Claudia von Salzen
The Council of Europe and Azerbaijan:Farewell to “Caviar Diplomacy”?
In the Council of Europe, deputies want to push back the influence of authoritarian states. Azerbaijan had previously made headlines with “caviar diplomacy.”
By Claudia von Salzen
This is the story of a venerable European institution that has become more or less indifferent to its founding members. Therefore, those who seek to take over the Council of Europe by all means for their own goals have had an easy time. But the influence of authoritarian states on the organization should come to an end, according to the will of some politicians and human rights activists.
Even politically interested people often confuse the Council of Europe with the EU. But it is much larger than the EU, and its scope extends from Lisbon to Vladivostok. By joining, each country undertakes to implement the European Convention on Human Rights. If a state violates it, its citizens can appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. The flood of complaints in Strasbourg shows how important the Council of Europe is for people in Russia, Turkey and Ukraine.
Even more unknown is the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which has 318 deputies from the 47 member states. Last week’s summer session focused on answers to increasing migration towards Europe, better protection for whistleblowers and the state of democracy in Hungary. These debates are hardly noticed by the public in Germany. Political scientist André Härtel, until recently a political advisor at the Council of Europe, speaks of a “human rights fatigue” in Western democracies. Even among members of parliament, he says, work in the Parliamentary Assembly is not popular.
Germans perform poorly in Strasbourg participation
In fact, the attendance rate of deputies in the Parliamentary Assembly was only 55 percent in 2014. On average, even less than 36 percent of deputies from the German delegation went to Strasbourg. The Council of Europe Secretariat stresses that these figures refer only to signatures in the attendance register, not to actual participation in debates. That active participation is even much lower is shown by another figure: on average, around 35 percent of all deputies took part in votes, and of the Germans only just under 17 percent voted – which puts Germany in 40th place out of all 47 Council of Europe members. Last week, a maximum of ten of the 18 German deputies cast their votes, mostly even less.
Baku regime deliberately exploited Council of Europe weaknesses
Delegations explain the lack of participation by the fact that the Council of Europe often meets in parallel with national parliaments and that deputies are away in their constituencies during election campaigns. In contrast, delegates from Russia or Azerbaijan took the Council of Europe much more seriously than many of their Western European counterparts. Azerbaijan even managed to exploit the Council of Europe’s weaknesses for its own benefit two years ago. The regime in Baku engaged not only in lobbying, but in “caviar diplomacy”: MPs were invited on expensive trips and received valuable gifts. In Strasbourg, the Azerbaijanis regularly supplied their friends in the Parliamentary Assembly with caviar, the European Stability Initiative reported three years ago. Corruption plays a bigger role in the Council of Europe than is known, says a member of the Bundestag today.
From Azerbaijan’s point of view, the investment has paid off: on January 23, 2013, the Parliamentary Assembly voted on a report on political prisoners in Azerbaijan, authored by German MP Christoph Strässer (SPD), who is now the German government’s human rights commissioner. The regime in Baku had previously tried to prevent the report from being published and had not allowed Strässer to enter the country. In the end, members of parliament from Russia and Turkey united behind Azerbaijan, and support also came from other countries. Strässer’s report failed. “It cannot be that a dictatorship has so much influence in a club where only democracies are allowed to be members,” said Gerald Knaus, chairman of the European Stability Initiative.
When the successor states of the Soviet Union were admitted to the Council of Europe, the old members had hoped that this would contribute to their democratization. But it was not the Council of Europe that changed the authoritarian states – suddenly it was rather the other way around. “MPs from authoritarian states want to make sure that the store is turned around,” says Green Party member of the Bundestag Marieluise Beck.
MPs demand release of political prisoners in Azerbaijan
At least some deputies do not want to accept this any longer, they are starting to organize across parliamentary groups. Last week, a report on the “functioning of democratic institutions in Azerbaijan” was on the agenda in Strasbourg. No other vote of the summer session was attended by so many MEPs. The report, written by two rapporteurs considered to be pro-Azerbaijan, initially contained little clear criticism. However, parliamentarians added these with a series of amendments. The Azerbaijani delegation, on the other hand, failed in its attempts to weaken the text. In the end, the Parliamentary Assembly called for the release of all political prisoners. From the point of view of SPD member of the Bundestag Frank Schwabe, who is deputy head of the German delegation, the vote marks a turning point. “This also brings Azerbaijani “caviar diplomacy” to its limits,” he stresses. “Those who want to uphold human rights standards are starting to take a clear stand.”
Knaus does not want to speak of a breakthrough yet. After all, he says, a day after the vote, a new rapporteur for Azerbaijan was elected who is considered one of the biggest apologists for the regime in Baku. What matters now, he said, are the next steps. The Council of Europe should not again legitimize the elections in Azerbaijan as free and fair with an observer mission, Knaus warned. And deputies from a dictatorship did not belong in an assembly of freely elected parliamentarians.
In response to the Ukraine conflict, the Council of Europe had stripped Russia’s delegation of its voting rights. This showed that the Council of Europe was not in an institutional crisis, says CDU member of parliament Bernd Fabritius. “The Council of Europe would not be a theater of conflict if it played no role at all.”
CDU member of parliament Karin Strenz supports Azerbaijan
Azerbaijan, incidentally, has not lost its advocates in the Council of Europe. CDU member of the Bundestag Karin Strenz, who recently showed a lot of understanding for Azerbaijan’s head of state Ilham Aliyev in Baku, almost always voted in favor of the Azerbaijani government on the amendments. It was the only German to vote against calling for the release of political prisoners. When it came to naming known imprisoned human rights activists and journalists in the resolution, the CDU deputy abstained, while the other Germans voted in favor across the parliamentary groups. Strenz also abstained on a motion by which Azerbaijani delegates wanted to delete a sentence about repression against the media.
In the end, the regime in Baku was so outraged by the resolution that it hinted that the country might leave the Council of Europe. Knaus thinks this is a tactical maneuver. “Azerbaijan has invested too much in lobbying.”
This text appeared in the June 30, 2015 “Agenda,” a publication of the Tagesspiegel that appears every Tuesday.
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