Aaaargh... Azerbaijan!

Forn the EU, choosing between Putin and Aliyev is an exercise in opting for the lesser evil. No kudos for Muscat or Malta, surely

Trusted partner: Azeri autocrat Ilham Aliyev (right) with EC president Ursula von der Leyen
Trusted partner: Azeri autocrat Ilham Aliyev (right) with EC president Ursula von der Leyen

A few days ago, the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Commissioner for Energy Kadri Simson visited Azerbaijan where they met with President Ilham Aliyev and Azeri Energy Minister Parviz Shahbazov to strengthen the existing cooperation between the EU and Azerbaijan. Obviously since its decision to do without Russian oil and gas following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Europe needs to buy more gas and oil from other sources.

In fact, the European Commission has now signed a major gas deal with Azerbaijan despite a recent warning by European Parliament President, Roberta Metsola, against the EU relying on “autocratic regimes” for its energy supply.

However, relations between the EU and Azerbaijan have already had an interesting history.

In fact, the Republic of Azerbaijan and the European Union (EU) have maintained a positive relationship through the years and have become more closely linked since 1991. Azerbaijan is currently part of the European Neighborhood Policy, the Eastern Partnership and the Council of Europe. The EU is the largest foreign grant donor and investor of Azerbaijan, both in the government sector and civil society making available over €600 million of bilateral EU assistance since 1992.

The EU cooperates with Azerbaijan in the framework of the European Neighbourhood Policy and its eastern regional dimension, the Eastern Partnership. The European Union’s bilateral relations with Azerbaijan are based on the EU-Azerbaijan Partnership and Cooperation Agreement in force since 1999.

Interestingly, when Joseph Muscat was still an MEP, before he was elected Labour Party leader, he was a member of the EU-Azerbaijan parliamentary committee, which would have given him access to the powers that be in Azerbaijan.

Muscat now says that it was former Labour minister, Joe Debono Grech, who first mooted the idea of Malta co-operating with Azerbaijan. In fact, Debono Grech, had served for several years as the co-rapporteur for Azerbaijan of the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly (PACE).

An inquiry into allegations of corruption at the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly concluded there was a “strong suspicion that some former and current members of the assembly had engaged in an activity of a corruptive nature.” According to this inquiry – launched by the Council of Europe itself – European parliamentarians who visited Azerbaijan were plied with caviar, champagne and carpets and allegedly received midnight visits from scantily-dressed women.

Joe Debono Grech was exonerated by the inquiry, which found no evidence linking him to corrupt or inappropriate activity, despite his pro-Azeri stance.

In September 2017, The Guardian reported that the ruling elite of Azerbaijan operated a secret $2.8 billion scheme to pay prominent Europeans, buy luxury items, and launder money through a network of opaque British companies. Much of this money was allegedly funnelled through Malta.

There is no doubt that Azerbaijan has a very tainted history as far as corruption is concerned. But, as David Casa put it, there is a stark difference between the corrupt agreement made between Malta and Azerbaijan and that made by the EU.

Casa insisted that “there were no hidden agreements and the process was transparent at all times.”

Meanwhile Joseph Muscat felt he had to assert that under his premiership, Malta was the leading country in the EU to look to places such as Azerbaijan for alternative sources of energy. In fact, the news of this EU deal was welcomed greatly by those involved in the Labour Party stating – without mentioning Muscat – that it was their government who had paved the way for the new direction.

The idea that it was Muscat who ‘inspired’ the EU to turn to Azerbaijan to seek alternative sources of fuel in the light of its boycott of Russian products is, of course, plain bullshit. Cooperation between the EU and Azerbaijan preceded Muscat’s election as an MEP.

Meanwhile, human rights NGOs have criticised the EU-Azerbaijan deal made in the current circumstances when the EU is seeking to secure non-Russian sources of energy.

Von der Leyen said the EU was diversifying away from Russia and turning “towards more reliable, trustworthy partners”, adding she was glad to count Azerbaijan among them telling the Azerbaijan dictator Aliyev: “You are indeed a crucial energy partner for us and you have always been reliable.”

Aliyev, who has presided over rampant corruption and the repression of activists and independent media during his 19 years in power, described the memorandum of understanding on energy signed with the EU as ‘a roadmap for the future’.

But for the EU, choosing between Putin and Aliyev is an exercise in opting for the lesser evil.

No kudos for Muscat or Malta, surely.

Election cheques

The office for democratic institutions and human rights of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has ruled that the handing out of cheques prior to the March general election does not conform to international standards and good practice.

In a 25-page report, international experts said that handing out money a few weeks before the elections could blur the line between party and state. €100 to €200 cheques were sent during the electoral campaign. The OSCE also noted how the appointment procedure of PBS, its management, its financing and reports of interference in editorial policy all point to a lack of independence from the government.

Thank you for stating the obvious, OSCE!

There is no one in Malta who does not think that the handing out of cheques before the elections was one of the worst examples of unethical decisions taken by the government.

Trying to establish how many people were influenced (i.e. fooled) by these cheques would be an interesting investigation. I don’t think many were fooled, although the cheques might have led to a change of heart in the case of Labour supporters who had decided not to vote.

For a very long time, I have been saying that we need a law that regulates and checks – not cheques – the power of the government when Parliament is not in session; more so if the hiatus in parliamentary activity is caused by a looming election.

When he was in the Opposition, Alfred Sant used to complain of government activity during the crucial last four weeks before Election Day, calling it the power of incumbency.

The PN did it regularly, although it prudently suspended all state appointments and promotions during that period.

When in power, Labour was even worse.