The Pendulum Has Swung Towards the West: the Rebirth of Azerbaijani NGOs?

In October, the Ministry of Justice of Azerbaijan “birthed a sensation” when it registered the NGO of human rights defender, Oktay Qulaliyev. His organization was not registered for 17 years, during the course of which he submitted documents to the Ministry of Justice on ten separate occasions. Difficulties were created for the organization and its work, and Oktay himself was put behind bars twice. What’s more, 17 other (the coincidence is accidental) human rights NGOs were granted government registration during the same time.

This article was originally published in Russian on

Radio Azadliq.

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On the reasons for the two-year persecution of Baku human rights defenders

In October, the Ministry of Justice of Azerbaijan “birthed a sensation” when it registered the

NGO of human rights defender, Oktay Qulaliyev

. His organization was not registered for 17 years, during the course of which he submitted documents to the Ministry of Justice on ten separate occasions. Difficulties were created for the organization and its work, and Oktay himself was put behind bars twice. What’s more, 17 other (the coincidence is accidental) human rights NGOs were granted government registration during the same time.

Qulaliyev didn’t expect such a gift; in his joy, he didn’t even get upset when he found out that the name of his NGO was arbitrarily changed at the Ministry of Justice. “The Ministry of Justice also changed the goals and objectives of our organization. So, it has been suggested that we do economic research. We aren’t opposed, let’s find out where 150 billion dollars of oil money has gone to. Why do corruption and monopoly rule the country, why in our country is there such an enormous split between the rich and the poor?” Qulaliyev said, commenting on the ministry’s decision to Turan.

The human rights and democracy movement has been persecuted by the Azerbaijani government since 1993, but particularly severe repression began about two years ago, with the

arrest of the journalist Rauf Mirkadirov

, who was convicted of “spying for Armenia”. He sat for 23 months in a pretrial detention center, was sentenced to six years and was released in spring of this year; and in October, he successfully left for Switzerland to live there together with his family. This is how “Armenian spies” are treated in Azerbaijan. In actuality, Baku showed in this way that Rauf had been illegally imprisoned.

After Mirkadirov’s arrest, others were imprisoned: the human rights activist couple Arif and Leyla Yunus; the politicians Ilgar Mammadov, Tofik Yagublu and others; the journalists Hadija Ismail and many of her colleagues. Many hurriedly left Azerbaijan, in a manner of speaking. And after these two years, the fields of democracy and human rights in Azerbaijan have been left empty.

A part of those imprisoned, including

the Yunus couple, Khadija Ismail, T. Yagublu

and others were released early, several (

Ilgar Mammadov, Ali Insanov

) remained in prison despite acquittals in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

What forced the Azerbaijani government to back down? Even to adopt a law annulling the former version of the law “On grants”, in which the procedure for receiving grants from foreign organizations was so complicated that Azerbaijani NGOs simply closed down? The government unfroze the bank accounts of several NGOs that participated in checking payments in the oil sector and removed limitations on travel abroad for several activists and NGO representatives. Just a few days before the meeting of the EITI Council (we’ll explain this abbreviation a little further on) in Astana, the President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev signed a decree on a “single point of contact” for NGOs.

The situation changed on the eve of the decision regarding Azerbaijan’s status in the Norwegian authoritative organization, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). In April of 2015 this organization lowered Azerbaijan’s status because of government repression towards NGOs. It was demanded that Baku cease repressions and create conditions for civil society; otherwise Azerbaijan was threatened with being shut out of the Initiative. But for 18 months, Baku didn’t do anything to improve the situation or to create positive conditions for civil society. “The inaction of the Azerbaijani leadership might have threatened billions of dollars of credit for the gas pipeline connecting Azerbaijan with Europe”, confirmed the American newspaper

Financial Times

. So, the government took several steps in hopes of avoiding sanctions.

However, the Initiative is not satisfied by the government’s half-measures and gave Baku four months to correct the situation. The leadership of the EITI notes that by its next congress, Azerbaijan must give up on the most restrictive laws regulating the activity of NGOs: Baku must get rid of the requirement that NGOs confirm their registration every two years, the requirement to register grants with the Ministry of Justice, and also the demand that foreign donors register individual grants with the government.

In Azerbaijan’s opposition community they are debating: how far will Aliyev go in his liberalization, which is so obviously imposed by the West? “There is very little chance that Azerbaijan will turn down the billions in credit, because the country has many obligations”, Radio Liberty was told by the executive director of the Real movement, expert and economist

Natiq Jafarli

: “Azerbaijan needs large sums for financing the country’s obligations in energy and gas projects. Because of this, the Azerbaijani government is interested in continuing negotiations for loans. They simply make maximum effort to reduce (the West’s – K.A.) demands to a minimum, to make amendments to legislation that will be seen as changes, but on the other hand, use these amendments to keep control in their hands. Most likely they will choose this path, both try to stay in the EITI and continue negotiations for loans”.

Most likely it will be that way: the government will adopt laws and decisions that satisfy Western lenders and international organizations, while at the same time these decisions will not create danger for the government itself. Here we come to a natural question for foreign readers: why did Aliyev resort to repression two years ago if he would have to back down from them?

R. Mirkadirov answered this question for the author of this article just a month after being set free. Everything points to the fact that Rauf was unjustly punished as an Azerbaijani gift to Putin, who, of course, wants to see Azerbaijan be loyal to modern Russia and only in this capacity can a solution be reached on Karabakh that will suit Azerbaijanis. Rauf presented evidence for his version. In his articles published in the

Baku newspaper

Zerkalo


, there were jabs aimed at Putin, who never tires of warring with recent brothers from the USSR. Putin was personally aware of these articles, as suggested by a protest letter from the Russian embassy in Azerbaijan to the chief editor of

Zerkalo

. In response to protests from the Azerbaijani side regarding the pro-Armenian filter through which events are presented in the Russian press, the Kremlin’s official representatives responded with links from

Zerkalo

¸ making it understood that before protesting Baku should quiet its Russophobes. Mirkadirov had transformed into a factor degrading Azerbaijani-Russian relations at a time when events in Karabakh demanded the opposite: if a dog bites, you should talk with its owner (Russia). Azerbaijan needed to show Moscow conclusive support for its policies, in deed, not in word, in exchange for the emancipation of Karabakh. Their choice fell on Rauf Mirkadirov. After him, other pro-Western and simultaneously anti-Russian actors in Azerbaijan also suffered. And what’s more, Azerbaijan’s high officials openly talked about the possibility of the next “color revolution” in our country after what took place in Georgia and Ukraine. Putin had to be shown that in Azerbaijan “the West is not accepted”.

They showed him. As a result the encountered a sharp reaction from the USA and Europe, and the Kremlin not only didn’t help Azerbaijan in the Karabakh question, but even strengthened Armenia with shipments of Russian “Iskanders”. This is why the Ministry of Justice granted registration to Qulaliyev’s NGO. The Azerbaijani pendulum, having made its way to the Russian side, headed back in the other direction…

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