Wednesday, August 20, 2014

What is going on in Azerbaijan and its NGO sector now?

Some ruins in Gobustan National Park
Apparently, the Azerbaijani government is trying to impose new règles du jeu – rules of the game – and not only in the NGO sector – and facing little resistance.

On 24 July, President Aliyev issued an enigmatic decree abolishing the grant registration rules (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, 2014.

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 might relate to a possible introduction of an electronic system, but beyond that, the decree is still shrouded in secrecy for many leading civil society activists.

My guess is that 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.

Troubled times

Civil society and especially the NGOs 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 (possibly followed 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 closed down by authorities, and its head -- Emin Huseynov 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 an "Argo" movie style.

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 the civil society actors and as a result, all NGO activites have 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 Richard Morningstar 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 and there is an orchestrated campaign against a new would-be USAID media grant. 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 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 media grant. If IREX doesn’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.

These is anecdotal evidence 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.'

No untouchables

There was always a kind of strange and blind belief in the Azerbaijani civil society: They can arrest some political activists, but a civil society activist? Never. OK, they can arrest some small civil society activists, but a big NGO boss? Never. OK, they can arrest some small NGO bosses, 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 Holland 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 an unofficial working group of human rights defenders and lawyers that was preparing a reconciled list of political prisoners.

It seems that a main 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 Azerbaijani 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 and 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. For example, 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. However, whether Mr. Agramunt will be impressed by it or not -- that is the question.

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