‘Am Abgrund’: The story of Azerbaijan's influence in Europe

Screenshot from the movie trailer.

Imagine a story where intrigue and politics collide, revealing a world where influence is bought and sold behind closed doors. This isn't fiction; it's the real-life saga of Azerbaijan's efforts to polish its image on the European stage despite its poor track record on human rights and freedoms.

At the heart of this tale is both Azerbaijan, a country rich in energy resources and scrutinized over its ruling government’s authoritarian practices, but also European countries, known as champions of democracy, rule of law, and human rights, who have long been mentors to the emerging nations from the Soviet era. But here's the twist — instead of spreading these cherished values, it seems they, too, are vulnerable to corruption

Over the years, Baku has cleverly navigated the corridors of power in Europe, winning over politicians with a mix of luxurious trips and direct cash payments. The aim? To ensure these influential voices speak up for Azerbaijan's interests, particularly within the halls of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and even Germany's own Bundestag. All the while, vocal critics of the ruling Baku were left at home feeling abandoned. 

Bringing this intricate web of influence and manipulation to light is a groundbreaking film by German broadcaster ARD, “Am Abgrund” (on the precipice). Though the film is fiction, it is based on a series of investigations dubbed “Azerbaijani Laundromat,” exposing how the Azerbaijani government bribed the Council of Europe politicians. The investigations published in 2017 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.

Filmed by director and investigative journalist Daniel Harrich, it dives deep into the Azerbaijan web of political connections and corruption. It will be complemented by a yet-to-be-released documentary that seeks to uncover the full extent of this affair.

The film premiered on February 20 at an event organized by the German Parliament. The screening was followed by discussions about how such a corruption scandal came to be, what's being done to address it, and how German politicians can prevent such occurrences in the future.

The plot 

The movie unveils the harsh crackdown on dissenting voices criticizing Azerbaijan's oppressive regime, featuring dramatic scenes that replicate footage from hidden cameras planted in the bedroom of renowned journalist Khadija Ismayilova in 2012, exposing her private life. Ismayilova penned a series of investigations into government corruption linked to the ruling family of Aliyevs. The leaked footage aimed to tarnish the journalist’s reputation. Ismayilova was later jailed on bogus charges and spent two years behind bars as a result.

The film portrays German politicians turning a blind eye to these infringements.

At the heart of the story is Gerd Meineke, a fictional member of the German Bundestag who also serves in the Council of Europe. Meineke discovers that the latter institution created back in 1949 to foster democracy and the rule of law has been compromised and that German MPs have been swayed by Azerbaijan's regime, trading their votes in the Council of Europe for money, gold, prostitutes, and other bribes, betraying the principles of democracy and human rights.

The corruption becomes glaringly apparent during a vote initiated by Meineke aimed at condemning Azerbaijan for its numerous political prisoners. However, the resolution is defeated, thanks to the regime's well-compensated allies. In a mocking tone, a representative of the regime taunts Meineke, declaring, “This is not your Council of Europe, this is our Council of Europe!” leaving the politician dismayed by his loss.

When asked about his motivations for making the film, director Harrisch said, “I cannot accept corruption and human rights abuses,” in a discussion that followed the screening. He added that the issue extended beyond the government of Azerbaijan and that it implicated Western politicians and societies in the corrupt practices fueled by Azerbaijan's natural resources.

Harrisch later told Global Voices in an interview that due to the complicated and restricted nature of the country, he and his crew were unable to secure filming permission in Azerbaijan. As a result,  many of the scenes were filmed in neighboring Georgia instead.

“They (the government) simply didn’t want anyone filming there,” Harrisch told Global Voices. 

Among the guests of the screening was the German MP Frank Schwabe who has recently become known for his loud criticism of the Azerbaijani government. It was Schwabe who challenged the credentials of the Azerbaijani delegation at the PACE during the Assembly’s opening winter session in January 2024.

In an interview with Global Voices, Schwabe elaborated on why he has been vocal about the situation in Azerbaijan, “I wish for democracy in Azerbaijan, but realistically, I can't establish it myself. What I can do, however, is speak the truth about the situation there, which aligns with the mission of the Council of Europe. If a member of this organization doesn't respect its principles, then action is necessary.” 

The German MP also mentioned the complexity of relations between Europe and Azerbaijan, especially in light of Europe's increased reliance on Azerbaijan for alternative energy resources following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He acknowledged the reality of engaging with authoritarian regimes for trade despite their track record on freedoms and human rights. “It's crucial that we don't overlook human rights violations for the sake of trade relationships. This is what I expect from the German government and the Council of Europe,” Schwabe told Global Voices.

He hopes that the increased visibility from the movie will exert more pressure on European institutions to address these concerns more forcefully.

The film “On the Abyss” about the corruption organized by Azerbaijan around #Bundestag + Council of Europe is presented for the first time. The film is intended to shake up + change. Protect human rights + prevent corruption. 🙏 that we can present it across factions.

The timing

The movie comes at a time of deteriorating ties between Azerbaijan and the West, particularly after PACE refused to ratify the credentials of the Azerbaijani delegation on January 24, citing the country's poor human rights and democracy record. 

“The timing [for the film’s launch] couldn't be better,” said Gerald Knaus, the chairman of the European Stability Initiative, a think tank, and a vocal critic of the Azerbaijani government, in an interview with Global Voices. His think tank coined the term “caviar diplomacy” in 2012 and was the first to document Azerbaijan’s influence at the Council of Europe. 

The film should encourage countries like Germany and France, as well as others in the Committee of Ministers, to support the PACE decision, to strip the Azerbaijani delegation of its credentials, and continue to press further, including presenting Baku with an ultimatum — total suspension from the institution [unless they clean up their human rights record]. In an interview with Global Voices, Knaus further elaborated on the latter, explaining that ahead of April 2024, which marks the Council of Europe's 75th anniversary, Azerbaijan must release all of its political prisoners and that failure to comply could lead to the country’s suspension from the institution.

“With the Parliament having shifted its stance on Azerbaijan by 180 degrees, it's time for the Committee of Ministers to follow suit. I'm optimistic that this could lead to the release of the detainees as an alternative for Azerbaijan’s expulsion,” noted Knaus.

By some estimates by local civic initiatives, there are over 200 political prisoners in Azerbaijan. 

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