Israeli-Russian travel blogger Alexander Lapshin became a
persona non grata
in Azerbaijan after his visit to the occupied territories of Nagorno-Karabakh in March 2012.
He travelled there without seeking permission from the Azerbaijani authorities, which was enough to make the trip illegal. Azerbaijan’s list of persona non grata due to unsanctioned travel to Nagorno-Karabakh (
see full list
) currently stands at 324.
According to the
Migration Code of Azerbaijan
, a travel ban is the only administrative measure permitted by the violation of Azerbaijan’s internationally-recognized borders.
However, with his arrest in Minsk in mid-December on Azerbaijan’s request, Alexander Lapshin has become a controversial case, resonating widely both due the threat of selective justice applied against him and the possible consequences for other blacklisted individuals.
Other personae non gratae wonder about the intentions of the Azerbaijani authorities: is this intended to deter illegal visits to NK, or are individuals being targeted for writings that detract from the public image of the government of Azerbaijan?
Legal Contradictions in Play: Lapshin’s three passports
Blogger Lapshin was blacklisted as an Israeli citizen, but when he was arrested, Azerbaijan’s extradition request to Belarus referred to his Russian citizenship. But the criminal charges attributed to him (violation of state border) date back to his last to Baku, during the Formula 1 Races (17-19 June, 2016) – when he travelled on his Ukrainian passport.
Kyiv has stayed away from the case. After a long silence on the issue, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov
issued a statement
in mid-January 2017 in which he declared that ‘we are against the extradition of Russian citizens detained outside Russia to any other country’.
The second half of the statement highlighted the issue of the common migration policy between Minsk and Moscow, upon which the two countries have yet to reach an agreement on the exact terms of this policy. If such an agreement did exist, Belarus would be bound by a single extradition policy – meaning that it would not be allowed to extradite Lapshin or any other Russian citizen to a country other than Russia.
As this has not yet been finalized, Lavrov hinted that Moscow cannot fully involve itself in the Lapshin case. Israel has not released an official statement and has sought to find a diplomatic solution. The Israeli consulate in Minsk
encouraged the blogger
to write a letter of apology to the Azerbaijan authorities, which they hoped would lead Baku to revoke the extradition request.
Lapshin complied, and in a
letter addressed to President Aliyev
, ‘[requested] pardon for his activities in the light of the fact that naivety was behind [his] actions’. However, Baku remained unmoved, and the extradition request is still in play pending the result of Lapshin’s second appeal to a Belarusian court made on 26 January.
In order to understand Azerbaijan’s intentions and, in particular, to understand why it is pursuing criminal charges, lies in the development of the story.
The blogger’s case came to the attention of the Azerbaijani public in June 2016, after the pro-government news agency ‘haqqin.az’ published a story in late June 2016, accusing Lapshin of publishing anti-Azerbaijani articles and ‘humiliating’ the Azerbaijani state.
The Haqqin piece pointed to a number of his articles, especially one where he lambasted official claims of equal living standards,
highlighting the contradiction between living standards
in the capital city enjoyed by top officials, and in the ‘slums of Baku [where there are] children living in toxic acid’. Pro-government journalists decried Lapshin.
Both authors’ claims centered on the logic that if he knew he had been blacklisted, he should have known better than to write anything critical about Azerbaijan.
The Azerbaijani authorities have in fact made several false claims concerning his arrest: the
head of the Azerbaijani Prosectuor General press office
said “[he]was arrested in Belarus because he engaged in criminal conspiracy with a group of people and illegally visited the occupied territories of Azerbaijan where he spoke openly against Azerbaijan’s statehood’.
Similarly, the head of the Foreign Ministry’s press service
that the blogger was arrested because ‘he presented Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh as an “independent state” on his social media account, and supported the “independence” of the unrecognized regime”.
However, the first file of the extradition request submitted to Belarus cited Lapshin’s violation of a state border, referring to Lapshin’s June 2016 visit to Azerbaijan. Later, to further substantiate their extradition request, he was additionally charged with the more serious offense of public incitement to violent seizure of power, violent change of the constitutional order or calls for the infringement of the territorial integrity of the Azerbaijan Republic. If this new charge is a response to his writing about Nagorno-Karabakh – an open call to recognize its independence – and his support for the separatist regime, does this mean than any writer, journalist or private citizen who makes a similar statement is at risk of an extradition request by Baku?
The answer is probably ‘no’, because the people on Azerbaijan’s blacklist who illegally visited Karabakh have done similar things without facing such ire from official Baku. Also, Lapshin has been publishing these sort of statements since 2012.
What is unclear is why Baku is acting now. One possibility is the timing of Belarusian President Lukashenko’s trip to Baku, just two weeks before the arrest of Lapshin. The authorities in Baku knew that the blogger was in Minsk, and probably took advantage of the meeting with Lukashenko to press this case, given that Belarus is the only country in which Lapshin can be charged and arrested.
This is for the following reasons:
First is the European Convention on Extradition, which Azerbaijan has ratified but Belarus has not. In the Convention, Articles 2 and 3 discuss practice on extraditable offenses, referring to general practice in the field. Aside from Belarus, no European country will transfer Lapshin, as his case clearly comes under
of the Convention: “Extradition shall not be granted if the offense in respect of which it is requested is regarded by the requested Party as a political offense or as an offense connected with a political offense”.
The other factor is that although the Azerbaijani authorities have referred to a bilateral agreement on extradition, no such treaty with Belarus exists. The only possible contender is an agreement with a vague statement on extradition: “The agreement on friendship and cooperation”, signed in 2007.
It is likely that Lapshin will be extradited to Azerbaijan. However, the Azerbaijani authorities would be making significant diplomatic sacrifices by imprisoning him for any length of time. A fine is the more probable outcome. There are two relationships at stake here; Azerbaijan-Israel ties and Azerbaijan-Russia relations. Both Tel Aviv and Moscow have made it quietly clear that they oppose Lapshin’s imprisonment. But this issue raised fundamental questions about the effectiveness of Azerbaijan’s blacklisting policy.
The Future of Azerbaijan’s Blacklist
If it is to develop a clear policy on blacklisting travelers, the Azerbaijani authorities need to publish the required procedures for sanctioned visits to Nagorno-Karabakh. In general there is a lack of publicly available information and the steps should be made available online.
Moreover, the Migration Code and Criminal Code does not clearly state the illegality of such visits and the corresponding punishment. Therefore this requires a separate, new law. A model can be found in Georgia’s ‘Law on Occupied Territories”, states that illegal visits are punishable by 2-4 years in prison – although this punishment is now being reduced to a fine.
The important part of the law is not so much that it reduces visits, but that it limits economic activities in Georgian occupied territories. Azerbaijan is keen to develop a similar legal framework; officials in Baku frequently express their unhappiness with the activities of some foreign companies in Nagorno-Karabakh.
The Lapshin case may lead to the development of a legal framework regarding the treatment of people who take unsanctioned trips to Nagorno-Karabakh; at present their fate is unclear.
The diplomatic mess over Lapshin illustrates this. If Baku doesn’t use his case to develop a precedent, the Lapshin case will be remembered as waste of time and state resources.
Editor: The name Behbud Javanshir is a pen name.