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Europe, Azerbaijan, and caviar

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Caviale (foto Annie Roi)

Caviar (foto Annie Roi)

The recent presidential elections in Azerbaijan, regarded by the OSCE as probably among the worst ever seen in the history of this institution, were deemed free and transparent by MEPs led by Italian Pino Arlacchi. Our analysis

It is called caviar diplomacy. Given its high price (about 1,500 Euros per kg), caviar has always been a symbol of luxury and, for some time, also of some countries' "convincing arguments" in the diplomatic arena. Azerbaijan is historically recognized as one of the producers of the best caviar in the world, and also as one of the countries that in recent years has distinguished itself in this peculiar diplomatic activity.

In May 2012, the research centre European Stability Initiative (ESI) published "Caviar diplomacy – How Azerbaijan silenceded the Council of Europe". The report traces the stages of a process that was supposed to bring Azerbaijan close to European values and democratic standards, but that is likely instead to bring Europe to be silent on the strong limitations to fundamental rights and the absence of free and fair elections in the country in exchange for its "caviar". Of course, points out the ESI, "not all those who have defended Azerbaijan in the PACE [Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe] have done so for material benefits. There were other factors at play, including geopolitical considerations. But there are several indications that corruption played a role in diverting the PACE from its responsibilities".

"The diplomacy of caviar – writes the ESI – began in 2001, not long after Azerbaijan joined the Cou ncil of Europe – the continent’s club of democratic nations. It gathered speed after Ilham Aliyev, who had served in the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly (PACE), became president of Azerbaijan in 2003. Once the Baku - Tbilisi - Ceyhan oil pipeline wa s completed in 2005 and the Azerbaijani state coffers were awash in oil revenues, the “caviar policy” shifted into top gear".

The CoE changes its mind on Azerbaijan

The extra gear was inserted in the elections of November 2005, which were decisive for the permanence of Azerbaijan in the assembly of the CoE. Indeed, one of the standards to be met to be part of the oldest international organization that deals with human rights and democracy was, inevitably, to have "free and fair elections".

However, despite the negative report by both OSCE/ODIHR and then CoE rapporteur Andreas Gross, the PACE decided not to sanction Azerbaijan. The rapporteurs on Azerbaijan were repeatedly attacked by the majority of members of the Assembly of the CoE for their critical positions on the Azerbaijani elections.

On the eve of the 2008 presidential election, the Azerbaijan debate was rekindled, with pro-Azerbaijan Briton Michael Hancock and Estonian Kristiina Ojuland against the then rapporteur Andres Herkel. Eventually, the focus of the debate shifted to the role of OSCE/ODIHR and the alleged unreliability of expert missions.

"Until the nineties, Azerbaijan was considered a pariah state. With the boom of hydrocarbons, it has acquired great importance and, once understood how to take advantage of the European side, it has created a very effective and determined lobby", says a Brussels official to OBC.

Illuminating are Lise Christoffersen's words about an affair in 2009, when the Norwegian deputy was close to being named PACE co-rapporteur on Azerbaijan.

"A network that was generally hidden but which from time to time became visible, and which had some unexpected branches, had been mobilised to prohibit my nomination... it was about Azerbaijan’s strong reluctance to have a Norwegian rapporteur, the reason for which is obvious. In official visits involving our two countries, Norway always raises the issue of human rights violations in Azerbaijan".

In 2010, the parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan were defined by the ESI as "the most fraudulent that have ever been monitored in a member state of the CoE". The ODIHR mission, then led by Audrey Glover, collided with the short-term PACE mission and two other field missions – by the EP and the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE – on the outcome of election observation. The result was a compromise joint document which, however, was followed by four different – and embarrassing – statements to the press.

This was followed by debates, reports, and even a petition to the PACE and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly signed by 19 Azerbaijani civil society organizations. In the end, Audrey Glover said resignedly: "A certain degree of hopelessness arises and raises the question: is there any val ue in repeatedly monitoring these countries?".

The 2013 elections

On October 9th, 2013, presidential elections were held in Azerbaijan. With the 2009 constitutional amendment – confirmed by a referendum – which abolished the limit of two consecutive presidential terms, Ilham Aliyev had a chance to run for the presidency again and get his third five-year term with 84.5% of preferences. The amendment in question has already been the subject of a series of complaints by the CoE and the Venice Commission for its dubious democratic value.

In a very detailed report of October 10th, the long-term mission (3 months) of the OSCE/ODIHR, led by Tana de Zulueta, concluded that "The 9 October election was undermined by limitation s on the freedoms of expression, assembly, and association that did not guarantee a level play ing field for candidates". This position was in stark contrast to that expressed in the joint statement of the mission of PACE and the European Parliament, led by Socialist deputy Pino Arlacchi. On October 10th, the joint statement of the short-term missions (4 days) essentially stated that "Overall around election day we have observed a free, fair and transparent electoral process.". Scandal – for the first time, the missions did not find a compromise and publicly disclosed diametrically opposed views.

On October 11th, in a statement on the Azerbaijani presidential elections, High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton and Commissioner Štefan Füle did not seem to take account of the EP mission. Their joint statement only included the results of the OSCE/ODIHR mission, with just a quick mention of the monitoring missions by EP and PACE.

An embarrassing mission

A week after the elections, embarrassment ensued. The Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament discussed the report of the mission led by Arlacchi. The Green group reacted harshly and issued a press statement criticizing the official report of the PE mission. " The Green/EFA Group does not endorse the statements made by the EP delegation and has requested a meeting with the Head of the OSCE/ODIHR mission Tana de Zulueta", says Ulrike Lunacek, the group's spokesperson for Foreign Affairs. She is echoed by another spokesperson, Werner Schulz: "The European Parliament loses credibility with statements that ignore the reality of the situation in the country. A group of MPs is damaging the reputation of the European Parliament in the struggle for human rights, democracy, and the rule of law".

Arlacchi confidently reiterates its position in an exclusive interview with Azerbaijani APA agency. Asked by journalist Victoria Dementyeva "How do you explain the large discrepancy in the assessments by the European Parliament, PACE, and ODIHR?", Arlacchi replies: " It is very simple. We were 66 parliamentarians belonging to 3 different Assemblies- CoE, OSCE and EP. We all observed election freely and have positive opinion about the elections. ODIHR consists of so-called experts with no political responsibilities, who were not elected by anybody. So it is easy to manipulate them. Our evaluation has been done on the sense of responsibility, also being parliamentarians we know elections very well much better than experts who want just to be sure that they will get their next job in next occasion.".

Meanwhile, president of the Socialist Group in the European Parliament Hannes Swoboda stated: "The S&D Group is of the opinion that the differences between the EP/PACE assessment and the OSCE/ODHIR evaluation are so striking that the EP/PACE findings cannot be endorsed as they are based solely on an ad-hoc, short-term evaluation. The OSCE/ODHIR mission's findings were based on more substantial experience and time on the ground.".

Business list

The scandal did not stop. The case burst of Members of Parliament who unofficially visited Azerbaijan during the October elections. In an article in the influential European Voice, published under the meaningful title "MEPs must explain trips to Azerbaijan" on October 17th, the matter was brought to the surface in no uncertain terms. "Crass stupidity or petty venality seem to be the only plausible explanations for a member of the European Parliament choosing to go to Baku as an unofficial observer of Azerbaijan's sham presidential election last week". The newspaper reports a list (indicating that it is probably incomplete) with the names of deputies who "seem to enjoy electoral tourism". According to the newspaper founded by the Economist Group, "Ivo Vajgl (Slovenia), Alexandra Thein (Germany) and Hannu Takkula (Finland), all from the liberal ALDE group, travelled at the expense of a German association, the Society for the Promotion of German-Azerbaijani Relations, which appears to be a thinly disguised front organisation for Azeri government interests. [...] Estonian liberal MEP Kristiina Ojuland was quoted in the Azeri media praising the government, but refuses to say who paid for her trip".

"No wonder. It is well known that various members of the EP are on Azerbaijan's 'business list'. That is to say gifts, travel, luxury hotels, etc.", told OBC a source who requested anonymity inside the European Parliament itself. The same source does not hide that sumptuous Christmas baskets, including caviar, routinely reach Brussels offices.

The European Parliament reacts and Azerbaijan leaves Euronest

The crisis of monitoring missions in Azerbaijan flared up just seven months before the elections for the European Parliament. The image of an important pillar of the European Union was likely to be called into question. At this point, the European Parliament reacted, indirectly discrediting the conclusions of its own mission.

A note in the resolution on Neighbourhood Policy adopted on October 23rd infuriated the Azerbaijani government. Paragraph 32 of the resolution stated that the European Parliament "regrets the fact that, according to the findings of long-term mission of ODIHR, the recent presidential election held on October 9th, 2013, did not meet – again – the OSCE standards, with restrictions on the freedom of assembly and expression; therefore, it asks Azerbaijani authorities to address and quickly implement all the recommendations included in the current and past report by ODIHR/OSCE".

Azerbaijani reactions came quick. The day after, in a letter addressed to the President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz, MP Elkhan Suleymanov – close to President Ilham Aliyev and leader of the Azerbaijani delegation to Euronest (an assembly created by the EP in 2009 which in addition to MEPs includes members the so-called Eastern partners – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine), indulged in an angry reply to the note.

Suleymanov accused the European Parliament of wanting to "create unrest and sabotage Azerbaijan", adding that perhaps it did not fully succeed in its "sabotage campaign" which aims to "transform Azerbaijan in Libya or Syria", since elections were "free and fair". For this reason, "the delegation of Azerbaijan is forced to suspend all activities within the Euronest Assembly". This position was confirmed on November 6th in Kiev, during the Euronest meeting.

Baku and the mission crisis

Finally, on November 7th, a meeting was held in Brussels with the head of the monitoring mission by OSCE/ODIHR in Azerbaijan, in the presence of the Democracy Support and Election Coordination Group and the spokesperson of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the groups, i.e. practically all parliamentary political groups. The meeting was well attended and intense, but did not reach any conclusion. There will probably be a second round on December 12th.

Among the numerous comments by the members of parliament, liberal Alexander Graf Lambsdorff's noted he was "thrilled how a small non-governmental organization based in Germany and in charge of relations with Azerbaijan was able to pay for business class trips and first class hotels for 120 people across Europe, including parliamentarians". A truly remarkable number which, if confirmed, illustrates the size and capacity of the so-called "diplomacy of caviar".

Finally, the latest report by Berlin-based study centre ESI, released a few days ago, was unequivocally titled "Disgraced. Azerbaijan and the end of election monitoring as we know it". Seven pages focus on several MEPs' relations with Azerbaijan and the lobbying work of some organizations, very similar to the one indicated by Lambsdorff. ESI also questioned the value of short-term election monitoring missions as a tool to promote democracy.

In fact, what happened in Baku last month marked a kind of watershed in monitoring missions. The distance, never before so clearly marked, between the OSCE/ODIHR and short-term missions has affected the credibility of some of the most respected institutions. The EU and its parliament have shown they know how to react. It would now be necessary for such important institutions to make full clarity on this incredible story and question as soon as possible the meaning of international election observation missions.


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