Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Azerbaijan: the West's Romance with Enlightened Despots

It's easy to ignore human rights abuses when there are lucrative energy deals involved.
By Arzu Geybulla
  • Arzu Geybulla is an Azerbaijani journalist currently based in Istanbul. (Photo courtesy of A. Geybulla)
    Arzu Geybulla is an Azerbaijani journalist currently based in Istanbul. (Photo courtesy of A. Geybulla)

For citizens of Azerbaijan, the West’s very public failed romance with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sounds all too familiar.

Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS as he is often known, was until recently frequently hailed as a revolutionary economic and social reformer, a young man bent on bringing change to the kingdom.

But then came October’s gruesome murder of Saudi journalist and government critic Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate, in what Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan called an order from the “highest levels of the Saudi government”.

MBS is far from the first leader from a country known for its gross human rights violations and lack of basic freedom to win favour from the West. It helps, it seems, if there are lucrative energy deals involved.

Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev was also once the brave new hope, a western-style reformer taking over from his authoritarian father.

Much hope was vested in the younger Aliev when he became president after the death of his father Heydar in 2003. Aged just 43, with a Phd in history and speaking multiple languages including Russian, English and French, there was much talk of how he could move the country away from Soviet-style rigidity.

But when his – unsurprisingly - landslide victory in the 2003 presidential election was followed by international criticism and domestic protests, the response was police violence. At the time, in an interview with Washington Post, Aliyev “denounced rivals as professional ‘victims’ who had ‘no chance to come to power’”. 

Two years later, parliamentary elections were also denounced as fraudulent and when voters demanded a recount of ballots and took to the streets en masse, they were again met with brutality from the police who arrested hundreds of opposition activists.

In March of that year, journalist Elmar Huseynov was killed at the entrance to his house. Thirteen years later, Huseynov’s murder is yet to be solved.

Neither Elmar’s murder nor the subsequent crackdown against Azerbaijan’s civil society stopped Aliyev and his aids from securing diplomatic and strategic deals as the West’s next big energy and strategic partner.

Just a year after the fraudulent elections and Huseynov’s murder, the first Azerbaijan oil was delivered to Europe through the Baku Ceylan Tbilisi pipeline.

As Azerbaijan’s economy grew so did its leader’s power. In 2008, a month before the next presidential elections, then-US vice president Dick Cheney visited Baku to express America’s appreciation for the country’s “commitment to working with Western countries on energy issues”.

The romantic relationship with the enlightened despot seemed at its height, aided by Azerbaijan’s strategic importance in the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan. 

Two years later, in 2010, President Barak Obama also expressed his “appreciation for Azerbaijan’s contributions to supporting the ISAF mission in Afghanistan”.

As Matthew Bryza, a former US ambassador to Azerbaijan, noted, the country had “emerged as a crucially important transportation route for supporting operations in Afghanistan”.

In his final press statement before leaving Azerbaijan in 2011, Bryza said that the US had raised concerns both publicly and privately over human rights abuses in Azerbaijan

But, in the wake of the Arab Spring that shook much of the middle east and north Africa in 2011, he dismissed the possibility of an “Azerbaijani awakening” because “economic conditions were better”. The  “very enlightened officials” in the government would lead to eventual reforms and liberalisation, he explained.

But neither these very enlightened officials, nor the enlightened despot himself, implemented any reforms. Instead, the authorities launched yet another crackdown, while government lobbying derailed a 2013 Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) resolution on political prisoners.

In 2016, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and partners exposed a secret 2.9bn US dollar slush fund that Azerbaijan had used to pay European officials to support and “paint a positive image of the authoritarian regime,” all the while operating an international money laundering scheme.

The OCCRP revelations did not just stop with exposing the slush fund. In May 2018, the project released new information about the scandal that had become known as the Azerbaijani Laundromat and how it was also used to finance lobbying and reputation laundering in the US.

Aside from PACE investigations showing breaches of codes of conduct and corruption activities, it was left up to the European countries to launch their own enquiries.

Out of the 18 countries affected, according to Transparency International, in 12 “there has been no official follow-up by law enforcement, while investigations are pending in four”. Azerbaijan and Hungary were two countries which refused to open any investigations.

All the while, scores of members of Azerbaijani civil society were sent to jail. Some have been released, others are still behind bars, and new arrests continue to be made. 

None of the Azerbaijani Laundromat’s efforts at branding and image building helped save the country from taking a financial hit in the biggest crisis of Aliyev’s presidency - the 2015 dive in global oil prices. Those who suffered the most were ordinary citizens who endured financial loses in two consecutive currency devaluations.

But this did not impede the president from getting on with his wider plans.

On May 29, 2018, Aliyev inaugurated the first phase of the Southern Gas Corridor (SGC) project thanks to a 430million EUR loan from the EBRD. In July 2018 another EBRD loan of 500million EUR was approved for the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP).

During the project’s inauguration, Aliyev said, “We are creating a new energy map of Europe” and in August, he and Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan inaugurated the Trans Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) - a central gateway for Azerbaijani gas to reach Europe.

So it’s business as usual for “enlightened despots” with access to vital energy reserves.

Aliyev has been “re-elected” three times since 2003, along the way introduced changes to the constitution so as to remove presidential term limits. Surely, he is no longer the youthful reformer who so charmed western leaders at the start of his career. How many more Khashoggis, Huseynovs and the deaths and suffering of countless other journalists, civilians and rights defenders, it is going to take for Western elites to stop believing in revolutionary reformers – who fail to deliver the goods?

Arzu Geybulla is an Azerbaijani journalist currently based in Istanbul.

This publication was prepared under the "Giving Voice, Driving Change - from the Borderland to the Steppes Project" implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway.