Council of Europe members vote to suspend Azerbaijan

Image by Arzu Geybullayeva

This article was first published on OBC Transeuropa. An edited version is republished here under a content partnership agreement. 

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) voted 76 in favor and 10 against not ratifying the Azerbaijan delegation's credentials at the Assembly on January 24. Once a year, on the opening day of the PACE session, all national parliaments of member states (47 in total) present the credentials of their delegations to the Assembly, which are then open to vote by the rest of the member states. At the opening of this year's session, Azerbaijan presented the credentials of 12 delegation members.

The credentials of Azerbaijan's delegation at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) were challenged on the grounds the country failed to meet “major commitments” as part of its membership to the Council of Europe on January 22, at the opening of the winter plenary session of PACE. This means Azerbaijan will remain a member of the Council of Europe. However, the delegation won't have voting rights for a year, and its activities “may resume when conditions provided by the Rules of Procedure are met.”

The voting was based on a draft report prepared by the Committee on the Honoring of Obligations and Commitments by Member States of the Council of Europe (Monitoring Committee), which deplored Azerbaijan for not fulfilling its commitments as a member of the organization with “serious concerns” remaining for Azerbaijan's “ability to conduct free and fair elections, the separation of powers, the weakness of [the country's] legislature vis-a-vis the executive, the independence of the judiciary and respect for human rights, as illustrated by numerous judgments of the European Court of Human Rights and opinions of the Venice Commission.” The draft report also highlighted persisting problem of “political prisoners, [and] the increased number of violations of freedom of expression.”

According to PACE, “Making the challenge, Frank Schwabe (Germany, SOC) cited political prisoners in the country, the violent displacement of people from Nagorno-Karabakh, the fact that Assembly rapporteurs were unable to visit Azerbaijan at least three times during 2023, and the lack of an invitation to the Assembly to observe the country’s February 7 presidential election.”

Azerbaijan's name was also mentioned in a separate resolution on “systemic torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in places of detention” on January 24, 2023. The resolution voiced concern over “horrendous methods of torture,” specifically in the context of the Terter case — a series of arrests carried out in 2017 targeting civilians and Azerbaijan's military personnel in what the officials in Baku at the time described as “large-scale conspiracy.” The resolution was adopted with 66 votes in favor, 0 against, and one abstention.

Caviar diplomacy is no more

Azerbaijan joined the Council of Europe in 2001. Since then, the assembly adopted numerous resolutions criticizing Azerbaijan over its track record on rights and freedoms. But the organization's past relations with Azerbaijan have been overshadowed by “caviar diplomacy” — a term coined by a European think tank, European Stability Initiative (ESI), in 2012, documenting how Azerbaijani officials were bribing European politicians at PACE.

“Parliamentarians from all over Europe received jewelry, 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,” director and founder of ESI Gerald Knaus explained in an interview in 2021.

ESI's 2012 report eventually led to investigations and convictions in several EU member states based on the conclusions of an independent investigative body.

Then, in 2017, in a series of new investigations, a network of investigative journalists discovered how the government of Azerbaijan was the driving force behind a USD 2.9 billion secret slush fund that may have helped it pay off European politicians.

Dubbed “Azerbaijani Laundromat,” the secret slush fund was put into operation between 2012 and 2014, according to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project:

The Azerbaijani Laundromat is the name given to a complex money-laundering operation that handled USD 2.9 billion over a two-year period thanks to four shell companies registered in the United Kingdom. Between 2012 and 2014, Azerbaijan’s kleptocratic ruling elites pumped the money through the companies’ Estonian bank accounts. The companies’ true owners were hidden behind unknown offshore shareholders.

The money transfers made into the accounts of politicians in Europe may have helped persuade the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) to vote against a critical report of Azerbaijan in 2013 calling for an adoption of the resolution on political prisoners.

However, the internal investigations at PACE only targeted European politicians, letting the Azerbaijani state off the hook. At least until the January 24 resolution.

Just as it offered objections and rejections when the laundromat investigations revealed the secret slush funds, Azerbaijan responded similarly to the January resolution. Official Baku accused the Assembly of double standards, targeting “some member states” on purpose. A statement issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, “an open disregard of Azerbaijan’s legitimate interests, and such a threatening rhetoric is a clear example of double standard that further exacerbates Azerbaijan-EU relations.”

On January 24, the Azerbaijani delegation to the PACE said in a statement it was suspending its cooperation with the Assembly indefinitely.

Reactions in Baku

Azerbaijani state media and officials were quick to level accusations against the Assembly's decision. According to state news agency APA, the Assembly used human rights violations as a cover and that the real reason behind the vote was “an act of revenge” against Azerbaijan, which has “single-handedly restored its sovereignty and territorial integrity” after 30 years of inactive role PACE and other European institutions played in the negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan. 

One member of the Azerbaijani National Parliament, Elşad Mirbəşiroğlu, said in an interview with local media that PACE will now be “incomplete” in the absence of Azerbaijan.  

Bəhruz Məhərrəmov, another member of the parliament, said, “Azerbaijan does not need the Council of Europe, which has become a hypocritical mechanism.”

But threats of leaving the international organization may ring hollow. According to Azər Qasımlı, who heads the Political Management Institute in Baku, “If [the government's] intentions were true about leaving, they would have done so right away. They will try to deceive the European politicians again, promising they will solve the problems. They will try to gain time to see the outcome of the ongoing war in Ukraine. But this time, it won't be possible to deceive the West.” 

“Leaving the organization would impact Azerbaijan negatively,” said another Azerbaijani human rights activist, Anar Mammadli, who also heads an independent election observation organization in Baku. “Azerbaijan is a signatory to several Council of Europe documents and has cooperation agreements with several [the Council of Europe's] structures. As such, there will be consequences for leaving,” added Mammadli.

The January 2024 vote is significant in that, for the first time, Azerbaijan's place within the institution was challenged based on violating all of the Council of Europe's values. In his final words, before the vote, Morgens Jensen, the author of the report and a member of the Monitoring Committee, said the vote was “necessary” because Azerbaijan has failed to ensure the rule of law, democracy, and human rights — the very values, the Council of Europe represents.

There was another attempt to suspend the country's delegation in January 2006 because Azerbaijan, as a member of the Council of Europe, failed to ensure an election environment “in line with European standards.” But the vote failed in a narrow margin, 24 against and 22 in favor.

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