A conversation with Gerald Knaus, whose think tank „European Stability Initiative“ has exposed the corrupt connections of members of the Bundestag to Azerbaijan.
Question: Mr Knaus, with reports from your think tank, the „European Stability Initiative“, or ESI for short, you initiated a development more than ten years ago that is now also creating a stir in the Bundestag: Apparently, several current and former members of the CDU/CSU have allowed themselves to be bought by the regime of the Azerbaijani dictator Ilham Aliyev. How did your research begin?
Knaus: We were actually researching the situation of women’s rights in Azerbaijan in 2009, when a controversial referendum was held to allow Ilham Aliyev to become president for life. There were protests and arrests. Two young activists we knew were beaten up in a restaurant in Baku by paid hooligans. When they went to the police, it was not the perpetrators who were investigated, but they who were arrested and sent to prison. That was when we decided to research the situation of young dissidents and came across something unexpected: while the repression in the country was getting worse, the assessment of the situation by the Council of Europe, to which Azerbaijan was admitted in 2001, was becoming more and more positive. This was strange. We began to look into how this could have happened.
Question: So in the beginning there was no suspicion of corruption against Western politicians?
Knaus: I could not have imagined what we soon found out about the Council of Europe and European politicians active there. I was naïve. Then in 2012, insiders explained to us how this policy worked: parliamentarians from all over Europe received jewellery, vacation trips and money, election observers were getting tens of thousands of euros for positive statements about Azerbaijan. Staff at the Council of Europe confirmed to us behind closed doors that Azerbaijan’s actions were an open secret in Strasbourg. Other parliamentarians said they had long suspected some colleagues of acting strangely in Baku. But how to write about it without hard evidence? The first task was to explain exactly how the regime strategically bought votes in the Council of Europe and to describe who spoke and voted publicly about Azerbaijan and how. We traced how networks in the Council of Europe systematically elevated apologists of the Azerbaijani regime to leading positions. We saw that certain MPs spoke out in defence of the regime in every debate on Azerbaijan. Many politicians from all over Europe regularly went to Baku as election observers to call elections free and fair, even though the voting was like in the GDR.
Question: And you thought you could bring down this system with a few reports?
Knaus: We hoped: If we describe this, there will have to be an investigation. It was about bribery of MPs in the most important human rights institution in Europe. But that was also naïve. In the next five years, everything got much worse, in Azerbaijan as in the Council of Europe.
Question: ESI coined the term „caviar diplomacy“ – what does that mean?
Knaus: That was the name of our report from May 2012, in which we described how the Aliyev regime infiltrated the Council of Europe. The symbol of this policy was caviar, but in fact it was about a lot of money. Jewellery, expensive carpets, invitations with business class flights to Baku including a stopover in luxury hotels in Istanbul. This was a test: whoever accepted such gifts was a candidate for further, bigger ones. This was also the case with the Italian Christian Democrat Luca Volontè, who was sentenced to four years in prison in Milan in January this year for accepting bribes from Azerbaijan. Volontè was not just any MP, but leader of the European People’s Party group, the largest in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which includes the CDU. He helped mobilise a majority of MPs, who he listed in emails to his accomplices in Baku, to vote down a resolution on political prisoners in Azerbaijan in January 2013. One consequence of this scandalous vote was another wave of arrests in Azerbaijan. All those who had cooperated with the Council of Europe in Baku were arrested. Another consequence was that Aliyev could publicly declare with a cold smile that there were no political prisoners in his country – after all, the Council of Europe had confirmed this, with 125 votes.
Question: Could all this be proven in court?
Knaus: Only if prosecutors also take it to court like in Milan. The Italian public prosecutor’s office showed that Volontè set up a „consulting firm“ in Milan at the end of 2012. Three weeks later, 220,000 euros were transferred to its account from Azerbaijan via a shell company. In the end, a total of 2.4 million euros was transferred to Volontè by mid-2014, and he even expected more than 10 million. The fact that this did not happen was due to the Italian banking supervisory authority and Milanese prosecutors who, during a raid, secured Volontè’s communication with the Azerbaijani financiers.
Question: What were the connections to Germany?
Knaus: Years before, the former CSU member of the Bundestag, Eduard Lintner, who was, among other things, parliamentary state secretary in the Ministry of the Interior and until January 2010 in the Council of Europe, had always sided with Azerbaijan there. Lintner, too, regularly went to Azerbaijan to observe elections, during and after he sat in the Council of Europe. He himself praised the completely manipulated parliamentary elections in 2013 as exemplary. Lintner also financed „private election observation missions“ by other politicians, who always mutated into admirers of the regime in Baku. The same shell companies, with owners in the Virgin Islands, that had transferred money from Baku to Volonte’s consulting firm transferred money to Lintner. Since the beginning of 2020, German prosecutors have been investigating what this was all about.
Question: The large majority of the CDU/CSU in the Bundestag is certainly not corrupt. But why did this majority for years tolerate clear indications of dubious and probably also lucrative contacts between some of their colleagues and Azerbaijan? Out of party discipline? Because they were overworked? Or weren’t interested?
