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OPINION

The hypocrisy of “caviar diplomacy”: How Azerbaijan still manages to avoid European sanctions

For years, Azerbaijan has courted Western journalists, researchers, academics, and parliamentarians by offering them invitations to participate in reporting trips and conferences, a practice known as “caviar diplomacy.” Baku’s strategy appears to be paying off. Despite recent aggressive military actions against Armenian interests in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region and a crackdown on civil society at home, Azerbaijan has largely avoided the imposition of the kinds of Western sanctions that have affected rogue states like Russia, Belarus, and Iran. Rather than turning itself into an international pariah, the regime of Ilham Alivyev has instead attracted increased infrastructure investments from European sources.

RU

European leaders reacted to Azerbaijan's de facto ethnic cleansing of over 100,000 people from Nagorno-Karabakh last September as if they had just been awoken from a world of make-believe. Suddenly, it was impossible for them to ignore the fact that Azerbaijan was responsible for escalating the conflict — attacking ethnic Armenians living in the disputed enclave from the east while simultaneously blocking their potential escape route to the west.

Still, few in the West can be surprised that Azerbaijan's actions have not led to any substantial new international consequences for Baku, this despite an accompanying crackdown of Azerbaijani civil society accelerating to a level that stands out globally.

The question that Armenian analysts and Azerbaijani civil society activists have been asking together for years is: where are the red lines for the EU to impose sanctions?

Where are the red lines for the EU to impose sanctions?

The reality is that the EU's tolerance, rather than being challenged, has been extended. The political decision that Azerbaijan's geopolitical importance stands above the regime's actions is clear. Today there is no doubt that there are different standards for different countries in the EU's neighborhood.

The actions of Azerbaijan bear certain similarities to the behavior of Belarus, Iran, and Russia, and the EU has imposed sanctions against all three. The despotism of Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev does not differ substantially from the authoritarian rule of Russia’s Vladimir Putin or Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko. If anything, the regime in Baku stands out for the harsh methods it has used to dismantle civil society. Freedom House ranks Azerbaijan as more authoritarian than Iran and Russia, and in 2024 the country even overtook Belarus to become the least democratic country in the European region.

The crackdown has been preceded by the creation of a loyal nationalist movement that seems to accept the imprisonment of the country's democracy activists — just so long as “Karabakh becomes Azerbaijan.”

To be clear: There are no Alexei Navalnys nor Sviatlana Tsikhanouskayas in Azerbaijan for the Western world to endorse and take selfies with. Neither are there any massive women’s rights protests voicing universalist messages like “woman, life, freedom,” as in Iran.

There are no Alexei Navalnys nor Sviatlana Tsikhanouskayas in Azerbaijan

Instead, Azerbaijan has simply waged war against its neighbor Armenia in recent years, driving Armenians out of Nagorno-Karabakh despite international attempts to find a negotiated solution. When criticism has come from outside, the tone of the response from Baku has largely been sufficient to convince foreign leaders to back down. While Azerbaijan's geopolitical position and friendships explain the EU's wait-and-see approach towards the country, there are of course further reasons. One of them is Azerbaijan's intensive lobbying.

In this text, I examine how the EU's policies towards the South Caucasus in general and Azerbaijan in particular have changed — or not — following the de facto ethnic cleansing of Armenians in September.

“Reliable Partner”

Before we get to the question of Azerbaijan's influence on European foreign policy, it's important to understand the country's place in the world.

In the summer of 2022, just two months before Azerbaijan's September attack on Armenia, the European Commission signed a new gas agreement with Baku. It was then that Commission President Ursula von der Leyen uttered the words that have characterized the EU's view of Azerbaijan in recent years: “reliable partner.”

In the summer of 2022, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen uttered the words that have characterized the EU's view of Azerbaijan in recent years: “reliable partner”

The agreement committed Azerbaijan to doubling its gas exports to the EU over the coming years, and it was followed by Azerbaijan signing a temporary gas deal with Russia in the fall of 2022 to increase the export of Russian gas to Azerbaijan. Questions were raised as to whether the reason was that Azerbaijan was failing to meet the export quotas it had committed to. The EU External Action Service press office told me they were aware of this possibility, but that the EU was still in the process of phasing out its purchases of Russian gas. In informal conversations with Western diplomats working in Baku, I have been told that when they ask whether Azerbaijan is still importing Russian gas, they receive evasive answers.

