Saturday

26th May 2018

Opinion

EU red carpet for Azerbaijan sends wrong message

  • The EU stands to benefit far more from a partnership with a country that respects rule of law and human rights, than one that cannot be trusted to do so (Photo: Mr Zebra)

The European Union’s “quiet diplomacy” just got much quieter. With one strongman in particular, it is almost inaudible.

Remarkably, Brussels dragged its feet to inform the public of an upcoming visit by Azerbaijan president Ilham Aliyev, who is coming to town on Monday (6 February) to personally inaugurate negotiations on a new EU-Azerbaijan partnership agreement.

Dear EUobserver reader

Subscribe now for unrestricted access to EUobserver.

Sign up for 30 days' free trial, no obligation. Full subscription only 15 € / month or 150 € / year.

  1. Unlimited access on desktop and mobile
  2. All premium articles, analysis, commentary and investigations
  3. EUobserver archives

EUobserver is the only independent news media covering EU affairs in Brussels and all 28 member states.

♡ We value your support.

If you already have an account click here to login.

  • Aliyev (l) was also courted by the former European Commission of Jose Manuel Barroso (r) (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

The deal is set to strengthen the political and economic ties between the union and its oil-rich neighbour to the south east. A state visit and a new partnership negotiation usually come with a lot of fanfare. Why all the reluctance to share the date of his visit?

The lack of transparency is hardly surprising from Baku’s side. The authorities in Azerbaijan are extremely hostile to public scrutiny and accountability, and this very hostility is at core of the crackdown on critics, opposition activists, journalists and other dissenting voices for many years.

But the secrecy around the visit suggests that Baku’s deeply problematic approaches to transparency are rubbing off on the EU.

Is the EU really so quick to set aside its own commitments to transparency and accountability? Apparently so.

During more than a dozen official meetings my colleague and I had on 26 and 27 January in Brussels, officials were extremely tightlipped about Aliyev’s visit.

Once we understood it was in the works, and pressed for some, any, information, officials and diplomats flatly refused to share the date of the visit.

One member-state diplomat, clearly uncomfortable with the “gag order,” eventually acknowledged that there was an agreement that the date would not be communicated beyond the hallowed walls of European External Action Service and the member state diplomats.

It was not until late last week when the date of the visit became official after the calendar of the European Commission president was updated online.

Does the EU fear publicity of Aliyev’s trip to Brussels and inevitable criticism of Azerbaijan’s human rights record and the EU’s failure in pressing for reforms? It may fear it, but that criticism would be well-earned.

Well-earned criticism

Beyond arresting, prosecuting, harassing and exiling critics, the Aliyev government also implements draconian laws and regulations restricting independent groups and their ability to secure funding.

Even major EU donors, like the European Endowment for Democracy, and other donors across Europe are shut out of Azerbaijan.

This means independent groups in Azerbaijan providing essential services and protecting the rights of citizens against government abuses can’t get the funds they need to operate.

They will not survive much longer. Meanwhile, the EU seems to care little, forging ahead towards the economic benefits it hopes to reap.

The vicious crackdown had drawn vocal condemnation from many of Azerbaijan’s international partners, including two strongly-worded resolutions from the European Parliament in 2014 and 2015.

Baku, again, in an overheated response to criticism, almost entirely disengaged from political dialogue with the EU in 2015.

Earlier in 2016, the Azerbaijani authorities freed 17 human rights defenders, journalists, and political activists imprisoned on politically motivated charges.

Many in the EU rushed to congratulate Aliyev on the releases and sought to frame the move as an indication of a shift in Azerbaijan’s punitive attitude towards its critics.

The EU and Azerbaijan gradually restored most of their bilateral ties, and in November 2016 the European Council approved a mandate for the Commission to negotiate the new framework agreement with Azerbaijan.

But the EU and others were far too quick to heap praise: none of these individuals should have been detained in the first place, and worse the government simply arrested new critics it did not like to take their place behind bars.

Empty gesture

Since the releases, there has been no fundamental human rights turnaround from Baku. It has relentlessly pursued the political opposition, youth activists, bloggers and others. It even goes after the relatives of those who have fled abroad, including to the EU, to escape persecution.

Many activists convicted in politically motivated trials between 2013 and 2015 remain in prison. Those released have not had their convictions quashed, which can limit their activism. Many face travel bans. They will see how Aliyev gets the EU’s red carpet treatment; meanwhile, they cannot even make it to Brussels.

