Interview with Ali Karimli

Natig Javadli spoke with Ali Karimli, chairman of the Popular Front Party.

Last week in Azerbaijan was marked with political scandals: French President Hollande’s meeting with the opposition and the representatives of the civil society, broadcast of the surveillance of APFP chairman, Ali Karimli on Meydan TV, and finally, the harsh responses of the government officials to the U.S. Ambassador Richard Morningstar’s interview. The abovementioned show how overwhelming is the current political agenda.

– Mr. Karimli, a lot happened last week. President Hollade’s meeting with the opposition leaders, civil society representatives and independent journalists was particularly interesting. What was this meeting’s message?

– Indeed, the President of France was the first to do such a thing. Up to now, none of the Western state leaders have ever met with the opposition leaders, or civil society representatives. They would mainly meet with President Ilham Aliyev and other state officials, yet never with anyone else. This was the first initiative and had a series of messages behind. First of all, the fact that the meeting was held in the South Caucasus was the message meant for Russia, because President Hollande was not simply presenting France, but the whole European Union as one of the key political figures in the region. The message addressed to Russia was that France and the EU do not consider South Caucasus to be geographically distant. There is a good perspective of integration of this region to the European Union, and Russia should not view this place as their “backyard.” The visit of the president of one of EU’s biggest states to the South Caucasus in the time of crisis in the Ukraine speaks loudly enough. In particular, consider that these visits will be continuous. The president of the European Commission Manuel Barosso and the Secretary-General of the Council of Europe will visit Baku. The first message was addressed to Russia. The second one was for the Azerbaijani government, its community and opposition. The message to the society, the government and the opposition of the country was that, in principle, we do see you as a European country, and would love to see European governance system implemented in Azerbaijan. There is a geography in the world where Azerbaijan belonged as well up until yesterday, where the meetings of the foreign state heads with opposition was not included into the protocol. These countries have their own rules. For instance Central Asia, some of the African countries are among those where these meetings are unthinkable. However, this is one of the conditions of the modern democracy and part of the European culture where discussions should include opposition, as well as the government officials. Viewing opposition as tomorrow’s government, preparing the society for that was what I have seen as part of the European political culture. Our society should get used to the idea that today’s government is tomorrow’s opposition, and vice versa.

– Will this meeting change the attitude towards Aliyev’s governance?

– You know, in any case, Aliyev and the government wouldn’t want any big European leaders have a discussion with the opposition and the civil society representatives over Azerbaijan’s future. However, their wishes were ignored.

– Was there such a request?

– This is my assumption, the French sources are silent about it. However, you can easily imagine that the government wasn’t too happy about the meeting. However, we are talking about the new era. Right now, even the government is being hinted that the times are changing. Aliyev’s government promotes itself as a democratic and tolerant state, spends millions on conferences dedicated to tolerance. In this case, if you think of yourself as a democratic, tolerant and European culture oriented one, then you should be fine with having discussions with opposition on the matters related to the state issues.

– In this case, do you think Europe will change its attitude towards Aliyev?

– The attitude has changed now that Azerbaijan has chosen a particular way, has been cooperating with NATO, Council of Europe, and took on commitments in front of the OSCE and Council of Europe. We keep postponing fulfillment of those commitments for years now. Slowly but surely, Europe starts questioning, bringing up the fact that the commitments were taken on voluntary basis. We need to meet these expectations and become democratic. And one of the messages from Hollande’s visit was that Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia must become democratic states, I appreciate it a lot.

– Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice once commented on the Karabakh issue: “This conflict has taken too long now.” Don’t you think Western countries’ take on human rights and democracy issues has taken too long?

– This is a traditional and wrong approach our society takes. I have always opposed such expectations. The expectation is that the responsibility for democratization of our state lays upon West, and that they have to speed it up. There is not such a thing.

– If in 2003, Russia and Turkey, including West agreed upon establishment of the current government, why shouldn’t they be responsible as well?

– The reason is that they concluded that the inner factor in Azerbaijan wasn’t ready for this step. Prior to that, there was a strong initiative for the opposition to run with one candidate. Several months prior to the elections, discussions were held with the opposition regarding this matter. I do not want to go back to the past. What I mean is, the West starts seriously supporting democratic flows in case if the society is ready for that change.

– Were you ready in 2013?

Yes, we did have a united candidate. However, let’s take a look around. Do you see Turkey and Ukraine? Do you see how hard it is to acquire democracy? It is indeed very challenging.

– So it can not go without sacrifices?

– Not necessarily, there was a rose revolution in Georgia. The matter is thousands, hundred thousands of people should go for it. You can not do it with 10-15 thousands. Let’s be clear on this one, we were able to unite and run with a united candidate for the elections in 2013, yet this is not enough. Who says that once opposition comes up with a united candidate, the democracy has to follow. We should also be able to bring together a bigger part of the population, hundred thousands of people.

– So you haven’t succeeded yet?

– Not yet.

– Hollande left Baku, then you have been chased after, and monitored. We’ve seen it on Meydan TV. Everyone already knows about this kind of surveillance. So what was this message about then?

– From different sources I know that I am under surveillance, my phone conversations are being listened to, emails reviewed. However, the last 10 days the surveillance has been very obvious, with several cars and a lot of people involved.

– Is there a real need for that, when there are so many cameras in the city anyway?

– It is very interesting, today there are so many modern ways to monitor someone, yet they chose the most obvious of them. By the way, after the broadcast on your channel, the surveillance hasn’t been that obvious anymore. They must now monitor from afar. Apparently, they took precautions.

– What is the goal of being so obvious?

– Perhaps, they are trying to show that my each step is being watched over.

– You already know it.

