Inside the party membership scandal rocking Azerbaijan's opposition

Illustration (c) by Tom Venner for GlobalVoices. Used with permission.

This story was funded by the European Union and supported by the OPEN Media Hub. The author is not, and has never been, a member of any political party in Azerbaijan.

When political dissidents flee Azerbaijan, they do not take plastic boats across the Mediterranean to land on Greek beaches in the cold of winter, nor do they have to walk or hitch-hike their way to Germany, the Netherlands, or Switzerland: they simply fly in carrying documents confirming membership in an opposition party.

Azerbaijan is ruled by Ilham Aliyev, who took over from his father Heydar in 2003. Three parties and several independents sit in the National Assembly, Azerbaijan's parliament. But behind this facade of pluralism is unanimous support for the Aliyev regime and the ruling New Azerbaijan Party (YAP). Meanwhile, the country's extra-parliamentary opposition is marginalised and repressed, with increasing severity in recent years. Human rights activists, journalists, and critics of the regime have been jailed and subjected to severe human rights abuses. Although the government rejects any criticism of its human rights record, Freedom House classifies Azerbaijan as an “entrenched authoritarian regime.”

So being a card-carrying member of an extra-parliamentary opposition party in Azerbaijan today comes with the expectation of abuse, harassment, and sometimes criminal charges. It also means such activists and politicians have good grounds to claim asylum overseas, but it likewise makes party membership attractive to others as a near-ironclad guarantee of success settling in Europe. For years, rumours have circulated that high-level officials in Azerbaijan's opposition parties have been providing membership cards to people with no connection to their political movements — allegedly for cash.

After a series of arrests of Azerbaijani citizens in Germany, there are now grounds to suspect that those rumours are more than rumours after all. 

This story revolves around one particular party, the Musavat.

A golden ticket

“People approach the Musavat party to get its membership cards; after two or three months, they get additional reference letters referring to these non-political people as ‘heroes who have constantly fought against the repressive regime in Azerbaijan,’ and a few photos together with the party chairman at rallies. That opens the gate to getting asylum abroad,” Yafaz Hasanov told Global Voices. Hasanov is a board member of the Musavat party and the former chair of the Musavat AKM Supervisory Committee in Germany, an organisation established by Musavat in 2016 for its political emigres in the EU.

“This was still possible up until one year ago, but now the German authorities do not believe in it anymore,” he remarked.

Forty-year-old Rahid Bashirov found that out the hard way. Bashirov had been a member of the Musavat party since 1998 and served as deputy chairman of the party's youth branch in Zengilan. In 2014, Bashirov, though still a member of Musavat, started to become disillusioned with the party and was drawn towards the N!DA civic movement. After the Azerbaijani government started to intensify its pressure on members of the opposition in 2015, Bashirov and his wife were dismissed from their jobs at the Shusha Road Institute and the Rabita Bank. In 2017, the family fled to Europe. 

“In 2017, the situation became harder. I regularly expressed critical thoughts on social media; we were trying to organise ourselves outside party structures since we were not satisfied with Musavat's policies,” Bashirov told Global Voices in a telephone call. He continued to oppose the authorities’ oppression until he was diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease. “Now I'm in Germany; I could be arrested if I return [to Azerbaijan] which could pose a risk to my life; even being in jail for a month means igniting my illness,” Bashirov explained.

Upon arrival in Germany, Bashirov applied for political asylum but was rejected. When he appealed the decision at a court in the German city of Münster, the judge dismissed the case.

The rejection letter Bashirov received from the German authorities included the following revealing admission:

…Auch die vorgelegten Parteiausweise, sowie Stellungnahmen anderer Parteimitglieder sind nicht geeignet, den klägerischen Vortrag zu stützen. So ist schon zu beachten, dass Gefälligkeitsbescheinigungen von Parteifunktionären in Aserbaidschan unschwer zu beschaffen sind.

…Furthermore, the party IDs submitted, as well as the statements of other party members, are not sufficient to support the plaintiff's claims. It is to be observed that [such] certificates can be gratuitously obtained without difficulty from party functionaries in Azerbaijan.

There are other indications that Germany has started to treat Azerbaijani asylum applications with more caution. According to the country's Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), 1,783 Azerbaijani citizens applied for asylum in 2018. Fifty-seven of these applications were approved. Meanwhile, of the 630 asylum applications made by Azerbaijani citizens in the first five months of 2019, only six were approved. That's an approval rate nearly three times lower than in the previous year.

Ilgar Isayev, who helps assess asylum applications from Azerbaijan for the BAMF, told Global Voices that the majority of Azerbaijani citizens applying for asylum in Germany do so as political dissidents. “They mainly give political reasons, as though they have been persecuted by the government, but when you look into their stories you see that they are mostly unaware of politics… or their statements do not match with what is actually happening in Azerbaijan,” Isayev told this reporter during an interview on September 10. “You feel that these are not people with a political past. People who are really exposed to political persecution are mostly public and quite well-known.”

The BAMF has a rigorous process for verifying asylum seekers’ stories. First, the German officials must consider what might await the person if he or she is sent back to Azerbaijan. If BAMF's decision-makers like Isayev believe there is a good case for asylum, the institution turns to the German Embassy in Azerbaijan's capital Baku, which has independent sources who can establish the applicant's identity and cross-check their story. During this process, explained Isayev in the same interview, the BAMF is not necessarily interested in party membership but whether the individual really is subject to persecution in Azerbaijan.

Isayev added that even in such cases, the party documents provided by applicants were often genuine. “They were predominantly available from 2015 to 2018, but now they're [seen as] insufficient […] It is recommended that no decisions are made on the basis of those documents,” he explained.

This chimes with Bashirov's claims that many people who have received political asylum in Germany on the basis of their Musavat party membership are not opposition members at all. “None [of them] can come and tell me that they've had as systemic political activity as I had, nor been subjected to pressure from the police in Azerbaijan.”

Bashirov says that the sale of such party membership cards began in 2005 when former parliament speaker Isa Gambar still led the Musavat party. “Under the leadership of Arif Hajili [since 2014], it has become more systematic due to the establishment of the party's European Coordination Centre (AKM),” he added.

The mysterious 197

In August 2019, Musavat party chairman Arif Hajili admitted that he had issued official reference letters to 197 people over the past five years. Hajili, who was re-elected party chairman for another five years on October 13, emphasized that “these documents can be obtained by contacting the relevant party structures. These issues are regulated by the internal governing rules of Musavat.”

Several of Musavat's members told Global Voices that the party's board was never informed of the identities of the 197 people, and the leadership's alleged secrecy over new certificates had ulterior motives.

Yadigar Sadigli is a former deputy chairman of Musavat. He began investigating the party's alleged facilitation of emigration from Azerbaijan as early as 2016, when he worked as a coordinator with party activists in Europe. Sadigli says that, during that year, 60 people had been given reference letters to support asylum applications in Germany. He claims to have verified that none of these 60 people had ever been Musavat party members, though declined to reveal their identities when asked by Global Voices.

“Even though repressions against the party were not as harsh as they had been, the number of Musavatists heading abroad to seek asylum was suspiciously increasing. The disconnect was so obvious that I could not keep silent,” Sadigli told Global Voices.

“We repeatedly suggested that [Musavat] should stop issuing these certificates, and that the party should keep away from the issue as the scandal has already hurt the party image. We even suggested a moratorium on certificates for a certain period,” Sadigli says. “We stated that no one member's rights are more important than the image of the party, but our proposals weren't accepted,” he sighed.

Sadigli eventually resigned from Musavat in May 2018, he says due to frustration at his inability as deputy chairman to investigate the party's asylum policy.

Yafaz Hasanov shares Sadigli's misgivings. “As an active Musavatist and a journalist, I know all the Musavat party members who have been persecuted by the government. I've only seen 19 or 20 of them in Europe so far. So how come the figure is officially 197?” asked Hasanov.

Both Hasanov and Sadigli claim that some party officials even retroactively supplied documentation to Azerbaijanis who had already settled in Europe.

“[Some Azerbaijanis] think that as soon as they are in Germany the gates of heaven will be open to them. But then they realise that they need a residency permit, so they address Musavat AKM to get membership cards and reference letters,” explained Hasanov. “The AKM then sends this list of names to the Musavat headquarters in Baku and they ask that these new names become unconditional members of the party. These names then get registered with an earlier date, and then become members of the Musavat AKM.” Hasanov claims that Musavat AKM has provided at least 200 people with this kind of reference letter, though he suspects the real figure is much higher.

In interviews with Global Voices, the issuing of retroactive letters of reference was neither confirmed nor denied by Hajili or Ilham Hasan, head of Musavat's AKM. Hajili declined to comment further, saying that he felt “there is no need for the press to discuss these issues.”

Tofig Yagublu, another former Musavat deputy chairman, questions the ethics of issuing retroactive reference letters: “Any party member has the right to receive a reference [letter.] I only ask that the reference is written correctly,” he says. “If a person has only been a member of Musavat for a month and has not been subjected to any pressure, there should be no exaggerations… The signature and the stamp are not fake, but the references are full of lies.” 

Yagublu goes a step further in his accusations when he says the AKM could exchange reference letters and party membership certificates for money.  “No fake references are given for free”, he says, adding that, on several occasions, he has been approached by Azerbaijani citizens in Europe who have been dissatisfied with documents they have received from the AKM. “They told me that the AKM had cheated them… Of course, they're not paying 100-200 EUR for such assistance. One man who approached me in Europe told me he paid 2,000 EUR for a reference letter from the AKM. But then his lawyer told him that the document was not satisfactory.”

Zakir Agayev, the AKM's former coordinator in Bavaria, also claims that Musavat issues membership cards “to earn money,” and that some officials treat Musavat “as a tourist company rather than a political party.”

Agayev says that between 2005 and 2016, as a small businessman in Azerbaijan, he offered the Musavat party financial assistance, and was later appointed chairman of its branch in the Jalilabad province. When his business was confiscated by the government, Agayev was appointed as a board member of the AKM. But when he tried to reach out to Musavat members based in Europe, he continued, the party did not provide their contacts.

“The ones I reached out to voiced their apathy towards politics in Azerbaijan, which made me suspicious,” recalled Agayev, who added that he did not know any of these new party members so was interested to find out why they had settled in Germany. However, Agayev says that the party leadership did not appreciate his inquisitiveness, and suspects that his expulsion in 2017 may have been connected to his inquiries as well as his Talysh ethnicity.

“I have been a member of the Musavat party for 19 years and a deputy chairman, but I don't know these people,” exclaimed Sadigli. In his opinion, Azerbaijani activists who are subject to pressure from the government do not usually need to take party documentation to European migration offices, as they are already recognised by international human rights watchdogs such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

“More interestingly, while holding a rally in Baku, the party leaders cannot gather 200 people to protest,” Sadigli wondered aloud in the interview. “So how can they send 197 people as persecuted members to Europe?”

Smoke and mirrors

Musavat party leaders strongly deny the accusations. In an email exchange with this reporter, Musavat's former leader Isa Gambar described them as “a slander campaign against the Musavat party” which began long ago.

“We have heard these allegations, from the authorities, from opposing political forces, and from those who have, for some reason, been offended by the Musavat Party. However, none of the bodies and individuals making the accusations have provided proof […] they have not provided a single counterfeit document from the Musavat Party,” declared Gambar. “How can it be possible, as it is claimed, that Musavat has given away fake documents for years and in such large numbers, but at least some of these fake documents have not been released?”

Importantly, the documents presented to migration offices across Europe cannot be unambiguously called “fake.” Even when they are rejected, such as in Bashirov's case, the party membership cards and letters of support are nonetheless issued by Musavat officials. 

“All of them are original, like my own party ID card. They all have the party's stamp on them. The fake element is the people to whom the party ID cards are given,” explained Yafaz Hasanov.

“The party cannot be held responsible for the decisions of European countries, and has not assured any of its members that these documents are sufficient to get permission [to stay] in Europe,” explained Gambar, who speculated that criminal groups may be forging the party's membership cards and documents and stressed that greater European scrutiny of such documents did not reflect a greater suspicion of the Musavat party per se.

When asked about Bashirov's Musavat membership card, Gambar confirmed to Global Voices that the membership card was genuine, in contrast to what he calls “fake documents.” Gambar said that he was not surprised by the German court's negative response to the appeal, as Bashirov “presented his membership card acquired in 2007, which was 12 years ago, in 2019.” Technically, this should not matter; party functionaries say that none of the official membership cards issued by the Musavat party have a validity term. 

This isn't the first time Musavat's membership policy has been put on the spot. On February 27, 2017, Gambar and Hajili were summoned to the General Prosecutor’s Office and interrogated about Azerbaijanis seeking refugee status in Europe with fake documents. Gambar described the move as politically motivated.

“Apparently the authorities were concerned about the active participation of the Musavat Party in the country and around the world,” Gambar told the news website Novator after their questioning. Arif Hajili made similar remarks at that time.

On February 25, 2017, Musavat's deputy head Gulaga Aslanli was also interrogated. On December 11 of this year, Aslanli filed a lawsuit against Yafaz Hasanov on charges of slander concerning Hasanov's allegations that Musavat is involved in document forgery. 

Bashirov, at least, is convinced that the Musavat party refused to stand by him because he refused to pay bribes. “But not only: if I'd said ‘long live Arif [Hajili]!’ they would have helped me too,” he added. “But because I'm genuine and they couldn't make money from me, they decided to remain silent. They didn't want to go further, as this trade is public now and that their market is dying,” concluded Bashirov.

An arrest in Germany

Sadigli told Global Voices that he “did not want to believe” that money could be exchanged for party membership.

Indeed, it is hard to prove whether money changed hands for ID cards and letters of recommendation. Azerbaijani asylum seekers who had received the cards were reluctant to speak on the record, out of fear of jeopardising their residency status. But a recent arrest in Germany suggests a possible connection.

On November 13, Der Spiegel reported that German Federal Police launched an early morning raid on apartments in Cologne, Frankfurt, Wiesbaden, and Düsseldorf as part of an operation against smuggling, document forgery, and money laundering by gangs of Azerbaijani citizens. The 180 police officers involved were able to secure extensive evidence, including laptops, smartphones, identity documents, and around 21,000 euros in cash.

According to a press release from the police in the city of Koblenz, a 49-year-old and a 58-year-old Azerbaijani citizen were arrested. One of them was Mehdi Khalilbayli, the second in command of the Musavat AKM. “These people are accused of having smuggled at least 20 people from Azerbaijan to Germany in exchange for payment of between 3,000 and 10,000 Euros. The group of perpetrators had provided the gangs with fake documents on an organized scale to enable them to stay in Germany for a long time,” reads the press release. 

In an email exchange with the author on December 3, Federal Public Prosecutor of Koblenz Thorsten Kahl confirmed that the two men were detained on the basis of an arrest warrant concerning people smuggling and document forgery, and added that the investigation concerns eight suspects.

This latest series of arrests was apparently launched after a confession by Rashad Mammadov, who, according to a ruling from the Koblenz City Court from October 25 seen by reporters, had acted as a driver to transport forged documents and large sums of money between Khalilbeyli and Ilham Hasan. 

Immediately after the arrests, Musavat leaders attempted to distance themselves from the arrested men. In comments to independent media outlet MeydanTV on November 14, Hajili claimed that Khalilbeyli was simply “an ordinary member of the party and not the deputy chairman of the AKM.” On November 20, chair of Musavat's AKM Ilham Hasan stated that Khalilbeyli had not been expelled from the organisation, and stressed that all accusations against Musavat in connection with selling membership cards were a smear campaign.

A crisis of faith

The rumours appear to have damaged the reputation of Musavat. Azerbaijan's oldest political party, which led the country during its short period of independence after the collapse of the Tsarist Empire, now faces what could be an irreversible damage to its credibility.

“All these public discussions about the sale of party ID cards have increased the public's scepticism and diminished their confidence [in Musavat.] If they are confirmed by the [German] courts, I think the party leadership should resign […] This scandal has stuck to the party's name, and it will put an end to the leaders’ political careers,” remarked Professor Altay Goyushov, a political scientist and head of the Baku Research Institute, a think tank based in Azerbaijani's capital (Dr. Goyushov is also a prominent member of REAL, another opposition movement in Azerbaijan — ed.)

Goyushov believes that unless and until the German court system issues a ruling, the party leadership will simply dismiss the accusations as rumours and falsehoods. He believes that even though Musavat is unlikely to leave Azerbaijani politics quickly, its influence is overstated and the veteran party has been unable to seriously address the needs of a youthful population which demands a rejuvenated politics.

“The opposition has been trying to renew [itself] since 2010, but the repressions, the reprisals over N!DA, the arrest of Ilgar Mammadov managed to stop that process. At the center of all those repressions, the traditional opposition including Musavat started reappearing, but it seems the party itself had difficulties getting people involved in political struggles,[which] shows that the void was not actually filled. But the space is not empty in vain, this process has to be led in a certain direction. Probably, the process of formation of a new opposition party, which is mainly composed of young people in Azerbaijan, is a must and they will emerge,” says Goyushov.

Sergey Rumyantsev, a Berlin-based sociologist specialising on Azerbaijan, believes that the outlook is bleak. “The Musavat crisis is connected more with state pressure and it's obvious that the government has used this case to try and destroy the country's opposition parties even more. But in principle there are internal problems: the leadership of Musavat has not changed for a very long time. It's a huge problem when the opposition party copies the regime and becomes hereditary,” explained Rumyantsev.

For now, Europe plays an important role for Azerbaijani dissidents as a space where they can express themselves openly and form associations. That is why activists like Sadigli feel that Musavat's scandal is also a tragedy which could threaten that oasis of freedom.

In the two weeks since the arrests, the German authorities have deported nearly 300 Azerbaijani citizens from Bavaria alone. Meanwhile, Vusal Huseynov, head of Azerbaijan's State Migration Service, has identified 1,385 Azerbaijanis who he says are illegally in Germany and must be returned home.

CORRECTION (December 25, 2019): A previous version of this story misattributed a quote to Ilgar Isayev. Upon revisiting interview transcripts, the author would like to clarify that Mr. Isayev did not specifically name any specific political party as responsible for the majority of suspicious political asylum applications from Azerbaijan in Germany. This version has been corrected. Global Voices apologises to Mr. Isayev for the confusion.

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