Review: how an Azerbaijani advocacy organisation works
After reporting on the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, Blankspot’s Rasmus Canbäck was contacted by an Azerbaijani advocacy organisation that offered him an invitation to travel to Azerbaijan.
On the afternoon of 29 July, I look at my mobile phone and see a notification that I have received an email. In the subject line it says “The project”. I unlock my phone and read it:
My name is Emil Mirzoev and I am the chairman of the Azerbaijan Congress in Sweden and we have been asked to carry out a project. The project is a joint project between Azerbaijan and Sweden and aims to highlight the situation after the military conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Thus, we invite reporters, film producers, journalists, photographers, among others, who are interested in such a project.
My phone number is attached to this email, you can also reply to this email if you have any questions. In case of interest, there is a possibility to get more detailed information about everything from the trip there to the security.
The email from Emil Mirzoev led to a lot of questions. What is the Congress of Azerbaijan in Sweden? What is the purpose of contacting me? Who are the other journalists? Who gave them the assignment?
Azerbaijani advocacy is widely known and is usually carried out through organisations associated with the Azerbaijani state. It has been nicknamed “caviar diplomacy” because the Azerbaijani state has given expensive gifts, such as caviar and travel, to politicians, journalists and businessmen in exchange for favours.
The most famous case is featured in a major 2018 report by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting (OCCRP) organization and was circulated in a wide range of prominent European newspapers as “the Azerbaijani Laundromat”. They came across a leak proving that some $2.9 billion was funnelled from Azerbaijan through British shell companies and onwards to buy political influence between 2012-2014.
The stories published show that in exchange for gifts and money, European politicians have not only downplayed criticism of Azerbaijan’s human rights shortcomings; they have also defended Azerbaijan. As recently as March 2021, the German parliament took disciplinary action against Christian Democrat MEP Karin Strenz for being one of a number of MEPs who received money to defend human rights in Azerbaijan.
In the October 2021 leak of the Pandora Papers, allegations of corruption continued to leak out. The OCCRP found that the Azerbaijani presidential family was one of the biggest users of shell companies, with over 5 billion dollars having gone to buy property in cities such as London and Dubai.
For Sweden, the clearest example is when Moderate politician Göran Lindblad was exposed by Expressen in 2012 for working as a lobbyist for the organisation The European Azerbaijan Society. In 2016, the British newspaper the Economist reported that the organisation is headed by the son of an Azerbaijani minister and that its purpose is to spread “caviar diplomacy”.
Another example is the research institute, the Institute for Security and Development Policy (ISDP). Dagens Nyheter revealed in 2017 that the head of the institute, Svante Cornell, is linked to the Azerbaijani state and he was accused by the Liberals’ then foreign policy spokesperson Fredrik Malm of playing favorites with the government.
During the summer, news has been published from Azerbaijan that state organisations are organising press trips to the “recaptured” areas of Nagorno-Karabakh. Among other things, Peru’s vice-president of the country’s journalists’ union, Ricardo Sanchez, speaks in favour of the Azerbaijani government, using what appears to be Azerbaijani state rhetoric. The trip was accompanied by other journalists from Latin America.
Is the trip that the Azerbaijan Congress in Sweden wants to invite me on a similar trip?
It does not necessarily reflect the Azerbaijan Congress in Sweden’s advocacy work today. But the question is whether the organisation has links to the regime, and what expectations are there of me to go on a trip where I risk ending up in the regime’s photos?
A quick search for the Azerbaijani Congress in Sweden did not yield many hits. The organisation is registered in Stockholm at Emil Mirzoev’s personal address, it has received a grant from the Swedish Agency for Youth and Civil Society Affairs (MUCF) in 2019 for being an “ethnic organisation” and the Russian-language website has not been updated since 2018. Otherwise, the organisation is anonymous.
I requested the documents from MUCF from 2018-2021. These include the application for a grant for 2019, a decision on a grant of 425 953 SEK, but also a refusal of an extended grant over 2020 with a demand for repayment for incorrectly submitted documents.
In the justification, the MUCF administrator writes that they have not been able to prove that there are 1,000 members in the association or that they have been able to confirm the existence of the majority of local associations. Moreover, the organisation has repeatedly dealt with the issue of discharge of the board at board meetings, instead of annual meetings, which goes against the statutes and the usual democratic order. The case officer also considers that the Authority’s examination of the documents received is at odds with the auditor’s report for the financial year.
The handling of the rejection case ends with MUCF sending an invoice to Mr Mirzoev’s address for the incorrectly reported data, with a demand for reimbursement.
I note that this potentially hits the association hard. In the 2018 annual accounts it has reported a liability of SEK 136,000 covered by a loan and the remaining assets are marginal.