Still, the gas agreements, which account for a fraction of EU consumption, have received outsized attention. Azerbaijan's strongest geopolitical card is likely not its resource wealth, but its location.

The main trade route between the EU and East Asia goes through the Suez Canal and around the Gulf of Aden at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, but with Iranian-backed Houthi rebels attacking freighters in the Red Sea from their base in Yemen and potential detours either expensive or inaccessible, Azerbaijan finds itself as the gateway to what the has been dubbed “the Middle Corridor.” The World Bank is calling for investments to expand the transport route through Central Asia, across the Caspian Sea, and through the South Caucasus and the Black Sea to Europe. It is primarily Azerbaijani, Georgian, and Kazakh state-owned infrastructure companies that have been involved in the analysis work. Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan in particular have since long lobbied for the trade route to be extended.

Russia has also understood this and sees Azerbaijan as a revolving door, rather than a two-way directed passage.

Trade flows not only from east to west, but also from north to south. Through the trade route from Russia to India, via Azerbaijan, Iran, and Pakistan, there are substantial opportunities for Russia to diversify its commercial relations after the Western sanctions against the country largely closed it off to legal trade with Europe. In recent years, Russia's relationship with Azerbaijan has been more stable than that with Armenia and Georgia. In addition, Azerbaijan's lowlands are much more suitable for transportation than the mountainous landscapes of the other states.

There are substantial opportunities for Russia to diversify its commercial relations through the trade route from Russia to India — via Azerbaijan, Iran, and Pakistan

Azerbaijan, like Western geopolitical analysts, has understood the country's position. But few have put words to what Azerbaijan symbolizes politically: a major clash between humanitarian policy and realpolitik located right on the edge of Europe.

“Diplomatic Status Quo”

It is not only realpolitik that has led to the EU's acceptance of Azerbaijan's actions, both at home and abroad. The group of people working on policy development towards the EU's Eastern Partnership is large, but very few of them focus on the part of the Eastern Partnership related to the South Caucasus — this despite the fact that the three Caucasian countries are considered equal to Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine in the eyes of EU strategists. However, it is natural that more resources are being allocated to Moldova and Ukraine in particular, due to the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine.

That being said, the truths that were seemingly etched in stone in connection with the war in Nagorno-Karabakh in the 1990s, along with subsequent years of analysis aimed at understanding the region, still impact diplomacy today. The simplified tenets are as follows:

  • Both Armenia and Azerbaijan are equally responsible for the conflict;
  • Both countries complain that the outside world is not doing enough against the other;
  • If the EU does anything rash, Russia's influence in the region will increase.

These simplifications are often heard by those who speak with analysts or politicians working in the region. Even the new generation of analysts tends to repeat them. In this text, I refer to the three points as a diplomatic status quo that has proven incredibly difficult to change, even though reality has long since passed it by. The more experienced people working on the conflict are of course more nuanced and would not agree to the above-mentioned simplifications. However, it should be noted that the status quo has served the interests of Azerbaijan better than Armenia, since the investment opportunities are wider there and have been seen as a step towards potentially constructive diplomacy given Baku’s authoritarian reality.

Even after the developments of the last few years — which saw several wars, the blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh, and its de facto ethnic cleansing, further crackdowns on Azerbaijani civil society, and open spats between Baku and the EU, France, and the United States — it remains difficult to shake these outdated truths. The only European institution that has seriously reacted against Azerbaijan is the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). On January 24 of this year, that body decided to strip Azerbaijan of its credentials for 2024. Just hours before the vote, the Azerbaijani delegation called a press conference in which they declared PACE to be deeply racist and selective. Azerbaijani state media hinted that Azerbaijan “no longer needs the Council of Europe” at all.

The only European institution that has seriously reacted against Azerbaijan is the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE)

The challenge of credentials was made by the German social democratic politician Frank Schwabe, who in his speech pointed out that Azerbaijan has been engaged in bribing politicians ever since the country took its place in PACE in 2001. Azerbaijan's era of aggressive lobbying in the Council of Europe — the “caviar diplomacy” outlined in two reports by the European Stability Initiative in 2012 and 2016 — may have come to an end.

