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Politicians under the influence of Baku have affected the lives of millions of Azerbaijanis, many of whom have been silenced, imprisoned, beaten, deported – and killed. Those politicians are just as responsible for the killings of Armenian civilians and soldiers in Armenia and in Nagorno Karabakh ...

When the Guardian exposed the US $2.9 billion Azerbaijani slush fund to bribe Western politicians, I had a feeling of relief and a sense of justice. Relief and justice, because Armenian activism and lobbying had been focusing its efforts on what is known in Western political circles as “Caviar Diplomacy” - Azerbaijan’s use of political bribery to gain influence. Periodic articles, news coverage, NGO reports, other sources and our own gut feelings supported these efforts, however, this latest revelation now being called the “Azerbaijani Laundromat” is the most compelling and powerful with regard to its geographic scope and the amount of money involved.

But as soon as my feelings of relief and justice subsided, anger and rage took over. It’s one thing to have a general feeling or suspicion about the situation, it’s something altogether different when you have hard core proof about politicians and diplomats succumbing to a dictator sitting in Baku. Those politicians under the influence of Baku have, with their proposals and adopted resolutions, reports and decisions, affected the lives of millions of Azerbaijanis in Azerbaijan, many of whom have been silenced, imprisoned, beaten, deported – and killed. Those politicians who decided to accept money, with their stance and influence are just as responsible for the killings of Armenian civilians and soldiers in Armenia and in Nagorno Karabakh (Artsakh) as Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev is.

Of course, no one was surprised when the regime in Baku and its mouthpieces – mainly the English language Azerbaijani press – blamed the Armenian Diaspora, George Soros for these latest revelations. Less than a week after the Guardian story broke, the Azerbaijani regime set free prominent Azerbaijani journalist and media expert Mehman Aliyev, who had been arrested in August on trumped up charges, presumably to save face (dozens of other journalists and activists continue to be imprisoned). In a similar fashion, Russian - Israeli blogger Alexander Lapshin was pardoned by the Azerbaijani president. Lapshin’s first blog post after being freed was a message to Armenians to ‘hold firm on Nagorno Karabakh (Artsakh), otherwise Azerbaijanis will slaughter you, just like Turks did 100 years ago.”

The revelations of the “Azerbaijani Laundromat” published by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and its investigative partners are extremely important and will be talked about for quite some time. It seems that every passing day, new scandals are being revealed and more politicians implicated. This latest report will be an integral addition to the body of investigative reporting out of Europe and the United States from previous years, mainly 2012-2016, with headlines such as “How Family that Runs Azerbaijan Built an Empire of Hidden Wealth” which presented documents that peel away three layers of secret ownership in a conglomerate and lead to gold mines and overseas real estate; “Council of Europe plagued by ‘caviar diplomacy’;” “Disgraced. Azerbaijan and the end of election monitoring as we know it;” “Caviar Diplomacy. How Azerbaijan Silenced the Council of Europe;” “Europe and Azerbaijan: The End of Shame;” “The European Swamp (Caviar Diplomacy Part 2) – Prosecutors, corruption and the Council of Europe;” “Caviar Diplomacy How Azerbaijan silenced the Council of Europe;” “Allegations of Dodgy Deals Rock Council of Europe” about Luca Volonte, an Italian member of the organization accused of receiving money from Azerbaijan to influence decisions; “Embarrassing Report Claims Azerbaijan ‘Considers Malta One of its Provinces” reporting that Malta was a ‘key location’ used by corrupt Azerbaijani officials to hide their money; “The Corleones of the Caspian: How Azerbaijan's dictator woos the United States and Europe.”

Having worked the last seven years in Brussels, I personally witnessed how many of these “politicians” supported Azerbaijan’s quest to elevate the country’s image – be it in the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly (PACE) in Strasbourg, or in the European Parliament in Brussels. 

Two reports by the European Stability Initiative on “Caviar Diplomacy” (2012, 2016) were followed by a March 2017 report by the Civic Solidarity Platform (a network of 80 Human Rights NGOs in Europe and Eurasia): “European Values Bought and Sold: An exploration into Azerbaijan's sophisticated system of projecting its international influence, buying western politicians and capturing intergovernmental organizations.” The platform later called on the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) to launch an "external, independent, and impartial investigation into allegations of corruption and other violations of the Parliamentary Assembly Code of Conduct in connection with its work on Azerbaijan."

There is sufficient and indisputable proof that most of the people mentioned in the articles and reports have a track record of whitewashing the face of an autocratic regime – that of the Aliyev family in Azerbaijan. Last, but not least, TEAS – the European Azerbaijani Society, founded by Tale Heydarov, the son of Kamaladdin Heydarov, the Minister of Emergency Situations in Azerbaijan, known as the unofficial lobbyist of Azerbaijan’s elites has its own share in this system of influencing decisions in Europe. Its activities appear in an article in The Economist’s 1843 Magazine, “Heaping on the Caviar Diplomacy” and looks at how the Azerbaijani regime diverts attention abroad from its human rights record and stifles dissent domestically. Mr. Didier Reynders, the Kingdom of Belgium’s Minister of Foreign Affairs attended the opening of the new TEAS offices in Brussels. Incidentally, the director of TEAS Benelux (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg) until two weeks ago was Marc Verwilghen, a former Belgian senator and minister. He became the first politician who lobbied for Azerbaijan to resign after the Laundromat revelations. Another Belgian politician, Alain Destexhe, known for his ties to the Azerbaijani regime and a lobbyist for them, who is a member of the Belgian delegation to PACE, has recently resigned. His name is in both reports, that of the Civic Solidarity and the OCCRP, where his so called organization of election monitoring has received money from Azerbaijan. 