No further applications for funding have been submitted to MUCF since then, but Emil Mirzoev is still the chairman. I decide to convene a meeting with him to clarify his offer in the email sent to me on 29 July.
But before that, I will take note of further information.
Svante Lundgren is an associate professor at the Centre for Theology and Religious Studies at Lund University. He researches modern Judaism and Christians in and from the Middle East. He has written extensively on Armenia and the Armenian Genocide.
In April 2019, he visited Nagorno-Karabakh, where he gave a lecture as a private citizen for a local university.
A few weeks after the trip, he was suddenly called to a closed meeting with his employer who said they had received a protest against his visit to Nagorno-Karabakh.
In an interview for Blankspot, Svante Lundgren explains:
– I had expected a protest from the Azerbaijani side. So when they called from the faculty office and told me that one had been received, I was not surprised. The faculty management was not critical of my visit to Nagorno-Karabakh, but wanted to inform me about this protest and give me the chance to comment on it.
The letter is signed by the Congress of Azerbaijanis in Sweden, including the signature of President Emil Mirzoev. They accuse Lund University, through Svante Lundgren, of spreading false propaganda about the conflict, and say that his private views are unfounded in any substantive research. They also argue that Svante Lundgren should at least have contacted the Azerbaijani embassy to obtain information about the conflict. The letter also states that his visit contributes to increased hatred and the risk of a new war.
They have also enclosed a warning from the Azerbaijani state that you will be declared undesirable and risk prosecution if you go to Nagorno-Karabakh through Armenia.
Lund University briefly states in its response to the organisation that Svante Lundgren travelled to Nagorno-Karabakh as a private individual and therefore it is not an issue for them.
The question of how the organisation found out about his visit to Nagorno-Karabakh is elusive. Svante Lundgren believes that it is unlikely that the organisation has the resources to review local Armenian media in Nagorno-Karabakh.
– I am convinced that some government employee in Baku, who monitors such things, has noted that I was interviewed on Artsakh Public TV [an Armenian TV channel in Nagorno-Karabakh] and has since informed the Azerbaijani embassy in Stockholm about this. From there, the call was made to this Azerbaijani organisation to protest to my employer.
Apart from his name appearing on the list of undesirable people a few months later, there have been no further consequences. He has been compared to others in similar situations who have come off less lightly.
– I was not particularly upset by this; I understand that this is part of the advocacy work that Azerbaijani organisations engage in. Unlike others who have visited Nagorno-Karabakh, I did not receive any direct threats. The accusation that a simple visit by an unknown Swedish researcher would contribute to hatred and increase the risk of a new war is so bizarre as to be almost comical. A year and a half after my visit there was a war, but that was because Azerbaijan attacked. It was hardly because I had been in the country and met some 30 students at the local university.
On Sunday 22 August, I call Emil Mirzoev to find out what kind of project he wants me to take part in.
I start by telling Emil Mirzoev that I had long intended to go back to Azerbaijan after my visit there in 2016, but that since then I have been uncertain about my status in the country. Anyone entering Nagorno-Karabakh could risk being blacklisted in Azerbaijan if they do not have a permit.
Emil Mirzoev tells me during our meeting that the organisation is planning to go to Azerbaijan on 19 September, they will be 10 people in total and the project is a collaboration between them and a diaspora organisation in Azerbaijan. I ask what the name of the organisation is, but he doesn’t want to answer. He goes on to say that a number of Swedish journalists have been asked to come along.
– I don’t want to say too much… Azerbaijan is not so much a democracy, Emil says, and continues; but we have just started to build our country. Maybe we should meet… so I can talk more…
– I have read your articles. You write from a Swedish side, maybe. We who are from there, we who live there, have more information. You know, like me for example, I don’t want Azerbaijan to be like Ukraine or something. We have to become friends with Armenia, but Russia doesn’t want that.
Then he tells us about the trip and says we’re going to the town of Zyusha (Zyusha in Armenian).
– I’ve already been there four times, I reply.
– Through Armenia?
– Yes, through Armenia. But you’ll know that if you’ve read my texts, won’t you?
The voice changes. Is he making an effort to be friendly? In his letter to Lund University, he made it clear that he is strictly against travel to Nagorno-Karabakh through Armenia.
– Yes, that is true. You’re just writing from one side, a little Armenian side. I want you to write from the Azerbaijani side as well. If two people argue with each other, you have to listen to both.
I reply that I am curious about why they want me, but before I finish speaking, Emil says:
– I need answers from you as soon as possible. There are lots of journalists coming. I get questions. Questions, questions! From all kinds! Different organisations, different journalists. There are documentarians, photographers.