Knaus: Azerbaijan and the Council of Europe appeared to many to be remote issues far from the concerns of ordinary voters. But it is a fallacy to think that this is far away and none of our business. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, which meets four times a year, is made up of members of national parliaments, in Germany’s case the Bundestag. If MPs take bribes in Strasbourg, they continue to function in this way in national parliaments afterwards, as corrupted politicians. And if even we, a small think tank from Kreuzberg, were able to find out what happened in Strasbourg, then the secret services of large countries certainly know that too. This is how politicians become susceptible to blackmail – also in national parliaments and in their later careers. Luca Volontè met with Azerbaijani middlemen in Baku in the presence of members of the Russian Council of Europe delegation to discuss strategies. In addition, the parliamentarians of the Council of Europe elect the judges of the Human Rights Court.
Question: In Italy and Germany, public prosecutors are investigating possible participants in the corruption cartel. Have there been reactions in other countries as well?
Knaus: Prosecutors in other countries would also have to follow up on the information. So far, however, almost all the apologists of the regime we reported on have remained unchallenged. It would be ideal if one of those involved had incentives to appear as a principal witness.
Question: It is remarkable that ESI’s reports had no effect at all for years. Why did those involved feel so secure?
Knaus: The general atmosphere of venality was so widespread in Strasbourg that individual MPs who were outraged by it were simply resigned to it. Caviar diplomacy simply continued for five years after 2012. The regime in Baku even had Azerbaijani advisors to the Council of Europe arrested, that’s how secure it felt. Moreover, reports were launched in Brussels by certain circles claiming that we were financed by Armenia, or by a Russian gas lobby to prevent Azerbaijani pipelines. In addition, Thorbjørn Jagland, the then Secretary General of the Council of Europe and then Chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, also showed no interest in investigating into what was going on.
Question: You claim that the Secretary General of the Council of Europe was part of the corruption?
Knaus: No. But Jagland should have launched an investigation much earlier, given what was known in Strasbourg. He didn’t do it for years.
Question: Why not?
Knaus: We cannot see into people’s heads. But the Secretary General of the Council of Europe is elected by its parliamentary assembly, and there the so-called dark coalition of Azerbaijan and its allies at that time was dominant. Against this lobby, a Secretary General could hardly be re-elected. The largest group of delegates in the Council of Europe is the Russian one with 18 deputies. Apart from the Russians, most Spanish and Italian MPs, many Eastern Europeans and also influential Frenchmen were on Azerbaijan’s side in votes. The leader of the liberal faction, Jordi Xucla, was a defender of Baku. There were also leftists and social democrats, British Tories, European right-wing populists and several successive leaders of the European People’s Party group. Over the years, they had formed veritable entailed estates: New MPs took over Baku relations from their predecessors. In Belgium, some liberals showed an astonishing love for Azerbaijan, in Spain it was conservatives, in Eastern Europe ex-communists. Most Germans from all parliamentary groups voted with the Scandinavians and the Swiss for human rights. But there were some all the more astonishing exceptions – among them the recently deceased CDU MP Karin Strenz and Axel Fischer, who until recently was chairman of the audit committee in the Bundestag.
Question: At what point then did the ESI revelations have an impact?
Knaus: In December 2016, our report „The European Swamp“ was published and received wide attention. But until April 2017, there was still bitter resistance to an independent investigation into the allegations. It was individual determined MPs, such as the German SPD politician Frank Schwabe and the Dutch Christian Democrat Pieter Omtzigt, who mobilised a broad coalition. Nevertheless, too little has happened across Europe. The Milan verdict against Volontè reads like a thriller, but if this politician alone, who was in Strasbourg for only a few years, received millions from Baku, one can only guess at how much money may have flowed since 2003. But so far only Italy and Germany are investigating the matter. Axel Fischer is being investigated by the Munich Public Prosecutor’s Office on the suspicion of bribery of elected officials. The Bundestag has therefore lifted Fischer’s immunity. His house was searched, as were Lintner’s and Strenz’s before him.
Question: Some MPs are now rightly in the pillory. But isn’t there a danger that in the end the false impression „politicians are all corrupt anyway“ will stick?
Knaus: This impression is created when institutions tolerate corruption for years and too few have the courage to address it and correct it in time. Until 2017, even Fifa had a stricter anti-corruption system than the Council of Europe. That has changed since then, at least in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. But the most important thing is that parties do not cover for their members in cases of serious suspicion, neither in Strasbourg nor in Berlin. Buying votes is never a trivial offence.
Question: Is there such a thing as a lesson from caviar diplomacy?
Knaus: The deep fall of the Council of Europe shows how easy it is to corrupt institutions when an authoritarian regime goes about buying parliamentarians with determination and a lot of money. This is a warning, because other states are probably trying it too, especially since they have seen that this policy was entirely risk-free for the regime in Azerbaijan. To date, the exposure of Azerbaijan’s bribery has had no consequences for Aliyev whatsoever. The Italian Football Federation once reacted severely to referee corruption and sentenced champion Juventus Turin to forced relegation to the second league in 2006. The member states of the Council of Europe, on the other hand, have looked the other way for years and to this day have done nothing to outlaw such behaviour by one of its members. Not even Azerbaijan’s right to vote in the Committee of Ministers has been suspended. Why should other states not follow Baku’s example? Buying votes in Europe is unfortunately far too easy.
Question: The exposure of „caviar diplomacy“ is not the first example of ESI reports having an impact. What does a think tank have to do to have an impact on society and to bring about change?
Knaus: In order to be able to swim against the tide for years out of conviction, if necessary, it is important that institutions that financially support a think tank do not influence how and on which topics it publishes and when it does so. This goes for our most important donors – the Essen-based Mercator Foundation, the Swedish Ministry for Development Aid and the Open Society Foundations. In addition, we clearly define our own role: we work scientifically and independently. We are not lobbyists and do not take money from governments to advise them. This also allows us to take risks. Because one thing is clear: anyone who might have influence will be attacked.