-Yes, I know, and, to be honest, I have let them know about it. It is like a dialogue between us. When they try to tell me that I am being watched, I publicly announce that I am used to the fact. This kind of pressure will neither change my political views, nor the attitude towards the current situation. It became a lifestyle. For many years now I have been under such pressure, therefore, have an immune system against it.

– Mr. Karimli, this weekend was marked with Ambassador Richard Morningstar’s interview to the Radio Liberty. Official representative of the President’s Administration, Novruz Mammadov, expressed his opinion on the interview in a very harsh manner. He said: “Molotov cocktails were given to the young NiDA activists by the U.S.” Moreover, the Vice-Speaker of the Parliament, Valeh Askarov, reminded of the mutual commitments. The head of the delegation for the Council of Europe, Samad Seyidov, accused the ambassador in disrespect. How would you comment on the reactions towards Ambassador Morningstar’s interview?

-First of all, let’s clarify one point, there are indeed mutual commitments. Therefore, no one is fully independent. Look how many organizations we are now part of Council of Europe, OSCE, UN. Membership in each organization comes along with responsibilities and commitments. Azerbaijani officials should not forget this moment. They keep repeating “they should not interfere into our internal relations,” however, this is a very simplistic approach. These countries have a task to monitor whether Azerbaijan is fulfilling its obligations per the multilateral agreements and conventions taken earlier. If there is a mutual agreement and obligation, there should be a proper control over it as well. Many of these commitments are related to inner policies. If you want to be really independent, for instance like North Korea (no one interferes in their business), you shouldn’t have taken any obligations. Why did you commit to hold a democratic elections? You should have repeated what Gular Ahmadova said “there is only one voter in this country.” You should have documented it, and then no one would expect anything from you. However, you were a hypocrite, you signed the document committing to free elections, pluralism, freedom of speech and guaranteeing all other fundamental freedoms. If you have committed to such a thing, then Western countries’ ambassadors’ responsibility is to at least monitor the implementation of the international conventions.

– Maybe as Ambassador Morningstar said the government is not monolithic, “the fifth column” does not allow the execution of commitments?

-It was very interesting to me, once Russia started invading Ukraine, the President Administration’s media started to look for the “fifth column.” They looked for it for a while, and then realized that it was all about the government itself. It became crystal clear that the real opposition is pro-independence and in favor of the European integration. And that this opposition follows the example of late President Elchibay who drove the Russian army out of the country. Therefore, they could no longer look for the “fifth column” among the resistance, it became obvious that the government was in it from the beginning. Look, every pro-Russian step, starting from inviting their military to cross the borders to other positive gestures, come from the government.

– Then another question arises. If the “fifth column” exists, then what is President Ilham Aliyev’s role in it? In which column is he?

– I do not think there is a special “fifth column,” it doesn’t exist. Starting from Ilham Aliyev, the government authorities are very much sympathizing the authoritarianism in Russia. They realize that as long as Russian authoritarianism exists and resists the world forces, all the CIS authoritarian regimes are safe. Therefore, they support Russia, yet are concerned with the Northern neighbor. It is a very paradoxical situation. Azerbaijan’s most important independence guarantee is its corruption system, surprising it may seem, yet that’s the reality. A huge pyramid has been built upon corruption. While neighboring with Russia, you can not posses so much of wealth on your own, you have to share.

– However, the West is being “fed” as well, for instance caviar and etc.

– You know, what you’ve mentioned is a small fraction of what is available. However, in order to “own” its own wealth, Azerbaijan has to remain independent. The paradox is that the government’s true intention behind remaining independent is their wish to “own” the country for themselves.

– Does the opposition, including you, have a plan against this government’s policy or will you stick with more traditional politics?

– We will try to maximize all the means in order to establish a dialogue with the public. This is not only our fault, in general, all the authoritarian regimes cut the connections of the political forces with the public. For instance, I only had one speech on television in nine years, it was a 10-minute speech during the referendum on ITV. However, there are millions of people whose only access to information is TV, not newspapers or the Internet. The government can not fully control the latter. Our primary job is to inform the public on corruption and governance issues, in order to create a dialogue. The second message will be that Azerbaijani people still see their future among democratic organizations. If the public could choose, the choice would be obvious. The choice of the ruling elite is also obvious, in order to keep their money to themselves, they will not accept Russia’s influence. It is still fine, regardless of their motivation, they are not seeking protection from Russia, this is already good enough. However, the people must be the main guarantee. Therefore, we are working with people in this direction. I think that the national-democratic forces are the real power behind Azerbaijani independence and European integration policies. However, the resources are limited. As a newly established TV channel, you know exactly what I am talking about. We also work with scarce resources, and try really hard to reach out to people. However, thankfully, Azerbaijani people are very responsive to the messages we send with limited sources. The part of the population that thinks for itself is tired of the Azerbaijani government’s politics, as they are aware how the ruling party monopolizes the country’s wealth.

– However, you must be aware of the existence of the people who are passive due to harsh living conditions.

– Of course, they are tired of the situation, all they can think of is how to feed themselves. This is one of the reasons why we do not see millions protesting yet. The policies of these kind of regimes also indicate the fact that they freely spend money that belongs to the people on various unnecessary projects. Here is one of the facts, when the monument of Heydar Aliyev in Mexico was about to be removed, the government proposed $4 billion in investments, just so they do not touch the sculpture. You are active on social platforms, occasionally, people ask for help with their medical expenses on my page. Health care is horrible in Azerbaijan. People are struggling to survive, they can not treat their illnesses properly. Now imagine that with that $4 billion investment, we could have raised Azerbaijani health care to the same level with Germany. Therefore, the harsh living conditions people find themselves in is due to the government’s anti-people policies. They destroy and steal everything, whatever they can not steal, they invest in meaningless projects.

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