8 March 2014

In October 1935 the Italian army invaded Abyssinia. In the same month the Abyssinians appealed to the League of Nations for help. The League condemned the attack. All League members were ordered to impose economic sanctions on Mussolini’s Italy. Then all resolve faltered.

Sanctions were half-hearted. They did not include vital materials such as oil. Britain kept open the Suez Canal, crucial as Italy supplied her armed forces. In December 1935 the British Foreign Secretary and the French Prime Minister met and presented a plan that gave large areas of Abyssinia to Italy. Mussolini accepted the plan.

The League’s involvement was a total failure.The capital, Addis Ababa, fell in May 1936 and Haile Selassie was replaced by the king of Italy. Somaliland, Eritrea and Abyssinia became Italian East Africa. The League of Nations was a corpse even before it perished. It had no more legitimacy.

DL0929

The Crimea crisis and events in Ukraine today pose a similar threat to the credibility of other European organisations … created, like the League, in the wake of a devastating war with high hopes of launching a new era.  And one organisation already  in the crosshair of the dictator’s assault, already reeling, which Russia was able to join under false pretext and then proceeded to capture with the support of other autocrats in the East and accomplices from the West is the Council of Europe.

Until a few weeks ago one could fear that the Azerbaijani presidency of the Council of Europe, set to begin a few weeks from now in Strasbourg,  would mark the low-point in the history of this once proud organisation. And one might have hoped that, perhaps, it was still possible that the sight of a dictator at the helm of this club of democracies might produce a long overdue shock; wake up democrats across Europe, to pay attention to an institution once created to embody the values of post-war Europe (stated in the European Convention on Human Rights) and recently captured by autocrats from Europe’s east.

Until a few weeks ago I thought there was time to rescue these institutions. Certainly, that it was worth it Today there is good cause to wonder whether the Abyssinia moment has not now also come for Strasbourg.

Unless the Council of Europe reacts to the dramatic illegal occupation of one member state by another member state; unless PACE – the Parliamentary Assembly – issues a strong and unequivocal declaration; unless member states in the Committee of Ministers now take effective actions against Russia; it is hard to see how this “spiritual union” of European democracies can survive as more than a bureaucratic corpse.

It is not hard to envisage a future for the OSCE in this new, harsher, Europe: it will return to being a forum for debates between dictatorships and democracies, similar to the CSCE after the Helsinki Accords were ratified in the 1970s.  It has long been obvious that countries such as Uzbekistan, Belarus, Russia or Azerbaijan are not democracies. The notion that they should participate in setting  high standards for European democracies – which need these standards as much now as ever – debases everyone. Instead let diplomats meet in Vienna and talk (and exchange insults) about peace and common interests. Such a forum is useful as long as it does not serve to legitimize dictatorial rule as “democratic.”

The same is not true for the Council of Europe. Between the  OSCE and the EU it has no future if it does not credibly defend the highest values of democracy. The demise of its credibility creates a void that also needs to be filled: most probably by the European Union, now called upon to define its own human rights acquis more explicitly.

The EU should make human rights central to its association agreements. It should spell out its “political criteria” much clearer, both for accession candidates and for its own members. It should find ways to cooperate with other genuine democracies, from Switzerland to Norway to Moldova in the East.

Of course it would be preferable to preserve the Council of Europe and see dictators such as Putin and Aliyev censured instead, until their countries change their ways. But this looks increasingly unlikely. Instead we will have an Azerbaijani presidency and not even symbolic sanctions against Russia after its aggression.

The Palace of Europe in StrasbourgThe Palace of Europe in Strasbourg

It is hard to see is how the Council of Europe can function much longer as a hostage of dictatorial and aggressive members. They pay an important share of its budget. They are bent on destroying the values it once stood for. And for some time now they have imposed their vision of the world with impunity.

It should also be noted that there would still be a lot worth rescuing  from the burning house of the Palace of Europe, the Council of Europe’s headquarter in Strasbourg. Conventions, agreements, commissions, initiatives (such as the Venice Commission), all serving their members , all worthy of being preserved … but outside of the clutch of dictators. (The same is less obvious in the case of PACE, which appears increasingly superfluous next to the European Parliament on the one hand and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly on the other).

