By Aytan Gahramanova, PhD student in Dublin City University
After a short period of democracy following the restoration of independence in 1991, the environment for civil society in Azerbaijan has never been particularly enabling. After the power was accumulated in the hands of ex-Soviet nomenclature, the ruling elite maintained control by hijacking all administrative and financial resources of the country. Yet, civil society organisations have continued their work in human rights, election observation, advocacy, education, service provision, community building, public policy, representing a small, vulnerable but still energetic civil society.
Suddenly, on March 14, 2013 the Head of Presidential Administration of Azerbaijan accused local and foreign NGOs of engaging in activities outside of their declared mission, being the fifth column of Western countries seeking to destabilize the country. Increasingly restrictive measures have been applied not only to selected critical NGOs and individuals, but to the whole civil society as a space. The state switched its target from oppositional political parties to civil society right before the Presidential election in October 2013. As the UN special rapporteur on human rights said in September , “Azerbaijan civil society is facing the worst situation in 25 years, it is paralyzed as a result of intense pressure”.
What was beyond the move for the unprecedented crackdown against civil society in 2014 and for its subsequent relative softening in 2016? I argue that the reason behind the crackdown was geopolitical, while the recent softening of repression is the result of commitments before the international loan giving institutions in terms of human rights.
Let’s look at the chronology. In the context of the Ukrainian Euromaidan riot in November 2013, pressure on Azerbaijan to take a position in relation to giving up on a path towards formal Euro-Atlantic integration increased. It required silencing local pro-Euro-Atlantic integration, liberal voices in the first place.
So, in December 2013 legislative restrictions have been imposed to reduce the inflow of foreign funding to national NGOs in Azerbaijan. The purpose was accomplished: while receiving around $30 mln funding in 2013, in 2014 national NGOs did not get financial support from abroad; around 20 NGOs and their staff were prosecuted; several donor organizations left the country.
However, the situation for the government began to deteriorate due to the dramatic fall of oil price in June 2014 following Russian aggression in Ukraine. Domestic experts believe that the consequences of the June 2014 drop in oil prices were similar to that of the August 2008 crisis when the Russian aggression of Georgia was followed by a 1 year long drop of oil price, but ended up with the Perezagruzka between USA and Russia. At that time in 2008, the Azerbaijani government, for the first time, tried to introduce restrictive NGO legislation but failed to do so.
Thus, specifically targeting the liberal-minded part of civil society in 2014 could be the result of a pragmatic calculation in the context of Russia’s aggression and the West’s loss of interest in the post-Soviet region. The Azerbaijani government did not need to tolerate liberal part of civil society any longer with a view to show the West that they allow pluralism, especially given the government’s suspicion that the West had planned to destabilize Azerbaijan through intellectuals and civil society. This move happened in a broader political context shaped by the fall of oil prices and growing social tensions. The government was afraid that liberal intellectuals may inspire and lead social riots as it happened in Ukraine Maidan.
Today, as the economic situation of oil -dependent Azerbaijan deteriorates even further, the country’s elites face a dilemma. On the one hand, they are interested in the West financially ( in terms of oil sales, loans, etc.). On the other hand, the Azerbaijani regime is politically dependent on Russia to maintain its legitimacy,due to similarities in the nature of the respective economic and political systems.
In a context shaped by ongoing West-Russia confrontation, perceptions of civil society as a threat, and shrinking financial resources, the Azerbaijani government understands that it still needs to fulfill international financial commitments and domestic expectations which require funds, in the first place. The expected allocation of international loans to Azerbaijan is under threat after a large group of NGOs signed a petition to EİTİ -a voluntary, Oslo-based Extractive Industry Initiative which has taken significant role in pushing for political reform in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan softened its repression, and even released several political prisoners, suspended the prosecution of some NGOs, and included a group of civil society organisations into the process of Country Economic Road Map development.
In October 2016, EITI gave the Azerbaijani government 4 months to fix civil society regulations or be suspended from EITI membership with the risk of losing EBRD, the World Bank (WB) loan for Southern Gas Corridor pipeline construction since crackdown on civil society prevents vital public scrutiny of the largest infrastructure project.
Nevertheless, on 20 December 2016, the WB approved a $400 mln loan to Azerbaijan to develop TANAP, the central part of Southern Gas Corridor. Although European bank loans are legally tied to the European Charter for Fundamental Rights to ensure they are in line with EU promotion of human rights and the rule of law, this is not good news for Azerbaijani civil society.
The views and opinions expressed by the author(s) on this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of CASPIAN or the universities affiliated to the project.