Civil society weakening in Azerbaijan is a threat to democracy
Interview of Razi Nurullayev, founder and senior expert with “Region” International Analytical Centre (RIAC) on civil society in Azerbaijan and faced problems for media in Baku, Azerbaijan
Question: How do you evaluate the civil society environment in Azerbaijan? Some NGOs say the situation keeps being very critical and they closed their NGOs. Would you close your organization?
Answer: First, I have to admit that the situation is indeed critical. Already for more than 4-5 months, the NGOs have been living up to stagnation and uncertainty.
Many NGOs have hardships to receive approval letters from the Ministry Of Justice to withdraw grant money from the banks. The NGOs also have trouble to verify the translated grant contracts in notary offices. There are cases, when NGOs had to go to notary offices for days and were rejected verification under different excuses. There are notary offices that spend hours to dig in the contracts to find petty faults in order just to ground their rejection for verification. Some donors, like European Commission have contracts exceeding 100 pages, some contract pages count to around 200. However, the major grant conditions and rules count 4-5 pages. The remaining part of the contracts ae just common for all and usually are about environmental, social and other responsibilities, liabilities, and conditionality. They are not so important for verification. NGOs have to spend 10 to 15 Euro for each page’s translation and from 2-3 Euro for each page’s notary verification. If the same donor has allocated 15 grants to NGOs, why each individual NGO should translate the same text of 150 to 200 pages in different translation offices and verify it in different notary offices, where they find a contact to try to ease the process of verification as usually notary offices reject it. How logical is the process and forcing the NGOs to spend unjustified costs for no reason?
Bank problems is of another priority for concern. There are banks that refuse to open bank accounts for civil society organizations. However, there are banks that they do open and do not create any problems. It turns out that there are no political instructions to banks not to open bank accounts for NGOs. A number of banks in Azerbaijan wish to be more catholic than the Catholics themselves (Azerbaijani proverb). For example, Access Bank refused to open a bank account for “Region” International Analytical Center (RIAC) after it has closed its bank account in Respublika bank, which raised over 80 times the service tariffs for NGOs just to force them to close their bank accounts. All the NGOs closed their bank accounts in this bank. Access bank’s refusal created a lightning effect for me as its slogan was “Your European Bank”. However, it is no longer and its slogan is not justified itself to be so.
– What happens in Azerbaijan has also an effect on the country’s international image. Why do you think the authorities resorted to such strict restrictions? May there be serious reason about which we are not informed?
– I have to confess that, I am also confused. I cannot understand why the authorities resorted to such stricter measures, which may play a boomerang for them. I know that the authorities have put themselves in an awkward position and drive to corner. The truth may be hidden in the statements of the government representatives, who say NGOs have transferred received grants to opposition in Azerbaijan. The foreign forces attempted to bring the Arab Spring scenario and Maidan to Azerbaijan. I, really doubt this statement, and of course it is not true to the best of my knowledge. The financial status of the Azerbaijani opposition is miserable and it is not convincing that NGOs would transfer money to opposition.
Emergence of these problems considerably damaged the international image of the country. The authorities wanted to stop critical NGO voices and stop their reporting to international community, thus remove the roots of the “problem”. However, the opposite occurred. Whoever may have prepared this scenario, made a big mistake.
Because, it did not solve the problem. On the contrary, it has invited more critical voices from across the world to pour on the authorities. The arrested human rights defenders received several international awards. Now even those, who was unaware of the situation in Azerbaijan, now know it. The European Parliament adopted a resolution on the country and called for possible sanctions. PACE called on the authorities to release political prisoners. International organizations such as Freedom House, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty international and tens of others almost on weekly basis report on Azerbaijan.
It is apparent that there is a confrontation between the civil society and the government. The bridges are burnt and now everybody seeks the solution beyond the borders. However, there should be an environment of dialogue and understanding in the society. I believe that the direct negotiations and dialogue might have resolved the misunderstanding and problems between the government and civil society. What was the reason behind the arrests of so many civil society activists, political activists and human rights defenders? The longer the situation continues, the longer will suffer civil society, public and Azerbaijan, on the whole.
Therefore, urge the government to build a sustainable dialogue with the civil society and in mutual manner to find a solution to the problems. Should there be no civil society, what a democracy and European integration we can talk about?
– Do you want to say that the government made miscalculations and failed to foresee the consequences?
– I cannot say that. However, the issues do not end with a boomerang effect. There are many who have emigrated to abroad and build resistance organizations there. The headache they are going to create for the incumbent regime is going to triple in comparison with today. If they remained and worked here in Azerbaijan, their critical voices might be much lesser and cost the government “cheap”. Let us see the registration problem of the NGOs. Why not register them and control their activities. By not registering NGOs, the authorities create legal basis for illegal transfers and activities. Unregistered NGOs receive more funds than the registered once. In most cases, the authorities create problems, foster it and then become the hostages of these problems.
– How do you evaluate the activities of the closed international organizations and what is your position on this?
– Naturally, I strongly dislike the closure of international organizations in Azerbaijan. National Democratic Institute was enormously contributing to youth strengthening, capacity building and forming of democratic views. NDI was not only providing grants to opposition-minded youth organizations, but also that of pro-governmental. To the best of my knowledge the ratio was equal and sometimes more for pro-governmental NGOs. IREX Azerbaijan was one of the first donors in the country and they helped many NGOs in the country to stand on the feet and build their capacities. They first provided domain names and hosting to NGOs, opened internet clubs in the regions of the country. Open Society Institute of Soros Foundations network has been in the country from very beginning and almost played a role of father and mother for NGOs. Who can deny their roles in development of civil society in the country? There are black shadows on the head of Peace Corps, which brought teachers from the States to teach English Azerbaijani schoolchildren in the rural areas. They were the carriers of the Azerbaijani culture, tradition and history in the USA. What I can do? I just regret for their closure and urge the government to change its decisions for the closed organizations.
– Is there a threat for the NGO ban in Azerbaijan?
– No, it is not possible and I do not believe that the authorities would dare to resort to such an action. On the contrary, they may increase funds for the local donors, thus decrease the dependence of the NGOs on external aid. The State Council to Support NGOs may get an increased budget from the next year. However, unregistered NGOs would be deprived of using state funds. NGOs will not also be able to criticize the government with the state fund. So, this will suppress the critical voices and challenge the independence of the NGOs.
Generally, it is important to understand the NGO philosophy correctly. NGOs criticize the governments everywhere. This is the founding philosophy of the NGOs. NGOs also criticize the US Administration for Guantanamo prison and violation of human rights. It applies to all democratic countries. All the democratic countries have NGOs and human rights defenders criticizing the governments, but they do not end with prison life at the end. NGOs strife for the solution of the problems. They are “spying” eyes for the social problems, injustice and human rights violations.
So, NGOs will not be banned in Azerbaijan. However, the new amendments to the existing law will considerably restrict their option to receive international funds. The amendments restricts donors, almost bans their activity in the country. Obviously, donors will not be interested in working in Azerbaijan and NGOs will face considerable shortage for grants.
– Some NGOs and their donors are accused of cooperating with Armenians. What is your answer to this?
– I think, there should be no ban for cooperation as such. The cooperation should be possible within the rules and framework. What I mean is that there were attempts to build bridges between the intellectuals of Azerbaijan and Armenia. Both governments in Azerbaijan and Armenia had sanctioned it. Was not it a Peoples’ Diplomacy?
I would like to continue my response from two corners. The cooperation should be appreciated if it is with the Armenian NGO, which recognizes the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, four UN resolutions on Nagorno-Karabakh on withdrawal of Armenian troops from the occupied territories. However, if the Azerbaijani NGOs become a tool for Armenia to strengthen its grip at occupied territories, of course it is inaccessible. I never, however, came across any such NGO in Azerbaijan. Civil society in Azerbaijan is committed to territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and would never agree to a loss of Nagorno-Karabakh and agree to creation of the second Armenian state in the lands of Azerbaijan.