The thread does not stop here, unfortunately. Other proud institutions might soon face a similar challenge: one is the OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in Warsaw. It has so far stood up, valiantly, to pressure from the East over its professional work on election monitoring. Why would Putin or Aliyev want credible election observation any more than rulers in Tashkent or Minsk? It is fighting tough battles over its budget. It soon faces a crucial choice over its future leadership. ODIHR’s independence and professionalism must be defended at all costs. In fact, should ODIHR be at risk of losing its credibility as a result of an ongoing Russian and Azerbaijani campaign, or should it be paralysed – then the EU and democracies like Switzerland should stand ready to fund it directly.  To rescue valuable experience. To preserve it as the preeminent  European election monitoring organisation, open to other European democracies.

It now seems only a matter of months before post-Maidan Europe will see a broader debate on the institutional architecture needed to preserve core values and safeguard the lessons from the 1930s and 40s.  And we had better prepare for it. For it now seems increasingly likely that Russian troops in Crimea and Ukraine might have a similar effect on European institutions as Mussolini’s troops had when they embarked on their aggression in East Africa many decades ago.

Council of Europe. Photo: Alban Bodineau / Council of EuropeCouncil of Europe

 

ESI background analysis: how the Council of Europe is losing credibility

5 November 2013


“There was no rain”, they said.

“There was no rain”, they said.

 

The Parable of the weathermen in Baku

Inspired by true events in October 2013

Imagine a situation where it is of great importance for you to understand what the weather was like yesterday in another part of the world. You find 50 people whom you can ask, because they were there. Forty-nine people assure you that the weather was sunny with clear, blue skies. One person insists that it poured with rain all day.

You wonder: perhaps the forty-nine sun-people and the one rain-person do not have the same understanding of what “rain” is? The forty-nine sun-people come from across the world; some held important positions in the past and you are inclined to trust them. However, the one rain-person is the only trained meteorologist. He also gives you a detailed report, with data on precipitation levels every hour of the day, obtained through measuring instruments put in place weeks ago.

Then you learn that some of the forty-nine people had only left the house for a few hours around noon that day. You overhear their comments that they “do not need to be outside to learn about the weather,” and certainly do not need to listen to “mere meteorologists”, because they themselves have the ability to “sniff the rain” and there was none. When pushed, some insist that what they meant by “sunny” was that “there was a little bit less rain yesterday than last week” (a fact disputed by the meteorologist’s data).

You also learn that some of them left their houses, saw dark clouds, got wet, returned home soaked … and now assert, with a stony face: “There was no rain”. You discover that some have a personal stake in telling you that the sun was shining; members of their family hold shares in the solar panel business, or they have bet money on the sun shining the entirety of that day.

In the end you conclude that whatever the motives for each of them are, not one of them did what the meteorologist had done … go out, look around systematically, measure the precipitation in various places, and then distinguish between phases of drizzle, thunderstorms and steady rain. So what if all forty-nine are wrong?

You see one way forward: a credible investigation of the methodologies that led all fifty observers to arrive at their conclusions. Then you realise that this might lead to a striking conclusion: perhaps in the future you should not ask any of these forty-nine people about the weather at all?

Perhaps a serious, methodological meteorologist is all that you need?

 

 

The weathermen in Baku: http://www.today.az/news/politics/127135.html

“It was raining”. Swiss member of PACE Andreas Gross on Facing the Crisis of Democracy – the failures of democracy need precise and critical, not diplomatic comments.

Executive summary of next ESI Report on the future of

election monitoring – online now

 

According to the Central Election Commission of Azerbaijan, there were nearly 1,300 international observers from 50 different organisations in Azerbaijan for the October 2013 presidential elections. Forty-nine monitoring groups praised the elections as free and fair, meeting European standards. One group of international election monitors refused to go along with the praise: the election monitoring mission of ODIHR, the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.

Azerbaijanis were told by the leaders of the delegations of two European parliamentary institutions – the European Parliament (EP) and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) – that they had just held “free, fair and transparent” elections. Pino Arlacchi, the head of the European Parliament’s monitoring team questioned ODIHR’s legitimacy (“not elected by anybody”), objectivity (“easy to manipulate”) and competence (“so-called experts”).

However, carrying out serious election monitoring is a resource-intensive endeavor. Only ODIHR employed a core team of experts and long-term observers, who arrived in the country many weeks before the day of elections. In addition ODIHR mobilised a large number of short-term observers for the elections themselves. ODIHR monitors observed voting in 1,151 of the 5,273 polling stations across the country. The evidence of systemic fraud was overwhelming. While voting was problematic, the counting of ballots was catastrophic, with 58 per cent of observed polling stations assessed as bad or very bad. It may have been the worst vote count ever observed by an ODIHR election observation mission anywhere.

The events in October 2013 in Baku reveal a broken system for international election observation. International monitors should provide objective assessments, based on documented observations, of whether national elections meet European and international democratic standards. This should help to prevent or resolve national disputes about election results, while guiding the international community in their future dealings with the government. Doing this requires a clear and transparent methodology.

As a rule, short-term observers arrive in a country two days before the elections. They are briefed on the election campaign. They typically spend one day meeting with representatives of the government, the opposition, mass media and NGOs. Given the limited size of their delegations, they can only visit a few polling stations on the day of elections. Few watch the crucial vote counting. Then they leave the day after the elections.

The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly argues that parliamentarians can assess whether an election meets international standards without engaging in long-term monitoring and without following any methodology, just because they have been elected themselves. This argument is absurd, but it keeps being presented as a serious claim. It is an argument that can no longer be left unchallenged by other parliamentarians concerned about the reputation of their institutions, or by international media reporting on such assessments.

This report argues that the future of election monitoring on the European continent depends on how decision makers – in the European Parliament, in the Council of Europe, in the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and in European governments – react now. It is vital to revisit the facts and analyses behind the different assessments, and to retrace how different groups of observers could arrive at radically diverging conclusions. The relationship between long- and short-term election observers needs to be rethought.

Aliyev’s victory and its scandalous endorsement by most international monitors offer an opportunity to fix a broken system. Doing so would benefit not just Azerbaijanis, but all those who believe that democratic elections are celebrations of basic human rights, in Europe and around the world.

 

The full report is available here: Disgraced – Azerbaijan and the end of election monitoring as we know it

Filed under: Azerbaijan — Gerald @ 12:56 pm
9 June 2013
.
.
What would it take for the vision of a Europe without political prisoners to become a reality in the 21st century?
.
The Congress of Europe, held in The Hague and presided over by Winston Churchill, proclaimed in 1948 the need for “a Charter of Human Rights guaranteeing liberty of thought, assembly, and expression as well as the right to form a political opposition”:

The Movement for European Unity must be a positive force, deriving its strength from our sense of common spiritual values. It is a dynamic expression of democratic faith based upon moral conceptions and inspired by a sense of mission. In the centre of our movement stands the idea of a Charter of Human Rights, guarded by freedom and sustained by law … To rebuild Europe from its ruins and make its light shine forth again upon the world, we must first of all conquer ourselves.”

