Azerbaijan: Escape from Europe

A European Integration Index for 2013 was published on the eve of the EU Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius.  The index was developed by the International Renaissance Foundation and the Open Society Institute's European policy, in collaboration with the Open Society Foundation and the Civil Society Forum of the Eastern Partnership. It has highlighted an unflattering assessment about Azerbaijan's European integration.

EU-Azerbaijan relations continued to develop in 2012 against the background of Azerbaijan’s active foreign policy, which resulted in a number of achievements aimed at garnering visibility and prestige for Baku, the report reads. Azerbaijan chaired the UN Security Council in May-June 2012; it hosted the Eurovision Song Contest in June and the UN Internet Governance Forum in November 2012; it reached agreement on discontinuing the lease on the radar station in Gabala by the Russian military; and the capital city of Baku was selected to host the inaugural European Games in 2015.

At the same time, Azerbaijan reasserted its lead-ing role in EU and regional energy security by signing an agreement on the construction of the Trans Anatolian Pipeline or TANAP, a pipeline that will connect natural gas producer Azerbai-jan and transit state Turkey to provide an alterna-tive gas line to Europe over which the Azeri state oil company has control. These successes in for-eign policy and energy security were marred by the lack of progress in resolving the decades-old Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Hostilities erupted again in June 2012, which led to a greater than usual number of casualties along the line of con-tact. Moreover, Azerbaijan saw worsening of state of democracy and human rights record and a clear move away from European standards in this area.

The country’s growing self-confidence and increasing role on the international and regional stage were reflected in the nature of EU-Azerbai-jan relations in 2012. Within the framework of political dialogue, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy visited Baku in July 2012, European Commission Vice President Neelie Kroes visited in November, and EU Commissioners Stefan Füle and Günther Oettinger visited in April and August. Baku also hosted the second Euronest meeting, which was the first to take place out-side the EU. Yet the only official EU-Azerbaijan meeting on human rights took place within the subcommittee of Freedom Security and Justice, not as a separate institution.

Despite some progress on economic and legal issues in the Association Agreement negotia-tions and a breakthrough in negotiations on the Visa Facilitation Agreement—negotiations are complete and the VFA will be signed in Vilnius in late November—official statements and lack of progress in reforms reflected the Government’s increasing tendency to cherry-pick areas of coop-eration as opposed to embracing the broader inte-gration agenda in relations with the EU. Officials continue to express interest in ‘strategic’ coopera-tion with the EU, but the low level of approxima-tion reflects a lack of political will and incentive, while the still unfinished negotiations with the WTO keep the country from signing DCFTA. By contrast, Azeri civil society demonstrated a high level of interest in European integration, as witnessed by numerous public statements by civil society leaders and the highest number of applications of all 6 EaP countries to participate in the 2012 Assembly of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum.

In 2012, Azerbaijan’s political life was characterized by increased spontaneous social protests and growing activism in civil society and the opposition. The opposition was joined by a broad coalition of intelligentsia, young professionals and youth movements. Independent civil society groups used the Eurovision Song Contest to run an advocacy campaign called ‘Sing for Democracy,’ which drew attention to human rights violations in Azerbaijan. The Government responded by stepping up pressure on NGOs, journalists, hu-man rights advocates and youth groups. 

In the spring of 2012, criticism of the state of human rights in Azerbaijan caused further tension in relations with Germany. Politically-motivated arrests, which had intensified in 2011 in reaction to opposition rallies inspired by the Arab Spring, continued into 2012, with more severe trumped-up charges. While one group of political prisoners was am-nestied in June 2012, an increasing number of human rights advocates were placed behind bars on what appears to be trumped-up charges. Youth activists, including members of the NIDA movement, bloggers and, most recently, in February 2013, two opposition activists, Tofiq Yagublu, a journalist and second-in-command of the opposition Musavat Party, and Ilgar Mammadov, a presidential candidate from the REAL movement were arrested on dubious charges. Journalists were subjected to smear campaigns and even assaulted, while newspapers were swamped with lawsuits. The opposition newspaper Azadliq was on the verge of closure after a lo-cal court slapped it with high fines on defamation charges. Worse, against international recom-mendations, criminal defamation charges were extended to the relatively open territory of the internet.

Moreover, in 2012 and early 2013, Azerbaijan continued to translate its policies into legislation in a manner that strengthened the institutions of authoritarian rule. Among laws directed at re-stricting access to information, freedom of press and assembly were provisions increasing fines and detentions for participating in public meet-ings; provisions allowing commercial information to be secret; and provisions criminalizing defama-tion on the internet. Although the Government finally introduced public funding for political parties, the controlled nature of Azeri elec-tions means its impact on the development of a proper party system will be minimal—and could even be counterproductive to pluralism.

The possibilities for petty corruption were somewhat reduced with the introduction of a new system of rendering services to the population known as the Azerbaijan Service and Assessment Network (asan.gov.az). However, the country was shaken by a series of revelations in publications and videos disseminated via social media that told of large scale corruption with the involvement of high level officials and the President’s family. The impact of corruption spread well beyond state borders through what an independent European research and policy institution termed ‘caviar di-plomacy.’ For instance, despite revealing publica-tions and increased attention to the situation in Azerbaijan, the Council of Europe’s co-rapporteur Christofer Strasser was prevented from getting approval for his report on political prisoners in Azerbaijan at the PACE session in January 2013 because of opposition within the Parliamentary Assembly.

Azerbaijan’s economic growth continued to be heavily dependent on oil production and rev-enues from this source. Yet production witnessed a further decline in 2012, dropping by 5.5 % and forcing the Government to adjust the GDP growth rate downward from its projected 5.7% to 2.2 % in 2012. The state budget continued to benefit from significant transfers from the State Oil Fund (SOFAZ). SOCAR, the national oil company, continued to expand its investments abroad and issued 500 million Eurobonds. It also opened a network of gas stations in Switzerland, Ukraine and Georgia, and started construction on a STAR refinery in Turkey.

Azerbaijan was once again in 5th place on the Index, outperforming only Belarus on many dimen-sions. According to the Index, Azerbaijan’s links with the EU intensified on many levels in 2012. Azerbaijan has also slightly improved its business climate and approximation in most sectors. At the same time, its overall democracy aspect has deteriorated. For instance, Azerbaijan’s record of elec-tions remains the worst in the region. Azerbai-jan shows no improvement in Management of European integration despite the fact that it re-structured its State Committee for European Integration, which is now headed by the Minister for Economic Development.

Azerbaijan’s significance will grow in 2013, fol-lowing the decision to choose pipelines to take gas further from the borders of Turkey to Europe-an markets, given the tensions with Iran and the upcoming withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. This will give its authorities much more room to maneuver in this election year, when President Aliyev is going to try for a contro-versial third term in office. Despite his seemingly firm grip on power, the growing mobilization of civil society and the opposition, as well as grow-ing social protest in early 2013, could force the Government to adjust as the international com-munity pays increasing attention to the country. Oil-rich Azerbaijan’s strategic location between Russia, Iran and Turkey will keep the elections at the center of attention among external powers. For the EU, the upcoming presidential election will represent an even harsher test of its capacity to reconcile value-based and interest approaches to its Eastern Neighborhood.--0--

 

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