24th Sep 2020

EU rolls out red carpet for oil-rich Azerbaijan

The EU rolled out the red carpet treatment for Azerbaijan president Ilham Aliyev in Brussels on Tuesday (6 November) for the signing of a new energy pact, with European leaders predicting that increased trade will help raise human rights standards in Baku.

"We are creating a democratic society with strong rule of law and human rights as well as a strong economy," president Aliyev said. "For us this [EU cooperation] is an opportunity in the coming years to bring criteria in Azerbaijan very close to those in Europe. We share the same values."

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The South Caucasus state has some 7 billion barrels of oil reserves and sits on a key route to potential EU imports of natural gas from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, but Mr Aliyev's 2005 election fell short of OSCE norms while NGO Human Rights Watch remains "very worried" about use of torture in Baku.

Speaking on the murder of prominent anti-establishment journalist Elmar Huseynov - shot dead outside his apartment in March 2005 - the president blamed subversive forces keen to "destabilise" Azerbaijan while saying that unnamed suspects are "very difficult to find" as they have fled the country.

"Let us not forget that Azerbaijan has never had a democratic state as we consider it in the EU," European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso stated. "This [pact] is not just about energy...what we are doing is exactly the way to promote democracy and the rule of law."

Mr Barroso shook Mr Aliyev's hand for the cameras and placed an arm round the president's back in a customary gesture of warmth, but the commission president gazed around the ceiling in a tense, unsmiling way during his guest's "we share the same values" speech.

"Oh I don't know, maybe it was a question of his metabolism on the day," an EU official later remarked. "We have our worries here about Mr Aliyev's government, but Mr Barroso is too professional to communicate anything by body language."

New energy pact

Tuesday's "Strategic Partnership" on energy calls for "gradual convergence with the EU's internal energy market, aiming ultimately at its integration" as well as "increased transit of oil" and "possible transit of natural gas" from the Caspian Sea basin via Azerbaijan to the EU.

It mentions protecting existing EU oil flows via the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, but does not contain any explicit Azeri commitment to more sensitive EU plans to import gas from the Caspian region via the "Nabucco" or "Trans-Caspian" pipeline projects that would bypass Russia.

The text "emphasises" EU support for the "territorial integrity" of Azerbaijan "with a view of elimination of threats [to] European energy security" at a time when Baku is threatening to use a military solution to its breakaway southwestern region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

EU principles

Mr Aliyev also received a warm welcome from Europe's top diplomat Javier Solana and energy commissioner Andris Piebalgs on Tuesday, with the EU set to sign a more political "Action Plan" for future integration with Azerbaijan in mid-November.

Meanwhile, Brussels is getting ready to drop most of its human rights-related sanctions against Uzbekistan and to welcome Kazakhstan's controversial president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, to the EU capital in December.

"We are extremely worried by what we are seeing in the EU at present," Human Rights Watch analyst Veronika Leila Szente Goldston told EUobserver. "They are losing credibility every day in terms of building a principled foreign policy in Central Asia."

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