– Swedish journalists? Just like me?
– Yes, yes. It’s Swedish yes. I only talk to Swedish journalists, I want Swedish journalists to come with us. There are good journalists, a Marie… today’s news… there are good journalists that we have contacted.
He doesn’t want to be clear about who he’s asked, but later in the conversation I come back to it and say that it’s a prerequisite that I know who they are in order to be able to go.
– There is one from Gothenburg, from Malmö, Stockholm.
– Okay, but can you tell me their names?
– I have to ask them first… they might not want me to tell them.
I won’t come any further and ask about the funding.
– We buy all the tickets, hotels. Everything.
– So you buy all the tickets and stuff?
– Yes, we do. We’ll work it out. We have money.
– Do you get money through some kind of fund in Azerbaijan…?
He interrupts me.
– We at the National Federation can afford it, actually. We have many members. We have 2,400 members and our own finances. And the businessmen here in Sweden.
Later he goes on to say that there are three businessmen, but when I ask him who they are, he changes the subject.
I get the impression that he is neglecting the businessmen. Moreover, just a year earlier, MUCF had stated that there were not 1 000 members of the organisation, and they had not been able to provide evidence for even half of them. Regardless, the latest 2019/2020 data on membership fees is 7 kr, or 14 000 kr for 2 000 members.
If the membership fee remains as low in 2021 as it is in 2020, if even slightly higher, that is barely enough to fund the trip for one person. Moreover, the organisation had approx: 136 000 SEK in debts as recently as the end of 2018/2019 and only marginal assets.
If the money doesn’t come from MUCF or membership income, where does it come from? After all, a week-long trip for 10 people costs around SEK 15,000 per person.
While it cannot be seen as illegal to offer a journalist a paid trip with full board to another country, there is an indirect expectation of a return service: that I as a journalist should report in the way the organisation expects.
But an even more important aspect is the inappropriateness of inviting a journalist on a trip with the stated purpose of highlighting a particular view of the conflict. According to journalistic professional rules, which one commits to when one joins the Swedish Journalists’ Union, one should neither accept gifts, such as free trips, nor give in to pressure from outsiders.
Emil Mirzoev quickly changes the subject from funding to explaining the practical details of the trip, and the link to the regime becomes apparent.
– I have a contact, a great guy, Hikmat Hajiyev, who is an assistant to Aliyev [the president]. He’s really a great guy. I know him well. He’s also the head of the foreign service. I want us to meet him. Let’s write letters to him. I have contact with him and his workers.
Indeed, Hikmat Hajiyev is an assistant to Ilham Aliyev, and not only that; he is Aliyev’s head of policy development in foreign affairs. During the autumn war, he made a name for himself as one of Azerbaijan’s foremost advocates in the public sphere.
I’ll end the call and say I’ll be in touch shortly.
The next morning, I send an email clarifying that I need answers to three different questions to determine whether I can come along: what organization they work with in Azerbaijan, who the other Swedish journalists are, and how they guarantee my safety as I have written articles criticizing the government. After all, I have been to Nagorno-Karabakh, which is considered illegal in Azerbaijan.
Previous replies have come within a few hours, but now it is taking over a week: the trip has been cancelled because of the corona pandemic.
Some time later, it turned out not to be true. The trip went ahead, but without me.
Read the follow-up interview with one of the participants of the trip here:
Blankspot has contacted Emil Mirzoev and the Azerbaijan Congress in Sweden to respond to the text. He has declined to do so for the moment but writes that “it is not understandable to me that Rasmus questions the financing of the congress which is based on voluntary donations”.
Top image. Azerbaijani Congress in Sweden’s logo. Photo from http://www.azeri.se
Update (Tuesday 19 October):
Blankspot publishes below parts of a submitted rejoinder commenting on facts found in the articles:
Reply from the Congress of Azerbaijanis in Sweden (Riksförbundet) via Emil Mirzoev.
– To begin with, no one was offered a luxury trip – the hotel cost about 500 SEK. Expenses for the journalists’ accommodation were of course covered by us (while the Azerbaijani state did not contribute a single krona), and as it was explained to Wedérus (the journalist who attended), it was about hospitality and creating an opportunity for them to travel to the liberated areas, which would not have been possible to do on their own.
– He calls our congress an Azerbaijani advocacy organisation. The fact is, however, that it is a Swedish association working with and for Swedish citizens of Azerbaijani descent and other Swedes interested in the country’s culture. Canbäck questions the financing of the congress, which is based on fees and donations from members.
– Canbäck also falsely claims that I would have offered him to join a group that would visit Azerbaijan.
Rasmus Canbäck invites readers to read the reports in which the answers to the questions are found: