Inside the court of Azerbaijan's Ilham Aliyev

Other western governments have courted the Azeri dictatorship despite its abysmal human rights record. But has Joseph Muscat chosen the worst moment to meet Ilham Aliyev in Baku amidst a brutal crackdown on dissidents which is causing unease in other western capitals, JAMES DEBONO asks?

Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the oil and gas rich Caucasian republic has been touted as an alternative energy source to Putin’s Russia. 

Lately Azerbaijan has also embarked on a marketing campaign in its bid to project itself as a prosperous forward looking nation, despite its notoriety for corruption which earned President Ilham Aliyev the “corruption person of the year” award (granted by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project) in 2012.

In April Muscat was in synch with the thinking of other EU nations when hinting that recent political developments in Russia had strengthened Europe’s resolve to diversify energy sources and go for new interconnections. He said the EU’s position in favour of Azerbaijan would benefit Malta’s own position, given that state-owned Azerbaijani company Socar forms part of the ElectroGas consortium supplying LNG to the new power station.  

But the PM’s visit to Azerbaijan coincides with a crackdown on human rights activists which is increasing pressure on western countries to distance themselves from the Aliyev regime. 

Deals in Baku

What is sure is that Malta’s fortunes are now tied to Socar. The company not only owns 20% of Electrogas, which will provide Malta with gas for the next 18 years, but will be the consortium’s sole energy supplier for the same time span.

In October Konrad Mizzi declared that Socar, which is also a trading company apart from a gas producer, will be buying its gas from Shell, the oil and gas multinational.  

But according to the Prime Minister the aim of his visit to Azerbaijan is to  “secure a long-term gas supply for the new power station”.

Moreover the visit underlines the key role of Azerbaijan in Malta’s energy supply.  For while so far the impression given was that the agreement with Electrogas is one between the Maltese government and a private company, the agreements signed in Baku indicate that underlying this deal is an understanding between two governments.

Turning a blind eye?

Although Malta will be supplied by gas through tankers berthed along a jetty in Delimara, by 2019 Azeri gas could be reaching Italy’s shores through a pipeline. 

This is because Azerbaijan has embarked on the TANAP project, which involves the construction of a gas pipeline from Azerbaijan’s Shah Deniz field through Georgia, Turkey, Greece, and Albania to the south of Italy. It is planned to supply six billion cubic metres of gas to Turkey and 10 billion cubic metres to Europe. In the future, capacity of the pipeline can be increased to 31 billion cubic metres.

The so-called southern corridor could help provide Europe with an alternative to Russian gas.  

It has been described as Europe’s new “energy silk road” by Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, whose increasingly authoritarian government is poised to transit Azeri gas to Europe.

In view of Azerbaijan’s strategic importance, western governments have taken an ambivalent attitude towards the country’s abysmal human rights record and massive corruption.  In December 2013 Global Witness, an NGO which investigates corporate corruption, accused Socar itself of “opaque trading practices” in a report exposing the role of mysterious private businessmen in the organisational structure of the supposedly state owned company.

The country currently ranks in 126th place out of 175 in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, scoring only 29 points out of a maximum 100.    

Speaking truth to power?

Surely Muscat is not the only EU leader to court Aliyev’s dictatorship, but other western leaders have at least used these encounters to publically express concern on human rights abuses in the country.

In 2013 former EC president Manuel Barroso had met Aliyev.  But Barroso also used his visit to express concern on human rights in meetings with representatives of Azeri civil society and human rights activists.

Meetings with Aliyev also come at a risk of being used for internal propaganda purposes.

In July 2014 Italian Premier Matteo Renzi was seriously embarrassed when Aliyev tweeted that he was ready to declare war on Armenia and Italy would support him.

Israel is another country which has built a strategic alliance with Muslim Azerbaijan.

Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports that Israel has conducted intelligence operations against Iran from neighbouring Azerbaijan, to whom it sold weapons systems, including drones and radar. 

Talks on a pipeline linking Israel’s own massive gas deposits to the TANAP pipeline have been stalled by a prolonged diplomatic crisis between Israel and Ankara.

In its bid to seek international respectability, Azerbaijan has spent millions on lobbying and public relations, including sponsorship of Spanish soccer side Atletico Madrid (last season’s Champions League finalist). 

Controversially Azerbaijan was allowed to assume the six-month rotating chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe (CoE) last May, despite years of suppression of criticism and failure to adhere to the commitments it undertook when joining the organisation. 

The turning point

It was a clampdown on the Azeri opposition last Summer which resulted in firm condemnation by both US President Barack Obama and the European Parliament.  This may represent a turning point in the West’s relationship with the Aliyev regime.

Both the United States and the European Union are now taking a stronger stance against Azerbaijan. 

In a September 23 speech in New York City, for the first time ever President Obama included Azerbaijan in a list of the world’s worst human rights violators, citing, in particular, “laws [that] make it incredibly difficult for NGOs even to operate.”

