After Baku, let's not forget about human rights

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With the European Games in Baku over, what does the future hold for Europe's relationship with Azerbaijan?


Jos Boonstra
29 June 2015

The first edition of the European Games – Europe’s ‘mini’ version of the Olympic Games – are over. The host country, Azerbaijan, spared no effort to place itself on the map as a sports-minded and hospitable country. However, in European Union countries, the games were mostly associated with human rights offences in Azerbaijan, with little attention being devoted to the sports event or the country’s actual beauty. All the while, the regime in Baku has been working hard to stifle any critical voice at home and deflect criticism from European partners

Over the last decade, the Azerbaijani government has methodically strengthened its grip on power by getting rid of any significant political opposition and curtailing media freedom. More recently, the authorities have sought to further quiet down divergent voices by closing foreign-funded civil society organisations and think tanks, while imprisoning human rights defenders, lawyers and journalists.

The country has also been scaling back or disrupting cooperation with European multilateral bodies. The credibility of the Council of Europe suffered with Azerbaijan’s chairmanship in the second half of 2014 amidst increased repression within the country (previously, Azerbaijan had successfully manipulated Council resolutions on political prisoners). Earlier this month, the authorities gave the Organisation for Security Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) office in Baku (which also monitors democracy and human rights) one month’s notice to leave the country. Plus, Azerbaijan has drastically downscaled its participation in the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) framework in response to the EU’s and the European Parliament’s criticisms over human rights repression.

Friendship and dependence 

So far, Azerbaijan has managed to get away with this behaviour thanks to its perceived economic and strategic importance to Europe and the United States, as well as its extensive lobbying and PR efforts aimed at winning friends in European capitals.

Many believe that Azerbaijan will become a relevant source of gas supplies to Europe, both by exporting its own gas and as a transit route for Iranian and Turkmen gas (the latter seems unlikely). This would help Europe diversify its gas supplies. However, envisaged gas flows to Europe which will most likely begin in 2019, when the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) should be completed, will be relatively modest and dwarfed by Russian, Norwegian and Algerian deliveries. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan is very dependent on oil exports to European countries.

The country is also considered geo-strategically important. Like neighbouring Iran, Azerbaijan is Shiite, yet moderate and secular. At the same time, Azerbaijan is ethnically and linguistically close to (NATO member) Turkey. But this has not brought Europe any concrete benefit in dealing with the many crises and tensions around the Black Sea and the Caspian region. 

Baku is frustrated with the lack of progress in addressing the conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, which has been in deadlock for over two decades but remains highly inflammable – Azerbaijan wants the EU to argue more vigorously in favour of its territorial integrity. Increased engagement by Europe (but also other parties, foremost Russia, Turkey and the United States) to work out a sustainable solution is warranted. However, this should not prevent the EU from addressing serious human rights violations in Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan has been unwilling to participate in most of the EaP’s activities over the last year. Baku has made it clear that it is unhappy with EU criticism over human rights repression at home. The Azerbaijani regime suspected earlier that the EU (and the US) were trying to foment Maidan-like protests in Baku aimed at toppling it. President Aliyev cancelled his participation in the recent May EaP Summit in Riga at the last minute, allegedly on grounds that the president needed to deal with the upcoming European Games as well as a deadly fire in Baku. However, the sudden decision sent another message to Brussels about the deteriorating state of the relationship.

Negotiations on a Strategic Modernisation Partnership are at a standstill, as Azerbaijan wants to focus on energy cooperation while the EU does not want to completely abandon democracy and human rights. Three broad positions have emerged within the EU as to how to deal with Baku.

First, there are those who advocate for the adoption of sanctions (similar to those still in place towards Belarus), but this position has found little traction since sanctions are unlikely to have the desired impact and are morally difficult to repeal without signs of improvement.

Second, there are those who want to maintain a relatively soft stance, given the potential for future benefits for European energy security and businesses. This has been the prevalent position so far, but results have been discouraging on all fronts. Despite the EU’s overall cautious diplomatic posture, Baku remains upset at past criticism and relations remain at an all-time low.

Finally, there are those who would like to take a tough and clear line towards Azerbaijan, grounded on respect for basic values while pursuing a genuine partnership if Baku is willing to engage.

A delicate balance 

Due to its energy wealth, Azerbaijan has been able to afford to align itself neither with the EU through an Association Agreement (signed by Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine), nor with Russia through its Eurasian Economic Union (with Armenia, Belarus and Kazakhstan). Association with the EU, including a trade agreement, would imply reforms that the regime is not willing to undertake.

But by alienating the EU, the Baku regime risks overplaying its hand. Azerbaijan’s current self-confidence rests on shaky grounds. Links with Russia have intensified over the past year but Baku has no intention of fully moving into Moscow’s sphere of influence. Azerbaijan’s location in a volatile neighbourhood, its energy exports-driven economy affected by low oil prices (and by the costs of holding the European Games), and the repressive policies of its increasingly authoritarian leadership are serious vulnerabilities. Azerbaijan is unlikely to completely shut the door on Europe (which receives almost 50 per cent of its exports), and this gives the EU some potential leverage.

The EU and its partners should start thinking more long-term, beyond short-term economic gains. They should be open to building a constructive partnership with Azerbaijan to improve the country’s prospects for development and stability, underpinned by respect for human rights and democratic values. They should also be more vocal in denouncing blatant violations: a task they shied away from during the games (although their absence was telling), but was picked up by Europe’s civil society, particularly human rights defenders and media.

Azerbaijani political prisoners are unlikely to have enjoyed the European Games from jail. They will continue to look to Europe for support in addressing repression in their country.

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