Why Macedonia is not Finland – mousetraps and romantic nationalism – Part II

A morality tale – Part II

For Part I please go here: Why-macedonia-is-not-finland-rankings-and-the-pisa-gap


At its heart, the Finnish development story is a story about reallocating time and attention. It is a story about focus, about how – over time – incremental change can lead to dramatic transformations. Finland was not always the success story it is today. This success was the result of a national policy vision. It is the story of an unlikely success.

This is certainly the consistent theme in all modern history books on Finland. David Kirby opens his Concise History of Finland as follows:

“Finland can fairly lay claim to have been one of the big success stories of the modern age.”

Then he adds:

“The transformation of what less than a century ago was a poor agrarian land on the northern periphery of Europe into one of the most prosperous states of the European Union today is a remarkable story, but it is by no means an uneventful one.”

Fred Singleton starts his Short History of Finland like this:

“Today it is one of the most prosperous, socially progressive, stable and peace loving nations on earth.”

Then he adds:

“The homeland of the Finns is not, at first glance, a likely base for such a successful state.”

Why was success unlikely here? Most accounts begin with nature, the epic theme of wresting a living from the soil in Europe’s northernmost country, a third of which lies within the Arctic Circle. Fred Singleton notes that throughout history “there was little to attract conquerors or traders to this remote land of lakes and forests with its harsh winters.”

In other words: natural endowments do not explain why Macedonia is worse-off today than Finland. Nor does climate. Finland has long, dark and cold winters. Then the sea – across which 90 per cent of exports are transported today – freezes over (necessitating ice-breakers to permit traffic). This climate poses severe limitations for agriculture. In the north of the country the snow covers the ground for up to 220 days.

Nor is it a matter of raw materials. Compared to its neighbors, Norway and Russia, Finland has limited natural resources, aside from pine and spruce forests that cover half the territory. Due to the cold, everything is more expensive here, from building a transport network to heating factories. In 1918 Finland was still primarily an agricultural society. Half of its GDP derived from agriculture. Most non-agricultural activities focused on timber and pulp.

How about geopolitics: are Balkan nations not uniquely cursed by their geography? In fact, the geopolitics of the European North in the 20th century was not for the faint-hearted. For centuries control of Southern Finland has been central to the great power struggles in the North: between Sweden and Russia until the early 19th century; between Germany and the Soviet Union in the 20th. (During the Crimean war in the 1850s Helsinki and other coastal towns of Finland, then within the Czarist Empire, were bombed by the English fleet).

Finns also faced another challenge familiar to Balkan nations: linguistic conflict. For centuries, well into the modern era, elites in Finland spoke Swedish. Finland’s iconic 20th century hero, General Gustaf Mannerheim – the Ataturk of Finland, voted the most important Finn ever in a recent survey – spoke much better Swedish than Finnish. It took a while for Finnish culture to be recognised even by its closest and friendliest neighbor, Sweden. As the editor of Dagens Nyheter, Sweden’s leading daily, put it in the 19th century:

“it took centuries for Swedish culture to lead the Finnish people, whom it had taken under its care and protection, to civilization, self-esteem and independence.”

Finnish only obtained equal status with Swedish in the administration in 1863. When a baron spoke in Finnish in the estate of nobility for the first time in 1894 (!) it caused a furor. In 1880 less than one third of grammar schools were in Finnish. By 1900 it was still only two thirds.

The reality of Finland’s recent economic past is one of deep poverty. There were truly disastrous famines in the 1860s – hundreds of thousands died then, Finland suffered “shockingly high mortality rates” (Kirby). In the 1860s, a slogan was “Nature seems to cry out to our people: Emigrate or Die!” Early 20th century Finland was home to many tenant farmers and landless laborers. In 1910 “over half of the holdings were smaller than the five hectares deemed by the 1900 Senate commission on land tenure to be the minimum size for subsistence.” (Kirby). This fed political tensions, with rising frustrations, and  “a large number of poor Finnish peasants were prepared to resort to desperate measures against the richer farmers in order to wreak vengeance upon those who had oppressed them.” It also lead to civil war immediately after independence in 1917.

The history of early Finnish democracy was conflict-ridden. Once independent from the Russian Empire Finland plunged immediately into civil war between Reds and Whites. The outcome was only determined when German troops reached Helsinki. Invaded by Russia in 1939, Finland was forced to cede territory to the mighty neighbor, and to accept the displacement of four hundred thousand Finns as refugees from Karelia. Then there was a disastrous alliance of Finnish democracy with Nazi-Germany to fight a “holy war” (Mannerheim) to retake Karelia. A doomed effort to hold on to Karelia followed. This led to another loss in 1944 to Soviet troops. Another war against German troops in Lapland followed. In the first half of the 20th century, Finns had thus fought in three wars.

After World War II, Finland had to pay huge reparations to the Soviet Union. Post-war Finland was forced to resettle hundreds of thousands, forced to pay huge reparations to the Soviet Union, forced to abandon a peninsula outside Helsinki to the Soviets until the 1950s.  It also stayed out of the Marshall Plan and did not receive US aid. It did not even join the Council of Europe until May 1989!

It was only after this ordeal that the transformation of the (seemingly) ugly duckling into the majestic swan takes place. For after World War II something crucial happened. Finland’s leaders abandoned all greater geopolitical aspirations. They gave up on what Singleton called the “Concept of Greater Finland.” Their leaders now defined the Finnish national character through pragmatism. Mannerheim, the general who now became president, led the way:

“Mannerheim realized that Finland could no longer pose as a bastion for Christian civilization against the barbarian hordes of bolshevism. There was no more talk of crusades against the hereditary enemy. Instead there was a sober appreciation that, if Finland was to survive and prosper as a democratic society, a way must be found to live at peace with the giant eastern neighbor.”

Singleton described this turning point as turning away from romantic nationalism:

Finland had to “face soberly and without illusions the bleak truth that the only road to survival leads in the opposite direction from that which had previously been followed. The romantic nationalism of the nineteenth century which had played a vital part in the formation of the Finnish nation could offer no comfort or support in the world of the mid twentieth century.”

Now Finnish elites focused on growth, despite an uncertain geopolitical neighborhood. The country systematically developed its comparative advantages, from designing household appliances to developing forestry products. Singleton notes:

“Emerson might have been writing about Finland when he said ‘If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mouse-trap than his neighbor, though he builds his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.’ Finland’s ‘better mouse-traps’ include ice-breakers, glassware, ceramics, pharmaceutical products, high-quality textiles, pre-fabricated houses, sports equipment, electronics, cruise liners, and a whole host of other specialized products …”

Crucially one of these “better mousetraps” was the Finnish education system itself. In 1952 nine out of ten Finns had only completed 7-9 years of basic education. As late as the early 1970 “for three-quarters of adult Finns, basic school was the only completed form of education.” Finland was a net exporter of labor until the 1980s with some 750,000 people going to work in Sweden between 1945 and 1994, turning Finns into the largest migrant community there.

Educating everyone as best as possible, borrowing the best ideas for this from others, motivating educators … all this now came to be seen as central to Finnish identity. Classical Finnish literature was interpreted in this light, the Finnish national story told as a story of the triumph of education over poverty, mind over matter.  Primary school teachers came to be seen as standard bearers of national ideals. It is a narrative that resembles a morality tale. The Finnish national movement in the 19th century was interpreted as being centrally about education. The stories in the Finnish national epic Kalevala were seen to celebrate “mental agility”. Finland’s first novel – Seven Brothers – was read as a story about the value of education.

One symbolic story of un-heroic and life-improving creativity is that of the teacher Maiju Gebhard. She calculated that Finnish housewives spent 30,000 hours in life washing and drying dishes. That was equivalent to 3,5 years of life. So she invented something uniquely Finnish: the astiankuivauskaappi (or dish draining closet – see photo) installed today in almost every Finnish kitchen (but in no other countries). This was then “developed in the Finnish Association for Work Efficiency from 1944 to 1945. The Finnish Invention Foundation has named it as one of the most important Finnish inventions of the millennium.”

Creativity and daily life

An invention by teacher Maiju Gebhard: the astiankuivauskaappi (or dish draining closet), still found today in every Finnish household.

It is a riveting rags-to-riches story. It is like the children’s story of an ordinary person, dismissed by everyone as of little account, who suddenly steps to the center of the stage and turns out to be exceptional. The story of the obscure squire who, without effort, pulls the sword out of the mighty stone in the churchyard; the ungainly duckling, ridiculed for its clumsiness, who becomes a swan; the story of Clark Kent, the bespectacled reporter, who suddenly transforms into ‘Superman’.

I still do not know much about Finland, but I do feel that this is a story worth telling in the Balkans. In this post-heroic narrative of a small country, “education” came to be regarded as the secret behind a national transformation, the equivalent to the tin of spinach that transforms Popeye, the ineffectual sailor; or the magic lantern that helped the little orphan Aladdin rise up in life.

And there is the central lesson, which that has nothing to do with fairy tales. Tinkering with mousetraps, saving time and effort through simple inventions in daily life, designing elegant ceramics for household, thinking through all aspects of the national education system all takes time. Attention. Focus. By leaders, by intellectuals, by ordinary people.

Skopje, 2011

Now look at the Western Balkans in the early 21st century through this prism.

Look at the issues that obsess leaders in Skopje, the great prestige projects they have focused their time and attention on. (Yes, they are in some ways just copying their neighbors … but modern Greece is no Finland either, and for a reason).

Look at the issues that intellectuals, academics and politicians most like to discuss in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is rarely about how to design better mousetraps, but usually about how – if there would be a magic fairy – a new constitution would suddenly appear and all would be well.

Look at leaders’ allocation of time, energy and money in Kosovo. How many monuments to warriors have they built … and how many libraries to instill the love of books in the next generation?

Perhaps we can now answer the question of why Macedonia is not Finland. It lacks the national narratives that celebrate pragmatism, ordinary people, education and teachers as the national heroes of the future. Macedonia has not followed where Finland led one century ago in the field of women’s empowerment. It is not turning away from romantic nationalism but celebrates it.

One day leaders will emerge in the Western Balkans who take pride in building museums of science and design instead of temples to dead warriors and bandits. But when this will happen remains to be seen.


Finnish impressions – a post-heroic nation

Reminder of a complex neighbourhood: the Russian church in Helsinki

A national trauma and its consequences – losing Eastern Karelia, twice, to Russia in the 20th century

Gustav Mannerheim. His life reflects his country’s dramatic 20th century history. From a Swedish-Finnish family, growing up in the Czarist Empire, he volunteered for service in the Russian-Japanese war. He then became a spy in the “Great Game” in Asia. Following the revolution in 1917 he returned to Finland and led the Whites in the civil war against Finnish revolutionaries. He came out of retirement to fight in the Winter War in 1939. He was decorated by his own country, by the allies (French Legion d’honneur), by neutral Sweden and by the Nazis (receiving the Iron Cross; the surprise guest at his 75th birthday in Finland was Hitler). He then ended his political career as president of democratic Finland.

Rumeli Observer in Helsinki

Why Macedonia is not Finland – rankings and the PISA gap – Part I

A morality tale in two acts – Part I

One country in the world you expect looks forward to every new international ranking and comparison must surely be Finland, a small Nordic European nation of 5 million. It does not matter what is being measured – happiness, creativity, sustainability, gender relations, the well-being of children, even bike-friendliness: Finland always ends up as a global outlier.

Last summer I travelled to Finland to learn more about Finland’s special expertise in border management. I travelled around the country with a Finnish border general, visiting the Russian land border, the coast guard headquarters and Helsinki airport, learning about smart borders, new technology and international cooperation in the Baltic Sea. It was an impressive demonstration of Finnish competence, and a reminder of just how geopolitically exposed this small nation has been for centuries. It was also puzzling. Why was Finland so prosperous? Did this story of democracy and prosperity in the 20th century hold broader lessons for other small European countries with a troubled past in a complicated neighborhood? What would it take for Macedonia (Kosovo, Albania, Bosnia or Serbia) to become as wealthy and prosperous as Finland anytime in the future? Why is Macedonia not like Finland?

As a novice to all things Finnish I dug into reading whatever I could find in English and German. I hope Finnish friends will correct my necessarily superficial impressions and comment and add to these reflections.


A matter of comparison

First, a word on how to measure a country’s success. If you study how various international rankings are put together, and how many there are, you are certainly right not to take any single one of them too seriously. However, considered as a group, rankings can tell an interesting story. Here is a collection of international comparisons I looked at last year before setting out on my trip to the North.

There is the UN World Happiness Index, based on work by Jeffrey Sachs’ Earth Institute:

“FINLAND has been judged to be the world’s second happiest country in the United Nations’ World Happiness Report, which was released on 2 April. Denmark took top spot.”

There is the Legatum Prosperity Index 2012: here Finland came seventh.










New Zealand











There is the Sustainable Society Index, with Finland again among the top ten:

Human Wellbeing Economic Wellbeing
2006 2008 2010 2012 2006 2008 2010 2012
Iceland 5 4 4 1 Switzerland 9 1 1 1
Norway 2 1 1 2 Sweden 4 3 2 2
Sweden 1 2 2 3 Norway 12 9 3 3
Finland 3 3 3 4 Czech Republic 8 5 4 4
Austria 6 5 5 5 Denmark 1 6 6 5
Japan 4 6 6 6 Finland 6 7 7 6
Switzerland 13 9 9 7 Estonia 5 2 9 7
Netherlands 12 14 14 8 Slovenia 3 4 5 8
Ireland 9 8 7 9 Australia 11 13 10 9
Germany 7 7 8 10 Luxembourg 2 12 8 10

The Global Creativity Index looks at technology, talent and tolerance (Finland comes first in the first two categories):

1. Sweden
2. United States
3. Finland
4. Denmark
5. Australia
6. New Zealand
7. Canada
8. Norway
9. Singapore
10. Netherlands


The UNICEF Child well-being index looks at the welfare of the youngest:

1. Netherlands
2. Norway
3. Iceland
4. Finland
5. Sweden
6. Germany
7. Luxembourg
8. Switzerland
9. Belgium
10. Ireland

Finland was famously the first country in the world to grant women the right both to vote and to be elected to parliament. In the first Finnish parliament in 1906 there were 19 women MPs out of 200. This percentage was not reached in Turkey until 2011! The most recent 2012 Global Gender Gap index shows that Finland has not lost ground since:

1.      Iceland
2. Finland
3.      Norway
4.      Sweden
5.      Ireland
6.      New Zealand
7.      Denmark
8.      Philippines
9.      Nicaragua
10.  Switzerland

Even a recent index on bike-friendliness puts Finland in the top group in Europe:

1. Denmark
1. Netherlands
3. Sweden
4. Finland
5. Germany
6. Belgium
7. Austria
8. Hungary
9. Slovakia
10. UK

(See: European Cyclists’ Federation Cycling Barometer. Based on daily cycling levels, bike sales, safety, cycle tourism and advocacy activity).

Finally, the rankings that contributed most to making Finland a global sensation are the OECD’s PISA tests, measuring the literacy, math and science skills of 14-15 year olds across the world. Finland’s PISA success since 2001 has brought literally “thousands of delegations” (Pasi Sahlberg, who wrote a great book on the topic) to Europe’s North to find out how Finland achieves these successes.


Yes, but why?

In short, Finland is doing well. The obvious question for a Macedonian, Albanian, Bosnian or Serb who looks at these rankings is whether this has any relevance for their own societies.

What is the cause and effect in such a success story? Is it surprising that a society where children live well, are healthy, brought up by parents who live and work in creative cities, also has good schools? Is it not obvious that a country where young girls grow up in an environment of exemplary gender equality is better at educating the female half of the population than a patriarchal society where women still do not inherit land, as remains the case in Kosovo? Is Finland’s prosperity the result of its good education system … or is it the reverse?

Behind such unresolvable chicken-and-egg questions stands a bigger one. Can one look at any other country – especially one whose language very few outsiders understand – and derive useful roadmaps for domestic reforms? On the other hand, has not all progress since time immemorial be based on emulation, imitating in order to equal or excel:

“If the tribe across the river has taken the step from the Stone age to the Bronze Age, your own tribe is faced with the choice of either sticking to its comparative advantage in the Stone age or trying to emulate the neighbouring tribe into the Bronze Age … a strategy of emulation was a mandatory passage point for all nations that are presently rich.” (Erik Reinert)

Take education. A lot has already been written on the “lessons from Finland” and its success in PISA tests. Finnish children famously attend school for fewer hours than children anywhere else: 5,500 hours between ages 7 and 14 (compared to more than 7,000 hours in many other OECD countries). Italian 15-year olds have attended at least 2 more years of school than have their Finnish peers between ages 7 and 15. They also start school two years earlier. Yet, Italy ranks only 32nd in maths and science and 27th in reading. Clearly success (as measured by PISA) is not a mechanical result of hours spent in school.

This raises many questions. What is one to emulate? What do Finnish pupils learn when they are not in school? One whole chapter in a recent book on Finnish education describes the non-school learning environment, the role of museums and libraries. In 2010 there were 796 main and branch libraries in Finland. There were 53 million library visits a year, and the average number of loans was 18 items per Finn annually. It would be interesting to have comparable statistics from Macedonia or Kosovo, starting with the number of public libraries and comparing reading habits. Pasi Sahlberg, an expert on education, also wrote:

“With school days running shorter in Finland than in many other countries, what do children do when their classes are over? In principle, pupils are free to go home in the afternoon unless there is something offered to them in school. Primary schools are encouraged to arrange after-school activities for youngest pupils and educational or recreational clubs for the older ones.”

He added that two thirds of 10 to 14 year olds belong “to at least one youth association.”

What are the policy lessons? Is it that children in countries where there is a lot of creative stimulation outside of school do not need to spend too many hours in class … but the reverse is true in countries without museums or public libraries? That even in the age of the internet, books and a network of public libraries matter when it comes to stimulating a love of reading? (Or is it perhaps even more important which kinds of books children find, in their own language, once they set foot in such a library?)

On the other hand, if everything matters, since “it takes a village to educate a child”, does studying any individual aspects of Finnish policy offer guidance to a Macedonian, Kosovo, Albanian or Bosnian (cantonal) minister of education?

In fact, the real lesson – the main point to underline and discuss from a Balkan perspective –may be altogether different and more basic. It is not this or that aspect of Finnish education, public administration or social policy that matters most. It is the general attitude towards progress and development, the sense of what issues matter most, which shapes how to allocate one’s most precious resource … time and attention.

The real and significant difference between Macedonia and Finland are the issues people – decision makers, parents, teachers – consider important enough to wrestle with until they find incremental improvements.

Sculpture in Helsinki overlooking the Baltic Sea
Title: Happiness

It is, for instance, well known that Finnish teachers are exceptionally well-educated. In Finland all primary school teachers require a master’s degree from university, and need to do real research into education issues as part of their education. They are expected to think seriously about the activity they will engage in. They are asked to think about primary education, to ask different and new questions about what constitutes success. In this way they take part in a wider national conversation.

Is this kind of reflection part of the education of teachers in the Western Balkans? Are teachers in Macedonia or Kosovo taught pedagogical thinking skills? Is education itself the main subject of their education?

And what about policy makers? Do debates on education policy in the Western Balkans always proceed on the basis of empirical research? Are reforms grounded in real assessments of the status quo? Are education policy issues discussed seriously in national parliaments?

I think most of you reading this will suspect what the answers to these questions are. But how might this state of affairs be changed?

Let us take a look at 2012 PISA rankings again and compare Macedonia and Finland:

PISA results – mathematics 2012

Shanghai (top country)


Netherlands (top EU15 country)


Estonia (top EU13 country)








Bulgaria (lowest EU country)






Bosnia and Herzegovina


PISA results – reading 2012

Shanghai (top country)


Finland (top EU15 country)


Poland (top EU13 country)








Bulgaria (lowest EU country)






Bosnia and Herzegovina


PISA results – science 2012

Shanghai (top country)


Finland (top EU15 country)


Estonia (top EU13 country)








Cyprus (lowest EU country)






Bosnia and Herzegovina


At the time Finland did best in science and reading among EU members (For more background look at Pasi Sahlberg on Finnish education). Poland and Estonia also performed well. Serbia performed somewhat worse than Turkey. Albania did very badly.

And Macedonia? It did not even take the test! This is all the more puzzling given the dramatic results when Macedonia took the test, once and for the last time, in 2000. As the OECD found then:

“At the lower end of the scale, 18 per cent of students among OECD countries and well over 50 per cent of the student population in Albania, Brazil, Indonesia, FYR Macedonia and Peru perform at Level 1 or below. These students, at best, can handle only the most basic reading tasks. Students at this level are not a random group.”

The share of students with serious difficulties in reading (PISA 2000) was as follows:

Level 1 and below!














Or, in even more shocking detail:

Below Level 1 Level 1 Level 2 Level 3 Level 4 Level 5

















































Level 1 “represents those students who have serious difficulties in using reading as a tool to advance and extend their knowledge and skills in other areas.”

Level 5 “indicates those students who are able to manage information that is presented in unfamiliar texts, show detailed understanding of complex texts and infer which information is relevant to the task, and critically evaluate and build hypotheses with the capacity to draw on specialised knowledge and concepts that may be contrary to expectations.”

(Macedonia has just now, after 14 years, taken the test for the second time. May this be the start of a different debate?)

All leaders have a limited budget of attention. What are the issues foremost on the mind of prime ministers and ministers when they go to bed or wake up in the morning? What questions do they ask foreign visitors? It was the father of modern management studies, Peter Drucker, who wrote once:

“We rightly consider keeping many balls in the air a circus stunt. Yet even the juggler does it only for ten minutes or so. If he were to try doing it longer, he would soon drop all the balls.”

After all, the one totally inflexible resource of every individual – parent or prime minister – is time. This is also true for the political class. What activities do they allocate it to? What is being studied and debated in parliament, local governments, parent-teacher associations, in detail? What issues are being studied seriously and empirically?

If education is not one of those issues then it is not surprising that Macedonia has not been catching up with the rest of Europe. One might also then assume that the current generation of pupils emerging from its schools will not be able to compete, as they should, with their peers elsewhere in Europe.

But how does a society even begin to obsess as much about human capital, education and fostering creativity as this small Nordic nation?

To be continued HERE  … mousetraps-and-romantic-nationalism


The Baltic Sea near Helsinki

Politische Gefangene? Hier doch nicht! (Political Prisoners? Certainly not here!) – in FAS

Article on the Council of Europe, Azerbaijan and political prisoners in Europe in today’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung

Aserbaidschan verdient viel Geld mit Öl und Gas. Jetzt darf es sogar den Europarat führen. Klar, in dem Land läuft ja alles super, es gibt sogar freie Wahlen. Glaubt der Europarat.

Von Gerald Knaus

Im Januar 2013 begann in Madrid eine wunderbare Freundschaft. Die Kaukasusrepublik Aserbaidschan wurde zum Trikotsponsor des Fußballclubs Atletico Madrid, der Überraschungsmannschaft dieser Saison. Wenn Atletico am kommenden Samstag im Finale der Champions League gegen den Stadtrivalen von Real Madrid antritt, steht auf den Trikots der Spieler: „Azerbaijan – Land of Fire“. Zwölf Millionen ließ sich das Land den Werbevertrag damals kosten. Eine gute Investition: Allein das Finale der Champions League werden Hunderte Millionen Zuschauer sehen.

Mit dem Januar 2013 verbindet Aserbaidschans Führung noch ein weiteres erfreuliches Ereignis. Am 23. Januar 2013 fand eine in jeder Hinsicht historische Debatte in der Parlamentarischen Versammlung des Europarates in Straßburg statt: Am Ende stimmten 125 Abgeordnete aus ganz Europa gegen eine Resolution, die den Umgang Aserbaidschans mit politischen Gefangenen verurteilte. Nur 79 Abgeordnete votierten für die Annahme der Resolution. Noch nie in der Geschichte des Europarates hatten so viele Parlamentarier an einer Abstimmung teilgenommen.

Fast vier Jahre lang war Christoph Strässer, ein Sozialdemokrat aus Münster und Autor der Resolution, auf Widerstand gestoßen, wie ihn kein Berichterstatter in der Geschichte des Europarates zuvor je erlebt hatte. Dreimal verweigerte ihm Aserbaidschan die Einreise. Sogar von deutschen Freunden des Regimes wurde er angegriffen. Einer von ihnen, der ehemalige Bundestagsabgeordnete der Linken Hakki Keskin, beschwerte sich brieflich beim SPD-Vorsitzenden über Strässer.

Politiker aus Baku erklärten derweil unermüdlich, dass der Begriff „politischer Gefangener“ keinerlei Sinn ergäbe. Schließlich gäbe es gar keine Dissidenten im Land. In den Gefängnissen säßen lediglich Rauschgifthändler, Gewalttäter oder Terroristen. Dazu wurden internationale Konferenzen abgehalten und Abgeordnete des Europarates in großer Zahl nach Aserbaidschan eingeladen.

Als diese Sichtweise im Januar 2013 von einer Mehrheit der Abgeordneten im Parlament des Europarats bestätigt wurde, brach in der aserbaidschanischen Delegation Jubel aus. Einem Berichterstatter erschien es so, „als hätte Aserbaidschan eben die Champions League gewonnen“. Christoph Strässer erlebte dagegen einen „schwarzen Tag für den Europarat“. Bei einer Pressekonferenz in Straßburg sagte er am selben Abend: „Es stellt sich die Frage, welche Zukunft diese Organisation noch hat.“ Die Pressekonferenz war schlecht besucht. Keine der großen europäischen Zeitungen berichtete über die Abstimmung. Was ist schon der Europarat?

In Baku herrschte dagegen großer Jubel. Voller Stolz teilte der Vorsitzende der parlamentarischen Delegation Aserbaidschans mit: „Strässer muss akzeptieren, dass der Europarat Aserbaidschan gehört, und nicht ihm.“ Das stimmte sogar.

In der abgelaufenen Woche hat Aserbaidschan für ein halbes Jahr den Vorsitz im Ministerkomitee des Europarates übernommen. Das fand wieder kaum Beachtung, obwohl nun ein autoritäres Regime dem ältesten Zusammenschluss europäischer Demokratien vorsteht. Was ist schon Aserbaidschan?

Aserbaidschan ist ein reicher Ölstaat im Kaukasus, geführt von einer prunksüchtigen Familiendynastie. Die Präsidententöchter geben das Lifestylemagazin „Baku“ heraus, das auch auf Englisch erscheint, und das Regime mag es gern glitzernd. Aserbaidschan tat sich als Gastgeber von UN-Konferenzen hervor, und bald wird dort das erste Formel-1-Rennen in einer ehemaligen Sowjetrepublik stattfinden. Wo immer die lokalen Regierungen dazu bereit sind, lässt das Regime im Ausland gegen Bezahlung Statuen des 2003 verstorbenen Familienpatriarchen und ehemaligen KGB-Agenten Heydar Alijew aufstellen, in Mexico City und in Kiew, in Belgrad und in Astrachan. Nur in Niagara-on-the-Lake, einer kanadischen Kleinstadt, steht eine Büste nicht von Vater Alijew, sondern von der Frau des jetzigen Präsidenten. In Mexico wurde ein Denkmal nach Protesten wieder entfernt.

Aber solche kleine Rückschläge fallen kaum ins Gewicht. Insgesamt ist die Prestigepolitik der Herrscherfamilie ziemlich erfolgreich. Die Alijew-Stiftung restauriert katholische Kirchen in Frankreich oder einen Park in Belgrad. Auch im Philosophensaal im Kapitolinischen Museum in Rom fehlt nicht der Hinweis auf den Sponsor aus dem Kaukasus. Westlichen Denkfabriken wird Geld angeboten, damit sie in Baku Konferenzen zu allen möglichen Themen veranstalten. Nobelpreisträger werden zum „Baku International Humanitarian Forum“ geladen – 2013 kamen immerhin 13 Laureaten. Vielleicht lächelt der eine oder andere von ihnen über die neureiche Politik der Gastgeber, doch am Ende lacht die erste Familie in Baku. Denn offensichtlich sind alle scharf auf das Geld aus Aserbaidschan, und davon gibt es wegen des Energiereichtums sehr viel.

Dazu kommt eine gewisse strategische Bedeutung des Landes. Aserbaidschan ist wichtig für den Rückzug westlicher Truppen aus Afghanistan. Es unterhält eine enge Kooperation mit Israel und ist ein Horchposten westlicher Geheimdienste an der Grenze zum Iran. Auch die Aussicht auf weitere Geschäfte mit Öl und Gas spielt eine Rolle. Aserbaidschan hat klugerweise Firmen aus der ganzen Welt eingebunden, Russen, Amerikaner und Türken, British Petroleum ebenso wie die norwegische Statoil. Hohe demokratische Standards erwarten diese Partner nicht. Die vorherrschende Meinung in westlichen Hauptstädten lautet: Hauptsache, Aserbaidschan ist stabil.

Mit dem Europarat ist es ein wenig wie mit Aserbaidschan. Er ist – zumindest gefühlt – weit weg und steht nicht im Zentrum europäischer Politik. Dabei war er einmal die ehrwürdigste Institution. Er wurde nach dem Zweiten Weltkrieg als geistige Union westlicher Demokratien ins Leben gerufen, zur Abgrenzung von sowjetischen und faschistischen Diktaturen. Seine Grundlage und sein Alleinstellungsmerkmal ist die 1950 im Palazzo Barberini in Rom von zehn Staaten unterzeichnete Europäische Menschenrechtskonvention, damals das stärkste verbindliche internationale Instrument zum Schutz von Menschenrechten. Weder Francos Spanien noch später das Griechenland der Militärjunta durften Mitglieder werden, Weißrussland fehlt bis heute.

Der zum Europarat gehörende, aber unabhängige Europäische Gerichtshof für Menschenrechte ist für den Schutz der Rechte von 800 Millionen Menschen zuständig. Aber die EU hat sich inzwischen auch einen Menschenrechtsbeauftragten, eine Agentur für Menschenrechte und einen Grundrechtekatalog zugelegt. Es gab in Europa überhaupt noch nie so viele Menschenrechtsbeauftragte wie heute. Es wimmelt von ihnen. Allerdings dient das nicht unbedingt dem Schutz der Menschenrechte.

Aserbaidschan musste sich 2000 zwar vor dem Europarat dazu verpflichten, keine politischen Gefangenen mehr zu machen. Doch nach 2006 wurde die Kritik an Aserbaidschan immer leiser. Heute sind die Berichterstatter des Europarats für Azerbaidschan – aus Spanien und Malta – erklärte Bewunderer der Fortschritte Aserbaidschans unter Ilham Alijew. Und Alijew ist jetzt Fan des Europarats. Anfang des Jahres sagte er in Brüssel, es könne in Aserbaidschan gar keine politischen Gefangenen geben, schließlich habe das der Europarat, „eine der wichtigsten Institutionen der Welt“ selbst festgestellt. Auch das stimmte.

