Thinking a lot recently about Karl Lueger, a successful politician in Vienna, one hundred and a few years ago. Weekend reading: an excellent book by Brigitte Haman, “Hitler’s Vienna”. On the crazy and dangerous ideas and political models emerging in the middle of a cosmopolitan metropolis in a complacent era.
What seems new in our politics today is not really new at all, facebok, twitter or other social media notwithstanding. Nor is there anything new in “post-truth” politics – when was “truth” important to nationalists, colonialists, decolonisers, or communists in the 20th century? If you do not have Haman’s book ready, have a look at the below description of one of the most respected democratic politicians in the late Habsburg empire. Then replace “Jew” with “Muslim” or “foreigner” in the text below, and you have a not so secret formula, which looks set to become the inspiration for political leaders in much of what was until yesterday the West … until it stops working.
It worked then, for Karl Lueger. He won elections. He managed to run a decent city administration. He also built a lot. His statue is still up in Vienna. But the consequences of this style of politics in the short and medium term were disastrous for his city, country and continent.
As will be the consequences this time, if this style of thinking, of politics without constraints, is not contained. Or, better put: defeated in elections. This is the only response that matters.
“Karl Lueger was an outstanding example of this new kind of politician: he attempted to get a feeling for the mood of “the people”; he like to hold speeches in dialect, took account of the intellectual level of his listeners, made complex issues simple and tried to entertain his public with humorous remarks.
He was especially successful when he attacked the supposed enemies of his listeners. He stoked antipathy to politicians with different points of view as well as national and religious minorities. His polemical attacks, sometimes extremely drastically formulated, were not directed towards reason but consciously appealed to emotions and instincts. Thus he understood how to use rousing speeches to win over the Viennese population to his cause, consciously invoking stereotypical images of alleged enemies and, in particular, making use of anti-Semitic prejudice. Every set back was reduced to a simple formula: “The Jews are to blame” and stirred up hatred with statements such as: “ We will prevent the oppression of Christians and a new Palestine replacing the ancient Austrian empire of Christians”.
In the process he activated the traditional Catholic anti-Semitism directed against “the people who killed God”. He combined it with anti-liberal and anti-capitalist elements and thus addressed the widespread prejudice against “money and stock market Jews”, “press Jews”, “ink Jews”, i.e. Jewish intellectuals and businessmen. Under his leadership the Christian Socialists regarded their main political task as the reduction of the “rapidly growing power of the Jews” and the reversal of their emancipation which had only taken place in 1867.”
A few thoughts, written one year ago in autumn in the sunny garden of the Museum of Modern Art in Moscow, where I was then a visiting fellow.
The dark clouds of that moment – the sense of fragility of our institutions and norms and moral emotions – are very much more obvious today. Then was the moment of Willkommenskultur in Germany and Austria, a generous, emotional, fragile sense of possibility, that was real – perhaps my forebodings came from observing it from Russia, with sympathy and concern.
27 September 2015 (Facebook)
(Sonntag, im Garten des Museums für Moderne Kunst in Moskau)
Wir sollte uns keinen Illusionen hingeben.
Das Recht auf Asyl – all die Konventionen, auf die wir uns heute noch berufen können, in Kommentaren oder vor Gerichten – verschwindet in dem Moment, in dem Mehrheiten das wollen. Oder in dem die Minderheiten, die das wollen strategischer vorgehen als die Verteidiger der Menschenrechte.
Das hat Orban gerade wieder gezeigt, unbestraft; seine “Asylverfahren” an der Grenze sind eine Farce, doch seine Zustimmung steigt.
Das zeigen uns seit Jahren andere Mitglieder des Europarates. Azerbaijan war Vorsitzender des Europarates, verhaftete alle Menschenrechtsaktivisten … wo war die Reaktion? (jenseits der Menschenrechtsorganisationen, die das Regime einfach ignoriert). Wo war der Europäische Menschenrechtsgerichtshof? Abgemeldet, vom Regime ignoriert, vollkommen ungestraft. Heute, wo wir ihn brauchen, ist der Europarat eine unglaubwürdige Institution. Wir haben diese Entwicklung ignoriert, weil viele dachten, das betrifft nur Autokraten im fernen Osten Europas. Das war ein großer Fehler. Einer von vielen der die Menschenrechte in Europa in Gefahr bringt.
