Azerbaijani NGOs Wait for Permission to Return to Work

In April 2014, Ali Hasanov, head of the division for socio-political questions of the Administration of the President of Azerbaijan, said: “Several NGOs, under the title of ‘cultural diplomacy’, initiated collaboration with local organizations that are under the control of the intelligence services of the aggressor Armenia, and became spokespeople for the interests of an enemy country.

A group of Azerbaijani journalists recently returned from Sochi, having taken part in an international media-forum, in which also participated their colleagues from Armenia. The Sochi meeting of Azerbaijani and Armenian journalists may be the first in the past three years, as broader society has not known of any such instances of face-to-face contact since April, 2014, or, more specifically, since the arrest in Baku of journalist Rauf Mirgadirov. Mirgadirov was convicted “of betraying the motherland” and “spying for Armenia”, though the only charge brought against him in court was associating with Armenian colleagues and politicians. After Mirgadirov’s arrest, the same accusations were brought against Leyla and Arif Yunus, other public figures in Azerbaijan, though they were officially accused of financial  crimes. In Azerbaijan, beginning in spring 2014, a campaign of prosecution was rolled out against public figures who had engaged in cultural diplomacy to better the relations between the peoples of Azerbaijan and Armenia. The leaders of many of Azerbaijan’s NGOs and journalists have emigrated abroad since that time and continue to live and work there.

In April 2014, Ali Hasanov, head of the division for socio-political questions of the Administration of the President of Azerbaijan, said: “Several NGOs, under the title of ‘cultural diplomacy’, initiated collaboration with local organizations that are under the control of the intelligence services of the aggressor Armenia, and became spokespeople for the interests of an enemy country. The most unfortunate is that NGOs and individuals of this type, and several journalists, in relying on the finances of outside circles, placed themselves higher than the national legislation, evaded registering their grant-funded projects, presenting financial returns, paying taxes and meeting other legal requirements of the government. But unfortunately, today these circles present adequate measures on the part of government organs as “pressure on civil society”, “restriction” of NGO activities and the media; a dedicated campaign of slander is being unrolled against Azerbaijan.

Sardar Alibeyli, chief editor of the newspaper P.S Nota, disseminated the following statement from the prison camp where he was being held: “… among those responsible for the tense situation that we have seen on the front line these past days, alongside international organizations, are also people who, under the pretense of ‘cultural diplomacy, are engaged in a mission of ‘friendship’ with the enemy and serve not the interests of Azerbaijan, but of the grant-giver”. Alibeyli noted that in world history there is no case in which an occupied territory was liberated as a result of ‘cultural diplomacy’.

After a short time Alibeyli was processed and released, though he had been sentenced to four years in a prison camp for hooliganism in November 2013. Amnesty International recognized Alibeyli as a ‘prisoner of conscience’, condemning the policies of the Azerbaijani government for repressing dissent and persecuting critics of the government, but the convicted journalist appealed to be excluded from the list of political prisoners.

Much earlier, in 2009, Azay Quliev, who is president of the Azerbaijan National NGO Forum and deputy of the National Assembly, also spoke out against the cooperation of Azerbaijani and Armenian NGOs. On multiple occasions he noted the Forum’s decision to prohibit all professional contacts between Azerbaijani NGOs and their Armenian colleagues. The reason is that the Armenians have occupied our lands, meaning that cooperation with enemy “NGO workers” is grist to the mill for the occupants. But the Forum’s decision received official support only in 2014, as noted in a statement by Ali Hasanov.

One of the active participants in Azerbaijani-Armenian meetings declined to answer questions from Radio Azadliq. In 2014, this individual closed their office in Baku, afraid to fall under the same millstone that had pulverized Mirgadirov, the Yunus couple, and other Azerbaijani figures.

Mirgadirov, the Yunus couple and other “spies and benefactors of corruption” were convicted, received early release from prison, and were allowed to go live in Europe. There it is, we have the “most humanitarian justice system in the world”.

Is it beneficial or detrimental to meet with these Armenian public figures?

The blogger Hamid Hamidov, a participant of the Sochi media-forum, returned from there convinced of the impossibility of influencing relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia via ‘cultural diplomacy’. “Maybe when Azerbaijani lands begin to be returned and it really does become necessary to restore trusting relationships between these two peoples, then meetings and interaction between representatives of these nations will be necessary. But for now, there is an ongoing war, dialogue between the two sides is pointless, since other such meetings have not been beneficial,” Hamidov told RadioAzadliq. At the same time, he considered the trip to Sochi to be useful for forming personal impressions of the mood in Armenian society after the brief, April war in Karabakh.

