Monday

4th Mar 2024

Investigation

No record of Latvian MEP's 'official' Azerbaijan trip

  • MEP, Tran vice-chair, and friend of Azerbaijan, Latvia's Andris Ameriks
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Last June, a Latvian socialist MEP went to Azerbaijan and sang its praises — but the EU Parliament committee he claimed to represent had no idea he was there.

The story of Andris Ameriks' freewheeling trip is the second in a series together with Swedish-German investigative platform Blankspot on how Azerbaijan cultivates friends in the EU institutions.

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Blankspot's first investigation uncovered how Azerbaijan wined and dined two MEPs and their five assistants in undeclared hospitality on a trip last September.

Neither Ameriks nor the others have been accused of breaking any laws.

But their irregular trips come in the context of the Qatargate bribery affair, posing questions on the reliability of EU Parliament ethics codes.

They compound Azerbaijan's reputation for shady lobbying tactics.

And they show how one Azeri invitation lubricates another in the petro-dictatorship's Brussels-influence campaign.

First Ameriks in June 2022, then German liberal MEP Engin Eroglu and Slovenian conservative MEP Franc Bogovič in September, visited the war-torn Nagorno-Karabakh region as part of their excursions.

Senior EU diplomats don't go there for fear of giving the impression that Europe is taking sides in an ugly ethnic conflict, which saw Azerbaijan reconquer Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia in 2020.

But when Eroglu and Bogovič justified their trip to colleagues, they said it was OK for MEPs to go since Ameriks already did it.

"MEP and vice-chair of the Tran committee, Andris Ameriks, had also visited the Aghali smart village [in Nagorno-Karabakh] previous to us, which further empowered our will to travel," they wrote in an internal email in January this year, referring to the EU Parliament's transport committee.

Ameriks is a member of the Honor to Serve Riga party, which is in the European Social Democrats (S&D) group in the EU assembly.

His relationship with Azerbaijan goes back to at least 2011, when he was a board member of the Freeport of Riga.

At the time, Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev personally paid a visit to the Latvian port to discuss collaborations with Ameriks and fellow board members.

Two years later, Ameriks (now head of the board of Riga Freeport) signed several agreements with the newly built Freeport of Baku.

In 2015, Ameriks (now vice-mayor of Riga) travelled twice to Azerbaijan and forged a cooperation deal between Riga and Surakhani, a Baku suburb.

"Let me start by saying that I am a friend of Azerbaijan", he told Azerbaijan state news agency Azertag in an interview on one of those visits.

Friendship

And indeed he his.

After resigning as vice-mayor in December 2018 due to his involvement in a corruption scandal, Ameriks made a rapid political comeback.

Just two months later, he declared he was running for a seat in the European Parliament in the May 2019 elections and got in.

And shortly after taking up his parliament post, he founded the informal "Group of Friends of Azerbaijan", which back then consisted of eight MEPs from five different political groups.

In an interview in Azerbaijan with national TV on his latest trip in June 2022, Ameriks described the work of the group as being "challenging due to the pandemic", but reassured Azeri viewers things were getting back to normal.

He said that, as an MEP, he was in a good position to improve EU-Azerbaijan relations.

He also said he was in Azerbaijan on an "official" trip and traveling in his role as Tran vice-president.

He repeatedly used his Tran committee title during his trip, but when Blankspot asked Tran officials what he was doing in Azerbaijan, they said there was no record of Ameriks representing them there.

They didn't comment on whether Ameriks had misbehaved.

But while Eroglu and Bogovič had pledged not to discuss the Armenia conflict while they were in Azerbaijan, Ameriks was less shy of controversy.

One of his meetings was with the minister of digital development and transport, Rashad Nabiyev, which discussed the Zangezur corridor.

This is meant to one day connect Azerbaijan — via Armenia — to Azerbaijan's exclave Nakhchivan, but its status is still being negotiated and it remains closed for now.

Ameriks made his expedition to the edge of Europe even though, back in Brussels, Baku's friend never used to mention Azerbaijan in EU Parliament debates.

In fact, his only recorded link to related parliament motions was a remarkable vote in March 2022.

At the time, the EU Parliament passed a resolution saying Azerbaijan promoted a "systematic, state-level policy of Armenophobia, historical revisionism and hatred towards Armenians, [...] including dehumanisation, the glorification of violence" and that it "threaten[s] peace and security in the South Caucasus".

It passed by a whopping 635 votes against two, with 42 abstentions.

And the whole S&D group voted for it, except for one rebel — Ameriks.

The only other 'No' vote was Dutch far-right MEP Marcel de Graaff.

Back-pedalling

Blankspot asked Ameriks who paid for his trip last June, who he represented when he was there, and who drew up his itinerary.

He said the trip was paid out of the EU Parliament budget, except for his visit to the village of Aghali and the town of Shusha in Nagorno-Karabakh.

This part was taken care of by the Milli Majlis — president Aliyev's rubber-stamp parliament.

The itinerary was planned jointly by the Azeris and Ameriks' office.

And the trip followed an official invitation by the Milli Majlis and by Azerbaijan's ambassador in Brussels, Vaqif Sadiqov (who also reached out to Eroglu and Bogovič to invite them in September).

Ameriks said he went in his role as chair of the Group of Friends of Azerbaijan, not as Tran vice-president, back-pedalling on his own comments to Azeri media while he was travelling around.

Blankspot also asked the socialist MEP if Azerbaijan could be compared to Belarus and Russia in terms of domestic human-rights abuses, seeing as they all get similarly dismal ratings from NGOs such as Freedom House and Human Rights Watch.

But instead of answering on human rights, Ameriks said Azerbaijan is nothing like Russia or Belarus, because Russia is killing civilians in Ukraine, while Azerbaijan has sent humanitarian aid there.

Author bio

Rasmus Canbäck and Sascha Düerkop are journalists with the Stockholm-based Swedish-German investigative platform Blankspot.

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