The Economist recently named Armenia country of the year – in this article, E&M looks at its neighbour: Azerbaijan. Besides the magnificent landscapes and warm-hearted people, it was the politics of the country our author Johannes Weiß found most fascinating – and preoccupying.

Imagine you are travelling Europe and want to visit, let´s say, Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic. As an EU-citizen, you face no obstacle at all. As a third-country tourist, you get a Schengen visa and can go back and forth between the three countries. Occasional short waiting times at temporary border controls aside, the three countries share open borders.

2500 kilometres to the East, in the South Caucasus, this would be unimaginable. You can travel from Azerbaijan to Georgia and vice versa. You can travel from Armenia to Georgia and vice versa. But you cannot travel from Azerbaijan to Armenia or vice versa because all border crossings between these two neighbouring countries are closed.

Hostile neighbours

Tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia are at the heart of Azerbaijani politics, and the roots for hostility between the two go back to even before the First World War. Later, under Soviet government, the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is inhabited to 90% by ethnical Armenians, was given the status of an independent region within the Soviet Azerbaijan. As the Soviet Union began to collapse, the Nagorno-Karabakh region intensified its strive for independence. Since it was out of question for Azerbaijan to let the region go, an ethnically motivated war between Armenia and Azerbaijan broke out over the territory in 1988. The war ended with the de-facto independence of Nagorno-Karabakh, backed by Armenia since then. In 1994, a ceasefire signed froze the conflict. However, this conflict thawed several times, most recently with armed incidents in 2016, the most intense fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh since the signing of the ceasefire.

Depending on which side you ask, you might hear different figures and events.

The war of 1988-1994 and the unsolved status of Nagorno-Karabakh enjoy top priority on the government’s politics of memory. For a foreigner, a visit to the “National Museum of Azerbaijani History” makes this crystal clear. At the end of the visit, when it comes to contemporary Azerbaijani history, one board presents the Kohjaly killing, which occurred in the eponymous village in Nagorno-Karabakh in 1992. Depending on which side you ask, you might hear different figures and events. Azerbaijan blames Armenian troops for killing 613 people supported by an ex-Soviet regiment. For Armenia, on the other hand, “the responsibility […] fully falls on the Azeri opposition group, the Azerbaijani National Front“.

Azerbaijani family – two generations | Photo: Pierre (flickr), Licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Whatever truly happened in April 1992, the wording of the National Museum of Azerbaijani History is noteworthy: “Several thousands of fleeing civilians were ambushed at several points and being shelled by bullet rain tried to find refuge in the near-by forests and mountain terrain. Punitive Armenian troops massacred the helpless civilians. Armenian butchers sneered at the dead bodies.” To put it mildly, it is hard to imagine that these kind of words could foster any reconciliation between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Moreover, according to observers like the Berlin-based think tank Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, the Azerbaijani government tries to isolate its neighbour completely. Inter alia, Baku does not want to support any infrastructure projects which will connect Armenia with other countries.

Azerbaijani domestic policy: a clan autocracy

Hostile relations with Armenia are not the only part of the story here – far from it. To understand Azerbaijan, we need to look at what happens inside the country too.
The most powerful person in the country´s political life is the President of the Republic. Since 1993, the country has only seen two different ones: Heydar Alijev and Ilham Aliyev, father and son. The First Lady, Mehriban Aliyeva is also the current Vice President. For two and a half centuries now, the Aliyev family and their friends have basically run the country. The notorious “Panama Papers” revelations show that the family is also excellently linked to the business world and has stakes in every major economic sector.

Activists frequently report on how the autocratic regime oppresses politicians of the opposition and critical media. Multiple scores and rankings underscore these accusations. For instance, Reporters sans frontiers ranks Azerbaijan 163rd of 180 in its freedom of press ranking. In its ‘Freedom in the World ‘ scale, raging from 1 (best) to 7 (worst), Freedom House gives Azerbaijan a 6 in Civil Liberties and a 7 in Political Rights. The NGO concludes that the country is “not free” and the internet “partly free”. People in Azerbaijan can use Facebook and Twitter. However, an Azeri living in Europe pointed out that journalists and bloggers who create critical content are frequently muzzled. According to Freedom House, the legislation on blocking and filtering got more restrictive in recent years.