Seit der denkwürdigen Straßburger Abstimmung vom Januar 2013 hat die Repression in Aserbaidschan zugenommen. Die Liste der Verhafteten aus Medien, Politik und Zivilgesellschaft ist lang. Laut Amnesty International gibt es in keinem anderen Land des Europarates so viele politische Gefangene wie in Aserbaidschan. Sie tragen komplizierte Namen: Tofiq Yagublu (fünf Jahre Haft), Yadigar Sadygov (sechs Jahre Haft), Avaz Zeynalli (neun Jahre), Rashad Ramazanov, Sardar Alibeyli, Rashad Hasanov, Uzeyir Mammadli und viele mehr. Wer merkt sich schon solche Namen? Appelle und Berichte von Menschenrechtsorganisationen, die sich für diese Leute einsetzen, verhallen ungehört.

Einige Regimegegner haben mit dem Europarat zusammengearbeitet. Zum Beispiel Ilgar Mammadov. Mammadov wurde zwei Wochen nach der Abstimmung im Januar 2013 verhaftet. Seinen Namen kannte man in Straßburg, denn er war nicht nur ein möglicher Kandidat für die aserbaidschanische Präsidentenwahl im Oktober 2013, sondern leitete auch die „Schule für Politik“, ein Demokratisierungsprojekt des Europarates in Baku. Im März 2014 wurde Mammadov unter fadenscheinigen Vorwürfen zu sieben Jahren Gefängnis verurteilt. Thorbjörn Jagland, der Generalsekretär des Europarates, schrieb eine knappe Protestnote. Genützt hat es nichts.

Bei der Präsidentenwahl wurde Alijew mit 85 Prozent der Stimmen wiedergewählt, zum dritten Mal. Die OSZE-Wahlbeobachtungsmission Odihr war dabei und zeigte sich anschließend entsetzt. Minutiös und glaubwürdig schilderten die Beobachter in ihrem Abschlussbericht die vielen Betrügereien. Auch der Europarat schickte eine Delegation in das Land. Sie kam zu dem Schluss, die Wahl sei „frei und fair“ gewesen.

Kurz nach der Wahl wurde Anar Mammadli verhaftet. Mammadli war Vorsitzender einer international angesehenen örtlichen Wahlbeobachtungsorganisation, er hatte Christoph Strässer bei seinem Bericht über politische Gefangene unterstützt. Wiederum wurden die Europäer vorgeführt – diesmal regelrecht lustvoll. Gerade erst hatte der Vorsitzende der Wahlbeobachter der Parlamentarischen Versammlung des Europarats, ein britischer Konservativer, die Präsidentenwahl gelobt. Warum sollte dagegen jemand protestieren? Ein anderer britischer Konservativer musste gute Miene zum bösen Spiel machen. Außenminister Hague nahm einen Tag nach der Verhaftung Mammadlis an der Unterzeichnung eines Vertrags von BP und Aserbaidschan über ein viele Milliarden Euro teures Gasprojekt teil.

Beseelt von den eigenen PR-Erfolgen, kennt das Regime in Baku inzwischen keine Zurückhaltung mehr. Kürzlich präsentierte der Außenminister Aserbaidschans die Prioritäten der Europaratspräsidentschaft seines Landes bei einem Ministertreffen der Mitgliedsländer. Unter anderem will Aserbaidschan Konferenzen zu Menschenrechtserziehung und der Demokratisierung der Justiz abhalten. Am Tag, als der Minister in Wien all die schönen Projekte vorstellte, wurden in Baku acht junge Aktivisten der Organisation NIDA zu langen Gefängnisstrafen verurteilt. Der Europarat schwieg dazu in Wien, auch sein Generalsekretär Jagland. Der Norweger sitzt dem Friedensnobelpreis-Komitee in Oslo vor. Es hat in der Vergangenheit einige Dissidenten und politische Gefangene ausgezeichnet, von Andrei Sacharow bis Nelson Mandela. Aber zu Aserbaidschan fällt Jagland wenig ein.

Mit dieser Zurückhaltung ist er nicht allein. Eine griechische Außenministerin, deutsche Linke, spanische Konservative, englische Liberale, polnische Exkommunisten, Lords in England, Italiener aus allen Parteien stimmen im Europarat so, wie Aserbaidschan es will. Seltsam. Sie alle haben im Januar 2013 durch ihre Stimme gegen den Bericht über politische Gefangene den Weg für die derzeitige Verhaftungswelle freigemacht. Sie alle verraten die Werte Europas.

An diese Werte erinnerten ausgerechnet jene, die in Aserbaidschan verhaftet werden. Die acht jungen NIDA-Aktivisten erinnerten an ihrem letzten Prozesstag vor wenigen Wochen an Solschenizyns Appell von 1975, nicht mit der Lüge zu leben. Solschenizyn habe geschrieben, despotische Regime seien von der Beteiligung aller an den Lügen abhängig. Er habe geschrieben, „dass der einfachste und am besten erreichbare Schlüssel zu unserer von uns selbst vernachlässigten Befreiung direkt vor uns liegt: in der Nichtteilnahme an Lügen“.

Es klingt so einfach. Aber es ist offenbar unheimlich schwer. Selbst für frei gewählte Abgeordneten aus freien Ländern.

Bona-fide is not enough – the visa story of two Turkish professors

by Gerald Knaus and Alexandra Stiglmayer

ESI Whitelist Project


Sometimes one true story is the best way to explain a complicated problem: here is the  story of Schengen visa, MMB , MB and the need for change.

If you have your own stories and want them to be know, please contact us: istanbul@esiweb.org


Last December, the EU and Turkey finally launched a visa liberalisation process. If everything goes as planned, Turkish citizens will be able to freely travel to EU and Schengen countries in three years.

The road towards this launch has been bumpy. Now is the time for confidence-building to make sure that the process accomplishes its stated goal, as  ESI suggested in its paper “Trust and travel. Easing the visa burden for Turks in five steps last February.

Why this is so important is illustrated by the following true story.



MMB is a respected professor of International Relations and European Integration (she is a Jean Monnet Chair) at Sabanci University in Istanbul. We recently met at a conference in Berlin. Her husband is a professor of Economics and the former dean of the faculty at which MMB teaches.

Recently MMB was invited to speak at a NATO seminar in Italy on 15-17 May. She needed a new visa. So, on 29 April, she went to the intermediary agent, IDATA, which Italy had hired to handle visa applications.

(Nowadays most Schengen country consulates no longer receive visa applications themselves, but use intermediary agents who collect the applications, bring them with the passports to the consulates, later pick up the passports with the visas and hand them back to the applicants. The costs for this service, which saves consulates of lot of work, are charged to the applicants – MMB had to pay 30 Euro for it, in addition to the 60 Euro for the visa itself.)

For her visa application, MMB had filled out the application form and put together the necessary documentation: the invitation letter signed by a NATO general, her flight ticket and hotel booking, excerpts from her bank accounts showing that she has a regular income and sufficient funds for the trip, evidence of her social security payments in Turkey, a current certificate from the civil registry, all the current contracts for her work with the European Commission, evidence that she is an affiliated professor at the University of Stockholm as well as copies of her previous passports that are full of Schengen visas. In her current passport too, she has an expired two-year multiple-entry Schengen visa, a 10-year multiple-entry visa for the UK and a 10-year multiple-entry visa for the US.

To any reasonable person, all this leaves no doubt that MMB is a person that travels a lot for professional reasons, has never abused any of her visas, and has a good job and family in Turkey. There is no risk that she would not come back and prefer to become an illegal migrant in Italy. In fact, MMB was hoping this time to get a 5-year multiple-entry Schengen visa.

Then the IDATA clerk explained to her that the NATO invitation letter is not valid unless the person issuing the invitation – a NATO general – has his signature validated and certified by a notary. MMB was reluctant to ask the NATO general for this. So she had to sign a statement declaring that she “knowingly” submitted “an incomplete application”.

For nine days, she did not receive any information about the status of her application despite regular phone calls to IDATA and the Italian consulate. Then the consulate was very helpful and informed her that she had been given a multiple-entry visa for three years. In the end she received her passport with the visa only four days before her flight.

An isolated case? MMB’s husband MB did not fare any better. He was invited to a seminar at Freie Universität Berlin on 28 April.

Germany uses the same intermediary agent like Italy, IDATA. So MB went to the IDATA office well in advance of the seminar, on 20 March, equipped with the same long pile of documents that MMB had to submit. However, the IDATA clerk was not satisfied. He asked him for civil registry extracts for his entire family, including his parents and his child. MB got these and delivered them to IDATA.

The saga continued. This time, the clerk was not satisfied with the evidence of income and social security payments that MB had submitted. The evidence was an attestation from the university. The clerk wanted to have an attestation from the Turkish social security provider, covering the previous 20 years.

If MB had not promised a colleague in Berlin that he would come, he would have given up, but due to this promise he decided to spend another day on the application, getting the certificate and bringing it to IDATA.

In the end, he received only a 3-month Schengen visa, so he faces the same trouble again in three months. Like MMB, he travels a lot and has previous Schengen visas and a 10-year UK and a 10-year US visa in his passport. But this apparently did not make any impression on IDATA.

If two respected and busy professors who travel extensively and have a good income are treated in this way, how are ordinary citizens treated? What about the promise of EU member states “to promote the regular mobility of bona fide travellers between Turkey and the EU and its Member States” given in December 2012? It cannot get more “bona fide” than in MMB’s and MB’s case, and their experience, in MMB’s words, has been “horrendous”.

When it comes to less well-established Turkish citizens, the situation is worse. In the end, wrote MMB, “it is not me that is the issue here, I always get a visa, but my colleagues, my students they all suffer.” She posted a tweet about her experience.

“My students and younger colleagues immediately responded saying this is a major problem for them. There are many academicians who cannot go to meetings abroad because their visas are either rejected or not prepared in time. This is a key concern for young scholars. Also, consider this: most of these young researchers are earning relatively little money, and each application costs around 300 Turkish lira – about 100 Euro – which is a lot considering their monthly income.”



EU member states ought to have systems in place that make failures such in MMB’s and MB’s cases impossible, and they need to work on making the visa burden for all Turkish citizens as light as possible. In our paper “Trust and travel. Easing the visa burden for Turks in five steps (24 February 2014, we recommended that EU member states commit to five goals to support the visa liberalisation process:


Reject as few Turkish visa applications as possible, striving to achieve a rejection rate of 2 percent or less. Some EU member states (Greece, Italy, Hungary) already achieve this.


Issue at least 90 percent of the visas as long-term multiple-entry visas valid 3 to 5 years. Member states currently vary on this issue greatly.