Question: From the outside, it looks like ESI is working rather slowly. It sometimes takes years before you publish reports.
Knaus: Influence is always the result of years of work. It never works through one report alone, but through many publications, lectures, and meetings. At some point something will fall on fertile ground. That cannot be planned. You have to run with an issue for years. Moreover, we always do research as a team. As a rule, individuals cannot carry out an empirically based analysis on a complex topic. Sometimes we bring in additional experts. Years ago, we worked intensively on how the quality of government statistics could be assessed and brought a former employee of the European statistics authority Eurostat into the team for this purpose. When it came to visa liberalisation for the countries of the Western Balkans, we worked closely with former European interior ministers. On the crisis of the rule of law in Poland, we have been cooperating intensively with Polish lawyers for years.
Question: Is there a strategy for making think tank reports particularly effective?
Knaus: Influence for a think tank never consists of telling people what they should think. Influence happens when a report describes a situation so credibly and convincingly that readers come to similar conclusions to the ones we came to on their own. Many reports try to convince only those who have similar views anyway. Moreover, policy recommendations must convince practitioners. One must also never forget that people in important positions who can decide things live on an ever-growing mountain of papers. If an analysis is to stand out among the hundreds of studies that appear every week, it must be grippingly written. Because if people don’t remember a think tank’s report after a month, it’s as if it was never written. I hope that everyone who read our reports on Azerbaijan and the Council of Europe could remember them after a month. Like the prosecutors in Milan who started from our work. People think in stories. So we write stories. Only then can we succeed in influencing the world through papers.
The questions were asked by Michael Martens
Video presentations on Caviar Diplomacy
Presentation by Gerald Knaus on corruption in the Council of Europe (September 2017). Video: Jarl Hjalmarson Foundation
Gerald Knaus: The end of shame? Azerbaijan, the Council of Europe and the capture of Europe (November 2014). Video: Norwegian Helsinki Committee
Human rights, corruption and what is at stake for the Council of Europe
This week, a rebellion is unfolding in Strasbourg, directed against Spanish senator Pedro Agramunt, the President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).
This rebellion is a response to allegations of serious corruption in PACE in recent years, as well as concern over the autocratic capture of this, the oldest, human rights body in Europe. It is a story involving the regime of Ilham Aliyev in Baku, Russian ultra-nationalists such as Leonid Slutsky, Italian Catholic politician Luca Volonte, who received 2.3 million euro from Azerbaijan, and in the last episode even Syrian president Assad in Damascus.
This week, the assembly has had enough, and a coalition of politicians, across party lines and from different national groups, decided that Pedro Agramunt could no longer remain president; this was stated in public, as well as strongly communicated in private.
To explain the frustration and collapse of trust in Agramunt, booed off stage while chairing the opening of the spring session in the Palais de l’Europe in Strasbourg on Monday, one has to see how different developments came together:
First, Agramunt made his career in PACE working on and with Azerbaijan. He visited Azerbaijan more often than any other MP in the assembly; he observed, and helped whitewash, elections in Baku for many years. As one of the rapporteurs of PACE for Azerbaijan he subverted the assembly’s work on political prisoners. As more evidence came out how Azerbaijan operated its lobbying machine in recent years, these actions appear in a different light, and raise serious questions how he understands the role of PACE.
Second. since late 2016 Pedro Agramunt resisted; and even worked to block; serious proposals for an investigation into corruption allegations involving Azerbaijan, as demanded by over 100 MPs in January 2017. In this, Agramunt cooperated with his others, including Spaniard Jordi Xucla, who leads the liberal group in Strasbourg. They used excuses and procedural tricks to oppose any investigation. Why don’t they have any interest in clarifying what happened?
For a short introduction, see the latest ESI newsletter:
Third, Agramunt (together with Destexhe and Xucla) went to Syria in March. He went with Russian ultra-nationalist Leonid Slutsky on what was a Russian PR tour to bolster Assad. There was no other point to this trip: it served no humanitarian purpose and Agramunt did not “build any bridges” either. So why did he go?
Fourth, Agramunt did a bad job addressing many serious concerns and question of the assembly. He offered implausible and contradictory explanations. He apologized for the reaction by the members to his visit to Assad. He apologized for having been manipulated by Russians (Agramunt and Slutsky have been friends for years). What Agramunt did not apologise for was having visited a war-criminal with a Russian delegation.
Agramont, Xucla and Destexhe represent what is wrong in the Council of Europe today. Their cynical views about human rights, their close relationship to autocrats, procedural games and striking vision of the role of the Council of Europe have contributed to lead this institution into its biggest credibility crisis in decades.
This week the assembly in Strasbourg also decided on an external and independent investigation – an unprecedented step – into these corruption allegations in Strasbourg. ESI has worked on this issue for six years now. Here is more:
If you come to our website often you will have noticed that ESI writes a lot about the Council of Europe. You might wonder why. Are there no other, more important European issues? And why is our stance so critical?
One reason that we keep returning to issue relating to the Council of Europe is that almost nobody else does, outside of a small group of human rights activists mainly concerned about the crackdown on civil society in Azerbaijan.
For large European think tanks and for most European media, the crisis in the Council of Europe still does not exist. Or does not really matter. Why care about debates in PACE, or about what the secretariat in Strasburg does or does not do, when there is a war in Ukraine, crises in the Middle East and challenges to democracy in old and new EU members?
We at ESI disagree. We believe that when the institution that gave us today’s European flag, and that remains the guardian of the moral constitution of democratic Europe – the European Convention on Human Rights – is fatally undermined, this points to a very serious crisis for all of Europe. It is a wound that must not be allowed to fester. Today the Council of Europe resembles Ouroboros, the snake of Greek mythology that devours itself … in this case, by destroying the moral basis on which it was founded.
Look at the European order today, and Europe’s big three organisations: the OSCE, the EU and the Council of Europe.
The OSCE has a justification as a forum for debate even with autocracies. This was its original conception in Helsinki in 1975. This is why Belarus (and Uzbekistan and the Vatican) can be members today.
The EU has to defend its own standards internally (and do a much better job at this) and externally, in particular when it comes to its ongoing enlargement talks.
For the Council of Europe, however – the first institution to enlarge to almost all of Europe in the 1990s – the current crisis of values, norms and credibility is existential. It has to be a club of European democracies, or it does not have any reason to exist.
This is why Belarus is not a member today. This is why Russia and Azerbaijan currently have no place as members, unless things change in both countries. There really is no use for an institution focusing on human rights and democracy when these standards are defined by autocracies and thus undermined for everyone else.
ESI strongly believes that the Council of Europe should matter. It should be talked about more. It should be given the resources to fulfil its crucial role better. But the key recource missing today is not money, but attention. Think tanks and media should follow what happens in Strasburg. It is a shame that the foreign ministers of influential countries attend its meetings so rarely (to begin with Germany and France) and that parliaments throughout Europe pay so little attention.
We believe that it is important to preserve the idea that one day the European Convention on Human Rights will be the normative basis for all of Europe (including Russia and the South Caucasus), not just the current European Union. Just as it was crucial to preserve this aspiration in the decades prior to 1989 in a divided Europe. It may look unlikely now; it definitely looked implausible then.
Europe’s moral constitution
For what is the European Convention? It is the basis of civilised life, in a continent known as much for autocracy and human rights violations as it is known for the enlightenment and rights.
It is comprised of the following basic commitments, that are once again under pressure across the continent:
Article 1 Respecting the rights in this convention
Article 2 The right to life – a duty to refrain from unlawful killing and to investigate suspicious deaths
Article 3 Prohibits torture, and “inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. There are no exceptions on this right.
Article 4 Prohibits slavery, servitude and forced labour
Article 5 Provides the right to liberty, subject only to lawful arrest
Article 6 Provides a detailed right to a fair trial
Article 7 Prohibits retroactive criminalisation
Article 8 Provides a right to respect for one’s “private and family life, home and correspondence”, subject to certain restrictions “necessary in a democratic society”.
Article 9 Provides a right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
Article 10 Provides the right to freedom of expression, subject to certain restrictions “necessary in a democratic society”.
Article 11 Protects the right to freedom of assembly and association.
It is irresponsible to close our eyes to the fact that today the European Convention is being mocked by certain member states of the Council of Europe, not occasionally but systematically. Today these core articles are not only disregarded but also openly challenged.
If Azerbaijan or Russia were expelled from the Council of Europe today (or would preemtively leave voluntarily) then this does not mean that a democratic Azerbaijan or Russia might not one day join again. In fact, that would be the goal. It would give human rights defenders in these countries a clear objective. And they should be supported in this in all possible ways. Greece was not in the Council of Europe under military rule in 1968 … and later rejoined it as a democracy.
Today we have the worst of all worlds. We see the standards of the European Convention on Human Rights mocked, the institution and its bodies paralysed. We see these institutions turned against the very people in those countries who defend them there … and who risk jail and worse for doing so.
We see democrats indifferent to the institution, while autocrats invest resources to capture and manipulate this critical intervention. Things are upside down. It is time to put them back in order.
We have written before about parallels between the fate of the League of Nations and what is currently happening in Strasburg (See : Europe’s Abyssinian Moment).
Here is another thought-provoking parallel from Europe’s early 20th century history. At the 1919 Paris Peace Conference East European nations signed treaties guaranteeing rights to minorities. These treaties called for religious freedom and civic equality. Minorities were granted the right of petition to the League. Governments in Eastern Europe complained about these “unjust requirements that the great powers did not impose on themselves”. These countries had a point. However, the proper response to this complaint was not to water down these rights, but to apply them equally to everyone.
Instead, the solution chosen was the worst of all. These rights were never applied and these treaties were never taken seriously. Despite there being a special League of Nations Minorities section it proved to be a “weak reed”: of 883 petitions the League received between 1920 and 1939, only four resulted in condemnation of the accused state. When the first anti-Jewish university quota system was introduced in Hungary in 1920 protests at the League of Nations failed to secure the law’s withdrawal. (For more on this see Bernard Wasserstein’s fascinating book “On the Eve – the Jews of Europe before the Second World War.)
Perhaps then too there were serious and influential people who thought that Europe had more important problems than to defend norms and treaties concerning human rights in small East European nations.
However, this assumption was wrong then and it is wrong now. The crisis in Strasburg matters not just to a few brave human rights defenders on the European periphery. It matters to all of us.
This contradiction matters
PS: For more on the crisis of the Council of Europe, see also the latest ESI newsletter:
Heading to Strasbourg this week – Ambassador of Azerbaijan to the EU
RIDDLE OF THE WEEK
Dear friends, here is a riddle to begin your week:
Why is Fuad Isgandarov, Azerbaijani ambassador and head of its mission to the EU, heading for Strassburg this week for the next session of the European Parliament? Who will he meet and what will he try to achieve in the interest of his country?
Tomorrrow the Conference of Presidents of the European Parliament will chose this year’s Sakharov Prize winner. One of the leading contenders is one of the most inspiring human rights activists in the world today: Azerbaijani Leyla Yunus.
There is support for Leyla Yunus across the different party groups. And there is growing concern in Baku. More and more of the great people held in its prisons today are being recognised for their courage and awarded international human rights prizes. Millions spent on lobbying firms, on invitations, on hosting events, on paying “experts” to say how oil matters more than a handful of prisoners … all undermined by a few human rights prizes?
The prospect of an Azerbaijani woman being named together with Nelson Mandela, Wei Jingsheng, Aung San Suu, Memorial, Reporters without borders or Malala Yousafzai should delight Azerbaijani patriots. Already being nominated as one of three finalists in 2014 is a huge distinction for Leyla Yunus.
We hope the Ambassador, heading to Strassburg, will spare a moment to read this latest letter by Leyla Yunus – in jail, separated from her husband, who is also held in isolation, as are so many of her fellow human rights defenders:
“They didn’t just arrest us as a married couple. By doing so they restored a “glorious” Stalin tradition. They indicted us to such a bouquet of fantastic accusations (even Yezhov and Vishinki would lag behind), including a life sentence… While in detention, I clearly understood their goal is not just the destruction, but brutal torture, insults, and physical torment, when death becomes the desired escape from the terrible suffering. This is our reality, and I clearly realize it. In other words, our work received the highest mark on the highest scale… Arif I feel so lonely without you! For 36 years we were shoulder to shoulder, and were hoping to celebrate our 40th anniversary but they are so afraid of us… Good Lord, how could a small, weak, sick woman scare the ruling government? With what?! I know you would say, “traveler will tell the Lacedaemon, that here we lie, true to the Law”. But I still think Leonidas had it easier, simpler… One of 300s.”
And perhaps he will reflect, as he meets these MEPs, about what really serves his country’s interest.
“… they know from their own experience in 1968, and from the Polish experience in 1980-1981, how suddenly a society that seems atomized, apathetic and broken can be transformed into an articulate, united civil society. How private opinion can become public opinion. How a nation can stand on its feet again. And for this they are working and waiting, under the ice.”
Timothy Garton Ash about Charter 77 in communist Czechoslovakia, February 1984
“How come our nation has been able to transcend the dilemma so typical of defeated societies, the hopeless choice between servility and despair?”
Adam Michnik, Letter from the Gdansk Prison, July 1985
We then studied the puzzle of increasing repression / decreasing criticism on the part of the Council of Europe, and the strange pattern of international election monitoring in Azerbaijan:
There have also been a number of newsletters – many making the case for greater support to Azerbaijani human rights defenders, arguing that their fate matters to everyone concerned about the future of human rights in Europe:
Thomas de Waal is one of the leading experts in the world today on the Caucasus, author of “Black Garden, Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War” and “The Caucasus: An Introduction” and a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC. He also knows all the key actors in the region for decades, including Leyla Yunus and her husband Arif, two of the most impressive intellectuals and human rights defenders in Europe today. The fact that both are in jail in the Azerbaijan of Ilham Aliyev tells you almost everything you need to know about this regime.
The Responsibility of a Politician: Leyla Yunus and the Heirs of Andrei Sakharov
Thomas de Waal
October 11, 2014
In 1989 during some of the most tumultuous days of perestroika, Andrei Sakharov stood up in the Soviet Union’s first popularly elected parliament, the Congress of People’s Deputies, and called for the end of the monopoly on power of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
Sakharov was an influential voice, but also a lonely one, speaking amidst a cacophony of old Communist Party nomenklatura officials on the one hand and aspiring nationalists on the other.
At the same time, in the Soviet Union’s non-Russian republics, a few brave activists were inspired by the courage of Sakharov and others. They stepped forward and spoke out about the rights of their republics to win independence and achieve democracy.
These activists were strongest in the three Baltic republics and the three republics of the South Caucasus: Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. In Azerbaijan, the struggle was especially difficult. The Communist Party apparatus clung tenaciously to power. The Popular Front of Azerbaijan had a radical nationalist wing that was ready to use violence. All the while the mutually suicidal conflict with Armenia over the disputed region of Nagorny Karabakh was heating up.
A small band of academics and intellectuals in the city of Baku were the first to talk about democracy, the first to warn about the dangers of “provocations” and the first to speak up about the defence of the Armenian minority still living in Azerbaijan. They combined courage with intellectual insight about where their republic was heading.
Leyla Yunus, a young historian, was one of that band, together with her husband, Arif, also a historian and scholar. Yunus was one of the half-dozen founders of Azerbaijan’s Popular Front, an organization that modeled itself on the Popular Fronts of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, even as they knew how much harder the struggle was in their country.
As 1989 unwound, Leyla and her colleagues warned that two extremes–the dinosaurs of the Communist nomenklatura and the nationalist radicals–were feeding off one another in a dangerous game of bluff and provocation.
The sad culmination of these mutual provocations came in January 1990–Baku’s terrible “Black January” and the bloodiest episodes of Mikhail Gorbachev’s entire rule as Soviet leader. First the city’s remaining Armenians were subjected to pogroms and expulsion. Then Soviet tanks rolled in to the city, fired on apartment buildings and crushed demonstrators to death.
At the end of Black January, around 90 Armenians were dead and thousands had fled, 130 Azerbaijanis had been killed. Leyla Yunus spoke up again, this time in print. In an essay entitled “The Degree of a Responsibility of a Politician,” published in the journal Istiklal in April 1990, she described the situation with devastating clarity.
In the essay, she begins by praising the bravery of those who stood in the streets to face down the tanks in Baku:
They stood with linked arms. “Freedom!” The word rang over Communist Street, which would soon lose its name, along with so much that lost its meaning that night. They did not step away from the path of the armoured personnel carriers and tanks, whose tracks were already crimson with the blood of the people they had crushed on Tbilisi Avenue, Square of the XIth Red Army and other places. But even the bloodied tanks stopped before this never-before-seen unity. “Freedom!”
Yunus calls Moscow’s military intervention “red fascism”
Forty five years ago, practically unarmed–how much the armament campaign of 1941 cost us!–our people stopped the tanks of brown Fascism. On the night of January 20, the armour of red Fascism went through the streets of Baku–the very same Fascism which had crushed and overpowered the peoples of the Union after October 1917.
Until then, Leyla Yunus tells us, Azerbaijanis had been “lucky”–to a degree.
Our people saw this regime in April 1920 and experienced its charms most acutely in the 1930s. Fortunately, we did not meet the fate of the Crimean Tatars, Balkars or Volga Germans, who were deported wholesale in cattle cars to destruction. We did not lose our homeland as the Meskhetian Turks did. We did not lose a third of our population, as the Estonians did, we felt the famine of 1933-34 less than did Belarus or Ukraine. We were lucky enough to be spared Chernobyl. But all the rest that this prison-house order gave to our peoples we experienced to the full. Collectivization, the genocidal destruction of the intelligentsia, the economic theft of our riches, the transformation into a mono-cultural colony…
Only now, it seems, had Azerbaijanis woken up to the nature of the regime they lived under, but they should have known earlier…
Which of you, who threw away their Communist Party cards today, rejected the “Ruling and Guiding” Party in 1968 when our sons were sent to crush the Prague Spring? Which of you spoke out, when our boys were dispatched to Afghanistan?
Did it really have to take the rivers of blood spilled in beautiful Baku for every decent person to decide that it was morally unacceptable for him to stay in the ranks of a criminal party? There is an easy human explanation for this–it is one thing to hear and to know something, and another to see all the horror with your own eyes, to feel it on yourself. However, in my view, this epiphany which even today has come to too few people, came too late and cost us too much…
She rebukes the extreme nationalists of the Popular Front for fomenting hatred against Baku’s defenceless Armenians.
On January 13, on Freedom Square the rally was still continuing, and in the building opposite people were already assaulting Armenians. Woe, disgrace, dishonour came to our town.. The pogromshchik has no nationality. The looter and murderer does not have the right to belong to any people…
And she warns against those who want to soak Azerbaijan’s movement for independence in blood.
The responsibility of a politician is comparable to the responsibility of a doctor. In both cases lack of professionalism leads to death and injury. And if someone writes, “Sacrifice cleanses the nation! You know how much we needed this cleansing… ” it is absolutely clear to me where this patriot-politician can lead us.
Why, in the name of a falsely understood unity of the nation should we march like a herd, behind first one, then another organization, behind this “father-leader” or behind another one?
But she still hopes for the release of political prisoners and the triumph of democracy:
My greatest desire is to see the Popular Front of Azerbaijan as a single powerful organization speaking out from a position of democracy, defending with the help of lawyers today with human rights organizations everyone who has been arrested.
I dream of an overwhelming victory by the democratic forces of the Azerbaijani people headed by the Popular Front of Azerbaijan in the elections.
Our tree of freedom will not bloom soon, and we need to water it with reason and not with a pool of blood.
Leyla Yunus’ essay was so powerful, clear-sighted and morally cogent that it persuaded hundreds of young Azerbaijanis to support the country’s Social Democratic Party, which became the most progressive and democratic part of the opposition.
Leyla Yunus subsequently briefly served in the Popular Front government of 1992-3, where she was a moderating influence. In 1993 former Soviet leader Heidar Aliev returned to power as president of independent Azerbaijan. In 1996 she founded the Institute of Peace and Democracy. The list of issues they worked on was dizzying: rule of law, defence of those arrested, national minorities, land-mines. Later they founded Azerbaijan’s first women’s crisis center. In the mean time Arif Yunus was Azerbaijan’s foremost expert on a host of issues, including the plight of refugees and the rise of political Islam.
In recent years, under the presidency of Heidar Aliev’s son Ilham, Leyla and her colleagues were increasingly targeted by the authorities. They were called strident, aggressive and difficult. And they were.
In the past year, the situation in Azerbaijan has deteriorated rapidly. The old nomenklatura mindset is back in full force. The list of political prisoners Leyla Yunus compiled—now including her and Arif—has 98 names on it. Most of them are secular pro-Western activists. In April, Leyla and Arif Yunus were detained at the airport as they were about to board an international flight. They were hit with all sorts of ludicrous charges, most notably–and with the scariest echo of Soviet times– espionage on behalf of the enemy, the Armenians.
In prison, Leyla Yunus, who has diabetes and other health problems, has been subjected to verbal and physical abuse. Arif Yunus, who has a heart condition, has been kept in complete isolation in the cells of the national security committee, the heir to the KGB.
In the same week, the Russian Ministry of Justice applied to have Memorial–Russia’s strongest human-rights organization and the winner of the 2009 Sakharov Prize–shut down.
In 1989 and 1990, these people had a vision, even as they recognized with the same clarity all the dangers that lay ahead, the narrow path that needed to be trod between different forces, if the former Soviet republics were to achieve European-style democracy.
Now, unfortunately, 25 years later, in both Russia and Azerbaijan some of the worst fears are coming to pass. That increases our responsibility to support people like Leyla Yunus and Memorial, as they are punished for having that vision.
While European institutions are finally recognising the heroism of human rights defenders in Azerbaijan – thus making clear that their struggle is of global significance – every single political prisoner so far rewarded remains in jail. Our attention needs to shift to the only real prize: to get international institutions and states to act and to sanction.
It is time for a really broad-based campaign … targetted not the authorities in Baku, who are beyond shame, but human rights institutions betraying human rights defenders. Note: Azerbaijan, the current chairman of the Council of Europe, holds in its jails today the men and women winning or considered for the very highest prizes in the field of human rights in the world. And so far the Council of Europe – including its general secretary – acts as if this has nothing to do with them.
Mr. Jagland has issued a press release on the events in Ferguson, Missouri … how about issuing a press release congratulating Anar Mammadli, the winner of the Vaclav Havel Prize 2014, who used to work with the Council of Europe, and is in jail today?
Mr. Jagland has met the Azerbaijani president already three times in recent months. How about cancelling all participation of the Council of Europe secretariat in events in Baku until there is news about the situation of Ilgar Mammadov … who is in jail, but disappeared more than a week ago, has no contact with lawyers … and who also worked for and with the Council of Europe? Or until Leyla Yunus, Rasul Jafarov and so many other human rights defenders are released?
Mr Jagland: if you think doing nothing remains an option for your institutions you underestimate the strength and moral purpose of the broad-based coalition that is currently emerging across Europe.
The case of Leyla Yunus
Here is the most recent email ESI sent to all the members of the European Parliament who decided on 7 October 2014 on the final short list of three candidates for the 2014 Sakharov Human Rights Prize.
Today you will decide on the finalists for the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize 2014.
We appeal to you to give your vote to Leyla Yunus – on behalf of all other human rights defenders and dissidents in Azerbaijan. Almost 100 of them are imprisoned like Leyla (see this list), the others face a chilling wave of repression.
These Azerbaijanis stand in the tradition of those who fought for human rights during Soviet rule. Distinguished Russian activists, some of them former political prisoners, underline this in a joint letter to the European Parliament that was published last week (available in English andRussian). Three of them – Lyudmila Alekseeva, Sergei Kovalyov and Oleg Orlov – shared the EP’s Sakharov Prize in 2009.
Oleg Orlov, Lyudmila Alekseeva and Sergei Kovalyov receiving the Sakharov Prize 2009
Photo: European Parliament
Your vote for Leyla will be a vital sign to Azerbaijan’s besieged human rights community that they are not alone.
It will be a sign that the European Union, led by the Parliament, does not close its eyes to repression anywhere on our continent.
It could be crucial also for this generation of human rights defenders. The fate of Leyla, one of the most respected human rights activists in the country, is telling. Prison conditions in Azerbaijan are appalling. At age 58, Leyla suffers from diabetes and has caught a flu in her cold cell. She has been repeatedly beaten. Last Saturday, her lawyers stated that her health “has extremely deteriorated” and “that there is no guarantee that Leyla will survive until the end of this year”.
The authorities are now going after the handful of remaining lawyers who defend human rights defenders, and torture has returned to jails in Azerbaijan.
There is hardly any news of Leyla’s husband Arif Yunus, a historian and peace activist, who was arrested in early August, a few days after Leyla, and is held at a facility notorious for torture of inmates.
Leyla and her husband Arif Yunus, both imprisoned by the Azerbaijani authorities
For 10 days, there has been absolutely no news of Ilgar Mammadov. All food parcels sent to him by his family have been turned down. The director of the Council of Europe’s School of Political Studies in Baku intended to run against President Aliyev in the elections in October 2013, but was arrested beforehand and sentenced to 7 years in prison last March. The European Parliament demanded his immediate release already last year. Lately he announced that he faces serious pressure to write an open letter of apology to the government. Then he disappeared.
The “crime” of Mammadov, the Yunuses and the other Azerbaijani political prisoners is their desire for a pluralist society, for respect of human rights, for peace – for the values on which the EU has been built.
Azerbaijan is member (currently even chair) of the Council of Europe. It has accepted the Paris Charter for a new Europe. It is formally committed to all the norms on which Europe’s post-cold war order is built. To watch one regime dismantle all civil liberties with impunity and make any human rights work impossible, and to let it happen, creates a terrible precedent. It undermines the norms on which European security rests.
Today you can take a step to prevent it from happening.
With the very kindest of regards,
Chairman of European Stability Initiative (ESI)
Azerbaijani human rights activist and defender of the right to free and fair elections, Anar Mammadli, is the 2014 winner of the Vaclav Havel Prize.
This is a promising, fair, and even courageous decision by the jury members in charge of awarding this prize, for it also highlights a dramatic failure – by the very institution on whose behalf this prize is awarded, the Council of Europe (CoE).
