For the last month, Azerbaijani internet users have been unable to make international calls on Skype and WhatsApp. The blockage has not been officially acknowledged, only noticed by Azerbaijani users of the popular services. As is often the case with Baku, it’s an open question whether the decision was motivated by paranoia, greed, or some combination of the two.
First, the case for paranoia. There are strong indications that those in the Azerbaijani leadership who believe an international “anti-Azerbaijani underground” exists are increasingly influencing decision-making, and contributing to the government’s tendency to take bold steps against perceived enemies that, in times past, would have been weighed against worries of upsetting allies in the United States and European Union.
A year ago, Azerbaijan organizing the kidnapping of a vocal exile journalist and activist, blocking pesky independent websites, or attempting to extradite Leyla and Arif Yunus, prominent Azerbaijani intellectuals and former political prisoners return from political asylum in the Netherlands, would have seemed relatively far-fetched. And yet Baku managed all of this in a few short weeks.
Baku appears to have been given significantly more room to maneuver by international partners recently. This was most vividly evidenced by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development deciding to disregard Azerbaijan's dramatic exit from the Extractive Industries Transparency Inititiative and award Baku a huge pipeline construction loan. So Azerbaijan's government may have sensed that the timing was right to crack down.
As for the question of “why now?”, a leading rumor in Azerbaijani activist circles is the block on Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) – the technical name for Skype and WhatsApp-style services – is that the state was unnerved that a prominent political exile, despite not making any effort to conceal his activities, was able to both open an office in Georgia and communicate repeatedly with activists in Baku without their knowledge. According to this version, Azerbaijan's security services used WhatsApp’s encryption as an excuse for their failure to keep tabs on someone who was not trying very hard to hide, Baku’s leadership bought it, and a snap decision was made to block international VoIP.
Of course, the rumor is essentially unconfirmable, and the move also could have been motivated by a desire to prevent future fiascos like the 2015 protests in the western Azerbaijani city of Mingachevir, when video leaked to Meydan TV via WhatsApp belied the official account of a man’s death in police custody and prompted citizens to take to the streets.
Finally, the case for greed: Azerbaijan would not be the first country in the world to block VoIP operators to protect national telecom operators’ bottom lines, and both pro- and anti-government commentators have speculated that the block may have more to do with money than security. Telecommunications is one of a handful of sectors of the Azerbaijan’s petrochemical-dependent economy growing at a healthy rate – the World Bank expects it to become “a major contributor to non-oil GDP” by 2020 – and according to reporting from the OCCRP, the first family is heavily invested in the sector behind the scenes.
Whatever the reason, the main losers are ordinary Azerbaijanis who formerly used VoIP to talk to friends and relatives abroad, but who now will have to limit themselves to text messages or pay international calling rates. Dissidents, sophisticated internet users, and those with enough English to read how to circumvent the block on StackExchange will find a way around it. Domestic telecommunications operators will benefit in the short term, but the sector will suffer as a whole, as talented young Azerbaijanis that make up its future workforce may opt to move abroad rather than work in an increasingly oppressive state.