Azerbaijan. For instance, the European consensus holds that Belarus has nine political prisoners. In Azerbaijan, there are at least several dozens of them. Yet several Belarussian officials are subjected to EU travel bans and an asset freeze, while the EU has never even considered similar measures against Azerbaijani officials. Furthermore, ODIHR, the OSCE’s democracy watchdog, has never recognized presidential and parliamentary elections in both Belarus and Azerbaijan as free and fair. But it is only the Belarussian parliament that is not recognized as such by the European Parliament, and which is banned from participation in EURONEST, the parliamentary dimension of the Eastern Partnership. Azerbaijan´s Milli Mejlis delegation, on the other hand, enjoys full participation rights in inter-parliamentary bodies.
4) The EU ignores the Armenian occupation of Azerbaijani lands and the human rights of Azerbaijani IDPs. Not true. The European Parliament adopted a resolution in 2010 on the need for an EU strategy in the South Caucasus (known as the Kirilov Report) in which it clearly calls for the withdrawal of Armenian forces from all occupied territories of Azerbaijan, and upholds the right to return for Azerbaijani IDPs. In 2012, in addition to these demands, the European Parliament for the first time linked the conclusion of association agreements with Armenia to progress in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace talks, including the withdrawal from occupied territories of Azerbaijan and return of IDPs. Of course, Azerbaijan could have won more converts to its cause had it stopped sending wrong messages, such as the pardon and promotion of Ramil Safarov, an army officer guilty of the murder of an Armenian counterpart, and the state-orchestrated campaign against Akram Aylisli, a writer who dared to depict a more nuanced picture of the Azeri-Armenian conflict than is usually accepted in Azerbaijan.
5) There is no point in satisfying EU demands, since Azerbaijan will never be admitted to the EU anyway. Too simplistic. It is true that the EU has lost its appetite for enlargement, and the example of Turkey’s stalled candidacy lends credence to this assertion. But current fiscal troubles will not last forever, and Europeans might still change their mind on enlargement. Meanwhile, there are other forms of association with the EU that can be beneficial for Azerbaijan, such as association agreement, free-trade agreement and visa liberalization. Most importantly, reforms that conform to EU norms are needed not to satisfy Brussels, but to improve the quality of life of Azerbaijanis. If implemented consistently, they might even help Azerbaijan to win over hearts and minds of the residents of Nagorno-Karabakh, and solve the long-festering conflict on terms that are more favorable to Baku.
Eldar Mamedov is a political adviser to the Socialists & Democrats Group in the European Parliament, who writes in his personal capacity.