The president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, called for snap presidential elections on February 5. The vote will now be held on April 11, instead October 17 as was previously scheduled. In response, the opposition parties have decided to boycott the elections to protest the ruling government’s tough repression of critical voices.
Ambassador Arif Mammadov is one of the better-known opponents of Aliyev’s regime. He was one of the country’s prominent diplomats undertaking, among others, the position of Ambassador to Belgium and Head of Mission to EU (2000-2006) and that of the Ambassador of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in Brussels (2013-2015).
However, in 2015 he decided to sacrifice his diplomatic career to raise public awareness about the realities of the Aliyev regime. He publicly criticised the regime following an apartment building fire in Baku which resulted in 15 deaths. The government’s reaction was immediate and a campaign of defamation was organised against him.
Today, Ambassador Mammadov is the co-chairman of the political party of the opposition Democracy for Azerbaijan (AND).
In an exclusive interview with European Interest, he explains the problems the Baku regime is facing, as well as the political perspectives of his country related to its geopolitical position.
European Interest: Your Excellency, last February Ilham Aliyev announced snap presidential elections for April instead of October 2018. Why do you think he did this?
Arif Mammadov: There are several reasons behind this decision. Firstly, the collapse of the country’s economy. Aliyev understands very well that this is just the beginning of the regime’s fall and that by October 2018 the situation will be much worse than it is now.
To give you just an example, over the last two years the national currency has lost twice in its value, more than half of the banks have been shut down, and more or less important foreign companies have withdrawn their activities from the country.
Besides, a tacit internal wrangling is currently underway between the different clans in the country. It erupted from late February 2017 following Ilham Aliyev’s appointment of his wife to the post of the First Vice-president of Azerbaijan. Her family’s apparent attempts to seize control over the country’s politics served to exacerbate those internal confrontations. The Old Guard, left to Ilham Aliyev as a heritage from his father, has accepted to cede to the first lady’s family and clan the control over the lucrative banking sector, telecommunications, transport, etc., but they are adamant to retain control over politics.
Obviously, the forthcoming presidential elections in Russia scheduled for March 2018, as well as intensive dynamics unfolding around Russia in that respect is yet another opportunity the Azeri authorities wish to benefit from. The ruling elite in Azerbaijan understand too well that the world’s attention will be invariably focused on Russia prior to, during, and at the post-election period. So the Aliyev regime’s bottom-line is to be lost in the shadow cast by the Russian elections while Azerbaijan’s ruler seizes power in the country for the fourth time in a row.
Aliyev has tried to convey an image of himself as a charismatic and enlightened leader. He has also tried to convince the international community that Azerbaijan respects the rule of law and there is no question of violation of human rights. According to your accusations in 2015, there are many scandals and lots of corruption behind Aliyev’s efforts. Can you please explain?
In 2003, when Aliyev became president of Azerbaijan many, in their naivety, believed that he was eager to reform the political system he had inherited from his father, Haydar Aliyev, a former KGB general. For the first few years, he seemed to partly succeed in clouding the eyes in presenting himself as a moderate leader. However, none of the expected reforms had ever been realised, nor had they been even seriously contemplated. On the contrary, as time passed all remnants of democracy, civil society, rule of law, freedom of press and gathering have been purposefully annihilated.
A proper judicial system has been totally destroyed. Corruption has rocketed to unimaginable levels and continues to do so. In a word, with the big influx of petrodollars after the completion of the Baku Tbilisi Ceyhan pipeline, the regime became more arrogant, dictatorial and aggressive.
All dictators claim that there is no violation of human rights in their country. Even Gaddafi, Assad, Ben Ali claimed that their countries were fully democratic and there was no violation of human rights. But if you look into the Freedom House 2017 rating of states by their level of political and civil rights you will find out that out of 210 countries in the list Azerbaijan deservedly occupies 188th place after Chad, Congo and Burundi.
In the Freedom House 2017 rating of the countries on the freedom of mass media and information, Azerbaijan is on 189th place out of 196 countries as no free country coming after Ethiopia, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Gambia and Tajikistan. One can only be ashamed that Azerbaijan, which is a member of the Council of Europe, is so backward and in the grouping of non-democratic states.
The same applies to corruption. In 2017, Transparency International rated Azerbaijan as one of the most corrupt country in the world, occupying 122nd place after Nigeria, Togo and Pakistan. When the Panama Papers were published in 2015, the world found out that many people including politicians, artists and athletes had offshore accounts. However, when it comes to Azerbaijan we see that the family of President Aliyev have not just one or two, but a multitude of accounts. It was revealed that the Aliyevs possess an Offshore Empire with a ramified network of various accounts linked to each other and all finally converging to the accounts on the names of Ilham Aliyev’s closest family members.
In an interview you gave to the Turan News Agency in July 2017, you said there is no future for the political system of Baku. Do you think its end is near? Why? Do you think it will be peaceful or violent?
Yes, I do believe that the regime has reached its final stage. The country is on the brink of social explosion. The regime cannot even pay for pensions or minimal salaries which are, by the way, the lowest in the region. The minimum salary in the oil rich Azerbaijan is around $70, two times lower than in resource-poor Armenia. By announcing the elections six months ahead of the initially scheduled date the regime sent a message to the Azerbaijani society that for the fourth time in a row they intend to steal the fundamental Constitutional right of people to free elections.
