Is the EITI helping or hurting Azerbaijan’s civil society?
Questions over the efficacy of international transparency mechanisms crop up in the most unexpected places – no really! In this case in an almost unbearably smoky bar in Berlin two weeks ago. Having recently moved to the city I was intrigued to learn that an annual gathering of Azerbaijani civil society activists was taking place on my doorstep over the weekend.
Here was my chance to bridge two worlds, I thought. I had only recently started working on transparency and governance in the oil industry with OpenOil.net, but had fallen in love with oil-rich Azerbaijan by accident several years ago while spending two months helping out at the modest national anti-land mine campaign in Baku, and picking up a Caucasian-flecked form of Russian which was to bemuse my Russian professors on returning to my Russian classes in the UK . While in my absence, whether in Azerbaijan or as émigrés, these people had been living with the political reality of the famed ‘resource curse’ as I had been finishing off my studies in sleepy Durham.
So I jumped at the chance to quiz my Azerbaijani friends – activists fresh from spending the day discussing the intricacies of opposition politics, human rights and social justice – on what they made of the EITI, the initiative for which Azerbaijan was after all the ‘poster child’, and which was judged the first fully compliant country back in 2009.
To my surprise, among these hyper-political global citizens all I got for my efforts were some scratched heads and vague recollections. Despite an EITI process having been going for the best part of a decade, Azerbaijani civil society as a whole seems largely unaware of what it is or what it means.
On first encountering the EITI myself I have to admit to something of a double take on learning that Azerbajian was the first fully compliant country. Azerbaijan has meant many things to me over the years; a dizzying mix of Eastern traditions and Western norms ; the home of entrancing mugham music and of an endlessly charming Turkic hospitality culture; and home to the sticky sweet ‘Baku’ baklava taken with perfumed tea. A beacon of transparency, however, it had never seemed to be.
Could I have been missing a trick here? Could Azerbaijan have transformed in my two-year absence into a flawlessly governed petro-state under the radar?
Having followed developments in the Caspian basin from afar over the last few years, I am well aware that the incumbent President Aliyev is certainly not averse to touting international endorsements such as the EITI mechanism as a useful adjunct, tagged triumphantly onto self-congratulatory speeches. All in the hope that Europe and the US will be sufficiently appeased and continue to avert their gaze from other democratic shortcomings, more of which later. One thing that remains clear is that there is nothing more important to the Aliyev dynasty in 2011 than image projection, and if we can be sure of one thing it is that the Aliyev PR machine will be going into overdrive when the Eurovision circus rolls into Baku in May of next year. The event, while often held in disdain on our shores, is sending Baku and young Bakuvians into something of a frenzy. It promises to be the climactic, camp, sequin-clad spectacular for a city transformed beyond recognition by oil riches over the past decade (at least within a certain radius of the presidential residence). However, in the case of Azerbaijan the phrase ‘lipstick on a pig’ springs uncomfortably to mind.
Having worked briefly among some of the brave individuals standing up against the status quo in Azerbaijan , I have been in the enlightening if disquieting position of observing the threads of civil society in the country unravel around me. As one of the few ‘compliant’ countries in a mechanism which explicitly invites the input of civil society as part of the infamous ‘multistakeholder groups’, it makes me wonder what the EITI is playing at giving their stamp of approval to a country where a new law sees genuinely independent NGOs sent on a wild goose chase by the Ministry of Justice to register in the country, while they are replaced by obedient yet absurdly named ‘GONGOs’ (government-supported non-governmental NGOs), staffed by relatives and buddies of regime heavies?
As I learned over the weekend, more recently the regime has resorted to straightforward demolition of NGO premises for those proving particularly awkward, including the audacious flattening of the buildings previously inhabited by prominent human rights activist Leyla Yunusova on the edge of central Baku, a building where I myself spent many hours typing up reports to the grizzly tones of Vladimir Vysotsky (it should be pointed out that the formidable Mrs Yunusova is listed as a member of the Azerbaijan NGO coalition ‘for improving transparency in the extractive industries’). Having seen for myself shirts sleeves rolled up to reveal the battle scars of journalists held in detention for refusing to tow the government line, EITI’s invitation to civil society to participate in dialogue with the government and the oil business takes on sinister overtones.
The level of disengagement among my highly politicized Azerbaijani contemporaries is telling. Oil is by no means a peripheral issue in a country where 92% of all exports still come from the black stuff, and more to the point where the first oil boom in the nineteenth century shaped the very form of Baku’s seafront promenade as we know it today. And yet not only the public at large but even the core constituency of civil society which EITI is supposed to engage seem to be largely unaware of it.
The EITI… certainly noble and ambitious, certainly not the silver bullet many misconstrue it to be, but could it be yet another tool in the Azerbaijani regime’s growing PR portfolio? Now that would be an altogether more pernicious concern.