Sunday

4th Dec 2016

Azerbaijani lobbyists target EU opinion

  • Baku: Azerbaijan regained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 (Photo: Sonke Henning)

Azerbaijan beats up journalists, jails political opponents and bulldozes people's homes to build shopping malls, according to the latest resolution by the European Parliament.

It is run "in a manner similar to the feudalism found in Europe during the Middle Ages ... with general agreement among leading families to divide the spoils," according to a leaked US embassy cable from 2010.

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It is being "consistently persecute[d]" by NGOs Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch in the run-up to Eurovision 2012, according to Ali Hasanov, the head of the Azerbaijan presidential administration socio-political department.

Hasanov's statement this week is a sign of Baku's sensitivity about its international reputation.

With President Ilham Aliyev's wife personally organising Eurovision and his daughter recently launching a glossy magazine to promote the country, the sensitivity goes right to the top.

It has hired four lobby firms in the US: Bob Lawrence & Associates, Jefferson Waterman International, Fabiani and Company and Patton Boggs.

In the EU, the pro-Azerbaijani foundation, The European Azerbaijan Society (Teas), has offices in Berlin, Brussels, London and Paris.

Until Wednesday (23 May), when the International Olympic Committee said No, Burson-Marsteller in Brussels touted Azerbaijan as a good place for the 2020 games because of its "Olympic values of respect, excellence and fair play."

Boutique PR firm Glocal Communications organises seminars with MEPs about Azerbaijan's "geostrategic" importance.

Another pro-Azerbaijani foundation in the EU capital, the Office of Communication of Azerbaijan (Ocaz) is a mystery: it does not answer emails and the phone number on its website connects to the Cypriot EU mission, which is fed up with saying it is not Ocaz.

Meanwhile, in Strasbourg - the seat of the human rights watchdog, the Council of Europe and the EU parliament's second home - Azerbaijan flies council-attached MPs to Baku and gives them expensive presents.

A report out on Thursday by the Berlin-based NGO, the European Stability Initiative, cites an Azerbaijani official as saying Council of Europe MPs who go on the trips get "silk carpets, gold and silver items, drinks, caviar and money. In Baku, a common gift is 2kg of caviar [worth €2,500]."

Zooming in on Brussels, Teas says it is an independent NGO paid for by ordinary folk in the Azerbaijani diaspora, even though its founder and head, Tale Heydarov, is the millionaire son of President Alyiev's minister for emergency situations, Kemaleddin Heydarov.

Its line on human rights questions is the same as that of the Azerbaijani EU embassy: it is a "young" country where democracy is "a work in progress," it is a victim of Armenian propaganda due to the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, and if you visit Baku you would be amazed at how "modern" it is.

Teas spokesman Leon Cook, who used to work for Burson-Marsteller, told EUobserver: "I feel passionately about Azerbaijan. If you were to see it, you would find it a wonderful place."

He confirmed that Heydarov's foundation took an interest in two recent EU parliament resolutions - on an EU-Armenia treaty and on Azerbaijan human rights - and that it sometimes invites MEPs to Baku. But he denied that there were any trips in relation to the two dossiers.

Whether or not lobbying played a part, the resolutions went through in unusual circumstances.

In April, Lithuanian centre-right MEP, Vytautas Landsbergis, shortly after returning from Baku, tabled an amendment saying the EU-Armenia treaty should be linked to "the withdrawal of Armenian forces from the all [sic] occupied territories of Azerbaijan surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh."

It was rejected after the chairman of the foreign affairs committee, German centre-right MEP Elmar Brok, said it is "irresponsible" to interfere in the conflict.

Landsbergis told this website his visit to Baku "did not play a part" in his initiative. But he declined to say who paid for the trip.

On Tuesday, the centre-right EPP group tabled a resolution condemning human rights problems in Azerbaijan. But it added sugary language on "the positive development of the established political dialogue with the opposition" and Baku's "efforts to strengthen democracy and rule of law."

The EPP's internal negotiator on the text, Romanian deputy Monica Macovei, told EUobserver it was pushed through by someone "higher than me in the group" and that she is "not happy" about it.

Her group in a surprise move late on Wednesday binned its text in favour of a tougher resolution by the Liberals, Greens and Socialists.

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