Under such circumstances, deepening engagement with Aliyev’s government, without first securing concrete and sustainable human rights improvements sends a wrong message about the EU’s priorities, and is bad for the EU.

The EU stands to benefit far more from a partnership with a country that respects rule of law and human rights, than one that cannot be trusted to do so.

As EU officials quietly prepare to roll out the red carpet and treat the Azerbaijani strongman with fanfare, it should make sure that this deepening relationship is the one adhering to its own principles of “democracy, the rule of law, the universality and indivisibility of human rights and fundamental freedoms,” as it committed to in all of its negotiations with third party countries.

Transparency is a key part of that. While the new agreement is up for the negotiations, the EU’s principles of transparency and accountability should not be up for grabs.

Giorgi Gogia is South Caucasus Director at Human Rights Watch

EU downgrades human rights in Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan is in the midst of a human rights crisis. Federica Mogherini just made things worse by saying its mass jailings of rights activists are “normal differences.”

Interview

The Armenia-Azerbaijan war: a refugee's story

The lynching of a woman in the Soviet Union in 1988 gives insight into why reconciliation remains so hard in the 30-year long war on Europe's eastern fringe.

The dangers of resurgent nationalism in Greece

Virulent nationalism in Greece has been stirred up in the context of austerity and renewed negotiations with Macedonia. Recent attempts by the government to address the inequalities suffered by LGBT persons have also been met with a reactionary backlash.

Integration of Syrian refugees in Europe needs scrutiny

Most refugee-related services are outsourced to the private sector and NGOs, which are not adequately monitored and evaluated. When governments and EU institutions provide funding for refugee projects, they should scrutinise the NGOs and private players they work with.

News in Brief

  1. Italy set to pick eurosceptic finance minister
  2. UK foreign minister fooled by Russian pranksters
  3. Rajoy ally gets 33 years in jail for corruption
  4. Close race as polls open in Irish abortion referendum
  5. Gazprom accepts EU conditions on gas supplies
  6. Facebook tells MEPs: non-users are not profiled
  7. Commission proposes ending France deficit procedure
  8. UK households hit with Brexit income loss

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Counter BalanceEuropean Ombudsman requests more lending transparency from European Investment Bank
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersOECD Report: Gender Equality Boosts GDP Growth in Nordic Region
  3. Centre Maurits Coppieters“Peace and reconciliation is a process that takes decades” Dr. Anthony Soares on #Brexit and Northern Ireland
  4. Mission of China to the EUMEPs Positive on China’s New Measures of Opening Up
  5. Macedonian Human Rights MovementOld White Men are Destroying Macedonia by Romanticizing Greece
  6. Counter BalanceControversial EIB-Backed Project Under Fire at European Parliament
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersIncome Inequality Increasing in Nordic Countries
  8. European Jewish CongressEU Leaders to Cease Contact with Mahmoud Abbas Until He Apologizes for Antisemitic Comments
  9. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual Report celebrates organization’s tenth anniversary
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Cooperation Needed on Green Exports and Funding
  11. Mission of China to the EUPremier Li Confirms China Will Continue to Open Up
  12. European Jewish CongressCalls on Brussels University to Revoke Decision to Honour Ken Loach

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Sustainable Energy Week 2018"Lead the Clean Energy Transition"- Register and Join Us in Brussels from 5 to 7 May
  2. EU Green Week 2018Green Cities for a Greener Future. Join the Debate in Brussels from 22 to 24 May
  3. Nordic Council of Ministers12 Recommendations for Nordic Leadership on Climate and Environment
  4. Macedonian Human Rights MovementOxford Professor Calls for an End to the Anti-Macedonian Name Negotiations
  5. ACCAPeople Who Speak-Up Should Feel Safe to Do So
  6. Mission of China to the EUProgress on China-EU Cooperation
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersWorld's Energy Ministers to Meet in Oresund in May to Discuss Green Energy
  8. ILGA EuropeParabéns! Portugal Votes to Respect the Rights of Trans and Intersex People
  9. Mission of China to the EUJobs, Energy, Steel: Government Work Report Sets China's Targets
  10. European Jewish CongressKantor Center Annual Report on Antisemitism Worldwide - The Year the Mask Came Off
  11. UNICEFCalls for the Protection of Children in the Gaza Strip
  12. Mission of China to the EUForeign Minister Wang Yi Highlights Importance of China-EU Relations