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The summer of 1996 saw a series of show trials in Azerbaijan against hundreds of "enemies of the people." Indeed, opposition political activity by that time had been severely restricted, and there were frequent reports about mounting incidents of torture, brutality, and corruption by law-enforcement officials.
Despite Azerbaijan's poor rights record, the government's application was accepted, and the long path toward entry into "proper society" began. This week, the organization's parliamentary assembly will debate Azerbaijan's accession.
Despite statements by the opposition that the government does not even want membership in the Council of Europe, a great deal has already been done to meet the organization's obligations and commitments. The government has begun successful prison reform and punished several leading law-enforcement officials for using illegal investigative methods. The number of political trials has decreased and political prisoners have been pardoned. The death penalty and political censorship have been formally abolished, new laws have been adopted on elections, the media, law-enforcement, and the ban on opposition rallies and demonstrations lifted. A constitutional court was formed and has begun functioning. And at the end of 1999, a number of public, political and religious organizations was registered.
However, all of these reforms have been initiated "from above," without the "interference" of civil society, specifically non-governmental organizations. Moreover, it seems that after every election, rights abuses begin again: rallies are forcibly dispersed, political opposition figures are tried, and the non-state media are harassed. Consequently, the persistent rumors that Azerbaijan is just about to be admitted to the Council of Europe have not proved true over the years.
The Rapporteurs on Azerbaijan from the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) have noted many flaws. Chief among them are undemocratic elections, unresolved armed conflict, the dependence of the judiciary on the executive branch of government, corruption, the incompatibility of criminal procedures with European standards, the presence of political prisoners, impunity for law-enforcement officials who violate human rights, and state pressure on the media. (Sadly, the Rapporteurs do not even mention the need to allow the non-governmental to develop.) However, for political reasons, they recommend admitting Azerbaijan into the Council of Europe.
It is typical of the process that the Rapporteur from the Political Committee has endorsed Azerbaijan's accession, while the Rapporteur from the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights has offered a more negative opinion. Despite the discrepancy, Azerbaijani authorities have held firm in their confidence in a favorable political reception. It appears that the Azerbaijani bureaucracy was able to negotiate successfully with European colleagues, taking advantage of the latter's allergy to Russia, Iran, and communists, and their attraction to Azerbaijan's natural resources and desire for political stability.
The cooperation between the local and European bureaucracies is particularly noticeable in the distancing of the "third sector" from the legislative reform process. The Azerbaijani government can rest easy even if the parliament adopts the most democratic legislation imaginable; decrees and sublegal acts that violate both these laws and the Constitution are never scrutinized by Council of Europe experts. Moreover, the Constitutional Court is constructed in such as way that it is completely inaccessible to the appeals of average citizens and non-governmental organizations.
Despite routinely orchestrated elections, western observers equally routinely conclude in their reports that the elections constituted "steps toward democracy," basing their comments on the principle that some elections are better than no elections. This western condescension has also resulted in voters casting ballots in numbers even less than under communism or during the state of emergency.
The picture at this week's PACE discussion would not be complete without examining the opinions of the political opposition and human rights defenders. As a rule, they are not counting on uncovering new standards for human rights protection and political behavior but an outlet for complaints against their own bureaucracy. They are inclined even to muffle their criticism of current abusive practices in order not to "scare off" the Council of Europe. This attitude is further fueled by even the hypothetical possibility that Armenia, with which Azerbaijan has been at war, will be admitted before Azerbaijan.
As a result, the idea of Azerbaijan's accession to the Council of Europe has received the virtually universal support: from democrats, bureaucrats, and potential petitioners to the European Court of Human Rights. Each of them already knows what they will get out of membership in the Council of Europe.
But what will the Council of Europe get out of it?
Its chief concern should be the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, which will introduce the precedent of a war between two Council of Europe members. It appears that the Council of Europe is not planning any of its own initiatives, since the draft OSCE Minsk Group resolution is named "the optimal" forum for further negotiations. Moreover, judging by the experience of Russia and Georgia, membership in the Council of Europe does little to settle long-simmering conflicts.
On another front, the European Court of Human Rights will soon face many thousands of legal petitions from Azerbaijani citizens. The recommended release of political prisoners has already led to negotiations over the number of political prisoners who are even eligible for release. And it is not out of the question that the parliamentary elections scheduled for this year will, once again, be conducted undemocratically.
The Council of Europe must control the implementation of laws if it is to foil the machinations of Azerbaijani bureaucrats. Otherwise, in its rush to induct Azerbaijan into its ranks, the Council of Europe will not be adopting the obedient "pupil" it hopes. Rather, it will be adopting a wily bureaucratic monster, embroiled in internal and external conflicts. The Council of Europe's anticipated "democracy-building" relations with Azerbaijan will soon be replaced by a long-term headache.
Eldar Zeynalov is Director of the non-governmental
Human Rights Center of Azerbaijan, which he founded in 1993.
An engineer by training, he worked as a journalist for the
"Khabar-Service" Information Agency from 1992 to 1993 and
for Moscows Novaya Ezhednevnaya Gazeta from 1993-94.
In 1996-97 he served as secretary of the Coordinating Council
of Human Rights Organizations of Azerbaijan.