Allow proxies to submit visa applications on behalf of Turkish applicants; waive the visa fee of 60 Euros in as many cases as possible and consider removing it altogether; waive individual document requirements wherever possible.


Commit to issuing long-term visas for all Turkish students and researchers in time for the beginning of their studies and projects.


Make all improvements visible and advertise them; start to provide information on all aspects of visa policy so that progress can be easily monitored.

It is time that improvements become visible, and not that the visa application procedure becomes more difficult.

In the end MMB still felt grateful to the Italian Consulate in the end. When contacted they were prompt, efficient and helpful. Without their help the application would certainly have taken even longer.

A family history of World War I – and a meaningless war

This is an unusual post in two respects: it is personal (about two grandfathers in World War I) and it is not by me but by the next generation:  my daughter produced this for a school  project in France, researching the family history in World War I. It was an excellent way to reflect on this anniversary, and we all learned some new things.

I hope those who  understand German agree that this is interesting to share, as another generation comes to grips with the madness of nationalism in Europe in the very recent past. These lessons remain as relevant today as ever.


Zwei junge Männer, zwei Fronten, zwei Gefangenschaften

Fanny Knaus (Paris)

Viele Mitglieder meiner Familie haben im ersten Weltkrieg gekämpft. Das ist die Geschichte von Gottlieb und Alfons, meinen beiden Urgrossvätern, die an unterschiedlichen Fronten kämpften.

Alfons Schwärzler an der italienischen Front. Gottlieb Knaus an der russischen Front.


Gottlieb Knaus ist 1895 in Schladming in den österreichischen Alpen geboren. In jungen Jahren arbeitete er in einem Kohlebergwerk.

Mit 19 Jahren zog er 1914 in den Krieg. Er kämpfte an der Ostfront gegen Russland. Dort kam er in Gefangenschaft. Er wurde in Sibirien bei einem Bauern (Kulaken) zur Zwangsarbeit eingeteilt. Es ging ihm relativ gut. Er spielte viel Schach und lernte perfekt Russisch. Nach 40 Monaten, nach der russischen Revolution, gelang ihm die Flucht und er kam zurück nach Österreich.


Gottlieb Knaus in Sibirien als Kriegsgefangener


Später gab er seiner ältesten Tochter den russischen Namen Ludmilla. In meiner Familie nimmt man an, dass er sich in Sibirien in eine Ludmilla verliebt hatte.

Alfons Schwärzler (der meine Grossmutter adoptierte) wurde 1898 in einem Bergdorf in Vorarlberg  in Österreich geboren. Er kam aus einer armen Familie. Er hatte sechs Brüder und drei Schwestern. Als Bub musste er ins Schwabenland ziehen und dort schon als Kind auf einem fremden Hof arbeiten, da seine Familie ihn nicht ernähren konnte.

1916, als er 17 Jahre alt war, wurde er von der Armee eingezogen. In einem Brief vom 18 Mai 1916, den ich gefunden habe, erzählt er Details aus der Zeit der Vorbereitung auf den Krieg in einer Kaserne: er wurde erstmals geimpft; er hoffte seinen Anzug, den er abgeben musste, nach Kriegsende bald wieder zurückzubekommen; und er bat seine Familie ihm seine Pfeife zu schicken. Er erzählte auch, dass viel exerziert wurde und es „in wenigen Wochen nach Italien geht, um den Katzelmachern [ein Schimpfwort für Italiener] einen Denkzettel zu geben [sie zu bestrafen]“.


Gottlieb Schwärzler als junger Soldat während der Ausbildung 1916

Nach der kurzen Ausbildung wurde er in die Alpen geschickt. Er verbrachte zwei Jahre in den Dolomiten hoch oben in den Bergen. Hier kämpfte Österreich-Ungarn gegen Italien. Der Alpenkrieg war sehr gefährlich. Berggipfel und Höhlen wurden gesprengt. Man kämpfte oft im Schnee.

Einmal, beim Essenholen, geriet Alfons in eine Lawine. Er konnte sich an einen Baum klammern und überlebte. Alle litten schrecklich Hunger in den Bergen.

Nach Friedenschluss kam Alfons von den Bergen ins Tal. Trotz des Friedens wurde er nun, wie viele andere, von den Italienern gefangengenommen. Alfons erging es dabei viel schlechter als Gottlieb in Sibirien. Er war über ein Jahr in Gefangenschaft wo er schrecklich Hunger hatte, weil es jeden Tag nur dünne Reissuppe gab. Die Gefangenen lebten in Zelten. Sie froren und es gab viele Krankheiten. Alfons hatte danach ein Leben lang einen Lungenschaden.

Ich fand eine Postkarte an ihn von seiner Familie aus dieser Zeit. Sie ist addressiert an den „Kriegsgefangenen Soldaten aus Österreich“ [prigioniere di guerra soldato austriaco Alfonso Schwärzler].



Sehr interessant finde ich, dass sowohl für Alfons Schwärzler wie auch für Gottlieb Knaus 1918 der Krieg noch lange nicht vorbei war. Durch ihre Gefangenschaft waren sie noch viele Jahre von ihren Familien getrennt.

Heute kann ich diese sinnlosen Kämpfe nicht verstehen. Mein Vater und meine Tante haben beide in Italien studiert. Mein Grossvater und mein Vater haben Russisch gelernt und mein Vater in der Ukraine gearbeitet. Heute lernen meine Mutter und ich beide Russisch. In Italien war ich schon, aber nach Sibirien muss ich noch fahren.



Erdgas und Menschenrechte (Petroleum gas and human rights) – in FAZ

Aserbaidschan übernimmt den Vorsitz im Europarat – und der ignoriert die Menschenrechtsverletzungen des Regimes in Baku auf eine Weise, die Fragen nach Sinn und Zweck dieser Organisation aufwirft / Von Michael Martens

ISTANBUL, 13. Mai. An diesem Mittwoch übernimmt Aserbaidschan den Vorsitz im Europarat. „Europas führende Organisation für Menschenrechte“, wie sich der Europarat mit Sitz in Straßburg selbst nennt, hat 47 Mitgliedsstaaten (nur Weißrussland und das Kosovo gehören nicht dazu), mehr als 2.200 Angestellte und ein Jahresbudget von etwa 400 Millionen Euro. Die bekannteste Einrichtung des Europarats ist der Europäische Gerichtshof für Menschenrechte. Dort können Bürger aller Mitgliedsländer Klage gegen ihre Staaten einreichen, wenn diese gegen die europäische Menschenrechtskonvention verstoßen haben. Denn um Mitglied im Europarat zu werden, muss ein Staat diese Konvention unterzeichnet haben und sich daran halten – theoretisch zumindest.

Nun wird also Aserbaidschan den Europarat repräsentieren, und in Baku werden in den kommenden Monaten aufwendige Konferenzen über die Bedeutung der Menschenrechte abgehalten. Viele Gäste werden kommen, denn obwohl Aserbaidschan kaum mehr als neun Millionen Einwohner hat, ist es für den Westen (und für Europa insbesondere) politisch wichtig. Eine geplante Gasleitung von Aserbaidschan über Georgien, die Türkei und Griechenland bis nach Italien könnte ein wichtiger Baustein zur Verringerung der europäischen Energieabhängigkeit von Russland werden. Ein „demokratischer Lieferant“ wäre Aserbaidschan allerdings ebenfalls nicht. Aserbaidschans Präsident Ilham Alijew, der das höchste Staatsamt von seinem Vater erbte, einem ehemaligen KGB-Agenten, ist ein Diktator, der mit eiserner Faust über sein Land herrscht und Oppositionelle verfolgen lässt. Dieser Tage hat „Reporter ohne Grenzen“ (ROG) aufgelistet, wie es aserbaidschanischen Journalisten, die das Regime in Baku zu kritisieren wagen oder gar zu Machtmissbrauch und Menschenrechtsverletzungen recherchieren, reihenweise ergeht: Sie werden durch die vom Regime kontrollierte Justiz zu Haftstrafen wegen Rauschgiftbesitzes, Spionage für Armenien, Anstiftung zu Unruhen, Waffenschmuggels oder ähnlicher fingierter Delikte verurteilt. „Aserbaidschan übt in den kommenden sechs Monaten ein herausragendes Amt innerhalb Europas aus, doch gleichzeitig tritt die Regierung unter Präsident Alijew die Pressefreiheit mit Füßen“, stellt ROG dazu fest.

Auch das State Department äußert sich in seinem jährlichen Menschenrechtsbericht deutlich und stellt unter anderem fest, dass das Regime in Aserbaidschan nicht nur gewaltsam gegen Journalisten und Menschenrechtsaktivisten vorgehe, Wahlbeobachter kriminalisiere oder mit Ausreiseverboten belege, sondern auch Übergriffe gegen Regierungsgegner nicht ahnde. Die Privatsphäre von Oppositionellen werde verletzt (eine Journalistin sollte mit in ihrem Schlafzimmer aufgenommenen Bildern erpresst werden, die sie beim Geschlechtsverkehr mit ihrem Partner zeigen), die Religionsfreiheit eingeschränkt. Mehrere Dutzend junge Männer kamen während ihrer Wehrdienstzeit unter ungeklärten Umständen ums Leben. Die Menschenrechtsorganisation „Human Rights Watch“ stellt es ähnlich dar: „Die Regierung Aserbaidschans schränkt systematisch jede Art von regierungskritischem Verhalten ein.“ Über die aserbaidschanischen Präsidentenwahlen im Oktober fällte die Wahlbeobachtermission der Organisation für Sicherheit und Zusammenarbeit in Europa (OSZE) ein vernichtendes Urteil: Einschränkungen der Presse- und Versammlungsfreiheit sowie die Einschüchterung von Wählern und Oppositionskandidaten gehörten gleichsam zum Standardprogramm des Regimes. Am Wahltag selbst wurden die Beobachter auch Zeugen unverfrorener Manipulationen. In Wahllokalen wurden die Urnen mit gefälschten Wahlzetteln vollgestopft, in fast 60 Prozent der beobachteten Fälle war die Stimmauszählung von Betrug begleitet und wurde als „schlecht“ oder „sehr schlecht“ bewertet. Unter anderen wurden Stummzettel „umgeschrieben“.

Aserbaidschan ist reich an Rohstoffen und arm an Rechtstaatlichkeit. Mitte April traten acht aserbaidschanische Männer in einen Hungerstreik, um gegen einen Schauprozess zu demonstrieren, dessen Ausgang von vornherein feststand. In der vergangenen Woche wurden die Männer zu Haftstrafen von bis zu acht Jahren verurteilt. Es handelt sich nicht um Islamisten oder Rauschgifthändler, sondern um Bürgerrechtler und Mitglieder einer demokratischen Jugendgruppe. „Leider sieht es so aus, als sei Alijew mit seiner Kampagne zur Unterminierung europäischer Standards und der sie tragenden Institutionen erfolgreich“, sagt Gerald Knaus von der „Europäischen Stabilitätsinitiative“, einer in Berlin und Istanbul beheimateten Denkfabrik, die sich seit Jahren mit der Lage in Aserbaidschan befasst. „Es ist erschreckend, dass sich junge aserbaidschanische Demokraten unmittelbar vor der Übernahme des Vorsitzes im Europarat durch Aserbaidschan in einem verzweifelten Versuch, die Außenwelt auf ihre Lage aufmerksam zu machen, zu einem Hungerstreik gezwungen sehen“, so Knaus.

Sogar ehemalige aserbaidschanische Mitarbeiter des Europarats sind unter den Verhafteten. Doch im Europarat selbst ist es  nicht möglich, die Dinge beim Namen zu nennen. Jedenfalls lehnte die Parlamentarische Versammlung des Europarats im vergangenen Jahr die Annahme eines umfangreichen Berichts zur Lage politischer Gefangener in Aserbaidschan mit 125 zu 79 Stimmen und zum Teil haarsträubenden Begründungen ab. Warum schweigt der Europarat zur desaströsen Menschenrechtslage in einem seiner Mitgliedsstaaten? Man soll sich Verschwörungstheorien hüten, aber drei Umstände sind bedenkenswert. Erstens: Der sogenannte südliche Korridor könnte Gaslieferungen Aserbaidschans über die Türkei in die EU-Staaten Griechenland und Italien (und von dort in weitere Mitgliedsländer) sicherstellen. Zweitens: Die Annahme eines Berichts über die desolate Lage politischer Gefangener in Aserbaidschan durch die Abgeordneten der parlamentarischen Versammlung des Europarats wurde nicht nur von den üblichen Verdächtigen (Russland, Aserbaidschan, Türkei) abgelehnt, sondern mehrheitlich auch von den Abgeordneten aus Italien und Griechenland, so von der ehemaligen griechischen Außenministerin Dora Bakogiannis. Drittens: Zur gleichen Zeit, als in Straßburg mit Hilfe der griechischen und italienischen Abgeordneten ein vom Europarat in Auftrag gegebener kritischer Bericht über Aserbaidschans Umgang mit Regimegegnern niedergestimmt wurde, führte der staatliche aserbaidschanische Energiekonzern Socar bereits Verhandlungen mit der Regierung Griechenlands über den Kauf des griechischen Gasnetzwerks Desfa. Im Dezember 2013 wurde in Athen der Abschluss verkündet. Socar unterzeichnete eine Vereinbarung zum Kauf von 66 Prozent der Anteile an Desfa für 400 Millionen Euro.

Zwischen diesen Entwicklungen muss kein Zusammenhang bestehen, aber ignorieren muss man sie auch nicht. Fest steht, dass das Regime in Baku seinen Sieg bei der Abstimmung im Europarat zu Hause für eine neue Verhaftungswelle genutzt hat. Die Nachricht des Regimes an alle Gegner in Gefängnissen und vor der Verhaftung lautete: Ihr habt keine Chance, denn wir sind gegen euch – und der Westen ist mit uns. Schon als Aserbaidschan 2001 in den Europarat aufgenommen wurde, war es alles andere als eine solide Demokratie, doch die fromme Hoffnung lautete, die Lage in dem Kaukasusstaat werde sich mit der Zeit verbessern und der Europarat werde Aserbaidschan europäisieren. Stattdessen ist es Baku offenbar gelungen, die Mehrheit des Europarats zu aserbaidschanisieren. Die Menschenrechtslage in Aserbaidschan hat sich in den vergangenen Jahren nicht nur nicht verbessert, sondern verschlechtert.  Eigentlich sollte Aserbaidschans Vorsitz eine Debatte darüber entfachen, wie ernst der Europarat seine eigenen Konventionen noch nimmt. Jedenfalls haben jene Mitgliedsstaaten, die echte Demokratien sind, Anlass zu der Frage, was diese Institution noch sein kann und soll – und was ihre Gründungsmitglieder dafür tun können, um die Werte aufrechtzuerhalten, in deren Namen die Organisation einst gegründet wurde. Derzeit ist die Lage des Europarates ebenso bedenklich wie die Lage Aserbaidschans.


NIDA’s “Live not by Lies” Baku Court Speech – May 2014

Rashadat Akhundov, NIDA activist, sentenced to eight years in jail in May 2014 with seven other activists.

A graduate of the Central European University in Budapest.

This morning Azerbaijan’s most courageous investigative journalist, Khadija Ismayilova, published (unfortunately expected) bad news from Baku: the verdict in the case against NIDA youth activists in Azerbaijan:

“Verdict is announced. Democracy activists from Nida! Civic Union are sentenced for exercising their right of freedom of assembly:
Rashadat Akhundov = 8 years
Zaur Gurbanli = 8 years
Ilkin Rustemzade = 8 years
Bakhtiyar Guliyev = 7 years
Mammad Azizov = 7.5 years
Rashad Hasanov = 7.5 years
Uzeyir Mammadli = 7 years
Shahin Novruzlu = 6 years”

This verdict comes on the eve of the visit to Azerbaijan by the secretary general of the Council of Europe, Thorbjorn Jagland, and almost exactly one week before Azerbaijan takes over the chairmanship of the Council of Europe.

ESI has written a lot on this issue recently – and I have written on it here a few days ago.  We will publish more in the coming weeks.

On this sad day for human rights in Europe – on this truly shameful day for the Council of Europe and its member states, who have failed dissidents and human rights defenders in Azerbaijan – the best is to let the NIDA activists speak for themselves. Here is the speech they delivered in court on 5 May. These voices will not be silenced:

Bakhtiyar Guliyev, Shahin Novruzlu, Mahammad Azizov, Reshad Hasanov,  Rashadat Akhundov, Uzeyir Mammadli, Zaur Gurbanli, İlkin Rustemzade

Date: 01/05/2014

To the Baku Court on Grave Crimes


Dear Court,

Dear trial participants,

We, as defendants, have decided to represent ourselves as one person for our last speech to the court. The reason for this is that the government does not see us as individuals, but rather targets the NIDA civil movement that we are members of and subjects it to repression. You may consider our last plea as coming both from the eight NIDA activists present here and other NIDA activists who are either free or under arrest.

Usually, defendants ask for mercy from the court, and sometimes express their regret. We don’t need mercy, nor do we feel regretful, since we have not done anything to regret. Nor do we expect justice from the court that is hearing this fabricated lawsuit, as it is not capable of maintaining the sanctity of the law and making independent and just decisions. The hollowness and meaninglessness of this lawsuit have been unconditionally proven by the truths we have told, the statements made by witnesses, as well as other evidence presented by the defense in their high quality speeches.

The start of the smear campaign against NIDA was made obvious during the first days of the arrests – when Mammad Azizov, Bakhtiyar Guliyev and Shahin Novruzlu were forced to sign completely slanderous texts, memorize them and then recite them in front of cameras after being subjected to physical violence and torture. During this, TV channels continuously disseminated videos provided to them by the Interior Ministry, and government spokespeople and members of parliament made statements implying NIDA aims to create chaos in society.


Ilham Aliyev, president of Azerbaijan since 2003.

There was no doubt that these repressions were politically motivated after President Ilham Aliyev named us as criminals during the YAP (New Azerbaijan Party) assembly on June 7, 2013, when investigations were still ongoing and no valid court verdict had been issued. This statement was the decision that sealed our fate. This decision framed the judicial investigation.

Under such circumstances, we are aware of the fact that neither the state prosecutor, nor you, the judges, have any other options to pursue. Your responsibilities in the court are limited to acting as notaries to legitimize this politically motivated order. Even if the law and your conscience demand you to act otherwise, you shall not dare stray from this order. We should also mention that we are not the sole victims of the regime in this trial. Your appointment as the judge and the prosecutor also makes you victims of this fabricated court case. Indeed, we – behind bars and you – at liberty are all hostages and victims in this big prison called Azerbaijan.

That’s why it is difficult to demand anything from you. How can one prisoner help another one?

We do not intend to go deeply through all the details of the case. Because it’s already obvious that even as a pseudo case they could not manage to organize it more maturely and systematically. Nevertheless, we will go through several issues.

The prosecution claims we were arrested due to a protest on March 10. This is partly true.

Why partly and why true? And why shouldn’t we regret this?

Let’s begin from the very first question. As to the prosecution’s testimony, they imprisoned us due to our social activity and particularly for our activity within the NIDA civic movement. But it was not because of events on March 10. NIDA managed to involve mature and active youth in its membership. At the time we hadn’t announced that we were totally opposed to the government. Meanwhile, the government was already against us. Because this regime is an enemy to all active and valuable people who want to spoil its plans for society to remain passive, villainous, obedient and enslaved. Thus, the government is a direct foe to the youth who are indicators of activism, dynamism and who are against slavery. As we see, the government doesn’t chase us because we are criminals. On the contrary, if we committed a crime, we would be friends of this regime. Because they  themselves are of a criminal nature. Thus, they arrested us not only because we protested the death of our brothers on March 10, but also because of our nonviolent struggle, which is not forbidden by law.

If there is any sign of a tendency for violence, solely the government is responsible for it. As the government creates unlawful conditions, people become more aggressive and want revenge. Of course, it encourages a bias towards violence. Being a civic movement, we did our best to prevent physical confrontation and propagate nonviolent struggle. We used numerous examples from global experience that prove that nonviolent struggle is far better than violence. Ironically however, we were accused of violence. Our criminal case took its place at the top of the list of ridiculous crimes in the world.

And shall we regret it?!

We are arrested for and proud of demanding freedom, rule of law, and human rights for the nation we belong to, for the land we are residents of.

Everyone has clearly seen the torture and abasement that the first three arrested activists have encountered. But unfortunately, the court didn’t even attempt to investigate the case. The court process is enough to eliminate these testimonies from the list of evidence. But of course only an independent and fair court could precisely evaluate and take the necessary course in this way, not you!


