A sham referendum result sees Azerbaijan’s President strengthen his grip on power, writes Maddad Mammadov.
With Europe still mired in the greatest migrant crisis since the Second World War, and the continent’s policymakers confounded by Brexit, it is little surprise that few eyes have been focussed on Azerbaijan.
Strong commercial interests stemming from the country’s abundant natural resources mean Azerbaijan’s leadership, more than most, has been able to flaunt the world stage with relative impunity.
But this impunity comes at a price. An absence of international pressure to implement meaningful political reforms mean Transparency International’s latest corruption ranking placed Azerbajian 119th out of 167. The country stands proudly alongside the likes of Pakistan and Russia. In this year’s freedom of the world ranking, Freedom House assigned Azerbajian a score of 6.5. To put this in context – North Korea has a score of 7.0.
With this in mind, it should come as little surprise that this week saw Azeris go to the polls in a stitched up vote to approve an amendment to the country’s constitution aimed at further solidifying the President’s grip on power. Meanwhile on the other side of Europe, and as if to perfectly illustrate how out of touch Azerbaijan’s ruling elite is, the country’s First Lady was busily opening a lavish Azerbaijani village in Paris’s 7th arrondissement. The effect of the constitutional amendment will be a further transfer of hard political power to the President at the expense of Parliament and ordinary citizens. Conversely, the First Lady’s Paris stunt was an exercise in soft power, though it is hard to believe such a tasteless display could ever be persuasive to anyone unfamiliar with the realities on the ground in Azerbaijan.
These realities are grim and getting grimmer. The President’s abuse of constitutional power comes hard on the heels of the latest wave of repression and human rights abuses, with activists and reporters arrested and detained in contravention of the international rights conventions to which the country is a signatory. Yet still the President and his wife and daughters persist with attempts to airbrush reality and replace it with a sanitised version of what’s going on in the country.
To those of us who have suffered at the hands of the government and the authorities, there’s a depressing pattern to this. Protesters and the authorities play the same game of cat and mouse on the streets, followed by court hearings on the same trumped up or unspecified charges. Only, in recent weeks, the detentions are happening on a larger scale. According to estimates, there are 138 political prisoners currently languishing in Azeri prisons.
The plight of youth activist, Elgiz Gahraman, is a case in point. The European Convention on Human Rights requires governments to ensure safeguards against arbitrary or otherwise unlawful detention. It also requires governments to keep accessible records of the date and time of detention, the name of detainees and the reason for detention. The authorities have failed to respect any of this, or provide Gahraman’s lawyer or family with information about his whereabouts.
His is just one of many similar cases. Those of Khadija Ismayilova, currently out of jail but subject to a travel ban, and Rasul Jafarov, founder of Sports for Rights campaign, are the best known. The human cost of this is appalling, but it is the President’s constitutional vandalism that will have the gravest impact in the longer run.
In another familiar pattern, on 21 September the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe, the foremost international authority on constitutional matters, gave a damning verdict on the President’s changes. According to its Opinion, the amendments will severely upset the balance of power by giving “unprecedented” powers to the President. It said the extension of the presidential mandate from five to seven years “cannot be justified” given the already very strong position of the President, who since 2009 can be re-elected without term limits.
Another reform gives the President power to dissolve parliament, which does not only make political dissent in parliament “largely ineffective”, but also affects the independence of the judiciary since parliament’s role in the approval of judges will be impacted. The Commission’s experts were “particularly worried” by the introduction of the figure of unelected Vice-Presidents, who at some point might govern the country, and the President’s prerogative to declare early presidential elections at his convenience.
The question that occurs to domestic activists is how, in the face such political strength, can we wrest powers back from the President into a functioning parliament and other democratic institutions? The same question should occur to European countries. But there’s another question for western governments to answer — how can they countenance the soft power activities of Mehriban Aliyeva and her daughter Leyla when the President’s treatment of Azeris falls so short of lawful standards.
There’s another pattern here. There is a causal link between international criticism of Azeri elites in London and Paris on the one hand, and political leniency in Baku on the other. When the Aliyeva’s charitable and humanitarian posturings in the west are called out for what they are, the jail doors tend to swing open back home. The governments of Europe might be powerless to prevent the President’s constitutional vandalism, but they can hold his wife to account. This small and obvious response in Europe’s capitals would have huge and beneficial impacts in Azerbaijan. Europe’s leaders must no longer bury their heads in the sand. It’s time to act.