By Aytan Gahramanova, PhD student in Dublin City University
After a short experience with democracy following the restoration of independence in 1991, Azerbaijan’s civil society witnessed renewed challenges to their activism. Yet, civil society organisations continued to carry their work of human rights promotion, elections’ monitoring, advocacy, education and community building, giving way to the existence of a small and vulnerable but yet energetic civil society. The space for civil society activism in Azerbaijan shrunk further in 2013, ahead of the October Presidential elections, when the Office of the Presidential Administration progressed to silence both NGOs and individuals critical to the government by introducing increasing restrictive measures and accusing them to engage in activities outside of their mission. As the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights was reported saying, by 2016 “Azerbaijan civil society [was] facing the worst situation in 25 years, it [was] paralyzed as a result of intense pressure”. Since 2016, the situation changed once again, and civil society in Azerbaijan has returned to enjoy limited freedom.
What led to the government’s unprecedented crackdown against civil society in Azerbaijan in 2014 and to its subsequent relative softening towards the same in 2016? I argue that the reason behind the crackdonw was geopolitical, and that the followed softening of repression can be explained by Azerbaijan commitments towards various loan giving insitution such as IMF, World Bank and etc.
Let us look at the chronology. Following the Ukrainian Euromaidan riot in November 2013, Azerbaijan fell under increasing pressure to give up on formal plans to join the Euro-Atlantic integration process. This created internal opposition to the state from the part of supporters of the Euro-Atlantic integration plan, which the government needed silencing. In December 2013, in fact, the government imposed restrictions to the inflow of foreign funding destined to national CSOs. While CSOs in Azerbaijan received approximately $30 million funding in 2013, they received no financial support from abroad in 2014. Moreover, the same year saw the prosecution of about 20 local NGOs and their staff, while several donor organizations left the country.
Following the Russian aggression on Ukraine and the dramatic fall of oil prices, the domestic situation of Azerbaijan aggravated. Experts estimated that the crisis was going to be similar to that that the country faced in August 2008, when Russia attacked Georgia, leading to a one-year long drop in the price of oil and to a new set of relationships being established between the US and Russia, known as Perezagruzka. It was in 2008 that the government of Azerbaijan attempted to make the first failed attempt to introduce restrictive NGOs legislation.
Targeting the liberal part of Azerbaijani civil society in 2014 was a direct result of the pragmatic calculation of the Azerbaijani government in the context of the Russian aggression and the subsequent decision of the West to disengage from the post-Soviet region. With the West downplaying its role in the region, the government of Azerbaijan no longer needed to display its commitment to political pluralism by tolerating liberal civil society voices, perceived as posing a threat to the power of the current regime. The concern of the government was that in the context of the fall of oil prices and growing social tensions, a vibrant civil society would be capable of inspiring social riots similar to those that took place in Ukrainian Maidan.
Depending on the oil price fluctuation and the economic situation, the country’s governing elite will continue facing a dilemma. On the one hand, it is interested in the West financially (sale of oil, loans, etc.); on the other hand, Azerbaijani regime is politically dependent on Russia to maintain its legitimacy (due to the similarity in the nature of economic and political systems between the two countries). Moreover, the government will have to deal with this dilemma in the context of further deterioiration of West-Russia relations, demonization of the civil society by the Azerbaijani government, shinking financial resources, increasin domestic social expectations, needs to meet international financial commitments as well as humans’ rights related obligations.
In october 2016, the expected allocation of international loans to Azerbaijan was under threat after a large group of CSOs signed a petition to EİTİ (a voluntary, Oslo-based Extractive Industry Initiative which has taken significant role in pushing for political reform in Azerbajan). Eventually, EITI gave Azerbaijani government 4 months to fix civil society regulations or be suspended from EITI membership with the risk of losing EBRD, the WB loan for Southern Gas Corridor pipeline construction since crackdown on civil society prevents vital public scrutiny of the largest infrastructure project. Azerbaijani government softened a bit its repression which resulted in releasing several political prisoners, suspension of the prosecution of some CSOs, and inclusion of a group of civil society organisations into the process of Country Economic Road Map development.
In December 20, 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 was not good news for Azerbaijani civil society which was once more assured that the current geopolitical context overshadows human rights issues importance in decision-making process of the West with regard to Azerbaijan.
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.