NIDA trial


Observers [of this trial] probably remember the testimony of Anar Abbasov, the main witness of the prosecution, whose addiction to drugs and mental problems was evident even without a professional examination. His testimony became an exercise in contradiction. He couldn’t describe the Venice café [where according to the indictment, he witnessed the activists’ discussion of their plan for violent action], he didn’t even know what NIDA! (exclamation) means, he couldn’t recognize the people, whom, according to the indictment, he identified as participants of the violence-planning meeting, he couldn’t remember anyone’s name, his testimony was a bunch of nonsensical  words about NIDA and Venice. That witness was in fact the best proof of our innocence.

The government accuses us of cooperation with foreign groups. Just imagine, the accusation of using violence comes from the government, which came to power via a military coup, which used arms for violence against its own people including the events of October 15-16, 2003, the assassinations of dozens of the best thinkers, like Elmar Huseynov, Ziya Bunyadov, Rafik Tagi. It comes from the government that has its own people’s blood on its hands. And yes, it is the irony of history.

Unlike the YAP members who would trade away Azerbaijan’s interests to foreign countries, who would do anything in order to maintain the dominance of the ruling party, we NIDA activists have never been slaves of the Russian KGB, nor have we worshipped the U.S. or European oil magnates’ money, nor followed the Iranian mullah’s and Turkish Nurchu’s ways. NIDA activists are patriots ready to sacrifice their youth and lives for the sake of the nation without the slightest hesitation. The charges imposed on us are simply the government projecting its ugly nature onto us.

Having touched upon the foreign affairs issues, we would like to share our opinion on the case of the Ministry of National Security stealing AZN 94,000 from Shahin Novruzlu’s father and calling it a crime. There was enough evidence provided by the witnesses at the hearing to prove that this money belonged to Shahin’s family. We can compare this to another incident. 12 September 1980, the junta that came to power by military coup in Turkey, staying loyal to their methods, executed 17-year-old Erdal Eren. A great republic with 100 years of history like Turkey still is not able to clean the stain called Erdal Eren. After 33 years, in Azerbaijan Erdal’s peer Shahin is being accused by YAP, and loyal to their values they stole Shahin’s father’s money. The military men do what they are used to – murder, YAP members do what they are used to do – theft.

While governments are transitory, be sure of the fact that Shahin’s arrest and the theft of his family’s, in particular his aunt’s hard-earned money will hang over Azerbaijan’s shoulders like the Sword of Damocles, and we as a nation and a country in general will always be ashamed of it.

Two of us have been charged with hooliganism because of a simple dance. However, this dance doesn’t have any signs of hooliganism, not to mention any criminal implications. The evidence provided and the defense speeches have proven this. Therefore, in our final speech we would rather talk about the main reason for the arrests than the legal aspects. The objective of introducing this article to our case is to present us as “immoral” to society. This is precisely why the host of the disgraceful Lider TV, who has previously presented pornographic scenes shot by secret cameras, now misinformed the public by making fun of our alleged participation in the dance (deliberately misrepresenting the facts as if the eight people sitting here are in fact the eight people who are seen in the Harlem Shake video). However, despite their cheap and meaningless efforts, the dance cannot be considered as immoral. Immorality is to steal or sell parliamentary seats, falsify elections, be an oligarch or rip off the nation of its last piece of bread. The fight against this immorality is the most honourable, glorious and moral job to do.

Our court case, with each of its details, has discredited the government and shown its real face. Please pay closer attention to the above-mentioned witness, Anar Abbasov. He is a bright example of the zombie population that Aliyev’s regime has been trying to bring up for the last 21 years. This “new Azerbaijani” is meant to be cowardly and sinful, his morality must be tainted with slavery and sycophancy, he should be able to slander even his own brother when the time comes, he should be corrupt enough not to dare to stand against even a slight injustice with a life credo of adulation of the authorities and hypocrisy. In the past 21 years, the ruling party was considerably successful with their mission of creating this “new breed of Azerbaijanis”.

Solshenitsyn (in Soviet prison)

Solshenitsyn in his “Live Not By Lies” wrote about despotic regimes’ dependence on everyone’s participation in the lies. He wrote that the simplest and most accessible key to our self-neglected liberation lies right here: Personal non-participation in lies. This is what NIDA does.

The NIDA civic movement tried to resist and prevent a complete victory of this government’s policy. Our and other members’ ongoing arrests, openly demonstrated anger and irritation we came across prove that we are on the right track to hamper this policy. Our determined resistance, persistent position and speaking the truth (despite the benefits of the government’s side) couldn’t have been achieved in any other way.

There is something they do not realize. If there is an evil happening in one place, even if everyone turns their faces away, those who are humane have to face it. We as free men cannot turn a blind eye to evil, immorality, and in general the government’s misdeeds; we will only bow in front of a righteous power. The ideology of the Republic sees it as evil to live under someone else’s despotic regime (will), because slavery creates the worst of its consequences- a state of vagrancy and sycophancy. We as true republicans, despite the dangers, will not trade freedom for the comforts of slave lives!

Therefore, the regime’s police and other power structures’ violent and brutal actions disguised as “service to law”, presenting our constitutional right of freely gathering as a riot, calling our peaceful struggle a violent act, and our fabricated arrests do not scare us and will not make us back away from our position. The clarity of our fundamental principles, and our loyalty to them, our complete rejection of radicalism, immorality and violence are the reasons why hundreds of people with a similar ideology joined our cause in the course of the past year.

As mentioned earlier, our participation in this court is a mere formality. Our plea to be acquitted from these falsified criminal charges is also a formality. But we are confident that acquittal will come not from the court but from our people and history. There is another reason for coming to the court and giving this “final speech”. We value the court system as a foundation of the state and guarantor of social justice. We respect and honour the splendour carried in the word – court. Therefore, despite the fact that the standards of this court falls far below these criteria, out of respect to the judge and the court we are obeying the formal procedures and continue to strive to do so.

Sahin Novruzlu, the youngest activist, was 17 at the time of his arrest


The final word has yet to be uttered. The final word will sooner or later come from the nation that stands for the arrested ten [meaning the eight NIDA activists in this case and Abdul Abilov and Omar Mammadov – two Facebook prisoners facing trumped-up drug charges] NIDA activists, and our counterparts.



The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates was brought to court under the accusation that he was poisoning the thoughts of youths. He could have left the country or accepted to stay silent, to not spread his ideas.  Otherwise, he knew that he would be executed. At the trial, Socrates declared that he would not sacrifice the truth for his freedom and life, and chose death.  We will also not sell the truth for anything – whether we’re free or jailed.

We are not alone.  Our determined intellectuals and public figures – the Chairman of “REAL” Ilgar Mammadov, Deputy Chairman of “Musavat” Tofig Yagublu, Yadigar Sadigov, Gurban Mammadov, Anar Mammadli, main representative of the believers in Azerbaijan, Taleh Baghirzade, our falsely accused young friends Ebdul Ebilov, Omar Mammadov, Elsever Murselli, Rashad Ramazanli, journalists Rauf Mirgadirov, Perviz Heshimli and dozens of other prisoners of conscience and political prisoners, are kept in jail under false pretences, specifically for telling the truth. This government has to understand that, even if there is only one person in the country with a conscience, he will continue the resistance against their atrocious anti-people politics. Finally, the truth will triumph over lies.

Even though we have reached a level of corruption that has no parallels, we know that the exams for the selection of the judges and prosecutors for our cases are challenging. Because of that, our judges and prosecutors, usually, have to possess some knowledge of law. We do not doubt that the current panel of judges and the public prosecutor in front of us also possess a high degree of legal literacy.  This is also evident from the fact that Azerbaijan’s strongest lawyers are defending us and you have specifically been chosen to go against them, the political order of making a case for these absurd allegations has been given specifically to you.

The ultimate aim of the law is to provide justice. You, also, possess the qualifications to professionally determine justice.  It is impossible for you not to see that these allegations are frivolous and this, we are sure, you do not doubt.  Because of that, it will be very hard for you to give us our sentence.  Because the trial of conscience that comes forward from the honour of one’s profession and humanity is harder than the trial of this sort.  Despite this, comfort will conquer conscience and you will read out our conviction.   For this reason, we do not ask anything from you. Quite the opposite, in order to calm your conscience, to give you comfort, we are letting you know that the years that are being taken from our lives with your sentencing are not going to waste.  It is a capital investment in the freedom of Azerbaijan. So, even though you may be an anti-hero, you are also doing something for this country.

We took into consideration that we are a capital investment in freedom when we started this journey.  Now, can we be sorry for the accusations, for the thoughts and actions which we did not commit?!

We declare once again that we are confident and you should be confident, that because of our desire for freedom for this nation of which we are part of, this region in which we are residing, because freedom, democracy, rule of law are of the highest value and the rights and freedoms of the citizens of this country should be respected, because of our efforts in this sphere we have been arrested and of this we are proud.

We ask our friends, peers, and specifically our parents to be ready for a heavy sentence and not to give way to hysteria, damnation, or insults. Everyone aside from the foreigners are victims in this courtroom and it is inconsequential and meaningless for a victim to curse out another victim.

We say thank you to everyone who took part in defending us, including those who share our beliefs, to our family that is always with us, to little Araz, to our lawyers who selflessly defended us. We express our gratitude to the local and international human rights organizations, parties, and other organizations, foreign states and their embassies working towards restoring our rights. We are grateful to the representatives of foreign embassies and international organizations who have participated in our trial for half a year, because they have also proven that the Western values which we have been defending are not based on oil, or geostrategic material interest, but on freedom and justice.

Lastly, from here we want to reach out to the NIDA fighters outside. During Soviet times, a seven-member organization called “Ildirim” [“Thunder”], of which all seven members were jailed for their anti-Soviet efforts, Ismikhan Rahimov-a member turned to his relatives after his sentence was read, while being placed in a vehicle and said: “We are leaving, but we will be back.”

Now, we are delivering to you the words of Sir Ismakhan in another form:  We are not going anywhere and coming back.  Because we exist anyway, we are here, with you. Even if ten members of NIDA are in jail, those of you who are free are replacing us.  We call on you to continue the fight for us with even more principal and relentlessness.  Do not ever surrender to slander! Hold your heads high, your wills strong!

Down with dictatorship and despotism!

Long live the people who do not bow to oppression and injustice!