The Implications of Caviar Diplomacy

This brings us to the next topic: Caviar Diplomacy. In a text for the Italian Institute of International Political Studies (ISPI) think tank, I described the concept as follows:

“Caviar symbolizes a luxurious gift and in Diplomacy implies an expectation. The act of giving a gift creates an expectation of reciprocity, whether through a direct request or through an indirect loyalty that is built over time. For an investigative journalist, the correlation between a bribe (or a gift) and a political footprint or a positive statement is what defines the components of a completed act of Caviar Diplomacy.”

As for the purpose of Azerbaijan's unethical initiatives, the closest we can get to a clear description comes from The Azerbaijan European Society (TEAS), a state-funded lobbying organization that was excluded from PACE in 2018 after the bribery scandals were revealed. Its representatives were banned for life and the organization was shut down after the incident.

In 2014, TEAS described its activities to the EU's lobbying register, summarized as follows:

  • Promoting Azerbaijan as a modern country with tremendous business opportunities.
  • Raising awareness of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
  • Encouraging diaspora Azerbaijanis to support the “homeland.”

This description of its purpose is probably still relevant to Azerbaijan's diplomatic goals today. Although TEAS was shut down in 2018, the organization had already made its influence felt. In addition to its interactions with the national parliamentarians who sat in PACE, TEAS also worked with think tanks, journalists, and other decision-makers.

The most well-documented example is the Swedish think tank Institute for Security and Development Policy (ISDP), which TEAS funded for a couple of years in the mid-2010s.

ISDP is a policy advisor to the Swedish government and is active in the US through its subsidiary Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program. While the group has received funding from the Swedish and U.S. governments, it has also been the beneficiary of one-off payments — first from TEAS, and then from a construction company owned by the family of Azerbaijani president Aliyev. ISDP representatives hold several formal positions in Azerbaijani circles. For example, one of the leaders of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, Frederick Starr, is a board member of the Azerbaijani university ADA, whose main purpose is to train Azerbaijani diplomats. The same board also includes René van der Linden, who was chairman of PACE during some of the worst years of Caviar Diplomacy. Its vice president is Mehriban Aliyeva, Ilham Aliyev's wife.

The latest major report from October 2023 (after the ethnic cleansing) that ISDP published was titled “A New Spring for Caspian Transit and Trade.” It dealt with the importance of the Middle Corridor. Its authors were Svante Cornell, rector of ISDP, and Brenda Shaffer, one of the most mentioned researchers in Caviar Diplomacy circles. There have been several investigations into Shaffer’s ties to Azerbaijan.

In November 2023, the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs decided to increase funding for ISDP thanks to the group’s expertise on the Caucasus.

An Era of Loyalty Through Paid Trips

It is difficult to say exactly how much influence the impact of Caviar Diplomacy has had on EU policy decisions in recent years, but it should not be underestimated. I mentioned ISDP in the text primarily as an example to illustrate how Western countries like Sweden have not only accepted Azerbaijan's undue influence apparatus, but also endorsed it. There are more examples all across Europe in the spheres of media, research, and academia.

Western countries have not only accepted Azerbaijan's undue influence apparatus, but also endorsed it

Concretely, since the Nagorno-Karabakh war ended in November 2020, at least 780 journalists from more than 50 countries have been invited on trips to Azerbaijan. These are statistics from Azerbaijan's own Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In addition, the number of academic conferences, in which Azerbaijan pays for accommodation and sometimes airfares, has increased from four or five per year in 2021 to approximately twelve in 2023 (according to my estimations). Hundreds of researchers have likely participated.

In addition, a large number of trips have been arranged for decision-makers from the UK, the EU Parliament, and several parliaments around Europe. During the so-called Azerbaijani presidential election of February 2024, PACE was denied attendance, but parliamentarians from Azerbaijan's loyalty network were flown to the country. Not surprisingly, they voiced minimal criticism, even though the election was seen internationally as more of a circus show than a democratic process. While the EU Commission noted the critical nature of election’s report from the OSCE, the European Council congratulated Ilham Aliyev. The divergent EU positions cynically resembled a “good cop, bad cop” dynamic. Later, Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the EU commission, put an end to the matter by congratulating Ilham Aliyev herself, opening the door for other EU leaders to do the same.

