This week’s Eurovision Song Contest has put Azerbaijan’s authoritarian regime under the spotlight. It should also be a catalyst for Europe to change a relationship with Baku that is currently guided by narrow energy interests if it is to avoid a repetition of the Arab Awakening when it appeared to be a supporter of autocrats, according to a new report.
The EU and member states should adopt a “hug and hold” approach to promoting democracy in the former Soviet Republic – that is, hug Azerbaijan but also hold it to its commitments to reform, Jana Kobzova and Leila Alieva argue in “The EU and Azerbaijan: Beyond oil,” a policy memo for the European Council on Foreign Relations (Hat tip: Global Europe):
Although Azerbaijan holds more political prisoners than any other Eastern European country, the EU has remained timid about human rights violations. The EU’s failure to pressure the Azerbaijani government to liberalise has brought few benefits and continues to discredit the EU in the eyes of Azerbaijan’s society.
The EU is now trying to put democracy back at the heart of its foreign policy. But while it has taken a tough approach to Belarus – another systematic abuser of human rights in the Eastern Partnership region – it seems more concerned about its own energy interests and security in Azerbaijan than for the state of democracy there. Although they have been vocal about democracy in Azerbaijan, individual member states and the EU institutions have in reality co-operated with the regime in Baku without imposing conditionality. This conditionality-free approach has brought Europe few benefits and continues to discredit the EU in the eyes of Azerbaijani society. Without adjusting its relations with this oil-rich country, the EU risks repeating the same blunders it has made in its southern neighbourhood in the past.
At the moment, the EU’s best chance for more reform in Azerbaijan is continued engagement – rather than isolation of the Baku government. At the practical level, the EU should continue to use its dialogue with the government to assist in areas that are important for Azerbaijan’s modernization and transformation, such as governance, rule of law or diversification of the country’s economy, as well as those where the EU can increase its indirect influence through outreach to broader society. When it comes to co-operation with the government, the limited funds the EU has should be invested where its assistance can have greater added value rather than into equipment or infrastructure projects.
While “hugging” Azerbaijan, Europe should also hold it to the commitments it made by joining the ENP and agreeing action plans. The European Commission’s recent offer of a “matrix” for Azerbaijan is a step in the right direction as it links its assistance to the government’s performance on reform. If the regime expresses no interest in EU aid or continues to underperform, the EU should apply “adjusted conditionality” and re-direct the funds towards local civil society. To monitor the government’s actions, the EU should also work to develop greater co-operation and interaction with Azerbaijan’s national platform of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum and local watchdogs. The EU should also establish an internal contact group among relevant EU institutions and directorates-general (led by the European External Action Service or Commissioner Füle) to facilitate exchange of information and co-ordination of EU assistance for Azerbaijan.
A concerted effort at the EU level to restrict the movement of those in Azerbaijan who violate human rights on a systematic basis is unlikely. But member states can take action individually and should follow the example set by the British government, which earlier this year adopted a new rule banning those non-EU nationals accused of human rights abuses from entering the UK. The UK took this measure even though it traditionally has good relations with the Azerbaijani government and London’s property market is the prime destination for investment by the Azerbaijani elite. The provision will hardly be enough to encourage the Aliyev regime to fully democratise, but it might significantly change the calculations for those in the ruling elite taking part in human rights violations.
“As Azerbaijan grows more authoritarian, Europe faces a choice,” says Alieva, a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy. “It can fully embrace this country and its society, which is proud of becoming the first-ever Muslim liberal democratic republic in 1918, or it can continue its condition-free dialogue with the regime.”
Azerbaijan has often used its difficult geographical and geopolitical context as an excuse to tighten the political screws. The country is blessed with hydrocarbon riches but cursed by its location in what is probably the most combustible region in Europe. To the north, it borders Russia, which, apart from having a radar station on
Azerbaijan’s territory is also one of the main sources of the radical Islamist groups that are currently operating in the country. To the east, Armenia is still technically at war with Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh; Iran, in which 20–30 million Azerbaijanis continue to live, is also a difficult neighbour. Azerbaijan’s only two “good neighbours” are Georgia and especially Turkey.
As the ECFR paper notes:
- Azerbaijan’s oil and gas reserves transformed the country and led to a decade of impressive economic growth. However, with oil running out, Azerbaijan’s economic model is unsustainable. The government has made little effort to diversify the economy away from dependence on hydrocarbons.
- Since 2003 Ilham Aliyev has consolidated power in the presidency and steered Azerbaijan towards a full-fledged autocracy. The overall human rights situation is worsening.
- The government’s heavy-handed tactics may eventually backfire. By clamping down on independent media and repressing the secular opposition, the regime has closed most of the usual channels for expressing dissent.
The EU and member states should adopt a “hug and hold” approach to promoting democracy:
- The EU needs to redirect more political and financial support to grassroots groups, SMEs and independent media who can put more pressure on the regime. The EU should be more vocal in demanding greater political pluralism.
- The EU should continue to use its dialogue with the government to assist in areas that are important for Azerbaijan’s modernisation and transformation, such as governance, rule of law or diversification of the country’s economy.
- The EU is Azerbaijan’s most important trading partner and should use this as a leverage to push for change.
- EU member states should follow the UK’s example and introduce new rules banning those non-EU nationals accused of human rights abuses from entering the EU – this would change the calculations for those in Azerbaijan’s elite taking part in human rights violations.
- There are more political prisoners in Azerbaijan than in Belarus, the political opposition has almost been eliminated, the main TV channels are controlled by the government and journalists are regularly threatened.
- The volume of oil extracted in Azerbaijan peaked in 2010 and is set to continue to decline. Azerbaijan’s budget increasingly relies on transfers from the state oil fund (SOFAZ) rather than taxes.
- Between 2003 and 2010 the poverty rate dropped from 45% to 9%. But in 2011 the country recorded the lowest economic growth among all former Soviet republics.
- Azerbaijan is as corrupt as Russia or Uganda and ranks worse than neighbouring Georgia and Armenia. (Transparency International)
- The EU’s financial levers are limited: in 2012, the EU’s offer of €31 million in exchange for social and economic reforms was dwarfed by the almost €43 million that Azerbaijan earns every day from oil.
- EU democracy promotion in the Eastern Neighbourhood has failed: none of the six Eastern Partnership countries is fully democratic and democracy scores in the region have been worsening.
The European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) is the first pan-European think-tank. Launched in October 2007, its objective is to conduct research and promote informed debate across Europe on the development of coherent and effective European values based foreign policy.
Jana Kobzova is a Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and the coordinator of its Wider Europe programme. Before joining ECFR, Jana led the Belarus democratisation programme at the Bratislava-based Pontis Foundation. She also helped establish the Slovak branch of the European webzine Café Babel. Jana has co-authored several book chapters on Eastern Europe and EU Eastern policy as well as articles for various journals and media outlets. She has co-authored various ECFR publications including The Spectre of a Multipolar Europe (2010), The EU and Belarus after the Election (2011) and Dealing with a post-BRIC Russia (2011).
Leila Alieva is a Baku-based political analyst and the founder of the Center for National and International Studies. She has held research fellowships at Harvard University, Berkeley, the Woodrow Wilson Center, Johns Hopkins University, NATO Defence College and the National Endowment for Democracy. Her publications include Integrative Processes in the South Caucasus and their Security Implications (2006) and The EU and the South Caucasus (2006) and she has also written about security, conflicts and politics in the South Caucasus for various publications including the Journal of Democracy and Jane’s Intelligence Review.
The authors of the memo are available for comment and analysis on the situation in Azerbaijan.
Jana Kobzova, ECFR Policy Fellow, firstname.lastname@example.org, +44 7786 008 683