The criticism was Obama’s first such public remark on Azerbaijan, which coincided with the European Parliament’s earlier call to the European Council, to apply “targeted sanctions against those responsible for human rights violations” in Azerbaijan if such abuses persist. 

The September 18 resolution demands that the Azerbaijani government correct its ways and “immediately and unconditionally” release all political prisoners; a list that, according to local human rights activists, included 81 people. 

According to regional political analyst Eldar Mamedov, the “increasingly acrimonious exchanges”  between the EU and Azerbaijan are driven by differing ideas in Brussels and Baku about the nature of the relationship.

A decade ago, when the EU launched its European Neighbourhood Policy, Brussels expected participants, including Azerbaijan, to gradually embrace EU standards covering basic individual rights. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, believes that it can export energy to the EU without having to adopt western standards of democracy and human rights. 

The plight of Leyla Yunus

Muscat’s visit has coincided with growing concern on the fate of human rights activist Leyla Yunus and investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova.

On December 9 lawyer Ramiz Mammadov said the health of Leyla Yunus – a prominent Azerbaijani human rights activist who has been imprisoned since last July – is deteriorating rapidly. Yunus, who has diabetes and hepatitis C, is not receiving any medication for her condition and as a result, has trouble breathing and can barely walk, says Mammadov. 

Leyla Yunus and her husband Arif were arrested on 30 July 2014, a day after Leyla wrote an open letter to President Aliyev in which she criticised his regime for targeting human rights activists and bloggers, urging him “not to go down in history as a ‘tyrant and a dictator’.” 

They are currently being held separately in pre-trial detention. Leyla has been charged with, among others, treason and tax evasion, her husband with treason and fraud. They claim the charges levelled against them are unfounded and politically motivated and Amnesty International labelled them “prisoners of conscience”.

On November 26 the President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz said, “the terms of Leyla Yunus’ custody threaten her life seriously. The European Parliament calls for her immediate release. The European Parliament recognises her courage and commitment to democratic values and expresses its support.”  

The Azeri state-owned media replied by demonising the European Socialist leader, writing him down as “a reformed alcoholic” who “has never managed to control emotions”.

Senior EU and Council of Europe officials likewise expressed concern on December 9 over the detention of Azerbaijani investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova. 

Ismayilova worked for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which is funded by the US State Department. This gave her a level of immunity that other journalists in Azerbaijan don’t enjoy. Her arrest signals a turning point in relations between the US and the Aliyev regime.

In the past the regime had resorted to intimidation in a bid to silence her.  In 2012 Aliyev’s police planted hidden cameras in her apartment and filmed her having sex with her boyfriend. 

Now she is to be charged with pressuring her ex-boyfriend and driving him to suicide, and is facing a seven-year prison term. 

A spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini called Ismayilova’s detention “a step against the freedom of expression” that is “key to any democratic society.” Muscat’s visit comes a week after this arrest and as Prime Minister of an EU member he is expected to voice his concern on these human rights violations.

The spectre of Nagorno Karabakh

Until very recently, Azerbaijan saw President Vladimir Putin’s Russia as a hostile force trying to undermine its pro-Western policy and supporting neighbouring Armenia in the conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave.

Nagorno-Karabakh, which once formed part of Azerbaijan, became an independent enclave run by its Armenian majority, following a bloody war which preceded the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

After the most serious military confrontation between the two countries since 1991 Russian President Vladimir Putin intervened by hosting the two rival Presidents in a meeting in Sochi in August.  

The meeting underlined Russia’s role in maintaining stability in the region.

Aliyev is now praising Moscow and saying, “Azerbaijan and Russia are two neighbouring friendly countries which are developing together and are ready to face world challenges”.

He has recently blamed the west for the rise of ISIS by opposing the Assad regime in Syria.  After annexing Crimea and destabilising Ukraine, Putin has been able to use the Nagorno Karabakh crisis to remind Azerbaijan of the risks it faces if it drifts further away from Russian hegemony.  

With the west becoming increasingly uneasy over the treatment of Azeri dissidents, Aliyev may ultimately choose Russia as his political ally, while still using gas pipelines as leverage on energy hungry western nations. 

According to analyst Mamedov ultimately, the EU could  settle for a purely transactional relationship with Azerbaijan, cooperating in selected areas of mutual interest, especially in the energy sector, but eschewing any pretence of shared values. 

“It would be the type of relationship that the EU has with Saudi Arabia.”  But in the absence of solid ties with the West, the country could be left defenceless “if Russia were to become aggressive again in the South Caucasus.”

In fact the escalation in the conflict with Armenia over the disputed Nagorno Karabakh region may have ultimately strengthened Vladimir Putin’s hand in the Caucasus, thus undermining the claim that gas from Azerbaijan could provide an alternative to Russian gas. Ultimately Putin may end up controlling both energy sources (his own and indirectly Azerbaijan’s) as the Aliyev regime becomes politically dependent on Moscow for its survival.