The Notion of Freedom is Different in Azerbaijan

A conversation with Ahmad Shahidov, head of the Azerbaijan Institute for Democracy and Human Rights. Interviewer: Bartosz Marcinkowski

BARTOSZ MARCINKOWSKI: You are chief of the Azerbaijan Institute for Democracy and Human Rights which claims to stand for democratic values and defend human rights. Having in mind the human rights abuses in Azerbaijan, aren’t you afraid your institute might be shut down or that you might even be arrested? What is your strategy to survive in such a difficult environment?

AHMAD SHAHIDOV: Our organisation was established in June 2014. Since then we performed several activities not only in Azerbaijan but also abroad. Our activity in Azerbaijan focuses on the organisation of lectures and seminars, educating about fundamental human rights and informing about participation in elections. Abroad, we try to attend major international conferences dedicated to human rights issues. It is very difficult to do these things in Azerbaijan, yet besides being a human rights defender, I am an Azerbaijani patriot so I also care about the national interest of my country. If you do not break the law in Azerbaijan and if you think as Azerbaijan citizens, you should not have any major problems.

Of course we have been faced certain difficulties – our organisation has not been officially registered and this is our main concern. Because of this, we cannot participate in governmental projects. But when it comes to political system of Azerbaijan, I do not think it is an authoritarian regime. There are certain rules, but if you follow them, nothing can happen to you. As a human rights defender I try not to cross this red line. I have been involved in public life in Azerbaijan since 2003, I know internal situation of my country very well. I know how to express my views so I hope our organisation will work uninterrupted in the future.

What is the red line in your country that you have mentioned?

I need first to mention that Azerbaijan is not like other European countries. It is not Germany, France, Denmark or Norway. Azerbaijan is placed at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. We have our own traditions and historical rules. Azerbaijan is also a Muslim country and people have their own mentality. There are some unwritten rules and it is not good to violate them.

For example, a new law that legalised same-sex marriages adopted recently in the United States was warmly greeted by many Americans. Looking from the point of view of human rights, it is normal because everyone is equal before the law. However, if you adopt such a law in Azerbaijan, it would be a significant problem. Should the Azerbaijani government legalise same-sex marriage, people would simply not accept it. It would only cause a lot of problems for the LGBT community in the country because it is against our tradition, history and religion.

Another example relates to Azerbaijan’s problem with territorial integrity. We lost 20 per cent of our territory in Nagorno-Karabakh and we remain at war with Armenia. Maybe in Europe there is freedom to express the opinion that Nagorno-Karabakh belongs to Armenia. But it would not be perceived normal in Azerbaijan, it would be equal to the betrayal of the country. You need to understand these nuances. Before being a human rights defender, I am a patriot and I see them.

So how would you describe political system of today’s Azerbaijan if it is not an authoritarian regime? Is it then a democracy?

It is very difficult to state that Azerbaijan is fully democratic country but it is also wrong to say that Azerbaijan is an authoritarian regime like North Korea or Belarus. There have been many improvements since we received independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. We have freedom, but the notion of freedom in my country is different from the European one. I think in France or in Switzerland there is no real freedom of religion. There are no official permissions to build mosques in those countries. There are places where Muslims can pray but there are no mosques. It is unfair in the countries where a certain per cent of the population is Muslim. In Azerbaijan there are no problems with freedom of religion. There are synagogues, mosques and churches next to each other. Right in the middle of Baku, in the city centre, there is an Armenian church. It is closed because there are no Armenians going there now, but it has not been destroyed.

I remember once when I went to France my French friend asked me about my religion. I said that I am Muslim. Then he asked me “oh, so do you go to a mosque?” I heard fear in his voice because he looks at mosques as at terrorist shelters. In Europe there is a wrong perception of Islam which violates the human rights of Muslims. There is freedom of expression and free elections in Europe, but we have still some problems with these things in Azerbaijan and this is why the notion of freedom is different in Azerbaijan and Europe.

There are serious street protests now in Armenia against the government’s decision to raise the price of electricity. Are you observing the situation in Armenia? And from the perspective of a human rights defender, do you see any chances of reconciliation and peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the future?

Armenia is our neighbour and we have territorial disputes with Yerevan. Armenia has been occupying Nagorno-Karabakh and seven territories surrounding it since 1988. This is why we are officially at war and it is officially our enemy. The recent events in Armenia show that Serzh Sargsyan’s regime is not independent and that Sargsyan is not responsible before the Armenian nation. Armenia fully depends on the Russian economy and the Kremlin imposes its rules on that country. These events are mainly about electricity and the main electricity provider is owned by Russia.

Yet, I do not think the unrest is solely about electricity prices. It is also a struggle of the Armenian nation against Russian rule. They do not want to live as Vladimir Putin says. Maybe they do not want to be at war with Azerbaijan anymore. The First European Games hosted by Azerbaijan in June 2015 showed the world that Azerbaijan is a strong country. The Armenians saw these games as well and many of them came to Azerbaijan where they had a chance to see how tolerant Azerbaijanis can be. Perhaps this influenced the Armenian society and made them to want more freedom.

During this year’s GLOBSEC United States Senator John McCain addressed your question on Nagorno-Karabakh stating that “Putin’s next target is Azerbaijan.” Do you share these fears?

I do not think that Senator McCain had military means in mind when he said that. Azerbaijan is not like Armenia or Ukraine. Azerbaijan has a strong army and a strong economy and it is an independent state. We do not have any foreign militaries on our territory. So I do not think Putin would take a risk and try to occupy Azerbaijani territory. And we should not forget about Turkey, which is Azerbaijan’s brother country a and member of NATO. I only can accept these words of McCain on the political level. Right now, Russia has invited Azerbaijan to join the Eurasian Economustoms Union as a part of its anti-western policy. Azerbaijan tries to balance between Russia and the West and perform its sovereign foreign policy, but it is possible that it could join the Eurasian Union in the future. I do not want to predict anything but there have been some negative tendencies in relations between Europe and Azerbaijan.

A slight worsening of relations with Europe is mainly because of human rights issues in Azerbaijan. Yet, Europe uses double standards when it comes to Azerbaijan in that matter. For example, European deputies at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg on June 23rd 2015 criticised the government of Azerbaijan for its political prisoners: journalists or human rights defenders who were arrested. But the deputies did not mention anything about one million refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh, they never want to talk about it. It is then possible that Azerbaijan will decide to join the Eurasian Union because if you constantly criticise something, as the EU does towards Azerbaijan, you may lose it. It is normal that in such situation Azerbaijan can seek for another friend. A country is like a human, if you criticise Azerbaijan every day, at every meeting, Azerbaijan will walk away.

So how, do you think, the EU should act towards Azerbaijan? Do you think the EU should close its eyes on cases of human rights violations?

No, that is not my point. Azerbaijan is a member of the European family and a member of most European organisations. It means that Azerbaijan is responsible for some issues as a country but it is also Europe that is responsible for the development of Azerbaijan. Europe should not only criticise Azerbaijan but support it and defend it if necessary. I agree that Europe should criticize negative tendencies in Azerbaijan, but on the other hand it needs to support Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, condemn Armenia’s occupation and demand Armenia to release Nagorno-Karabakh. I do not observe this policy. This is why I say that Europe has “double standards”.

Ahmad Shahidov, PhD, is the head of the Azerbaijan Institute for Democracy and Human Rights.

Bartosz Marcinkowski is an assistant editor with New Eastern Europe.

Fatal error: Uncaught Error: Call to undefined function echo_views() in /var/www/u0580679/data/www/ Stack trace: #0 /var/www/u0580679/data/www/ include() #1 /var/www/u0580679/data/www/ require_once('/var/www/u05806...') #2 /var/www/u0580679/data/www/ require('/var/www/u05806...') #3 {main} thrown in /var/www/u0580679/data/www/ on line 29