|Some ruins in Gobustan National Park|
On 24 July, President Aliyev issued an enigmatic decree abolishing the rules of registration of grants (a small, but crucial part of the draconian national NGO legislation adopted on 12 February 2004) and tasking the relevant authorities to prepare new rules that will be effective by November 1.
The decree caught the civil society by surprise and in fact, no-one could explain what it supposed to mean in our troubled times. Only Elesger Mammadli of IREX made somehow an intelligible guess that these rules may relate to an introduction of an electronic system, but beyond that, the decree is still shrouded in secrecy for many leading civil society activists.
My guess is, the issue at stake is not only the new rules of grant registration, but overall rules of the game that are planned for future NGO activities in Azerbaijan. And not only for NGO activities.
NGO sector and civil society were always under pressure in Azerbaijan, but these days, the amount of pressure is unprecedented. NGOs are facing triple pressure in the forms of political, administrative and judicial persecution.
Some leading activists are arrested and tried in courts, others face various inspections from ministries of justice, taxes and finances (proceeded possibly by further arrests and trials). Bank accounts of at least 12 NGOs are frozen and they are under a high-profile criminal investigation.
Two leading (even backbone) organizations in the country – the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS), as well as the Media Rights Institute (MRI) are knocked out.
IRFS is practically closed down by authorities, and its head Emin Huseynov has vanished. His disappearance was so peculiar that one of the so-called “opposition” newspapers “Yeni Musavat” published a ridiculous article speculating that he was smuggled out of the country by CIA in a fashion of "Argo" movie.
MRI will close down by its own decision – its head Rashid Hajili cited financial difficulties, loss of donors and negative campaign.
And needless to remind, Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center (EMDS) was a victim as well and two of its leaders are already in jail.
Not only critical NGOs, but also loyal and pro-government ones face enormous difficulties. Frightened banks are refusing to cooperate with civil society actors and as a result, all NGO sector has come into a standstill. As far as I know, many NGOs can’t pay any salaries and other payments since June (and now, it is the middle of August!).
The current crackdown does not only concern the local NGOs. Local offices of international and foreign NGOs are also under pressure.
After last year’s successful campaign against NDI and effectively routing it out of the country (while one of the most ablest US ambassadors to Baku stood by and watched its demise in utter powerlessness), the emboldened government moved on against other foreign, mostly US organizations.
Peace Corps is in trouble, IREX’s banks accounts are frozen, there is an orchestrated campaign against a new would-be USAID media grant, and sudden tax and financial inspections have been conducted in many foreign organizations.
Perhaps, the most pitiful situation is that of Oxfam. Though Oxfam keeps it in strict confidentiality, occasional media reports reveal that they are under a very harsh investigation and the case may go to court, leading to criminal prosecution. However, the latest rumor in town is that Oxfam has decided to pull out of the country for good.
No foreign donors, no foreign money
One of the trends that can be seen is that foreign donors, foreign organizations and foreign money are no longer welcome.
Call it post-Ukraine syndrome, but the government is very keen at looking for some fictitious connections between foreign funding and anti-government protests (e.g. NDI case earlier). And Victoria Nuland’s famous “Fuck the EU” and other misinterpreted comments didn’t help here either.
Many NGOs that face persecution these days are grantees of NED and many frozen bank accounts are related to NED grants. (And it didn’t help that NED removed the names of Azerbaijani NGOs from its website.)
Current pressure on IREX may also be explained by the guess that the government don’t want it to receive the new USAID grant on media. If IREX don’t get it, their media division will be closed in the fall. With no media division of IREX, with two of its partners (IRFS and MRI) knocked out, there will be less problem, and of course, less freedom of speech.
And the government is doing a lot to change the overall funding dynamics of local NGOs. If in 2012, NGOs (and state institutions) received grants worth of 40 million AZN (51 million dollars) and 3/4 of it came from foreign donors, then in 2013, they received 67 million AZN (85 million dollars) and 65% of it came within Azerbaijan.
Anecdotal evidence tells that one Azerbaijani official told some NGO guys if they want to work, they should come to the government. “Why do you go to foreigners for money? We have money, just ask us.”
There always was a kind of strange blind belief in the civil society sector. They can arrest some small political party activist, but an NGO activist – never. OK, they can arrest some small youth activist, but a big NGO boss – never. They can arrest some small NGO boss, but Leyla Yunus – never.