Jede, auch die grundlegendste, Menschenrechtsnorm, ist ständig in Gefahr sich im Nichts aufzulösen, wenn der Rückhalt schwindet. (Die Folter wurde in Russland Anfang der 19 Jahrhunderts von einem russischen Zaren abgeschafft; wir wissen was später passierte …).
Orban weiß das: er hat das Ende des Kommunismus, mit allen seinen Normen, erlebt. Er weiß, dass alles Menschliche vergänglich ist. Nun erwartet er, dass dies auch für das europäische Bekenntnis zu Asyl gilt, wenn er nur die Angst vor Muslimen instrumentalisieren kann.
Wenn die Briten über einen Austritt aus dem Menschenrechtsgerichtshof laut nachdenken, ja, eine Regierungspartei damit Wahlkampf macht, und gewinnt, warum dann nicht Ungarn? Warum nicht Österreich, unter einem Bundeskanzler Strache? Was bleibt dann? Wenn mehr Regierungen wie Orban denken, wer verteidigt dann “europäische” Standards? Diese werden dann einfach umdefiniert. Darauf setzt er. Daran arbeitet er.
Diese Krise sieht er als eine große Gelegenheit. Und die, die nicht seiner Meinung sind – wie mächtig auch ihre Positionen, ob nun Bundeskanzlerin in Berlin oder Präsident der Kommission in Brüssel – setzen ihm derzeit nichts entgegen: keine Strategie, nur Hilflosigkeit. Oder Ärger. Das aber stört ihn nicht; im Gegenteil.
Die Situation ist brandgefährlich. Das “Ende der Scham”, der Moment in dem Menschenrechte grundsätzlich in Frage gestellt werden, sinnentleert werden, umdefiniert werden, betrifft längst nicht nur Azerbaijan oder Russland.
Das Fundament auf dem unsere Grundrechte stehen kann zerbrechen. Das ist schon oft geschehen in der europäischen Geschichte. Darum geht es in diesem Ringen heute.
Reasons to be anxious, Monday morning after the deal was made
Since Friday many have asked ESI if we are confident about the refugee situations – now that the Merkel-Samsom Plan we have argued for so long has been adopted by the EU and Turkey. We are not confident. The opposite of a good plan is not only a bad plan, but also a good plan badly implemented.
No deal would have been the worst outcome for everyone – an EU in which solutions of the refugee issue come at the expense of one member (Greece) and where the leaders most committed so far to a humane solution (the Merkel government) are weakened is not going to find a good way forward.
But a good plan that is badly implemented is little better. And the signs from Brussels so far on implementation – since Friday’s agreement – are not encouraging.
We can be confident only once the first 50,000 Syrian refugees have left Turkey on planes to Europe; and once we see a credible administration in place in Greece to deal with asylum requests and readmission in line with the principles agreed last week.
It is clear that this administration has yet to be built. Would it have been better if efforts to do so had started earlier? Yes, but this is water under the bridge. What is a real cause for anxiety is looking into the near future: what we know so far about how this effort is supposed to be carried out in the coming weeks. It almost ensures failure.
And human rights organisations? Credible implementation of last week’s agreement in all of its aspects – due process readmission and resettlement – should be the focus of anyone who cares about a humane solution to the refugee situation. This is the time for constructive, tough debate. It is the time to say “yes, but”, not “no”, or “not this but that.” It is also a time for admitting, humbly, that policy makers and officals face incredible pressures and unprecedented challenges. The reason to be critical is not to be smug, but to help steer this in a good direction.
The next days (weeks) will be chaotic. This is inevitable; after all, a chaotic situation existed for months already. What is worrying is that bad planning of the implementation of the agreement ensures that chaos will continue for far longer than necessary.
What happens in the next months will decide how history judges the Juncker Commission. The stakes could not be higher for the EU, for refugees and for Greece.