It is imperative that the Council of Europe act now, following this strong signal. At the very least the following should happen immediately:
All activities of the Azerbaijani chairmanship of the Council of Europe should be boycotted or suspended until Anar Mammadli (winner of the 2014 the Havel Prize winner) and Ilgar Mammadov (former chair of Council of Europe School of Politics and, according to ECtHR, a political prisoner) are released. It is unacceptable that a Council of Europe chair is under serious suspicion of systematic repression.
The secretary general of the Council of Europe should appoint a panel of respected European judges to examine the list of Azerbaijani political prisoners and reports by eminent human rights organisations, and report back to the Committee of Ministers (CoM) of the Council of Europe and to PACE with their findings.
Members of the Committee of Ministers in the CoE should sternly warn Azerbaijan about its treatment of prisoners, and demand full and unconditional cooperation with international monitors, including full access for outsiders to visit prisoners, given the serious allegations of abuse.
Awarding Anar Mammadli with the Vaclav Havel prize is a strong signal and critical first step. But without further action by the Council of Europe, handing out an award is meaningless – and will definitely not save this institution’s soul. Recent months and this award have also made it obvious just how far the Committee of Ministers, PACE, and the Secretariat have diverged from their original mission to protect and ensure human rights.
The time to correct this is now.
Background on why the Havel Prize 2014 was given to the right person
In recent months, it has become obvious that the Azerbaijani government has decided to finish, once and for all, any opposition in the country.
New NGO laws make the critical work of civil society organisation impossible. Dozens of NGOs have had their bank accounts frozen, including those with grants by the European Union. Staff members of human rights organisations are in prison, in hiding, or expecting criminal charges. International organisations such as Transparency International, Open Society Foundations, NED, NDI, IREX, etc. have not been spared in this onslaught. Reports and accounts of torture in jails are multiplying. Monitoring mechanisms have long since broken down. Recently, a UN team sent to investigate cases of torture had to cut its visit short due to obstruction by the Azerbaijani authorities.
It is obvious that the Aliyev regime expects to get away with all of this, emerging unscathed. The government in Baku ignores the occasional complaints, viewing them as no more than a nuisance, (a non-binding resolution in the European Parliament here, another report or statement from an NGO there). Azerbaijan’s government rests assured that when senior officials from Western Europe and the United States come to visit, the issue of human rights remains very low on their agenda.
In this regard, the failure of the mechanisms within the Council of Europe is particularly disheartening. Ever since PACE rejected the January 2013 resolution on political prisoners in Azerbaijan (See: Azerbaijan debacle: The PACE debate on 23 January 2013), all dams have burst:
There were the arrests of NIDA activists in 2013, who were detained for protesting violence against conscripts in the military. The young activists were sentenced to jail-terms of up to 8 years – on the very day Azerbaijan assumed the chairmanship of the Council of Europe in May 2014. (See: NIDA’s “Live not by Lies” Baku Court Speech – May 2014)
There was the arrest of Ilgar Mammadov, who was head of the Council of Europe School of Politics at the time of his arrest. Mammadov was sentenced to 7 years in prison in March this year. The fact that his case has been identified as a politically motivated by the ECtHR has not made any difference.
There was the arrest and sentencing of Anar Mammadli, the former advisor of the rapporteur on political prisoners, arrested just before the UK Foreign Secretary arrived in Baku in autumn 2013.
Then this past summer came the arrests of Leyla Yunus and Rasul Jafarov – the very people who coordinated Azerbaijan’s civil society to draw up a comprehensive list of political prisoners – despite the risk and despite lack of support from the Council of Europe. Almost immediately after releasing this list, Leyla, her husband, and Rasul were all arrested. (The list is a document of shame: www.esiweb.org/thelist)
These prominent arrests are only the tip of an iceberg. The government is blackmailing activists and journalists with sex tapes, pressuring their family members (who end up losing jobs or are threatened with arrest themselves), illegally seizing files related to cases brought to the ECtHR, and intimidating and threatening the few remaining lawyers who still take on political cases. And all of this is happening while Azerbaijan holds the chairmanship of the Council of Europe.
Additionally, PACE appointed Spanish PP member Pedro Agramunt as the new rapporteur on political prisoners. Agramunt is a man who has solidified his reputation as an apologist for the government in Baku, speaking out and voting against the adoption of a standard definition of political prisoners, presented in 2012. (See: Showdown in Strasbourg: The political prisoner debate in October 2012). Agramunt also voted against a January 2013 resolution that would have addressed the issue of political prisoners in Azerbaiijan — a resolution that Anar Mammadli helped prepare. The appointment of Agramunt as rapporteur on political prisoners in Azerbaijan adds insult to injury. (See also: A Portrait of Deception. Monitoring Azerbaijan or why Pedro Agramunt should resign).
A debate on the recent wave of repression has emerged within the Committee of Ministers recently. However, there has been no serious reaction by member states in the CoM or by the secretariat. It seems that everyone is waiting for the end of the Azerbaijani chairmanship, hoping that by then the limited interest in Azerbaijan’s human rights record will dissipate completely.
Perhaps the government will even release one or two political prisoners (its carousel policy), and claim that the “mechanisms” of protection are indeed working. However, as long as the Aliyev government is allowed to continue its repression, it may eventually succeed in destroying one of the most courageous human rights movements in Europe. Furthermore, with the 2015 parliamentary elections – and another corrupt and unfair electoral process – the authoritarian consolidation will have been completed.
Will awarding Anar Mammadli the 2014 Vaclav Havel prize mark the point at which the Council of Europe becomes aware of what is actually occurring – the capture of an established European institution tasked with protecting human rights – and start changing? One can only hope so.