Recent arrests of Leyla Yunus (Dame of the French Legion of Honor) and her husband Arif, and after them, the leading Azeri human rights advocate (“the conscience of Azerbaijan”) Intigam Aliyev showed that there will be no untouchables.
Everyone in the field will be punished if they are not willing to abide with new rules of the game. Do we see here some form of bay'ah resurrected? I don’t know.
Azerbaijan’s prestigious chairmanship in the Council of Europe, membership in the UN Security Council, number of foreign conferences you attend as a civil society representative or whether you met with François Hollande or any other visiting high ranking foreign officials – nothing will help.
It seems this is the new message to the civil society that watched political persecution and arrests from their relatively comfortable vantage points for many years and compiled lists of political prisoners. Now, they will also be in those political prisoners’ lists, if there will be any lists at all.
No dissent regarding political prisoner issues.
Speaking of political prisoners’ lists, the recent high-profile arrests also seem to be related to them. Recently arrested Leyla Yunus, Intigam Aliyev, as well as Rasul Jafarov – all of them were members and leading figures of a working group of human rights defenders and lawyers that was preparing a reconciled list of political prisoners.
It seems that a motivation behind these arrests was to prevent the reconciled list to be prepared and published (this is also noted in a piece of analysis by Turan news agency), so that when a great friend of Azeri government, a fervent caviar gourmand and the CoE official in charge of Azeri political prisoners, Pedro Agramunt visits Azerbaijan, there will be no-one left to discuss alternative opinions on the issue.
The government is trying to neutralize (or send to the archive) the issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan. And they are partly succeeding.
Although the reconciled list was prematurely released by Khadija Ismayil after the motivation behind the arrests became explicit, it caused some divide among the civil society with bitter accusations of treachery and betrayal (as once thundered Lord Reith, “Betrayal and surrender!”). MRI refused to sign it and it led to a lot of negative campaign against MRI. (There was also another serious scandal regarding the Azebaijani National Platform of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum.)
The final thing is, despite government efforts, there is now a reconciled list of political prisoners, born out of hard labor. The question is whether Agramunt will be impressed by it.
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Just some rant that should be posted in Facebook, not here
Civil society is essential for stability and development of every country, especially for Azerbaijan situated in such a volatile region.
If you don’t have NGOs that cultivate rule of law, institutions and respect for those institution, you will end up with such idealist guys that leave for Syria for the sacred war and get killed and those not killed will one day return home to establish their heaven on their paternal lands (Popper was right when he uttered that the attempt to make heaven on earth invariably produced hell – but these guys don’t read Popper).
Strong civil society is in the utmost interest of Azerbaijan; no matter how paranoid the Azeri government have become after Ukraine, I just hope one day they will realize their fallacy (and I hope it won’t be too late). This is the sad reality of Azerbaijani government.
But strong Azeri civil society is not only in the interest of Azerbaijan, but also in the interest of US and Europe, who seek stable and prosperous partners in the region.
With Europe, it is all clear. It is just a big chunk of a joke. Besides, the Azeri government have systematically humiliated every respectable European institution, except for Dunja Mijatovic and Nils Muižnieks. And let us remember again those blissful words of Nuland’s – "Fuck the EU". Yes, it is firmly in the annals of history. They are “Sapere aude”, “Veni, vidi, vici”, “Cogito ergo sum”, “Fuck the EU” and of course, “Amicus Plato, sed magis amica veritas”.
But coming to the US, unfortunately, two previous ambassadors – Bryza and Morningstar downplayed the situation and gave little importance to the civil society. They thought if you are in better terms with some people in the government, if you have friends up there, it is enough; and it is better to deal in couloirs. Their personal charisma and connections and influence will keep US and Azerbaijan eternal friends.
The Azeri government may look like a miniature court of Louis XIV, but the world is different. As a result, Azerbaijan is drifting away from US with a pretty nice speed. Horrible things happened that put in limbo the friendship between two countries. Bryza and Morningstar wanted to see the glass half-full, but it didn’t change the fact that the glass was half-empty.
Bryza left ignorant. Morningstar caught himself too late (спохватиться – ah, this untranslatable Russian verb!), but he couldn’t do anything. He may have done great things as an ambassador to Baku, but I will always remember him as a person who came on an Azeri TV and repented and denied his own interview. Well, forced public repentances on TV are a good tradition of Azeri TVs inherited from its glorious Soviet past.
*Updated on 21 August 2014