Ursula von der Leyen put an end to the matter by congratulating Ilham Aliyev herself, opening the door for other EU leaders to do the same

Which brings us back to Azerbaijan’s real geopolitical trump card. The fact is that the issue of oil and gas exports to Europe does not seem to be discussed all that much at diplomatic meetings. Instead, it is “transport links” in general and the “Middle Corridor” in particular that are the subject matter. For example, one of the largest academic conferences in Azerbaijan was held in the fall of 2022 with the title “Along the Middle Corridor: Geopolitics, Security and Economy.”

Several of the researchers who have participated in these conferences have written analyses — which are admittedly non-peer reviewed — and continue to participate in dubious Azerbaijani events. Many of the analyses focus on potential infrastructure projects, concrete initiatives that marginalize the importance of softer issues such as measures against Azerbaijan from the International Court of Justice, peace agreements, and human rights. Discussing future infrastructure projects also, to my knowledge, does not make anyone raise their voice and threaten to break diplomatic ties. In other words, such topics are considered constructive from a diplomatic perspective.

Azerbaijan's strategy has likely been to focus on quantity in invitations in the hope that at least a few journalists, researchers, and decision-makers will continue to work in the country's interests. After decades of persistent effort, there is a solid network of people who have made careers in the media, politics, and academia thanks in part to Baku’s generosity to them.

Restrictive Measures

Now let's turn to the EU's position on Azerbaijan. The EU's foreign ministers met on 13 November 2023 to reassess their policy towards the country. In very simplified terms, this means that a number of members wanted to put the topic on the agenda. Once the issue is to be addressed, the parliaments and governments of all 27 member states prepare their positions for presentation at a meeting of the Foreign Council. The task of the Foreign Council is to find a majority opinion that the group can agree on.

In this case, the question on the agenda was whether the EU should consider imposing sanctions on Azerbaijan. Before the negotiations in the Swedish parliament, there was a clear majority in favor of doing so. The Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which on the same day as the parliamentary negotiations gave ISDP additional funding, did not believe that sanctions should be imposed. The negotiations resulted in a compromise between the parliamentary parties and the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In the end, it was decided that sanctions could serve as a “tool” in the future.

Again, I mention the Swedish example simply to illustrate how one country's negotiations have progressed. Similar negotiations took place with the remaining 26 member states. After these negotiations, the EU's position came to the same conclusion as the Swedish parliament, namely that there should be “restrictive measures” that would enter into force — or, at least, that would be taken under consideration — should Azerbaijan cross a formulated red line by violating Armenia's territorial integrity. The EU has repeated this stance in public on multiple occasions.

The EU's position is that there should be “restrictive measures” that would enter into force — or, at least, that would be taken under consideration — should Azerbaijan cross a formulated red line by violating Armenia's territorial integrity

The issue of the ethnic cleansing of Nagorno-Karabakh was thus finally negotiated and relegated to the history books, at least so far as the EU is concerned. For Azerbaijan, which until recently had repeated the narrative that all Armenians are welcome back, the rhetoric has shifted to an intensive campaign aimed at erasing Armenian cultural heritage from Nagorno-Karabakh. In recent months, there have been videos of Azerbaijani soldiers vandalizing graves, and in early 2024 Armenian memorials find themselves at risk of being removed. Images have also been seen of Armenians' homes being emptied.

The provisional measure that the International Court of Justice in The Hague ordered Azerbaijan to follow in order to guarantee the right of return for Armenians is being ignored. Baku has met European criticism of its imprisonment of opposition figures and journalists with angry attacks, and the EU’s red lines seem to have led the Aliyev regime to understand that its abuses can continue without bringing on serious countermeasures from the outside world.

And at the end of January 2024, the EU decided to increase funding for the Middle Corridor by 10.4 billion euros. A decision to impose sanctions on Azerbaijan would likely have made this investment impossible. What I call a clash between realpolitik and humanitarian policy, others call hypocrisy. I guess it's up to the readers to judge for themselves.

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