Interview in Spanish: http://www.lavanguardia.com/internacional/20160321/40582387072/turquia-atiende-mejor-a-los-refugiados-que-grecia-las-llegadas-continuan.html
This morning on Australian public radio on the implementation challenge: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/breakfast/eu-and-turkey-deal-to-tackle-refugee-crisis/7262338
Solange die Türkei nicht kooperiert, wird der Migrationsstrom nach Europa nicht beherrschbar sein / Von Michael Martens
ATHEN, 16. September. Auf dem Meer kann man keine Mauer bauen. Mit diesem simplen Satz ließe sich ein an diesem Donnerstag erscheinendes Positionspapier der „Europäischen Stabilitätsinitiative“ (ESI) zusammenfassen, einer Denkfabrik mit Hauptsitz in Berlin, deren Studien und Analysen seit 1999 die Debatte zu politischen Schlüsselthemen in Europa bereichern. In dem Aufsatz „Warum in der Ägäis Menschen ertrinken. Ein Vorschlag zu Grenzkontrolle und Asyl“ unterbreitet ESI-Chef Gerald Knaus einen Vorschlag, der helfen soll, die Masseneinwanderung nach Europa beherrschbar zu machen. Der Vorstoß lässt viele Fragen offen und wird nicht ohne Einwände bleiben, spricht aber einige wichtige Punkte an. Der wichtigste: Ohne die Mitarbeit der Türkei, die Europa nicht umsonst bekommen wird, können die Europäer noch so viele Mauern bauen, Polizisten oder gar Soldaten an ihre Grenzen schicken, Kontrollen einführen – es wird wenig ändern. Zwar können physische Demarkationen durchaus Teil einer Lösung sein und dürften es künftig in wachsendem Maße auch werden – doch sie ändern nichts an der topographischen Realität, die Griechenlands ostägäische Inseln bei der muslimischen Masseneinwanderung nach Europa spielen. „Die griechische Regierung kann nicht Schiffe versenken oder sie von den Küsten abdrängen. Das wäre illegal und gefährlich. Sie kann also nur warten, bis die Migranten ankommen; und sie muss sie retten, wenn sie auf See in Gefahr sind”, schreibt Knaus.
Damit ist die Ausgangslage beschrieben. Ein Zaun in der pannonischen Tiefebene oder ein Großaufgebot des in Bayern ändern zunächst einmal gar nichts daran, dass wie zuletzt im August mehr als 20.000 Migranten auf Lesbos, Kos und den anderen Inseln in Sichtweise der türkischen Küste anlanden. Um das zu verdeutlichen, lässt Knaus seinen Text am anderen Ende des Kontinents beginnen, in Finnland, dem EU-Mitglied mit der längsten Landaußengrenze des Schengen-Zone: 1340 Kilometer zu Russland. Finnlands Grenzschutz gilt als vorbildlich in Europa. Gesichtserkennungssoftware, modernste Methoden zum Erkennen gefälschter Pässe, umfassender Datenabgleich zwischen den Behörden, Bewegungsmelder, lückenlose Überwachung des Schiffsverkehrs in der Ostsee. So wurden 2013 denn auch nur 18 illegale Grenzübertritte in Finnland registriert. Nur war der Grund dafür nicht finnische Hochtechnologie sondern – Russland. Dort stehen noch aus Sowjetzeiten zwei je vier Meter hohe Grenzzäune, der Geheimdienst überwacht das Gebiet. Zäune machen also, im Unterschied zu dem, was meist behauptet wird, durchaus einen Unterschied – zumindest an Land und zumindest, solange Russland das will. Doch selbst wenn man den gesamten finnischen Grenzschutz nach Griechenland versetzt, wird der mit all seiner Technik nicht viel ändern können. Er wird die Migranten nur früher kommen sehen. „Letztlich hängt die Grenzkontrolle vor allem von den Nachbarn der EU ab und davon, ob diese willens und fähig dazu sind, potentielle illegale Migranten daran zu hindern, die Grenzen der EU überhaupt erst zu erreichen“, schlussfolgert Knaus.
Da kommt die Türkei ins Spiel. Das Land hat schon seit 2002 ein Rückführungsabkommen mit Griechenland, also einen Vertrag, der die türkischen Behörden verpflichtet, illegale Einwanderer, die aus der Türkei kommend griechischen Boden betreten haben, zurückzunehmen. Freilich weigert sich die Türkei, den Vertrag einzuhalten. Mehr als 9600 Anträge auf Rücknahme eines illegalen Einwanderers stellten griechischen Behörden 2014. Die Türkei nahm 6 (in Worten: sechs) zurück.
Doch ist das so unverständlich? Die Türkei, hat fast zwei Millionen Flüchtlinge aus Syrien aufgenommen, manche beherbergt sie seit Jahren. Die Vorstellung, dass die Türkei, die mehr syrische Flüchtlinge aufgenommen hat als ganz Europa zusammen, nun auch noch Zehntausende aus der EU zurücknimmt, nennt Knaus „vollkommen unrealistisch.“ Es sei denn die EU mache der Türkei ein außergewöhnliches Angebot. Knaus schlägt vor: „Die EU“ erklärt sich bereit, in den kommenden 12 Monaten eine Million Flüchtlinge aus Syrien (und nur von dort) aufzunehmen, die ihre Asylanträge noch in der Türkei abgeben können. Sie könnten dann legal mit dem Flugzeug nach Europa kommen statt ihr Leben auf Schlauchbooten zu riskieren. Die Türkei würde sich im Gegenzug verpflichten, das ab 2017 voll in Kraft tretende Rücknahmeabkommen mit der EU sofort anzuwenden. „Das bedeutet, sie würde jeden, der aus der Türkei kommend Lesbos oder Kos erreicht, am folgenden Tag zurücknehmen.“ Diese Doppellösung, so Knaus, würde das Geschäftsmodell der Menschenschmuggler in kurzer Zeit zerstören. Doch wie werden die Menschen in der EU verteilt? Und würde die Türkei ihren Part eines solchen Abkommens erfüllen? Wer traut noch dem Wort des Autokraten von Ankara, Tayyip Erdogan – selbst wenn der sein Wort gäbe? Solche und andere Einwände liegen auf der Hand. Klar ist aber auch, so Knaus: „Der Schlüssel, um die unkontrollierte Ankunft Hunderttausender Migranten und Asylbewerber in der EU zu stoppen, wird von der Türkei gehalten. Nur eine Strategie, die auf dieser Tatsache aufbaut, kann den Notstand beenden.“
The Gimnasio moderno is one of the oldest schools in Bogota. It was also the site of a remarkable historical event: in April 1948 this school hosted the meeting of continental foreign ministers – including US secretary of state George Marshall – that led to the creation of the Organisation of American States (OAS).
During that meeting delegates from the Americas approved the “American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man” – the first intergovernmental declaration of human rights in history. It included many progressive provisions, including this article:
“Every accused person is presumed to be innocent until proved guilty. Every person accused of an offense has the right to be given an impartial and public hearing, and to be tried by courts previously established in accordance with pre- existing laws, and not to receive cruel, infamous or unusual punishment.”
This declaration predated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted in Paris in December 1948) and the European Convention of Human Rights (opened for signature in Rome’s Palazzo Barberini in 1950).
And yet, last Sunday I looked in vain for any sign near the school to commemorate this historic event. Perhaps a little campaign in Colombia might change that?
PS: The fate of this American Declaration and its aspirations is also an antidote to any complacency about history and human rights. While the declaration was adopted Bogota was in the throes of violence, following the assassination of an opposition leader. A third of Bogota was destroyed during the clashes – this is why delegates moved from the center to this school to adopt the declaration! Years of deadly civil strife – la violencia – followed.
Within a few years, following 1948, a new wave of autocratic restoration swept across Latin America. By the mid 1970s most of the countries in South America were either in civil conflict (Colombia again) or ruled by brutal dictatorships. It took until 1978 for the American Convention on Human Rights to enter into force. It took much longer for basic human rights – such as the prohibition of torture – to be taken seriously across Latin America.
Today this declaration is considered by both the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to be a source of binding international obligations for OAS’s member states … including for Cuba and the United States!
Outside the Gimnasio Moderno with Kathryn Sikkink from Harvard
If you come to our website often you will have noticed that ESI writes a lot about the Council of Europe. You might wonder why. Are there no other, more important European issues? And why is our stance so critical?
One reason that we keep returning to issue relating to the Council of Europe is that almost nobody else does, outside of a small group of human rights activists mainly concerned about the crackdown on civil society in Azerbaijan.
For large European think tanks and for most European media, the crisis in the Council of Europe still does not exist. Or does not really matter. Why care about debates in PACE, or about what the secretariat in Strasburg does or does not do, when there is a war in Ukraine, crises in the Middle East and challenges to democracy in old and new EU members?
We at ESI disagree. We believe that when the institution that gave us today’s European flag, and that remains the guardian of the moral constitution of democratic Europe – the European Convention on Human Rights – is fatally undermined, this points to a very serious crisis for all of Europe. It is a wound that must not be allowed to fester. Today the Council of Europe resembles Ouroboros, the snake of Greek mythology that devours itself … in this case, by destroying the moral basis on which it was founded.
Look at the European order today, and Europe’s big three organisations: the OSCE, the EU and the Council of Europe.
The OSCE has a justification as a forum for debate even with autocracies. This was its original conception in Helsinki in 1975. This is why Belarus (and Uzbekistan and the Vatican) can be members today.
The EU has to defend its own standards internally (and do a much better job at this) and externally, in particular when it comes to its ongoing enlargement talks.
For the Council of Europe, however – the first institution to enlarge to almost all of Europe in the 1990s – the current crisis of values, norms and credibility is existential. It has to be a club of European democracies, or it does not have any reason to exist.
This is why Belarus is not a member today. This is why Russia and Azerbaijan currently have no place as members, unless things change in both countries. There really is no use for an institution focusing on human rights and democracy when these standards are defined by autocracies and thus undermined for everyone else.
ESI strongly believes that the Council of Europe should matter. It should be talked about more. It should be given the resources to fulfil its crucial role better. But the key recource missing today is not money, but attention. Think tanks and media should follow what happens in Strasburg. It is a shame that the foreign ministers of influential countries attend its meetings so rarely (to begin with Germany and France) and that parliaments throughout Europe pay so little attention.
We believe that it is important to preserve the idea that one day the European Convention on Human Rights will be the normative basis for all of Europe (including Russia and the South Caucasus), not just the current European Union. Just as it was crucial to preserve this aspiration in the decades prior to 1989 in a divided Europe. It may look unlikely now; it definitely looked implausible then.
Europe’s moral constitution
For what is the European Convention? It is the basis of civilised life, in a continent known as much for autocracy and human rights violations as it is known for the enlightenment and rights.
It is comprised of the following basic commitments, that are once again under pressure across the continent:
Article 1 Respecting the rights in this convention
Article 2 The right to life – a duty to refrain from unlawful killing and to investigate suspicious deaths
Article 3 Prohibits torture, and “inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. There are no exceptions on this right.
Article 4 Prohibits slavery, servitude and forced labour
Article 5 Provides the right to liberty, subject only to lawful arrest
Article 6 Provides a detailed right to a fair trial
Article 7 Prohibits retroactive criminalisation
Article 8 Provides a right to respect for one’s “private and family life, home and correspondence”, subject to certain restrictions “necessary in a democratic society”.
Article 9 Provides a right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
Article 10 Provides the right to freedom of expression, subject to certain restrictions “necessary in a democratic society”.
Article 11 Protects the right to freedom of assembly and association.
It is irresponsible to close our eyes to the fact that today the European Convention is being mocked by certain member states of the Council of Europe, not occasionally but systematically. Today these core articles are not only disregarded but also openly challenged.
If Azerbaijan or Russia were expelled from the Council of Europe today (or would preemtively leave voluntarily) then this does not mean that a democratic Azerbaijan or Russia might not one day join again. In fact, that would be the goal. It would give human rights defenders in these countries a clear objective. And they should be supported in this in all possible ways. Greece was not in the Council of Europe under military rule in 1968 … and later rejoined it as a democracy.
Today we have the worst of all worlds. We see the standards of the European Convention on Human Rights mocked, the institution and its bodies paralysed. We see these institutions turned against the very people in those countries who defend them there … and who risk jail and worse for doing so.
We see democrats indifferent to the institution, while autocrats invest resources to capture and manipulate this critical intervention. Things are upside down. It is time to put them back in order.
We have written before about parallels between the fate of the League of Nations and what is currently happening in Strasburg (See : Europe’s Abyssinian Moment).
Here is another thought-provoking parallel from Europe’s early 20th century history. At the 1919 Paris Peace Conference East European nations signed treaties guaranteeing rights to minorities. These treaties called for religious freedom and civic equality. Minorities were granted the right of petition to the League. Governments in Eastern Europe complained about these “unjust requirements that the great powers did not impose on themselves”. These countries had a point. However, the proper response to this complaint was not to water down these rights, but to apply them equally to everyone.
Instead, the solution chosen was the worst of all. These rights were never applied and these treaties were never taken seriously. Despite there being a special League of Nations Minorities section it proved to be a “weak reed”: of 883 petitions the League received between 1920 and 1939, only four resulted in condemnation of the accused state. When the first anti-Jewish university quota system was introduced in Hungary in 1920 protests at the League of Nations failed to secure the law’s withdrawal. (For more on this see Bernard Wasserstein’s fascinating book “On the Eve – the Jews of Europe before the Second World War.)
Perhaps then too there were serious and influential people who thought that Europe had more important problems than to defend norms and treaties concerning human rights in small East European nations.
However, this assumption was wrong then and it is wrong now. The crisis in Strasburg matters not just to a few brave human rights defenders on the European periphery. It matters to all of us.
This contradiction matters
PS: For more on the crisis of the Council of Europe, see also the latest ESI newsletter:
Heading to Strasbourg this week – Ambassador of Azerbaijan to the EU
RIDDLE OF THE WEEK
Dear friends, here is a riddle to begin your week:
Why is Fuad Isgandarov, Azerbaijani ambassador and head of its mission to the EU, heading for Strassburg this week for the next session of the European Parliament? Who will he meet and what will he try to achieve in the interest of his country?
Tomorrrow the Conference of Presidents of the European Parliament will chose this year’s Sakharov Prize winner. One of the leading contenders is one of the most inspiring human rights activists in the world today: Azerbaijani Leyla Yunus.
There is support for Leyla Yunus across the different party groups. And there is growing concern in Baku. More and more of the great people held in its prisons today are being recognised for their courage and awarded international human rights prizes. Millions spent on lobbying firms, on invitations, on hosting events, on paying “experts” to say how oil matters more than a handful of prisoners … all undermined by a few human rights prizes?
The prospect of an Azerbaijani woman being named together with Nelson Mandela, Wei Jingsheng, Aung San Suu, Memorial, Reporters without borders or Malala Yousafzai should delight Azerbaijani patriots. Already being nominated as one of three finalists in 2014 is a huge distinction for Leyla Yunus.
We hope the Ambassador, heading to Strassburg, will spare a moment to read this latest letter by Leyla Yunus – in jail, separated from her husband, who is also held in isolation, as are so many of her fellow human rights defenders:
“They didn’t just arrest us as a married couple. By doing so they restored a “glorious” Stalin tradition. They indicted us to such a bouquet of fantastic accusations (even Yezhov and Vishinki would lag behind), including a life sentence… While in detention, I clearly understood their goal is not just the destruction, but brutal torture, insults, and physical torment, when death becomes the desired escape from the terrible suffering. This is our reality, and I clearly realize it. In other words, our work received the highest mark on the highest scale… Arif I feel so lonely without you! For 36 years we were shoulder to shoulder, and were hoping to celebrate our 40th anniversary but they are so afraid of us… Good Lord, how could a small, weak, sick woman scare the ruling government? With what?! I know you would say, “traveler will tell the Lacedaemon, that here we lie, true to the Law”. But I still think Leonidas had it easier, simpler… One of 300s.”
And perhaps he will reflect, as he meets these MEPs, about what really serves his country’s interest.
“… they know from their own experience in 1968, and from the Polish experience in 1980-1981, how suddenly a society that seems atomized, apathetic and broken can be transformed into an articulate, united civil society. How private opinion can become public opinion. How a nation can stand on its feet again. And for this they are working and waiting, under the ice.”
Timothy Garton Ash about Charter 77 in communist Czechoslovakia, February 1984
“How come our nation has been able to transcend the dilemma so typical of defeated societies, the hopeless choice between servility and despair?”
Adam Michnik, Letter from the Gdansk Prison, July 1985
We then studied the puzzle of increasing repression / decreasing criticism on the part of the Council of Europe, and the strange pattern of international election monitoring in Azerbaijan:
There have also been a number of newsletters – many making the case for greater support to Azerbaijani human rights defenders, arguing that their fate matters to everyone concerned about the future of human rights in Europe:
Thomas de Waal is one of the leading experts in the world today on the Caucasus, author of “Black Garden, Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War” and “The Caucasus: An Introduction” and a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC. He also knows all the key actors in the region for decades, including Leyla Yunus and her husband Arif, two of the most impressive intellectuals and human rights defenders in Europe today. The fact that both are in jail in the Azerbaijan of Ilham Aliyev tells you almost everything you need to know about this regime.
The Responsibility of a Politician: Leyla Yunus and the Heirs of Andrei Sakharov
Thomas de Waal
October 11, 2014
In 1989 during some of the most tumultuous days of perestroika, Andrei Sakharov stood up in the Soviet Union’s first popularly elected parliament, the Congress of People’s Deputies, and called for the end of the monopoly on power of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
Sakharov was an influential voice, but also a lonely one, speaking amidst a cacophony of old Communist Party nomenklatura officials on the one hand and aspiring nationalists on the other.
At the same time, in the Soviet Union’s non-Russian republics, a few brave activists were inspired by the courage of Sakharov and others. They stepped forward and spoke out about the rights of their republics to win independence and achieve democracy.
These activists were strongest in the three Baltic republics and the three republics of the South Caucasus: Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. In Azerbaijan, the struggle was especially difficult. The Communist Party apparatus clung tenaciously to power. The Popular Front of Azerbaijan had a radical nationalist wing that was ready to use violence. All the while the mutually suicidal conflict with Armenia over the disputed region of Nagorny Karabakh was heating up.
A small band of academics and intellectuals in the city of Baku were the first to talk about democracy, the first to warn about the dangers of “provocations” and the first to speak up about the defence of the Armenian minority still living in Azerbaijan. They combined courage with intellectual insight about where their republic was heading.
Leyla Yunus, a young historian, was one of that band, together with her husband, Arif, also a historian and scholar. Yunus was one of the half-dozen founders of Azerbaijan’s Popular Front, an organization that modeled itself on the Popular Fronts of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, even as they knew how much harder the struggle was in their country.
As 1989 unwound, Leyla and her colleagues warned that two extremes–the dinosaurs of the Communist nomenklatura and the nationalist radicals–were feeding off one another in a dangerous game of bluff and provocation.
The sad culmination of these mutual provocations came in January 1990–Baku’s terrible “Black January” and the bloodiest episodes of Mikhail Gorbachev’s entire rule as Soviet leader. First the city’s remaining Armenians were subjected to pogroms and expulsion. Then Soviet tanks rolled in to the city, fired on apartment buildings and crushed demonstrators to death.
At the end of Black January, around 90 Armenians were dead and thousands had fled, 130 Azerbaijanis had been killed. Leyla Yunus spoke up again, this time in print. In an essay entitled “The Degree of a Responsibility of a Politician,” published in the journal Istiklal in April 1990, she described the situation with devastating clarity.
In the essay, she begins by praising the bravery of those who stood in the streets to face down the tanks in Baku:
They stood with linked arms. “Freedom!” The word rang over Communist Street, which would soon lose its name, along with so much that lost its meaning that night. They did not step away from the path of the armoured personnel carriers and tanks, whose tracks were already crimson with the blood of the people they had crushed on Tbilisi Avenue, Square of the XIth Red Army and other places. But even the bloodied tanks stopped before this never-before-seen unity. “Freedom!”
Yunus calls Moscow’s military intervention “red fascism”
Forty five years ago, practically unarmed–how much the armament campaign of 1941 cost us!–our people stopped the tanks of brown Fascism. On the night of January 20, the armour of red Fascism went through the streets of Baku–the very same Fascism which had crushed and overpowered the peoples of the Union after October 1917.
Until then, Leyla Yunus tells us, Azerbaijanis had been “lucky”–to a degree.
Our people saw this regime in April 1920 and experienced its charms most acutely in the 1930s. Fortunately, we did not meet the fate of the Crimean Tatars, Balkars or Volga Germans, who were deported wholesale in cattle cars to destruction. We did not lose our homeland as the Meskhetian Turks did. We did not lose a third of our population, as the Estonians did, we felt the famine of 1933-34 less than did Belarus or Ukraine. We were lucky enough to be spared Chernobyl. But all the rest that this prison-house order gave to our peoples we experienced to the full. Collectivization, the genocidal destruction of the intelligentsia, the economic theft of our riches, the transformation into a mono-cultural colony…
Only now, it seems, had Azerbaijanis woken up to the nature of the regime they lived under, but they should have known earlier…
Which of you, who threw away their Communist Party cards today, rejected the “Ruling and Guiding” Party in 1968 when our sons were sent to crush the Prague Spring? Which of you spoke out, when our boys were dispatched to Afghanistan?
