As Azerbaijan welcomes Eurovision to its Caspian shores this weekend, viewers and visitors should not be taken in by the government’s latest glitzy display. More importantly, Azerbaijan, a hydrocarbon-rich state, European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) partner, current member of the UN Security Council, and aspirant host of the 2020 Olympics, needs the EU more than officials in Baku – and Brussels – realise.
Insistence on energy dependence – at the cost of European values – has straitjacketed EU foreign policy in the Caspian. The EU has subordinated its broader ENP agenda to the goals of energy security and diversification. Five years on from Azerbaijan’s inclusion in the ENP, despite advances in energy co-operation, significant backsliding has occurred around the jointly agreed ENP values agenda, which includes democracy and respect for human rights.
International indexes characterise Azerbaijan as highly corrupt, authoritarian, and generally ‘not free’. While the EU spells out human-rights obligations on paper through its ENP, a parallel agenda is revealed by trips to Baku by José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission’s president, and by Günther Oettinger, the European energy commissioner, and a separate memorandum of understanding on energy policy. Amid quiet diplomacy and presidential handholding, the Caspian state’s crackdown on independent journalists, human-rights activists, and opposition forces have not been met with any EU censure – in stark contrast to the EU’s approach to energy-poor Belarus.
Much of the inconsistency between the EU’s ‘values’ rhetoric and its actions is driven by official insistence that the EU has ‘no leverage’ to push for change. This is both an excuse and a strategic blunder. With 500 million people in its borders, the EU has considerable clout as an energy consumer. Azerbaijan remains a largely undiversified economy, depending on the EU market for its oil (now passing its peak) and for its gas. In 2010, the EU accounted for over 50% of exports from Azerbaijan. Add to this Azerbaijan’s geopolitical woes – a still unresolved dispute with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, increasingly poor relations with Iran, and a perceived imbalance (in Armenia’s favour) of Russia’s relations in the region – and it becomes clear why Brussels and other European capitals have been the targets of aggressive PR and lobbying by the Azeri government.
The Arab Spring brought into sharp relief how the pursuit of energy and commercial deals at the expense of human rights can cause enormous reputational and political damage to the EU. Although the government of Azerbaijan must take primary responsibility for its ‘nul points’ in the field of human rights and democracy, the EU is not without blame.
Azerbaijan has had little incentive to create a more open society in the face of an EU foreign energy policy premised on engagement without red lines or negative policy consequences. By contrast, it is the EU that is set to lose out – as a norms-based, soft-power actor – if it fails to live up to, and demand, governance and transparency in dealings between Europe, its companies, and the Azeri government.
Doing business now and dealing with human rights and governance standards later has an impact on more than EU values. It also makes poor financial sense. Companies opting to leave rentier states – as Azerbaijan’s is – due to corruption attest to this.
Principled negotiations by the EU rather than misguided pragmatism could help reverse this trend of casual authoritarianism in Azerbaijan.
The ENP review – with its emphasis on partnering societies and the ‘more for more’ approach – sets a much better tone. By awarding greater and broader EU support to committed reformers in the EU’s southern and eastern neighbourhood it addresses those groups from Tunisia to Azerbaijan that are looking to the EU to set standards. Newly empowered EU delegations and embassies are best placed to deliver this, through intensifying their networks and outreach. Crucial oil and mining transparency legislation due to be adopted in Brussels this summer will also offer a chance for Azerbaijan’s citizens to hold their government to account for the use of oil revenues.
As criticism of Azerbaijan increases ahead of Eurovision, it is clear that the government there is not impervious to censure. The EU retains the power to confer, and withdraw, what Azerbaijan craves most – international legitimacy. Now let this legitimacy be earned, not bought.
Jacqueline Hale is a senior policy analyst on EU external relations for the Open Society Institute in Brussels.