Azerbaijan flag | Photo: Nick postorino (flickr), Licence: CC BY-NC 2.0

There are also faces behind these rather anonymous scores. Freedom House counts “161 people behind bars on politically motivated charges” as of January 2018. One of them was Ilgar Mammadov, co-chairman of the opposition Republican Alternative (REAL) Movement. He was sentenced to seven years in prison because of “organising riots” and “using violence against police officers”. However, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has ruled out that Azerbaijan breached multiple articles of the European Convention on Human Right, which the country has ratified.

Following international pressure, mainly articulated within the Council of Europe, Mammadov was released mid-august 2018, only two weeks before the German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Azerbaijan. Because of the timing, many saw the release as a concession to Merkel in the run-up to her visit.

EU-Azerbaijan relations

In fact, European politicians are often criticised for being too lax with the Baku government and its civil rights violations. Indeed, Azerbaijan is a partner country of the European Neighbourhood Policy and of the Eastern Partnership — both programmes hold the promotion of civil rights as central. Yet, the situation in this area is not improving. In fact, the first legal foundation for the bilateral relations is the EU-Azerbaijan Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, which is in force since 1999. It was already there that the two parties defined the respect for democracy and human rights as one of the general principles for the partnership.

Azerbaijan has a considerable leverage in its relations with the EU because of natural resources.

If Azerbaijan´s most important trading partner is the European Union, it is economically independent — unlike other countries in the European Neighbourhood Policy. On the contrary, Azerbaijan has a considerable leverage in its relations with the EU because of natural resources. The region around Baku is considered the birthplace of the commercial oil and gas industry: Azerbaijan has large reserves of gas. In their strive to become more independent from Russian gas and oil, Azerbaijan is an important supplier and transit country for many EU member states.

Scholars argue that the country´s wealth of natural resources makes and its resulting leverage make it difficult for the EU to convince the government in Baku to undertake domestic reforms. An Azerbaijani political scientist working for a think tank in Baku – yes, they do exist, even if they have to work under difficult conditions – raised concerns on the EU’s commitment to initiate substantial reforms of the political system, which would safeguard basic democratic principles like the freedom of press or a judiciary free of governmental influence. In her eyes, the country is too important and the economic situation too comfortable for the EU to risk any kind of destabilisation.

On top of its gas supply, Azerbaijan tries to act as a bridge between the EU and Russia. And – because of its secularity and the large internal security sector – it is not challenged by Islamic terrorism nor does it support militia abroad.

What does the future hold?
Donald Tusk meets Ilham Aliyev, President of Azerbaijan | Photo: European Council President (flickr), Licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Today, the Baku government tries to isolate Armenia because of the unsolved conflict about Nagorno-Karabakh. It seems that this profound aversion against the neighbour is part of the reason of state in Azerbaijan. Therefore, there is not much cause for optimism on the relation between the two in the near future . Non-existing relations will definitely not foster any resolution of the border disputes and the region will remain a powder keg.

For the European Union, Azerbaijan is going to remain a complicated partner. The Alijev family controls the country´s destinies so strongly that domestic changes are hard to imagine. Moreover, according to the OSCE , elections – like the Presidential elections of April 2018 – are not free nor fair, so any oppositional politician would not stand a chance. Ilham Aliyev won this ballot with 86% of the votes, while the candidate coming in second only obtained 3%. All these facts indicate that the 57 year old Aliyev is going to be in charge for at least the medium-term future.

In June 2018, the European Union and Azerbaijan agreed on a new agreement which “renew(s) their commitment to an ambitious and comprehensive agenda. The agenda will reflect the values and principles of the European Neighbourhood Policy, including respect for human rights, democracy, the rule of law, and dialogue with civil society.” Again, European actors stress the importance of human and civil rights. Whether this contributes to substantial changes in Azerbaijan remains to be seen.

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    Johannes Weiß is from Germany where he studied Political Science with a focus on European politics. Following internships at think tanks both in Berlin and Brussels, he is currently working for the European Policy Centre, a Brussels-based think tank.

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