After accusing the United States of quietly building a network of spies, Azerbaijani authorities claim they have uncovered yet another foreign spy network in the country. They claim French intelligence agencies have been operating a secret network for many years via its diplomats, French citizens doing business in the country, and others. As a result, at least one French citizen was arrested in December 2023, and two French diplomats were expelled this month.
#Azerbaijan | France notes the decision taken by Azerbaijan to declare 2 members of the French Embassy in Azerbaijan persona non grata and has taken reciprocal measures.
— France Diplomacy 🇫🇷🇪🇺 (@francediplo_EN) December 27, 2023
“Suspected of committing acts of espionage, Martin Ryan … was arrested on December 4,” Azerbaijan’s ambassador in Paris, Leyla Abdullayeva, told AFP. Ryan has been sent into pretrial detention for four months.
In retaliation, France expelled two Azerbaijani diplomats rejecting Azerbaijan’s alleged claims.
France’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement, they considered Ryan’s arrest “arbitrary,” demanding his immediate release.
Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry dismissed the claims of arbitrary detention, calling on France to refrain from intervening in the country’s internal affairs.
Pundits link the recent diplomatic tensions between Azerbaijan and France to the latter’s support for Armenia.
Azerbaijan and Armenia have been locked in a protracted conflict for some thirty years. Two wars and countless frontline confrontations later, Azerbaijan secured total victory in Karabakh following a military operation on September 19, 2023.
The following month, France announced it would be selling air defense systems to Armenia. The same month, President Ilham Aliyev leveled accusations against France, saying the latter was inciting conflict in the Caucasus by arming Armenia.
France also repeatedly criticized Azerbaijan over the blocking of the Lachin corridor — the only route connecting Armenia to Karabakh across the territory of Azerbaijan — for a period of nine months in 2023.
Last year, in November 2023, France’s cyber defense unit uncovered a targeted disinformation campaign from Azerbaijan “via the use of unauthentic processes, with the objective of harming France's reputation in its capacity to host the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games,” according to France's state service for Vigilance and Protection against Foreign Digital Interference (Viginum).
Official Baku has also criticized France's colonialist past. In his recent opinion piece, PhD candidate at Charles University, Bahruz Samadov, argued that Azerbaijan has mainly been targeting France in its anti-colonialism narrative “due to the combination of its explicitly critical stance towards Baku’s authoritarian conflict management strategies, such as the Lachin Corridor blockade and September 2023 attack on Nagorno-Karabakh, and the country’s strong support for Armenia.”
There is even an initiative against French colonialism which was established in July 2023. “The fact that Azerbaijan targets only France’s colonial history, leaving aside, for example, Great Britain, not to mention Turkey, makes the case a characteristic example of the selective, instrumentalized use of ‘anti-colonialism’ to pursue right-wing political goals. Ironically, Great Britain, Azerbaijan’s economic partner whose companies helped Azerbaijan to win the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, was among the countries invited to the ‘neocolonialism’ conference,” wrote Samadov.
Meanwhile, President Ilham Aliyev accused France of stirring tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijani by providing military training and equipment to Armenia in an interview with local media on January 10, 2024. The president warned that this would only escalate the tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan, vowing to keep investing in Azerbaijan's own military build-up as a preventive measure.
But the recent saber-rattling did not happen in a vacuum. It follows ongoing tensions between the two countries. In October 2022, the French senate adopted a resolution calling for sanctions against Azerbaijan and its immediate withdrawal from Armenian territory. The resolution also condemned Azerbaijan for its aggression against Armenia in September 2022, which left hundreds killed, says the International Crisis Group.
According to the reporting by OC Media, shortly after the resolution, which did not legally oblige the French government to act, furious Baku summoned French charge d'affaires Julien Le Lan, handing him a nota bene. Other anti-France sentiments emerged on public television, with a choir of kids singing a song insulting French President Emmanuel Macron.
In November 2022, the Azerbaijan parliament adopted a statement critical of the resolution, calling to freeze French officials’ assets and reconsider cooperation agreements with French energy companies. More critical statements were voiced by Azerbaijani lawmakers during the parliamentary debate. These statements included cutting off the gas supply to France, declaring the country an enemy of the state, and recalling Azerbaijan's ambassador to France, according to OC Media.
The same month Azerbaijani lawmakers adopted the statement, Azerbaijan's First Lady and First Vice President, Mehriban Aliyeva, announced she was leaving her position as the Goodwill Ambassador to UNESCO. Aliyeva was awarded the title of the Goodwill Ambassador to UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) in 2004 during a visit to France with her husband, Ilham Aliyev, who was freshly elected as Azerbaijan's president a year prior in what international observers described as a fraud election.
The recent tensions even reached the French town of Evian-les-Bains, where a statue dedicated to the revered 19th-century Azerbaijani poetess Khurshudban Natavan was reportedly vandalized. According to reports, the statue “was doused with red liquid, and its nose was broken. The service responsible for this area of the city covered the monument to protect it.” Azerbaijanis living there staged a rally condemning the act of vandalism. The statue stood at the park that was inaugurated in 2017 as part of a friendship and cooperation charter signed between the cities of Évian-les-Bains and Azerbaijan's town of Ismayilli at the initiative of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, according to the reporting by Azernews.