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18th Jan 2020

Azerbaijan and EU race to agree 'modernisation' pact

  • You wound't see it in Saudi Arabia: artists in Eurovision 2012 in Baku. Azerbaijan says it is one of the 'most tolerant' Muslim countries (Photo: escaustria.at)

Petro-regime Azerbaijan and the EU are negotiating against the clock on a new "strategic" pact.

According to a draft dated 4 April, the "Strategic Modernisation Partnership" will be 13 pages long and will not be legally binding.

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But since Azerbaijan does not want a more meaty "Association Agreement," let alone EU membership, it is likely to shape relations for years to come.

The first two pages speak of a "progressive implementation of practical reform measures … with the ultimate goal of achieving closer integration and approximation to the EU."

They say the pact will "promote political and economic reforms in Azerbaijan, support deep and comprehensive democracy, promote regional security and enhanced, sustainable economic growth and energy co-operation."

They also say the EU will make it easier for Azerbaijani nationals to visit Union countries.

They note there will be no new EU money or structures to make things happen, relying instead on EU-Azerbaijan "sub-committees" created 10 years ago.

The other 11 pages list a series of "actions" for the next six months to two years.

They fall under five chapters: political reforms and EU approximation; security co-operation and consultation; trade and business environment; energy, environment and transport; and people-to-people contacts.

The aim is to sign it at an EU summit with former Soviet states in Vilnius in November.

But Brussels is less optimistic now than one month ago on meeting the deadline.

The new text is softer on political reform than a previous document, an Azerbaijan-EU "Action Plan" signed in 2004, which devotes two chapters to democracy and rule of law.

But according to EU sources, the new language on reform is hard to swallow for Azerbaijan's increasingly repressive regime.

One EU contact told EUobserver: "It's difficult to really modernise unless you try to make society a bit more democratic."

Azerbaijan's EU ambassador, Fuad Iskandarov, told this website his priority is for the EU to "show respect ... for our territorial integrity" instead.

He said the pact's main objective should be to educate Azerbaijan's business elite and to help it acquire high-end technology.

He added that "95 percent of the text is ready … but sometimes you can have 95 percent and then you are working on the last 5 percent for a long time."

"Strategic" and "respect" are important words for Azerbaijan.

It wants EU recognition for making, in Iskandarov's words, an "exceptionally difficult" decision to build a €40 billion gas pipeline to Europe, bypassing Russia.

At the same time, it is ready to blacklist EU diplomats who visit Nagorno-Karabakh, its breakaway territory, without showing "respect" by notifying it before they go.

Meanwhile, the image Azerbaijan portrays of itself is violently different from reality.

Iskandarov said it is "one of the most tolerant countries in the Muslim world. We are very proud of it."

He noted it wants to become more like EU countries, but said it could take 25 to 30 years because it needs to foster a "new generation" of post-Soviet leaders.

He also said it is "fighting hard on every comma [in the new EU agreement]. Why? … Because if we say 'Yes,' then it will be done. If we put this or that wording, it will be implemented without any doubt."

Ibrahim Ibrahimli, for one, might disagree with the ambassador on tolerance.

On 6 April, the opposition activist visited Azerbaijan's isolated Nakhchivan region.

A black BMW, containing four men in plain clothes, stopped his car. They snatched him, put a bag on his head, beat him up and dumped him in a lay-by.

He told the US-based NGO, Human Rights Watch: "They kicked me in the stomach and the Adam's apple area. They were young and appeared well-trained. I fell down and they kept beating me, telling me to go home and never come back."

The NGO's new report names 38 other people who were harassed or jailed for political motives in the run-up to Azerbaijan's presidential election in October.

Amid Iskandarov's talk of fostering a "new generation," the crackdown targets young people who use new media to make fun of the old elite.

Seven members of the Nida opposition group are in jail after posting a "Harlem Shake" video of themselves on YouTube.

Hilal Mammadov, a newspaper editor, is in jail after uploading a song on YouTube in which the singers keep saying "dosvidaniya," which means "goodbye" (to the regime).

Amid Iskandarov's remark "if we say 'Yes,' then it will be done," every year since Azerbaijan said "Yes" to political reforms in the 2004 Action Plan, the EU has said it failed on implementation.

Apart from "strategic" and "respect," the ambassador used the words "predictable partner" to describe Azerbaijan.

But for Human Rights Watch analyst Giorgi Gogia, the more you repress people's frustrations, the less "predictable" they become.

Gogia noted that in January people in the town of Ismayilli rioted for three days after the relative of a local governor, who thought he was untouchable, slapped around a taxi driver in a traffic incident.

"The rioters demanded social justice - jobs, an end to police corruption - not the fall of the government," Gogia said.

"It's not that people aren't ready for reform. It's just that they're [the ruling elite] not giving it to them," he added.

Correction: This article was amended at 6.45pm Brussels time on 28 September. The original text indicated that Iskandarov had spoken of Russian pressure on Azerbaijan. In fact, he did not mention Russia

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