The 11th-12th century church of Saint Paterne in the sleepy hamlet of Bellou-sur-Huisne in France’s western region of Normandy seems like a typical medieval-era edifice in this heavily forested, agricultural area. But there is something special about it: a government-linked foundation based in predominantly Shi’a Muslim Azerbaijan has paid for part of its restoration. The project is widely seen as part of a charm offensive launched by Azerbaijan in France that aims, in effect, to buy goodwill and counteract bad publicity arising from Baku’s poor rights record. France, as a major European Union power, is a natural target for such a campaign; it ranks as Azerbaijan’s fifth-largest investor, primarily in the energy sector. And with a large Armenian Diaspora population, the country has also been an important diplomatic booster of Baku’s longtime antagonist, Armenia. Azerbaijan’s arts & culture campaign dates back to 2007, when the Heydar Aliyev Fund, which is run by First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, granted an undisclosed sum to the Palace of Versailles for the restoration of “works of art.” Two years later, the Fund made a 40,000-euro ($53,776) gift for the restoration of three stained glass windows in the northeastern city of Strasbourg’s Cathédrale de Notre Dame, a gem of Gothic architecture. Subsequently, there has been a 1-million-euro (over $1.34 million) gift to the Louvre, and a lavish traveling cultural exhibition, among the initiatives that have been made public. The outlay is all about promoting an image of tolerance, in particular inter-faith tolerance when churches are concerned. “Everything is not perfect in Azerbaijan. But why do we never say also that this country can be an example for its religious tolerance?” asked Eliza Pieter, head of the Paris branch of The European Azerbaijan Society, a promotional group created in 2008 by Tale Heydarov, son of the powerful Azerbaijani Minister for Emergency Situations Kamaladdin Heydarov. Azerbaijan has some prominent supporters in France, including Senator Nathalie Goulet, who represents Bellou-sur-Huisne’s Département of Orne. She advocated for Azerbaijan’s controversial 2001 accession to the Council of Europe, and expresses the belief that membership in the group means that Baku has “submitted to monitoring mechanisms and [has] a permanent dialogue with Westerners.” Several sites and organizations in Goulet’s constituency in France have been on the receiving end of Heydar Aliyev Fund grants. Beyond the restoration of the church of Saint Paterne, the fund has been involved in the renovation of another church, located in Reveillon, a village with 363 inhabitants. The fund additionally has helped sponsor jazz and dance festivals in the small towns of L’Aigle and Argentan. According to Goulet, the fund’s overall contributions totaled at 150,000 euros ($201,900), The senator, who is elected by local officials in her region, says her advocacy on behalf of Azerbaijan is rooted in a matter of principle “against double standards” when it comes to countries viewed as authoritarian. “Why do we speak positively about Qatar, and not Azerbaijan?” she asked. Another one of Baku’s big fans is Rachida Dati, who is now mayor of Paris’ 7th arrondissement and a member of the European Parliament, as well as a former justice minister during Nicolas Sarkozy's time in power. Dati, like Goulet, touts Azerbaijan as a model of tolerance. “We often forget to support countries like Azerbaijan, where Islam is practiced in a peaceful way,” noted Dati in a December 2012 interview with Azerbaijan’s pro-government Day.az. “Beyond the well-known tolerance of the Azerbaijani people, the Azerbaijani model is the result of a real political will,” added Dati, whose parents were born in predominantly Islamic countries in North Africa. Three months before Dati’s interview, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and his wife opened in Dati’s constituency a 3,000-square-meter Azerbaijani Cultural Centre, with an enviable view on the Eiffel Tower. Back in Azerbaijan, the arts & culture campaign in France, as well as the tolerance meme, draws criticism from many political observers. “This is a waste of public money only spent to create a good image [for] the Aliyev regime,” scoffed Leyla Yunus, director of the Baku-based Institute for Peace and Democracy, in reference to the Heydar Aliyev Fund’s expenditures in France. Baku, in general, dismisses criticism of its rights record made by international organizations or outside monitors as wide of the mark or inappropriate. Nonetheless, the stream of criticism continues, targeting, in particular, Baku’s restrictions against and harassment of conservative Muslims, free media and political critics of the government. But those complaints often fall on deaf ears abroad. It is worth noting that seven of France’s 11 delegates to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe voted against a January 23 resolution urging Azerbaijan to “speedily resolve” cases of alleged political prisoners. Delegate Jean-Marie Bockel, a Strasbourg native and French senator, described himself as against “the emergence of a very negative opinion” of Azerbaijan. “The country’s economic potential contributes to democratic development,” Bockel reasoned. As one French diplomat familiar with developments in the former Soviet Union dryly noted; “Who knows if Bockel didn’t get his inspiration inside Strasbourg’s cathedral?”
Régis Genté is a freelance journalist covering the Caucasus and Central Asia.