All opposition parties made a decision to boycott these sham elections. The regime understands that the situation is indeed very explosive in the country and they want to control it with a new wave of repression. Can you imagine that in the 21st century there is shortage of gas or water supplies not only in the villages and towns, but even in the capital Baku. And this regime speaks in Europe about ensuring the energy security of the EU.
I want to believe that the process will be peaceful and opposition will do their best to make this process as smooth as possible. But with the level of tension in society and the hatred towards the regime, one has to be ready for all possible scenarios.
Since Azerbaijan’s public income is based on oil and gas exploitation, a 90%, if I am not mistaken, rise in the price of the former could help Aliyev’s regime overpass the actual crisis. Do you agree?
Yes, I can agree that the price of gas and oil has increased as compared to 2016 and 2017, but I don’t think that it will help the regime to stay in power because it’s not about money coming from oil and gas. The entire political and economic system is going to rack and ruin. On the other hand, even with an avalanche of petrodollars there is not much you can do when the oil proceeds are embezzled or spent on White Elephants.
What is the status of the Azeri political parties of the opposition? Do they have a social base or are they based on political personalities? In the scenario of political change in Baku, will it be a change of government or regime?
Opposition activists are working under permanent pressure from the regime with many of them being arrested on a regular basis on bogus charges. For instance, all deputies of the Chairman of the Popular Front, Mr Ali Karimli, are under arrest let alone the fact that there are over 160 political prisoners in the country. But all that notwithstanding, we can say that there is an active and well organised political opposition in Azerbaijan.
Additionally, in comparison with previous years, there is currently a very strong opposition movement outside the country. For the last 10 years, the regime has been forcing active and free-thinking people to flee Azerbaijan. Today, the political emigrant community outside the country is an important headache for Aliyev’s regime.
A political change in Baku this year could influence several topics and interests. How safe will the OBOR (the Silk Road) be since Aliyev’s regime tried to invest a lot on the role of Azerbaijan? How uncomfortable will Russia feel? Could change also impact political developments in Georgia and Armenia?
Firstly, the role of Azerbaijan in ensuring the energy security supplies to Europe and its importance as a transit country has been exaggerated. Without a tangible political and financial commitment of stakeholders to the trans-Caspian pipeline from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan, which is bogged in a whole plethora of political and economic sensitivities, any gas transit corridor through Azerbaijan will be lacking necessary volumes of commodity. It is for this reason that all brouhaha about TAP, TANAP and other projects is worth very little with only the gas quantities available in Azerbaijan.
It is also worth noting that the European Union’s energy policy has always been aimed at reducing the continent’s dependence upon one source of supply, e.g. Russia. The EU is keen to have a ramified network of delivery from multiple sources. In late 1990s and early 2000s, the EU seemed to be strongly in favour of bestowing upon Turkey a greater role of a hub for the energy supply of Europe. But things have changed dramatically. It does not appear that Europe today feels more comfortable with Erdogan’s Turkey than with Russia. If the gas monopoly in the past belonged to Gazprom, it seems unlikely that today Europe is eager to replace it by a new Turkish monopolist like Botash.
I don’t think changes in Azerbaijan will greatly impact the country’s attitude towards regional states. Most of the opposition leaders would only support the idea of better relations with Georgia, free circulation of goods, services and people between the two states. As for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, we believe that the peace process is hijacked by the regimes with the only aim of sticking to power as much as possible.
When it comes to Russia, we realise that despite the complicated history of the relations, Russia is a strong regional player and our biggest neighbour to the North with about 300km-long border. The Russian market is extremely important for our agricultural products. Since the two countries are linked historically and economically, the Azeri community in Russia is in excess of a million Azeris. This is one of the reasons why our relations with Russia should be very positive and in the same degree assertive. There are no insurmountable obstacles that Azerbaijan and Russia cannot overcome in a mutually advantageous ways.
In the same scenario, how do you think Turkey will react? Ankara is against Aliyev’s regime and Erdogan’s latest actions suggest he would like to extend control over the entire zone surrounding Turkey.
Our close ethnic and cultural affinity with Turkey renders our bilateral relations akin to brotherly and they are certainly as important as with other regional powers. In terms of Aliyev-Erdogan relations, I don’t think that there are particular tensions between them. We regret that the territory of Turkey is extremely unsafe for the Azerbaijani opposition. Anyone who dares to criticise the Aliyev regime is immediately handed over to the Azerbaijani authorities. There are well known cases when, at Aliyev’s request, Turkey shut down some of their own mass media sources in punishment for making innocent jokes about the Azeri president’s blunders. At every meeting, Aliyev and Erdogan hug tenderly and call each other close brothers, putting on public display their entente cordiale. What we would certainly expect from Turkey is the support to the people of Azerbaijan, rather than the ruling regime. Unfortunately we don’t see such a support at the moment.
What does AND fight for? Is it in contact with the rest of the opposition parties in Azerbaijan?
AND (Democracy for Azerbaijan movement) is a non-governmental organisation which brings together political dissidents living in different countries of Europe. Our ultimate goal is to build a society based on the principles of democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Azerbaijan. We have permanent contacts with all opposition parties in Azerbaijan, primarily with the National Council (Milli Shura), the Popular Front and Musavat party. The purpose of our work is to bring about changes to the country by eradicating corruption, preventing Azerbaijan’s transformation into a monarchy and building a meritocracy. We do not want for Azerbaijan to trigger a mnemonic of caviar diplomacy in Europe.