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Baku Caves In To Council Of Europe

Azerbaijan backs down on unprecedented threat to ban member of visiting Council of Europe delegation.
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Andreas Gross, the Swiss rapporteur in a fact-finding mission by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, PACE, went ahead with a trip to Azerbaijan last week, despite unprecedented government threats to prevent him entering the country.


Five days before Gross was due to arrive in Baku, officials launched a fierce campaign to stop the Swiss parliamentary deputy - who has openly criticised Azerbaijan for its human right record and lack of progress in democratic reforms - from visiting the country.


Foreign minister Vilayat Guliev said that Gross was not welcome, while parliamentary speaker Murtuz Aleskerov sent a letter to the general secretary of PACE, Bruno Haller, warning that "not a single official in Azerbaijan will have any contact with Gross" and demanding that he be replaced.


The row over the Swiss deputy had been stoked up by Ilham Aliev, who as well being head of Azerbaijan's delegation to PACE, is son of the president and vice chairman of the governing New Azerbaijan Party.


Ilham Aliev and Gross fell out after the latter delivered a damning report to PACE on the violence in the village of Nardaran, in which police fired on demonstrators and one man was killed (see CRS 132-3). Aliev walked out of the PACE chamber in protest and subsequently called for Gross to be replaced by another rapporteur.


Aliev is openly talked of as a potential heir to the presidency and so his demarche became a test of his political strength as well as a battle of wills with the Council of Europe.


The Azerbaijani media began a campaign of vilification of Gross, personally led by Ilham Aliev. He told Echo newspaper, "Inside Gross is hostility to our country and even, I would say, to our people."


Regime supporting newspapers and state television called him an Armenian stooge and said that his former boss was a Swiss Armenian named Rufi. They noted that he had put his signature to an appeal for the murder of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 to be termed "genocide". A pro-government deputy Hasan Mirzoyev went further, delivering what was in effect a physical threat against Gross.


However, the Council of Europe dug its heels in and called the campaign against Gross "unacceptable pressure". Its general secretary, Walter Schwimmer, said, "No member country of the Council of Europe has the right to change the composition of a monitoring group." He said that the council would consider cancelling the visit altogether and warned this would bring "serious negative consequences for Azerbaijan".


The Azerbaijani authorities backed down and Ilham Aliev signed a fax agreeing to the fact-finding mission without any prior conditions.


Aliev explained his climb-down by saying, "If Azerbaijan refuses to admit Gross it will be doing him a favour, since he is waiting for sanctions to be imposed on Azerbaijan. So we should not give him that chance. But our request for him to be replaced as a rapporteur remains in force and PACE will consider it, perhaps as soon as September."


However, many of the Azerbaijani newspapers viewed it as a humiliation for Aliev. Two of the headlines read, "Ilham Aliev has shown his political worthlessness" and "The regime's war against the Council of Europe has ended in disgrace".


Gross, accompanied by his Spanish colleague Guillermo Martinez Casan, arrived on July 16, as scheduled. Despite the prior threats, the PACE representatives were received by the deputy speaker of parliament, Arif Ragimzade, electoral officials and regional heads, as well as opposition politicians, human rights activists and representatives of national minorities. Gross also attended the trial of former defence minister Rahim Gaziev and visited several prisons.


The two rapporteurs will present a report to the Council of Europe's Monitoring Committee on September 10, which will then be discussed by PACE.


Observers in Azerbaijan have been asking why the authorities picked a row with the Swiss rapporteur, only for his visit to pass off relatively smoothly.


Leila Yunus, director of the Institute of Peace and Democracy, speculated that at the root of the quarrel was the referendum scheduled for Azerbaijan on August 24, when voters will consider 39 possible amendments to the constitution.


Gross has said that the ballot is being organised too hastily and does not meet democratic standards. He agreed with the US State Department that "it's impossible to give one general 'yes' or 'no' answer, when the amendments touch on 24 different articles of the constitution".


Gross has also said that he believes President Heidar Aliev should not stand for a third term. Aliev has said he intends to do so, despite claims by some that this is against the constitution.


"The authorities would like to hold both the referendum and the next elections without any control by international organisations and, by doing so, create the conditions for falsifying their results," Yunus told IWPR.


Gulamhussein Alibeili, a deputy from the opposition Popular Front party, argued that the whole row had been cooked up so as to raise the profile of Ilham Aliev, but the authorities had miscalculated.


However, another opposition politician Ilgar Mamedov of the National Independence Party was more inclined to believe that the affair was more of a cock-up than a conspiracy. "Surely you don't think that they had some strategy or tactics?" he said. "This is simply the result of political short-sightedness. They thought they could deal with Gross, by using the same methods they employ with their domestic opposition, but they were wrong."


The row over Gross' visit will have a sequel on July 30, when the deputy secretary general of the Council of Europe Hans-Christian Kruger visits Baku. Schwimmer refuses to come to Azerbaijan, while it has political prisoners.


Shahin Rzayev is IWPR's Azerbaijan Editor.