Did it really have to take the rivers of blood spilled in beautiful Baku for every decent person to decide that it was morally unacceptable for him to stay in the ranks of a criminal party? There is an easy human explanation for this–it is one thing to hear and to know something, and another to see all the horror with your own eyes, to feel it on yourself. However, in my view, this epiphany which even today has come to too few people, came too late and cost us too much…
She rebukes the extreme nationalists of the Popular Front for fomenting hatred against Baku’s defenceless Armenians.
On January 13, on Freedom Square the rally was still continuing, and in the building opposite people were already assaulting Armenians. Woe, disgrace, dishonour came to our town.. The pogromshchik has no nationality. The looter and murderer does not have the right to belong to any people…
And she warns against those who want to soak Azerbaijan’s movement for independence in blood.
The responsibility of a politician is comparable to the responsibility of a doctor. In both cases lack of professionalism leads to death and injury. And if someone writes, “Sacrifice cleanses the nation! You know how much we needed this cleansing… ” it is absolutely clear to me where this patriot-politician can lead us.
Why, in the name of a falsely understood unity of the nation should we march like a herd, behind first one, then another organization, behind this “father-leader” or behind another one?
But she still hopes for the release of political prisoners and the triumph of democracy:
My greatest desire is to see the Popular Front of Azerbaijan as a single powerful organization speaking out from a position of democracy, defending with the help of lawyers today with human rights organizations everyone who has been arrested.
I dream of an overwhelming victory by the democratic forces of the Azerbaijani people headed by the Popular Front of Azerbaijan in the elections.
Our tree of freedom will not bloom soon, and we need to water it with reason and not with a pool of blood.
Leyla Yunus’ essay was so powerful, clear-sighted and morally cogent that it persuaded hundreds of young Azerbaijanis to support the country’s Social Democratic Party, which became the most progressive and democratic part of the opposition.
Leyla Yunus subsequently briefly served in the Popular Front government of 1992-3, where she was a moderating influence. In 1993 former Soviet leader Heidar Aliev returned to power as president of independent Azerbaijan. In 1996 she founded the Institute of Peace and Democracy. The list of issues they worked on was dizzying: rule of law, defence of those arrested, national minorities, land-mines. Later they founded Azerbaijan’s first women’s crisis center. In the mean time Arif Yunus was Azerbaijan’s foremost expert on a host of issues, including the plight of refugees and the rise of political Islam.
In recent years, under the presidency of Heidar Aliev’s son Ilham, Leyla and her colleagues were increasingly targeted by the authorities. They were called strident, aggressive and difficult. And they were.
In the past year, the situation in Azerbaijan has deteriorated rapidly. The old nomenklatura mindset is back in full force. The list of political prisoners Leyla Yunus compiled—now including her and Arif—has 98 names on it. Most of them are secular pro-Western activists. In April, Leyla and Arif Yunus were detained at the airport as they were about to board an international flight. They were hit with all sorts of ludicrous charges, most notably–and with the scariest echo of Soviet times– espionage on behalf of the enemy, the Armenians.
In prison, Leyla Yunus, who has diabetes and other health problems, has been subjected to verbal and physical abuse. Arif Yunus, who has a heart condition, has been kept in complete isolation in the cells of the national security committee, the heir to the KGB.
In the same week, the Russian Ministry of Justice applied to have Memorial–Russia’s strongest human-rights organization and the winner of the 2009 Sakharov Prize–shut down.
In 1989 and 1990, these people had a vision, even as they recognized with the same clarity all the dangers that lay ahead, the narrow path that needed to be trod between different forces, if the former Soviet republics were to achieve European-style democracy.
Now, unfortunately, 25 years later, in both Russia and Azerbaijan some of the worst fears are coming to pass. That increases our responsibility to support people like Leyla Yunus and Memorial, as they are punished for having that vision.