Beyond hosting the Eurovision song contest or Formula One, few of us in Britain, I suspect, know much about Azerbaijan. In fact, you may find yourself asking whether it really qualifies as a European country at all. Why then, is British prime minister David Cameron so friendly with Azerbaijani President Ilhan Aliyev? And why did government Energy Minister Michael Fallon visit the country just last month?
When you learn that Azerbaijan’s capital city, Baku, is almost floating on natural gas, and that oil giant BP has strong interests in the country, things become a little clearer.
But it’s not just Conservative party ministers doing the bidding. Former Labour prime minister and part-time Middle East peace envoy Tony Blair is also in on the act. He is understood to be advising a powerful consortium of energy interests and helping to secure a highly controversial oil pipeline from the former Soviet republic.
With its massive oil and gas reserves, the regime in Baku is hoping to attract the sorts of capital flows that swirl through the Middle East, and is explicitly positioning itself as the new Dubai. Unfortunately, it is also using the regimes of that region as the model for its approach to human rights. Those who criticize the government or try to build bridges with people in neighbouring countries are liable to be branded traitors and subjected to arbitrary detention.
The problems in Azerbaijan came to my attention in my role as Member of the European Parliament (MEP). I received an email from a constituent who told me about her friend Leyla Yunus, whom she first met about 15 years ago at a conference of women peacemakers. Leyla made a strong impression, demonstrating her love for her country and her strong desire to help it be at peace with its neighbours.
‘Leyla, like many other human rights activists in Azerbaijan, has suffered endless harassment, and she and her husband Arif were obliged to get their daughter, their only child, Dinara, to safety in the Netherlands, because of the threats against her life. Over the years I have done what I could to support them,’ recalled my constituent after meeting Layla in Baku.
Azerbaijan is keen to develop its economic relationship with the European Union (EU) and perhaps even become a member one day. The EU has a stake in the success of the country’s fledgling democracy, since it funds civil-society organizations in the country to the tune of more than $27.9 million given to more than 74 projects since 2007. The repression of civil-society groups has therefore been met with concern at the highest levels of EU institutions.
When European Commission President José Barroso visited Azerbaijan’s capital city in June, he stressed the importance of a multi-party democracy, an open society and an open economy as the best way to achieve stability and prosperity. According to Catherine Ashton, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, he also stressed that a thriving civil society constitutes an essential component of a healthy society.
Dunja Mijatović, the Representative on Freedom of the Media for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), has gone even further. Sharing her ‘alarm’ at the criminal charges against NGOs supporting media freedom in Azerbaijan, she said: ‘These actions appear to be part of a campaign of targeted suppression of free expression and free media […] media NGOs provide essential support to journalists and the whole media industry. Any actions to intimidate them and interfere with their activities go against OSCE commitments and create a chilling effect on those who champion freedom of the media.'
So what can we do? Perhaps most importantly we should not collude in Azerbaijan’s portrayal of itself as just another exotic tourist destination. If ethical tourism means anything, then it means not supporting countries whose governments deny their citizens’ basic rights. Formula One fans can write to the sport’s governing body to demand that they cancel the race scheduled for Baku in 2016. And you could also contact your MEP and MP, letting them know your concerns about the way Leyla Yunus and other activists are being treated.
It is hard for those of us who live in Britain to understand what life is like in a country where your basic rights are routinely abused by an oppressive and undemocratic government. Just as Aung San Suu Kyi has represented the struggle against this sort of oppression in Burma, so Leyla Yunus is its figurehead in Azerbaijan. Her greatest protection lies in her story being known and shared.