For years, Georgia has been a safe harbor for dissidents seeking to escape persecution from authorities in neighboring Azerbaijan. But in recent months, a number of high-profile Azerbaijani opposition activists have been denied residency permits in Georgia, prompting accusations that Tbilisi is collaborating with Baku to make life more difficult for the Azerbaijani opposition.
On April 19, an opposition rapper and journalist, Jamal Ali, flew from his home in Berlin to Tbilisi, but was denied entry by Georgian border guards at the airport. “They said they entered my name into the system to check it, and it displayed a message that read ‘we cannot let you into the country,’” Ali said.
Ali believes the reason he was barred from entry was a critical report that he had prepared in January for Meydan TV, a Berlin-based Azerbaijani opposition outlet. According to the Meydan report, the state oil company SOCAR was providing free natural gas to Georgian churches. It sparked a protest rally against Meydan in Tbilisi, during which protesters held photos of Ali and signs, written in Azerbaijani, criticizing Meydan and other Azerbaijani dissidents in Tbilisi.
Being denied entry “was a surprise to me,” Ali told EurasiaNet.org. “Just two weeks earlier, the EU approved visa liberalization with Georgia and to me that meant something,” he said. “I was disappointed that the country that believes in European values can sell the same values for five barrels of oil.”
Ali’s troubles came after several other opposition figures had problems getting residence permits in Georgia in 2016. All of them were rejected on the basis of Article 18 of the state Law on Migration which allows the government to deny such permits on the basis that the applicant’s presence would be a threat to Georgia’s national security.
Two more journalists working for Meydan, Gunel Movlud and her husband Haji Hajiyev, were forced to leave Tbilisi after three years of living there when Hajiyev was denied a residency permit last year. Movlud, in a blog post, blamed the Georgian government for the move: “We suspected that the Georgian authorities had received a list of politically active people from Baku whom they demanded to expel from Georgia, or [return] to Azerbaijan.”
Another opposition journalist, Leyla Mustafayeva, who works for Meydan and the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, also was denied a residence permit.
One Azerbaijani opposition figure who did manage to get refugee status in Georgia in March, political activist Vidadi Isgandarov, said he still does not feel safe in Georgia for fear that the Azerbaijani government is tracking him. “My life is in danger even here in Georgia. Three times there were attempts made on my life, but police did not take them seriously,” he told EurasiaNet.org.
Another activist, Dashqin Agalarli of the opposition Musavat Party, gave EurasiaNet.org a copy of a document, dated October 2015, that contains a rejection of his asylum request from the Ministry of Internally Displaced Persons from the Occupied Territories, Accommodation, and Refugees of Georgia, the body that deals with asylum seekers. The letter says that while Agalarli meets the standards of an asylum seeker, and would be in danger if he returned to Azerbaijan, “there are serious reasons to believe that your residence in Georgia, due to serious circumstances, would run counter to the interests of the country.” The letter did not elaborate further.
Agalarli has been told he has to leave Georgia by June 10. He too believes that Baku played a role in the decision. “I was denied asylum because Azerbaijan pressured Georgia. Georgia preferred relations with Azerbaijan over the law,” he told EurasiaNet.org.
The Georgian government maintains that it is just acting according to the law. The government cannot publicly explain the reasons for an individual’s denial of refugee status, Irakli Kokaia, the Refugee Ministry’s head of department of Migration, Repatriation and Refugee Issues, told EurasiaNet.org.
“Georgia will give the status for those who meet the criteria of the 1951 Refugee Convention and Georgian law, and those whose don’t meet the criteria won’t get this status. Georgia is a democratic country, and human rights are observed at the highest level here,” Kokaia said. “We passed a serious exam in order to get the visa liberalization.”
But many observers are not so sure. “Because of the strategic partnership both countries have, I don’t exclude that they could have made some negotiations that could threaten the security of political asylum seekers in Georgia,” said Giorgi Gogia, the South Caucasus director for Human Rights Watch.
It is not clear what role the Azerbaijani government, if any, is playing in recent developments, but a May 3 article published on Haqqin.az, a government-connected Azerbaijani news website, portrayed Tbilisi as a nest of anti-Azerbaijani subversion. And it specifically mentioned the cases of Mustafayeva, Movlud and Hajiyev. On Ali’s being turned away at the airport, the article stated: “Azerbaijan, of course, appreciated that. But why didn’t they arrest him and hand him over to Azerbaijan?”
The article went on to cite Azerbaijan’s strategic importance to Georgia, and portrayed the presence of Azerbaijani dissidents in Tbilisi as a betrayal: “After all, Azerbaijan sacrifices a lot for Georgia’s sake. To say nothing of energy megaprojects, recall that Azerbaijan has unconditionally supported Georgia’s territorial integrity; condemned the referendum in South Ossetia; [and] is ready for deepening a political alliance capable of responding to contemporary challenges. And what do we get in return? A radical underground, a malicious agenda of inflaming and destabilizing the situation in our country, a stab in the back?!”
In a response to the article, the head of the press service of the Georgian Embassy in Azerbaijan, Kakha Abdaladze, told Haqqin.az that the Georgian government for its part is also looking into the issue. “The security services of our countries cooperate closely, and if there is any additional information, we will report this,” he said.
Azerbaijan and Georgian are strategically interdependent on one another, said Kornely Kakachia, director of the Georgian Institute of Politics. “Azerbaijan needs Georgia as a transit country towards the Black Sea, and Georgia needs Azerbaijan in energy projects. SOCAR is one of the biggest companies here, and this is why relations are good,” Kakachia said.
But there will be a limit to how much Georgia is willing to do for Azerbaijan, Kakachia said. “Georgia has signed an agreement with the European Union, and cannot ignore issues related to human rights,” he said. “From time to time they might cooperate [with Azerbaijan on cracking down on dissidents], but they can’t do it on a large scale.”