Rashadat Akhundov

Rashad Hasanov

Uzeyir Mammadli

Zaur Gurbanli

Ilkin Rustamzade

Bakhtiyar Guliyev

Shahin Novruzlu

Mammad Azizov


The Cat and Mouse principle and the visit by Mr. Jagland in Baku


In recent  years the government of Azerbaijan has been playing cat and mouse with the Council of Europe. In a recent newsletter (Hunger strike, European values and an Open Letter) and in an open letter to PACE members we  suggested what might be done in response:

  • Call on President Ilham Aliyev to give amnesty to Ilgar Mammadov, Anar Mammadli and the eight young activists on hunger strike before Azerbaijan assumes the chairmanship of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers on 14 May 2014;
  • Call on the Secretary General of the Council of Europe to travel to Azerbaijan urgently, and speak out strongly and forcefully on behalf of these and many other political prisoners;
  • Support an initiative to appoint a new rapporteur on political prisoners to investigate the trend of imprisonment in Azerbaijan since the vote in January 2013.

Now at least one of these things appears to be happening:  Mr. Jagland is going to Baku.

“The Secretary General of the Council of Europe is going to discuss the topic of political prisoners

The human rights situation in Azerbaijan will be one of the main topics on the agenda of the upcoming May 8th visit to Baku of the Secretary General of the Council of Europe Thorbjorn Jagland. It is learned from sources in Strasbourg that Yangland will also affect the situation with the detention of IPD director Leyla Yunus and her husband Arif Yunusov and pressure on them. Also touched upon will be the political prisoners and the need to address this problem due to commence in May of the chairmanship of Azerbaijan in the Committee of Ministers. “

Of course, it remains to be seen what will come out of this visit. However, the mere fact of Mr. Jagland going to Baku should raise expectations. Mr. Jagland has a legacy to defend.  He has been secretary general since September 2009. He is also running for reelection for a second term in a few weeks’ time.

There is little that a secretary general can do directly to prevent member states of the Council of Europe from violating human rights. However, one thing a secretary general must do is speak out openly about systemic violations of human rights in a member state. Today the credibility of the whole institution is at stake as a result of Azerbaijan’s years of abuse of its principles. It is thus crucial that Mr. Jagland achieves something on his forthcoming visit to Baku.

Developments in recent days have added to this urgency. There has been further harassment of distinguished Azerbaijani human rights defenders – and this at the very moment when Azerbaijan presented its program for the chairmanship of the Council of Europe (see below). In the next six months the Azerbaijani government proposes to host events to discuss the role of human rights education, the work of judges in defending human rights, the future of youth … while at the same time it hosts show trials against human rights defenders, journalists and youth activists. Can any of these events be taken seriously while Azerbaijan engages in this cynical behaviour?

Recent days saw: the arrest of journalist Rauf Mirkadirov. The arrest of Leyla Yunus and her husband Arif Yunus.  The persecution of critical thinkers on espionage charges. With rare exceptions, such as the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks, most European policy makers have remained silent.  (See also this statement by Catherine Ashton and Stefan Füle).

In contrast, the NIDA youth activists, on hunger strike for two weeks, made a remarkable statement at the close of their trial in Baku last week. Their moral courage in the face of injustice puts to shame the current ineffective human rights protection machinery in Strasbourg. It also casts a shadow over the very notion of Azerbaijan as a chairman of the Council of Europe. In their final speech in court, after 15 days of hunger strike, the NIDA activists evoked the great dissidents of the Soviet period to explain their motivation:

Solschenitzyn in his “Live Not By Lies” wrote about despotic regimes’ dependence on everyone’s participation in lies.  He wrote that the simplest and most accessible key to our self-neglected liberation lies right here: in personal non-participation in lies. This is what Nida does.

Nida civil movement tried to resist and prevent a complete victory of this government’s policy. Our and other members’ ongoing arrests, openly demonstrated anger and irritation prove that we are on the right track to hamper this policy.”

They also directly addressed the judges and prosecutors:

“… in order to calm your conscience, to give you comfort, we are letting you know that the years that are being taken from our lives with your sentence are not going to waste. It is a capital investment for the freedom of Azerbaijan. So, even though you may be an anti-hero, you are also doing some things for this country.”

This is a speech and political activism in the tradition of non-violent resistance to authoritarianism of Liu Xiaobo. In the tradition of defending human rights as done by Andrei Sacharov.   In the tradition of the 1977 Nobel Peace Prize given to Amnesty International.


Andrei Sacharov – Nobel Prize Winning former political prisoner

This makes it all the more poignant that the recent increase in repression and in the number of arrests of human rights defenders are happening at a time when the secretary general of the Council of Europe is also the Chair of the  Nobel Peace Prize Committee.

We hope that Mr. Jagland will achieve something next week.

We hope that the game of cat and mouse that Azerbaijan has been playing with political prisoners will come to an end.


100 years ago: arrests could not break them: Suffragette in London

East European dissidents are not the only proud tradition which events in Baku bring to mind today.

One hundred years ago, in 1913, the British government passed what became known as the Cat and Mouse Act to break the will of a group of courageous women – the suffragettes – fighting for the right to vote. The law was called the Prisoners, Temporary Discharge for Health Act:

“The Liberal government of Asquith had been highly embarrassed by the hunger strike tactic of the Suffragettes. Many of the more famous Suffragettes were from middle class backgrounds and were educated. When some suffragettes were arrested they would go on hunger strike. This was a deliberate policy to bring attention to their cause and also to embarrass the government.To counter this, the government resorted to force-feeding those women on hunger-strike – an act usually reserved for those held in what were then called lunatic asylums. This simple act greatly embarrassed the government.

To get around this, the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ was introduced. The logic behind this was simple: a Suffragette would be arrested; she would go on hunger strike; the authorities would wait until she was too weak (through lack of food) to do any harm if in public. She would then be released ‘on licence’. Once out of prison, it was assumed that the former prisoner would start to eat once again and re-gain her strength over a period of time. If she committed an offence while out on licence, she would be immediately re-arrested and returned to prison. Here, it was assumed that she would then go back on hunger strike … The nickname of the act came about because of a cat’s habit of playing with its prey (a mouse) before finishing it off.”

The suffragettes were fighting for a then radical idea – women having the same political rights as men – just as NIDA activists are defending the radical idea that the European Convention on Human Rights and its provisions also apply to Azerbaijan. The goal of the British government at the time was to break their will, without too much embarrassment, by playing cat and mouse. The same is happening in Baku today.

In the end, history was not on the side of the British government .  Today, history is not on the side of the regime in Baku. Mr. Jagland might evoke the long tradition of political prisoners his Nobel Peace Prize Committee has honoured. He might also recall the history of the Suffragettes. And tell president Ilham Aliyev that he is on the wrong side of history. It might not work this time. But at the very least, the Council of Europe should not be on the wrong side of history too.

Suffragette poster – UK early 20th century


PS:  Is it possible for a dictatorship, imprisoning its own human rights defenders, to plan a full Council of Europe chairmanship programme, without ever drawing attention to its own abysmal human rights record? And if it is, what does this tell us about the state of the institution?

Find below the draft program of the Azerbaijani Council of Europe chairmanship. Will any of the participants from across Europe even blush when they are being welcomed by the regime of Aliyev to discuss the following?

20 to 21 May: Meeting of coordinators of the Council of Europe Charter of Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights

22 to 23 May: Meetings of the PACE Bureau and Standing Committee

1 to 30 June: Conference on Public service delivery in the context of human rights and good governance

17 June: Meeting of the CLRAE Bureau

18 to 20 June: Baku Conference of European Ombudspersons

20 to 21 June: Conference on the new “Council of Europe Platform on the Impact of Digitisation on Culture”

30 June to 1 July: High-level conference on combating corruption

3 to 4 July: Plenary meeting for the European Commission for the Efficiency of Justice

1 to 2 September: Annual exchange meeting on religious dimension of intercultural dialogue

1 to 30 September: Platform meeting on youth foundation and financing structures

10 to 11 September: Seminar to review the Council of Europe Social Cohesion Strategy and Action Plan

18 to 21 September: High-level conference on the Council of Europe Neighbourhood Policy

1 to 5 October: Event within the “No hate speech movement” of the Council of Europe

6 to 9 October: Celebration of European Heritage Days 2014

10 to 11 October: High-level conference on the role of national judges on enhancing domestic application of the ECHR

20 to 26 October: The 4th regional ministerial meeting on the implementation of the European Higher Education Area

28 to 30 October: UN Global Forum on Youth

30 to 31 October: Cultural Routes Advisory Forum Policy


Recommended reading:

Solschenitsyn – Live not by Lies (1974)

So in our timidity, let each of us make a choice: Whether consciously, to remain a servant of falsehood—of course, it is not out of inclination, but to feed one’s family, that one raises his children in the spirit of lies—or to shrug off the lies and become an honest man worthy of respect both by one’s children and contemporaries.

And from that day onward he:

  • Will not henceforth write, sign, or print in any way a single phrase which in his opinion distorts the truth.
  • Will utter such a phrase neither in private conversation not in the presence of many people, neither on his own behalf not at the prompting of someone else, either in the role of agitator, teacher, educator, not in a theatrical role.
  • Will not depict, foster or broadcast a single idea which he can only see is false or a distortion of the truth whether it be in painting, sculpture, photography, technical science, or music.
  • Will not cite out of context, either orally or written, a single quotation so as to please someone, to feather his own nest, to achieve success in his work, if he does not share completely the idea which is quoted, or if it does not accurately reflect the matter at issue.
  • Will not allow himself to be compelled to attend demonstrations or meetings if they are contrary to his desire or will, will neither take into hand not raise into the air a poster or slogan which he does not completely accept.
  • Will not raise his hand to vote for a proposal with which he does not sincerely sympathize, will vote neither openly nor secretly for a person whom he considers unworthy or of doubtful abilities.
  • Will not allow himself to be dragged to a meeting where there can be expected a forced or distorted discussion of a question. Will immediately talk out of a meeting, session, lecture, performance or film showing if he hears a speaker tell lies, or purvey ideological nonsense or shameless propaganda.
  • Will not subscribe to or buy a newspaper or magazine in which information is distorted and primary facts are concealed. Of course we have not listed all of the possible and necessary deviations from falsehood. But a person who purifies himself will easily distinguish other instances with his purified outlook.

No, it will not be the same for everybody at first. Some, at first, will lose their jobs. For young people who want to live with truth, this will, in the beginning, complicate their young lives very much, because the required recitations are stuffed with lies, and it is necessary to make a choice.

But there are no loopholes for anybody who wants to be honest. On any given day any one of us will be confronted with at least one of the above-mentioned choices even in the most secure of the technical sciences. Either truth or falsehood: Toward spiritual independence or toward spiritual servitude.