Azerbaijan's President Aliyev cozies up to authoritarian leaders

Image by Arzu Geybullayeva

President Ilham Aliyev, the incumbent leader of Azerbaijan, has welcomed leaders of several countries known for their anti-Western sentiments and in some cases, questionable human rights and freedoms records in recent weeks. Among the leaders shaking hands and signing agreements with President Aliyev since April 2024 were Tajikistan's president Emomali Rahmon, the President of Belarus, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Slovakia's Prime Minister, and the President of Bulgaria.

In April 2024, Slovakia elected a populist president who publicly sympathized with Russia. In the case of Hungary, the country has been consistently blocking aid to Ukraine, as recently as May 27, 2024. Hungary's President, Viktor Orban, also congratulated Russia's President Vladimir Putin on re-election in March 2024. Bulgaria, Hungary, and Slovakia were also among the countries that blocked imports of Ukrainian grain in 2023, earning the nickname of “rogue states” within the European Union. Hungary and Slovakia also blocked the release of a statement on behalf of all 27 EU member states on Georgia's controversial foreign agent bill adopted on May 14, 2024.

Beyond these countries, the president also prides himself in having developed a “friendship” with Chinese leader Xi Jinping and having a cozy relationship with Uzbekistan, which is ranked “not free” by Freedom House's annual Freedom in the World report. This is not at all an exhaustive list. 

As for the recent events, Azerbaijani experts have been mulling over these visits, with some claiming Azerbaijan has gained significant interest among international leaders looking to build ties with the country, while others have been critical, concerned that the government is headed toward an anti-Western coalition. 

Hikmet Babaoglu, Deputy Chairman of the Defense, Security, and Anti-Corruption Committee of the Milli Majlis [Azerbaijan's Parliament], viewed the interest in Azerbaijan especially among Eastern European countries as a logical step given Azerbaijan's already existing ties with Western Europe. “Our main trade partners are Western European countries. Therefore, we should consider the increase of interest of Eastern European countries in Azerbaijan as a process after the West,” Babaoglu told Meydan TV in an interview. Babaoglu added that statements claiming otherwise, or accusing Azerbaijan of fostering anti-Western sentiments are nothing but political blackmail aimed at tarnishing the country's international image.

The pro-government member of the parliament also accused some Azerbaijani media outlets of becoming tools in the hands of imperialist powers and spreading false narratives.

For political scientist Azer Gasimli, who heads the Institute of Political Management, Azerbaijan's growing ties with countries like Hungary, Slovakia, and Bulgaria, were more transactional than anything else. “Official Baku takes part in [these countries’] investment projects in exchange for their support of Azerbaijan,” noted Gasimli, in an interview with Meydan TV.

In April 2023, Azerbaijan signed the “Solidarity Ring,” a document outlining the expansion of the gas network with the countries in Eastern Europe, including Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia. This initiative became more urgent after natural gas exports from Russia were closed off following Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Following a visit from the Slovakian Prime Minister, the two countries also signed an agreement on the involvement of Slovak companies in reconstruction work in Karabakh, which has been left in disarray after violence erupted between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces over the last five years.

Natig Jafarli, a member of the Political Committee of the REAL Party, said that countries like Slovakia and Hungary, who are EU and NATO members, act in their self-interest, especially when it comes to securing energy deals. “Prior to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Slovakia was receiving 90 percent of its gas supply from Russia, while Hungary was receiving 80 percent of its oil supply from Russia,” explained Jafarli, as such, with some of these countries that were once heavily dependent on Russia for energy, looking at alternatives was normal added Jafarli in his interview with Meydan TV. “For [countries like] Bulgaria, Slovakia and Hungary, Azerbaijan's energy reserves can play a sufficient role in reducing [their over-reliance on Russia] and meeting their needs,” said Jafarli.

As such, even if Azerbaijan wanted to, it could not join any anti-western coalitions because of the country's high dependence on the West. “51 percent of [the country's] oil and 75 percent of [its] gas are sold to Western countries. Our biggest buyer is Italy. Given this reality, how can Azerbaijan pursue an anti-Western policy? If this becomes the case, then the country will have to face significant economic consequences,” explained Jafarli. 

Jafarli explained that from a political point of view, Azerbaijan's growing ties with other authoritarian regimes are meant to send a message to Brussels. The EU has leveled much criticism toward Azerbaijani officials over decreasing freedoms in the country and its dismal human rights record.

A different kind of diplomacy

Azerbaijan's approach to diplomacy differs greatly in Western Europe compared to Eastern Europe. This has been documented for years by various international organizations that have dubbed the energy-rich country's diplomatic efforts as “caviar diplomacy.” The latter was a term coined by a European think tank, the European Stability Initiative (ESI), in 2012, documenting how Azerbaijani officials were bribing European politicians at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). But its bribing efforts extended beyond just PACE.

In 2017 the Azerbaijani Laundromat put the UK under the spotlight when “confidential banking records were leaked to the Danish newspaper Berlingske and shared with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), the Guardian, and other media partners,” covering a 30-month period reported The Guardian at the time. The 2021 investigation by VICE revealed how through a wide network of politicians and lobbyists Azerbaijani influenced politics in Berlin. There is documentation of other forms of lobbying carried out by the government of Azerbaijan in recent years. In January 2024, at least three German politicians were charged with bribery and corruption in connection with Azerbaijan. The most recent scandal of Azerbaijani influence involves US lawmaker Representative Henry Cuellar who was charged with “taking at least USD 360,000 in bribes from companies controlled by the government of Azerbaijan.”

In all of these cases, the Azerbaijani government and its leadership got away with its dubious financial transactions and deals all the while, building new friendships and practicing the same old tactics of cracking down on free press and dissent. A January 2024 decision at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe not to renew the credentials of Azerbaijan's delegation on the grounds the country failed to meet “major commitments” as part of its membership to the Council of Europe made little difference. International calls on the government to release political prisoners including April 2024 resolution by the European Parliament have also made no impact. When President Aliyev signed the most recent pardon decree on the day of the country's national independence on May 25, 2024, not one political prisoner was on the list.

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