Debono Grech denies falling victim to Azerbaijan’s ‘caviar diplomacy’

Labour MP Joe Debono Grech denies receiving gifts from Azerbaijan, insists the Council of Europe cannot depose the oil- and gas-rich Caucasian regime

File photo: Joe Debono Grech in the Council of Europe's parliamentary assembly
File photo: Joe Debono Grech in the Council of Europe's parliamentary assembly

Vociferously denying ever receiving gifts from the Azerbaijani government, Labour MP Joe Debono Grech said that his speech at this week’s Council of Europe parliamentary assembly was misinterpreted.

“Let’s make it clear, I do not condone dictatorships,” Debono Grech told MaltaToday, adding that Azerbaijan is “not a democracy”.

However, in the same breath he said that Azerbaijan’s situation was delicate given its geographical position and insisted that “the Council of Europe cannot remove the government as the Azerbaijani opposition expects”.

On Tuesday in a debate on a new report on Azerbaijan’s ailing democratic institutions, Debono Grech – whose term as co-rapporteur ended in January 2015 – seemed to complain that Azerbaijan was never absent from the CoE’s parliamentary assembly’s agenda, and warned that the oil- and gas-rich republic could head down the road of Libya or Iraq if President Ilham Aliyev is removed. 

The statement pricked the ears of human rights observers petitioning for the release of numerous political prisoners in Azerbaijan, whose state oil company SOCAR will be supplying Malta with liquefied natural gas for a new plant in Delimara.

While admitting that “nobody approves of unwarranted arrests,” Debono Grech described the situation as “complex” and echoed Azerbaijan’s arguments that there is no clear definition of what constitutes a political prisoner.

Caviar diplomacy

A 2012 report by the South East Europe think-tank, European Stability Initiative (ESI) studied “how Azerbaijan silenced the Council of Europe” through what it dubbed “Caviar Diplomacy.”

The damning report, which included Debono Grech among the list of Azerbaijani apologists, said that Azerbaijan had a systematic policy of expanding its sphere of influence by handing out expensive gifts to CoE officials and parliamentary assembly members.

Among others the think-tank lambasts Debono Grech and his co-rapporteur, Pedro Agramunt, for failing to flag irregularities in the 2010 and 2013 elections in which Aliyev consolidated his grip on power.

Despite the opposition’s accusations of corruption and fraud, the two co-rapporteurs agreed that “the elections had been in line with Council of Europe standards.”

 The report says that key CoE parliamentarians receive up to 0.6 kg of caviar costing some €1,400 per kilo four times a year, adding that for some of Azerbaijan’s closer “friends,” caviar is just the beginning.

“Caviar, at least, is given at every session. But during visits to Baku many other things are given as well. Many deputies are regularly invited to Azerbaijan and generously paid. In a normal year, at least 30 to 40 would be invited, some of them repeatedly. People are invited to conferences, events, sometimes for summer vacations. These are real vacations and there are many expensive gifts. Gifts are mostly expensive silk carpets, gold and silver items, drinks, caviar and money. In Baku, a common gift is 2kg of caviar,” the ESI report says.

The report notes that this method to silence critics began in 2001, not long after Azerbaijan joined the Council of Europe and “gathered speed” after Ilham Aliyev, who had served in the CoE’s parliamentary assembly became President of Azerbaijan in 2003.

But Debono Grech, who served as co-rapporteur for six years, during which he visited Azerbaijan some 30 times, denied ever receiving gifts from the Caucasian dictatorship.

“I can only vouch for myself, but I never received any gifts,” Debono Grech said, pointing out that to this day he refuses remuneration for his role as consultant to Gozo minister Anton Refalo.

The MP, who is known for his folksy manners, insisted that he never received any caviar or any other gifts in his visits, and explained that his position on the country has been borne out of a fear that Azerbaijan could go down the same route as Ukraine.

Debono Grech added that many reports, such as the ESI report, shed doubts on the way the CoE deals with Azerbaijan but stressed that it was not within the institution’s remit to bring down the Aliyev regime.

Flip-flopping on human rights

‘Caviar Diplomacy’ is highly critical of Debono Grech’s position over the dictatorship and the report opens with the Labour MP’s 2011 comment to an Azerbaijani news portal in which he said: “There are problems in any country, but in general the situation is comforting. We can help Azerbaijan, which is still a very young democracy, since 20 years is not so much. But you did a great job for this short path.”

The report also says that the Azerbaijani regime was “satisfied” with Debono Grech’s appointment as co-rapporteur in 2009.

In his first address as co-rapporteur in June 2010, Debono Grech explained that “we must keep in mind the fact that Azerbaijan has been in the Council of Europe for the past 10 years. As it had come from behind the Iron Curtain, we did not expect it, in just a few years, to achieve the terms of reference of the Council of Europe, especially with regard to democracy as we know it.”

The report notes that Samad Seyidov, chairman of the Azerbaijani delegation, “had nothing but praise” for Debono Grech.

“I also want to express my gratitude to Mr Debono Grech, who has created a constructive atmosphere between the rapporteurs and the delegation. We are now able to discuss very difficult issues in a constructive manner,” Seyidov told the CoE’s assembly.

The critical report also notes that less than a year after Debono Grech assumed his position, Andres Herkel, “a long-time thorn in the side of the authorities in Baku,” resigned as co-rapporteur after admitting that he was unsatisfied with the way the CoE conducted its scrutiny of Azerbaijan.

President Aliyev has been returned to power in 2008 and 2013 with over 88% of the vote and his family has control over various commercial sectors of the country, apart from Aliyev’s own power as head of state and of the executive.

This month Baku hosted the inaugural European Games, and Human Rights Watch said the run-up to the athletics championship saw “the worst crackdown the country has seen in the post-Soviet era”. It estimates that in 2014 the government prosecuted or jailed at least 35 journalists, human rights activists and critics on unfounded charges.

In their latest report on Azerbaijan, the CoE co-rapporteurs, Pedro Agramunt and Tadeus Iwinski expressed “deep concerns over the crackdown on human rights in Azerbaijan, where working conditions for NGOs and human rights defenders have significantly deteriorated, and by the increasing number of reprisals against independent media and advocates of freedom of expression in Azerbaijan.”

The report, which Debono Grech voted for, calls on the authorities to end this systemic harassment of those critical of the government.