The Statutes of the Council of Europe, signed at St. James Palace in London in May 1949, committed all members of this new organization to respect “the spiritual and moral values which are the common heritage of their people and the true source of individual freedom, political liberty and the rule of law.”
.
The European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, ready for signature in Rome in 1950, then spelled out these fundamental civic and political rights, which “the governments of European countries which are like-minded” committed to respect.
.
.
Repression of liberty of thought and of political opposition in Europe did not end with the creation of the Council of Europe and the adoption of the Convention, however. Hearing about two Portuguese students in Lisbon, sentenced to seven years imprisonment for raising their glasses in a toast to freedom motivated the British human rights lawyer Peter Benenson to write an article in the Observer about “forgotten prisoners” in 1961. He started:
“Open your newspaper any day of the week and you will find areport from somewhere in the world of someone being imprisoned, tortured or executed because his opinions or religion are unacceptable to his government. There are several million such people in prison—by no means all of them behind the Iron and Bamboo Curtains—and their numbers are growing. The newspaper reader feels a sickening sense of impotence. Yet if these feelings of disgust all oer the world could be united into common action, something effective could be done.”
At the time five of Benenson’s eight “forgotten prisoners” were Europeans: a Romanian philosopher, a Spanish lawyer, a Greek trade unionist, a Hungarian Cardinal and the archbishop of Prague. Benenson of course went on to set up an innovative and new organisation in the wake of his successful camapaign: Amnesty International.
.
However, neither Portugal nor Spain, neither Romania nor Hungary nor Czechoslovakia were then members of the Council of Europe (Greece would withdraw from it in 1969 following its military coup). None of them had accepted and ratified the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights. More than half a century has since passed. The Council of Europe has expanded dramatically so that today 47 countries with a total population of 800 million people have pledged to respect the fundamental rights of the European Convention. But today there is again a challenge to its core values, and this time it is one that has emerged within the very institutions that were meant to protect them.
.
In October 2012 the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted a definition of “political prisoner”.  This definition was first developed by eminent European human rights lawyers working for the secretary general of the Council of Europe as independent experts. The adoption of this definition, following a heated and controversial debate, came at a moment of growing concern that in a number of Council of Europe member states we see a new wave of trials for political motives.  In some countries, one sees the re-emergence of the phenomenon familiar from an earlier period of European history: dissidents, sent to jail for speaking out loud.
.
The immediate question that emerged now was obvious: how would such a definition become operational? The first attempt to apply it – in the case of Azerbaijan in January 2013 – ended in defeat in the Parliamentary Assembly (see more here: http://www.esiweb.org/index.phplang=en&id=156&document_ID=136)
.
There are many wider policy questions raised by all this –which ESI together with the Jarl Hjalmarson Foundation explores this week at a seminar in Stockholm: What should and could be done by the institutions of the Council of Europe to operationalize the definition of political prisoner that has just been adopted? Is the current system of monitors capable of confronting systemic violations? Are other member states, who are committed to defend the European Convention of Human Rights, able to define red lines that must not be crossed by Council of Europe members with impunity? How can European civil society do even more to use existing institutions and commitments to resist a rising authoritarian temptation?
.
The October 2012 PACE resolution sets concrete criteria for what defines a “political prisoner.”. According to Resolution 1900, adopted in a 100-64 vote, a person shall be regarded as a political prisoner if he or she has been deprived of personal liberty in violation of guarantees set forth by the European Convention on Human Rights and its Protocols, including freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; freedom of expression and information; and freedom of assembly and association. Additional criteria include detention imposed for purely political reasons without connection to any offense; the length or conditions of detention being clearly out of proportion to the offense; a clearly discriminatory manner of the detention; and unfair, politically motivated proceedings leading to the imprisonment.
.
But what can institutions like the Council of Europe do, going forward, to better defend the ideal of a Europe in which the values of the ECHR are fully respected and in which there would not be any political prisoners in the sense of the definition adopted by PACE in October 2012 (see below). Of course there is always the European Court of Human Rights for individual cases, but what if problems of political prisoners become systemic? It is important to put this debate in the current European context of challenges to the convention, including politically motivated arrests.
.
Situations are obviously different even among countries in which problems exist. Azerbaijan and Russia, along with several other post-Soviet states, are today members of the Council of Europe. Yet in recent years governments in these countries have become increasingly aggressive in challenging core values of the Convention – through legislation and through systematic arrests and intimidation of critics and possible political opposition. They have thus tested the instruments and institutions of today’s human rights regime in Europe and have found them to be weaker and easier to manipulate than anybody would have expected in the 1990s. Four decades after the rest of Europe learned about “dissidents” in former communist countries a new generation of dissidents is emerging in the European East … yet this time in countries which insist to be considered “like-minded members” of the club of European democracies.
.
Furthermore two other members of the Council of Europe, Turkey and Georgia, have also come into focus in this context, though
evidently the situation in both of these two countries are very different from that in Moscow and Baku, as well as very different from each other. In Turkey we have conceptually at least three different kinds of issues. There is a pattern – for decades – of a judiciary using repressive laws to attack free speech in the name of public morality; there are a range of cases on the basis of anti-terror legislation; and there are the recent high-profile cases against senior military officers and the “deep state”. There is noticeably a lot more freedom of speech than one decade ago, with competitive elections; yet there are also de facto more journalists in jail in Turkey than in any other countries in the world. The trials against many senior military members have been a key tool in a struggle by a civilian government to break the hold of power of the military; and yet there are many signs that they are also political trials, not too concerned about evidence and fairness. How promising then are current efforts to promote reforms of the legislation and the judiciary in Turkey to address such problems? Is the definition of political prisoners, is the Council of Europe a useful reference point in a Turkish context?
.
In contrast to its Caucasian neighbours, Georgia has seen a democratic election lead to a real change in power in October 2012; and there are strong and protective laws on freedom of speech. The Council of Europe definition on political prisoners has recently also been applied to set
people free from jail.  At the same time there are growing concerns about prosecutions of former UNM members. A lingering question is whether these cases will turn into witch-hunts, whether the judiciary will be able to preserve credibility and fairness, and how to ensure that the behaviour of the executive and prosecutors remains within limits of rule of law.
.
The aim of the Conference is to have an open discussion on the issues of political prisoners and political persecution, rule of law and the role of the judiciary overall in the context of the cooperation within the Council of Europe, in particular in the member states mentioned. The discussions will also focus on how the Council and its member states should act in a consistent fashion in addressing these issues.  And what options there are for different instruments available to in the Council of Europe framework to have more impact on the human rights situation in member states: the parliamentary assembly (PACE) and its monitors, the Commissioner for Human Rights, the Committee of Ministers and the office of the secretary general.
Some recommended reading:
.
Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, The Definition of Political Prisoner, 2012
Rapporteur of the committee of Legal Affairs of PACE, The follow up to the issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan
http://www.assembly.coe.int/ASP/Doc/XrefViewPDF.asp?FileID=19217&Language=EN
European Stability Initiative, Showdown in Strasbourg: The political prisoner debate in October 2012
European Stabiliy Initiative, Azerbaijan debacle: The PACE debate on 23 January 2013
Human Rights Watch, Laws of AttritionCrackdown on Russia’s Civil Society after Putin’s Return to the Presidency, 2013                                http://www.hrw.org/reports/2013/04/24/laws-attrition
Andrew Drzemczewksi, The Prevention of Human Rights Violations: Monitoring Mechanisms of the Council of Europe, 1999
.
PS: The Council of Europe definition of political prisoner states:
The Assembly declares that a person deprived of his or her personal liberty is to be regarded as a “political prisoner” :
a. if the detention has been imposed in violation of one of the fundamental guarantees  set out in the European Convention on Human Rights and its Protocols (ECHR), in particular freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of expression and  information, freedom of assembly and association;
b. if the detention has been imposed for purely political reasons without connection to  any offence;Those deprived of their personal liberty for terrorist crimes shall not be considered political prisoners for having been prosecuted and sentenced for such crimes according to national legislation and the European Convention on Human Rights.
c. if, for political motives, the length of the detention or its conditions are clearly out of  proportion to the offence the person has been found guilty of or is suspected of;
d. if, for political motives, he or she is detained in a discriminatory manner as compared  to other persons; or,
e. if the detention is the result of proceedings which were clearly unfair and this appears  to be connected with political motives of the authorities.
Filed under: Azerbaijan,Human rights,Russia,Think Tanks,Turkey — Gerald @ 11:46 pm
26 February 2013

Sunday conversation in Saint Germain-en-Laye

The man emerging from the metro in Saint Germain-en-Laye on this cold Sunday afternoon in February is ebullient, unbowed and confident about the future of his country. This is remarkable, for my visitor is the political activist and writer Emin Milli, who had just emerged (again) from prison; the country in question is Azerbaijan.

Our paths first crossed when ESI worked on and then published in March 2011 a report about him, his friend Adnan and other members of Generation Facebook in Baku. The report described the emergence of a new generation of dissidents in Azerbaijan, and the strategy of repression used by the regime.

Emin Milli, a blogger, writer, activist and former political prisoner protesting
against violence against conscripts in the Azerbaijani military in Baku, 12 January 2013

Since Generation Facebook we have been in touch regularly. In January this year we met in Budapest during a seminar discussing the future of election observation missions in Europe. We then spent a day in Rumeli Hisari in Istanbul, discussing how the Council of Europe might help set free political prisoners across Europe. For Emin this is also a personal issue. He had spent 16 months in jail in 2009 and 2010. Our discussion was in the shadow of a forthcoming vote we were both watching carefully.

 

Emin Milli in Rumeli Hisari, Istanbul, January 2013. A few days later he will again be arrested after peacefully demonstrating against police violence.

A few days later a resolution on political prisoners in Azerbaijan was rejected by a clear majority in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). This was a historic debate – the best attended ever! – which saw remarkable and outrageous statements from European parliamentarians attacking the rapporteur and his work and defending the regime of Ilham Aliyev.

I ask Emin how he felt when he heard about the outcome of this debate on his country. He notes:

“When I heard about the vote against the resolution what came to my mind, strangely, was the fall of the Roman Empire. I thought: it is amazing how one small authoritarian regime can bring the proud tradition of democracy in Europe down in the Council of Europe.”

Three days after this vote Emin was arrested again following peaceful demonstrations. He spent two weeks in jail, together with others who had taken part in the demonstration. Emin tells my young daughters that prison offers a lot of time to read and that it helps to lose weight. Emin also explains that this time in prison he reread Les Miserables, one of the great novels of the 19th century. I tell him that Victor Hugo once lived near Saint Germain-en-Laye in the West of Paris, where we are now. Hugo was a visionary himself. He did, after all, tell the 1849 (!) Peace Congress in Paris:

“A day will come when the only fields of battle will be markets opening up to trade and minds opening up to ideas. A day will come when the bullets and the bombs will be replaced by votes, by the universal suffrage of the peoples, by the venerable arbitration of a great sovereign senate which will be to Europe what this parliament is to England, what this diet is to Germany, what this legislative assembly is to France. A day will come when we will display cannons in museums just as we display instruments of torture today, and are amazed that such things could ever have been possible.”

Compared to this vision, is the idea of the Southern Caucasus one day joined together with the rest of democratic Europe any less realistic? Is it less realistic than imagining in 1983 Poland joining the European project or in 1993 Croatia being a part of it? Hugo spoke those words before the Paris Commune, the two World Wars and the Cold War. He spoke them as an optimist – but given the European Union of today a farsighted rather than foolish one. I am certain that Hugo would have liked the vision and determination of Emin’s generation in Baku. As Hugo put it at the end of Les Miserables:

“… a progress from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsehood to truth, from night to day, from appetite to conscience, from corruption to life; from bestiality to duty, from hell to heaven, from nothingness to God. The starting point: matter, destination: the soul. The hydra at the beginning, the angel at the end.”

 

The hope for peaceful change

What is the hydra in Azerbaijan today? It is the authoritarian and oligarchic regime of president Ilham Aliyev. Is there an Angel? It must be the hope of a peaceful transition to democracy.

We sit down and Emin begins to explain:

“Before I did not see a chance for a democratic, non-violent and managed transition, as opposed to violent, anarchic and chaotic change. Now I can see a chance for this, even this year.”

 

Emin arrested again, following peaceful protests against police violence on 26 January 2013

The key for any breakthrough is for new and traditional opposition groups to come together around a common platform, program of change and a common candidate in upcoming presidential elections.

“There are of course the old opposition parties like Musavat and the Popular Front, but they are no longer alone. There are also now intellectuals who defected from the regime and who are popular in Azerbaijan, members of the new Intelligentsia Forum: scientists like Rufiq Aliyev, who is a candidate for a Nobel Prize, or film makers like Rustam Ibrahimbegov, who won an Oscar. They have now broken with Aliyev. There are many Western educated young people who have returned, like Harvard-educated former political prisoner Bakhtiyar Hajiyev. There are other opposition parties with serious programs, such as the Republican Alternative of Ilgar Mammedov or Erkin Gadirli. There are the young activists of the facebook generation.

In the past it was easier for the regime to discredit the opposition, but this would be hard in the face of a common opposition front. This is a very different scene from the one we had before elections in 2010, 2008 or 2005.”

But will there be a joint platform for elections in 2013?

“Different political groups and social forces seem to realize now that coming up with a united political platform for change may be the key game changer in Azerbaijan this year. This would mean having one joint presidential candidate and a joint political platform with a clear agenda for a transition government, which would lead Azerbaijan from a presidential monarchy to a parliamentary republic.“

Emin’s cautious optimism is also based on the new media revolution in Azerbaijan. He sees many concrete signs of the impact of this ongoing revolution:

“Opposition newspaper Azadliq sold 200,000 hard copies during the national independence movement in the late 80s. It went down to selling just 10,000 copies. This year in January 2013 some news put on the website of Azadliq were read by more than 200,000 people. So there is a bigger public sphere, which has expanded enormously.”

“The reason I am optimistic is the monopoly of information once held by the government in Baku is corroding, even beginning to crack. First, you see this on YouTube, as countless of videos capturing violence and abuse of power circulate. The Internet has lowered the barriers to entry

“Furthermore, the rise in satellite TV broadcast from Turkey are spreading these videos. These YouTube clips expose the regime as a criminal gang. They show threats, blackmail, the open selling of parliamentary seats … and how even members of the elite treat each other.”

(For more on new media in Azerbaijan read also this recent article)

“Hundreds of thousands now watch Youtube videos. These include the shocking videos put online by the former rector of Baku university Elshad Abdullayev in conversation with various important members of the regime. Elshad Abdullayev taped many of his conversations over many years; having fled Azerbaijan he is now putting them online. These tapes have exposed just how corrupt and criminal the regime is. People knew this, but these videos made the truth obvious, and create a lot of silently rising anger and outrage: they see members of parliament selling seats for more than a million Euro. Hundreds of thousands also watch them broadcast from Turkey on satellite TV.”

“These clips expose the regime as a criminal gang. They show threats, blackmail, the open selling of parliamentary seats … and how members of the elite treat each other.”

(to see one of these videos with English subtitles go here)

“There is also a growing sense of disenchantment with the regime all over the country. Various social groups shop-keepers, relatives of people serving in the military, local people in different provinces of the country – have started to protest in numbers and ways not seen before within one month. In January 2013 I saw groups I had never imagined would go on the streets to protest. Shopkeepers closed a road and protested against the owner of one of the biggest shopping malls in Azerbaijan who wanted them to pay more rent. Then there were the protests on 12 January against violence against conscripts in the military.”

At the same time there are signs of a potentially dangerous escalation in the regions. Riots in the Ismayilli region in January 2013 showed how quickly things can escalate now. They were, Emin explains,

“a repeat of protests in another region, Guba, last year. There local people were so frustrated with their living conditions that they did not see any other means to communicate their frustration than violence. In Guba in 2012 they burned down the house of the governor, who was then fired by the president. In Ismayili the hotel and part of the governor’s house were again burned down.”

There is a possibility of such protests spreading:

“People protested and burned the house of governor in Guba, then he was fired. People in Ismayilli burned hotel and house of the governor, then he was fired too. What sort of message does this send to people in other regions? The only way the government respects the people is when houses burn? This is no way to govern the country. Firing a couple of governors will not solve the problem of feudal style governance in the regions either. People want to be heard.”

“These protests are out of control of the opposition, which is not even allowed to go to the regions.”

The Aliyev regime is clearly nervous about all this:

“For the first time in a very long period the regime moved troops into regions of Azerbaijan. The pictures of the stand-off reminded people of the days when in 1990 Soviet troops entered Baku. Now again hundreds of people were detained, arrested, tortured. And in spite of this very violent reaction of the state it did not stop any of the following protest actions.”

The president has also appeared unnerved:

“The first reaction was that the governor will stay, that these were just some local hooligans. Then a couple of weeks later Ilham Aliyev goes on television and threatens governors and ministers that their sons will be put in jail if they misbehave, that if they curse or insult people they will be jailed and their fathers will be fired.”

At the same time the regime is clamping down hard in light of the upcoming presidential elections in October 2013:

“For the first time in recent Azerbaijani history a presidential candidate was put in jail during an election year! This is a different level of nervousness than before. Ilgar Mammedov from the Republican Alternative opposition party is a presidential candidate. He went to Ismayilli and was jailed, accused of inciting events. This is absurd: he went there after everything was over. Isa Gambar, another presidential candidate, was prevented by a mob and police from entering Lankaran in the South of the country. Ali Kerimli, another potential presidential candidate and opposition leader does not have a passport for seven years now, and he also does not have an office.”

“The government has tried to close more political space. It started clamping down on the opposition. This explains this rise of unorganized, sometimes violent, unpredictable revolts. If these developments are ignored by the international community we might end up with situations similar to those in the Arab world.”

Emin sees an opening for a different kind of opposition under conditions of general dissatisfaction, leading to a gradual transition:

“This is the moment for opposition groups and leaders to come together in a united front, to direct frustration and outrage of the population in a responsible way. The opposition must unite and organize the transition to a parliamentary republic. The problem in 2003 was that the opposition was split. It was not united, not on the street, and not politically. Until now it has never united.”

“A united opposition sharing resources, sharing energy, with a message of unity, thus giving real hope to people could be a historic moment in our country. This means presidential elections this year in October might be very interesting. There are symptoms of real change in the air. It all depends now on how internal and external actors behave in this situation.”

Of course, much can go wrong and even more would have to go right for any of these optimistic scenarios to come about.  There still is no united opposition. There is always the potential for further repression. So far there have never been free and fair elections in Azerbaijan, so it is unrealistic to expect 2013 to be different. There are likely to be further arrests. Standing up for democracy and human rights in Baku is a high risk strategy still, and any rewards are highly uncertain.

All of this makes it even more important what messages outside institutions are prepared to send. So I ask Emin: how does he see the role of external actors? Will they care? Will democratic Europe, will European institutions, do what they can to support a peaceful evolution, based on respect for human rights in Azerbaijan?

“The situation in Azerbaijan may change rapidly. The international community must sternly warn the government that any violent suppression of peaceful democratic change will not be accepted. The challenge is to prevent another Egypt, another Libya. The challenge is to have a peaceful transition like in Central Europe in 1989. We need a scenario in Azerbaijan like the one in Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s.”

As I see Emin off, next to the former royal castle of Saint Germain-en-Laye, I think again of Victor Hugo, and his universal concern for the rights of the oppressed. As Hugo put it in a letter to a publisher of Les Miserables:

“It addresses England as well as Spain, Italy as well as France, Germany as well as Ireland, the republics that harbour slaves as well as empires that have serfs. Social problems go beyond frontiers. Humankind’s wounds, those huge sores that litter the world, do not stop at the blue and red lines drawn on maps”.

This remains as true today as it was in the 19th century.

Viktor Hugo, writer, author of Les Miserables and visionary who wrote the Opening Address
to the August 1849 Peace Congress in Paris
calling for a European federation.

Filed under: Azerbaijan,Europe,Human rights,Southern Caucasus — Gerald @ 2:33 am
28 June 2012

When Azerbaijan was admitted to the Council of Europe, despite well documented democratic failings, it was with the idea that Council of Europe membership would gradually transform Azerbaijan. Sadly, the reverse has occurred. The outcome is a tragedy for the citizens of Azerbaijan, particularly those brave pro-democracy activists who languish in jail as political prisoners. But it is also a tragedy for Europe, whose values have been trampled.  And it is certainly a tragedy for the Council of Europe itself, which urgently needs to recover the values its founders entrusted it with if it is to justify its continued existence.

Azerbaijan is the focus of a public debate in New York on “Fixing the Democracy Discourse: How Autocratic Regimes Undermine Democratic Institutions in the West”, organised by the Open Society Foundations on 28 June.

Speakers:

  • Gerald Knaus, Director, European Stability Initiative, Istanbul
  • Khadija Ismayilova, Investigative Journalist, Baku
  • Ken Silverstein, Author and Open Society Fellow, Washington, DC
  • Lincoln Mitchell, Associate Research Scholar, Columbia University, New York (moderator)

Please find out more about the event on OSI’s website.

 

Get the Flash Player to see the wordTube Media Player.

Malcolm Bruce: Council of europe and Azerbaijan – a broken promise

Get the Flash Player to see the wordTube Media Player.

Agim Khalil: Dissidents in danger in Baku

Get the Flash Player to see the wordTube Media Player.

Khadija Ismayilova: Speaking the truth – and running huge risks

Filed under: Azerbaijan,Presentations — Gerald @ 4:55 pm
Rumeli Observer

Social Widgets powered by AB-WebLog.com.