Counter to civil-rights activists’ hopes, it was petroleum rather than press freedom that took the top billing during European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini’s visit to Azerbaijan. In Baku, Mogherini commended Azerbaijan as a reliable source of energy and strategic partnership for Europe. The civil liberties watchdogs argued that, with its displays of intolerance for homegrown critical opinion, Azerbaijan is not worthy of an EU partnership.
But for the EU policymakers, worthy partners in the region are mainly defined by cubic meters; not necessarily democracy rankings. Mogherini said in Baku on February 29 that there is an internal consensus within the bloc that its collective foreign policy should give priority to “partners and initiatives that are crucial for better diversification of the EU energy resources.” A key role is reserved for Azerbaijan is this regard, as it is the starting point of a forthcoming East-West natural-gas pipeline system.
Mogherini attended a big gathering on the Southern Gas Corridor, a 3,500-kilometer road to energy security for Europe. EU, US and British energy officials were all in town to partake in the discussion on what is touted as a fix for the continent’s politically prohibitive dependence on Russian natural gas. On hand also were officials from Azerbaijan’s neighbors Turkey and Georgia, both anticipating eventual shares of tens of billions of cubic meters of gas from the pipeline chain.
“The Southern Gas Corridor plays a key role in the EU’s strategy to diversify our energy supply sources and transportation routes,” Mogherini said after meetings with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov.
As a further sweetener, she announced plans for a new partnership agreement between EU and Azerbaijan, and proposed the country’s membership in the World Trade Organization as a way to help Baku overcome its current economic troubles.
Just as Mogherini was headed to Azerbaijan, though, press and civil society freedom advocacy groups had asked her to take Baku to task for imprisonment and harassment of journalists, activists and other critics of the Aliyev government. “Mogherini has a perfect opportunity to show the Azerbaijani leadership what kinds of partners are worthy of EU collaboration and cooperation,” wrote Philippe Dam, the director for Europe and Asia at the New-York-City-based Human Rights Watch. “For the sake of human rights protection in Azerbaijan and the EU’s own integrity, I hope she uses it.”
The organization said that the EU must request the release from house arrest of human-rights defender Leyla Yunus and her husband, analyst Arif Yunus, both released from prison because of deteriorating health. Human Rights Watch also called for repealing “legislation that restricts the legitimate work of independent organizations, human rights groups, and journalists.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists reminded Mogherini of Azerbaijan’s “abysmal record of press freedom,” with “at least eight journalists” incarcerated. The Committee highlighted Azerbaijani authorities’ tendency to imprison critical journalists on spurious charges or effectively drive them out of the country.
Mogherini claimed she raised the question with Azerbaijani officials, but did not elaborate. “I invited the authorities to establish a new relationship of trust between the government and the civil society at large, and in this context I also referred to a number of individuals presently in jail,” she said.
Such gentle nudges, though, may not fill the Aliyev administration with an urge to open the prison doors; especially knowing that Brussels’ policy toward the region appears led by energy and geo-strategic cooperation.