Journalist Nijat Hajiyev, another participant of the Sochi meeting, also returned with a pessimistic impression. He doesn’t believe that such meetings with Armenian journalists can bring any sort of benefit, though he admitted that there is an obvious benefit to personal contacts that serve to dispel myths. Some Armenians are convinced that all Azerbaijanis are Ramil Safarovs…

It cannot be unequivocally asserted that dialogue between nongovernmental actors from two countries in conflict is entirely unproductive. In November, 2013, the Catholicos of All Armenians, Karekin, addressed a letter to the leader of the Muslims of Azerbaijan, Sheikh ul-Islam Pashazadeh with a request to visit the imprisoned Armenian soldier Hakob Injighulyan. The Sheikh fulfilled the Catholicos’s request and accepted an audience with the prisoner, in which meeting also took part the heads of Azerbaijan’s other religious denominations. Karekin and other Armenians were satisfied that Injighulyan is living in conditions that meet international norms for the maintenance of prisoners of war.

The numerous and long-term working contacts between Azerbaijani and Armenian journalists enable the debunking of deceitful myths about the other side in the conflict, myths that are capable of driving even journalists into a frenzy. Avaz Hasanov, director of the society for humanitarian research, has for many years worked together with partners in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh to search for imprisoned Azerbaijanis and Armenians on the territories of the parties to the conflict.

In 2011, in an interview for, he said: “A government program needs to be created for working with the Armenian community of Nagorno-Karabakh and to bring their viewpoint closer to that of the Azerbaijani community. We need to achieve a state of affairs in which both communities, in the end, would be able to agree amongst themselves, which would enable the creation of a space in which to live together. I am sure that there are such people in Nagorno-Karabakh. There is potential among NGOs, journalists and, perhaps, among residents who were not directly involved in the conflict and who to this day retain a feeling of sympathy for Azerbaijanis. The bottom line is that a government program needs to be created on the basis of which people would have the opportunity to interact, would not be estranged from one another. In the end, we need to arrive at a situation in which they would engage one another not via a third country, but directly. If necessary, a frontier, frontline zone could be opened, which would create the possibility for these people to coexist.”

September 30, 2016 might be the end date for Azerbaijan’s official policy of antagonism towards civil society (NGOs) that is in disagreement with the government, and towards European principles for coexistence of conflicted nations. On the first day of the autumn session, the National Assembly made the decision to renew ties with the European Parliament, which were severed a year ago on the initiative of the Azerbaijani side. In the document, the National Assembly notes that relations were cut after, on September 10, 2015, the European Parliament adopted an “unjust and non-objective resolution” against Azerbaijan. The resolution proposed adopting sanctions against Azerbaijan’s government for violating human rights in the country, and demanded that all political prisoners be freed. In response, on September 14 of that same year, the National Assembly passed a decision to terminate membership in the EURONEST Parliamentary Assembly.

“We brought our enmity with us to Europe”

Azerbaijani lawmakers intend to renew engagement with the European Parliament. This might mean annulling the unspoken ban on cooperation between Azerbaijani and Armenian NGOs. But in an interview with RadioAzadliq, Matanat Azizova, the director of the Women’s Crisis Center, who emigrated to Prague, did not express optimism. She believes that inter-parliamentary dialogue alone is too little. In order to restore active life to the Azerbaijani opposition NGOs, the law on nongovernmental organizations should be changed.

“Peace-building work in these conflicts will not be restored in the near future. This ban will stay in place for a long while. Especially after the events of April (the battles in Karabakh – ed.). It’s possible that there will be work only within a trilateral framework, which doesn’t touch on questions of conflict management and peace-building. It is practically impossible to carry out other projects in Azerbaijan on the legislative level. Under the existing law “On Grants” it’s impossible to include foreign donors, it’s impossible to transfer money into Azerbaijan, these funds cannot be withdrawn from a bank account.  Everything depends on finances. They need to remove the bureaucratic obstacles in the process of registering an NGO with the Ministry of Justice, get rid of the unspoken ‘black list’ of Azerbaijani NGOs that are out of favor with the government,” says Azizova.


This article was originally published in Russian on

Radio Azadliq.

Ana səhifəNewsAzerbaijani NGOs Wait for Permission to Return to Work