Artsakh authorities do not deprive the Azerbaijani population of water. The Azerbaijani authorities refuse to cooperate with the Armenian side, hence depriving their own citizens of water. 

I suspect that many more politicians in many other European countries will follow Verwilghen and Destexhe - resignation and expulsion. I expect the same will happen in France, the United Kingdom and in Eastern European countries. In Germany already two politicians Lintner and Strenz have been implicated in the scandal...I am sure that my Armenian National Committee (Hay Tad) colleagues around the world will take this matter on. Azerbaijani arrogance and European acceptance can’t go on for long. It’s not unforeseeable that some European countries will look into the questionable dealings and accounts of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation too.

Having worked the last seven years in Brussels for the European Armenian Federation for Justice and Democracy (EAFJD/Hay Tad Europe), I personally witnessed how many of these “politicians” supported Azerbaijan’s quest to elevate the country’s image – be it in the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly (PACE) in Strasbourg, or in the European Parliament in Brussels. 

A case in point is the European Parliament’s resolution almost five years ago about Ramil Safarov, the convicted killer who beheaded Armenian officer Gurgen Margaryan in Budapest with an axe while he was sleeping. They were both taking part in a NATO training session. Now data has emerged that over USD $7 million was transferred in 2012 to Hungary from Azerbaijan right around the time the Hungarian government agreed to allow Safarov’s extradition to Azerbaijan (the company to the accounts of which the amount was transferred doesn’t exist anymore). I remember the heated discussion in the European Parliament before the adoption of the Resolution on Azerbaijan: The Ramil Safarov Case that slammed Aliyev’s decision to officially pardon Safarov after he arrived in Baku. Many pro-Azerbaijani members of the European Parliament argued against it, saying that if the resolution was adopted, they would not support the resolution of Nagorno Karabakh conflict!

This was a very tense moment. My hands were shaking when I was posting the news of the adoption of the resolution on EAFJD’s social media. Most pan-European organisations had already condemned Hungary for handing over Safarov to Azerbaijan, and there in Strasbourg, we were fighting tooth and nail for more than a week to keep this case on the agenda. Even some Brussels-based think tanks were against it and later apologized! At that time, Azerbaijan had sent eight officials from their Parliament to work with their lobbyists in the European Parliament… Many of those deputies who were arguing against the resolution then are still working in Strasbourg and Brussels, or have been visiting Baku as observers for presidential and parliamentary elections, or sponsoring events on Azerbaijan’s “tolerance and multiculturalism.” 

In January 2016, UK politician Robert Walter, a former member of PACE and the darling of the Turkish-Azerbaijani lobby, whose last favor was to push forward a report called “Escalation of violence in Nagorno-Karabakh and the other occupied territories of Azerbaijan.” That resolution was rejected by the plenary after a staunch fight by the Armenian side - the EAFJD, and the Armenian delegation. At the same plenary, another Azerbaijani promoted report titled “Inhabitants of frontier regions of Azerbaijan are deliberately deprived of water” drafted by Bosnian Milica Markovic was voted in the plenary. The report accused Karabakh of deliberately depriving water to residents of Azerbaijan that border the region of Artsakh where the Sarsang Reservoir sits. Needless to say that the report, especially the technical part, was lacking data professionalism. It was based on assumptions and the cited data was from 1993. Officials in Nagorno-Karabakh say that Azerbaijan’s population is not able to use the water of the Sarsang Reservoir only through their own state’s fault and not because the Armenian side restricts access to it.

Another striking name in the Laundromat affair is Kalin Mitrev – a Bulgarian representative to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), and husband of Bulgarian politician and Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova. Mitrev has received EUR 425,000 from Aliyev’s slush fund. Those of us working in Europe have said all along that Bokova is a shining example of Caviar Diplomacy – why would she stay silent in light of the destruction of the ancient Armenian cemetery in Nakhichevan’s Julfa by the Azerbaijani army? In the meantime, Mehriban Aliyeva, first Vice President and wife of President Ilham Aliyev is a UNESCO Goodwill ambassador, working closely with Bokova. Speaking of UNESCO, I assume, the Laundromat revelations will end the bid of (current Azerbaijani Ambassador to Russia) Polad Bülbüloglu to become Secretary-General of UNESCO. 

What is needed now, from the Armenian point of view, is that all Armenian lobby groups, especially Armenia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to fully and carefully read the report, connect the dots and take necessary measures.  

In any case, these will not be the last revelations or report on Caviar Diplomacy. What is needed now, from the Armenian point of view, is that all Armenian lobby groups, especially the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Armenia, to fully and comprehensively read the report, connect the dots and take the necessary measures. A scandal of this scale is hard to ignore. More than Armenians though, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe must be the first to clean its own house. This institution has been at the center of many scandals involving Azerbaijan. Even its president, the now disgraced Pedro Agramunt has been involved in Caviar Diplomacy, having sided with the regime in Baku and stifled democracy, human rights in Azerbaijan. No matter what, the Council of Europe should take a hard stance – consider harsh measures, even discuss the freezing of Azerbaijan’s membership. 

I am more than sure, that emboldened by these revelations, civil society organizations in Azerbaijan, Human Rights activists, democratic forces will try harder and demand accountability from their government for more transparency and reform. I am afraid, that the regime, as a counter measure, will harden its position and suppress these forces. OCCRP’s website was immediately blocked in Azerbaijan. Even more frightening is the possibility of renewed aggression against Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh (Artsakh). It is a fact, that the Aliyev regime almost always plays the anti-Armenian card when pressured domestically.

European political parties must open inquiries against their own members who have been mentioned in the report. Several names are repeated in a number of reports. They should be expelled from their parties, even forced to leave their parliamentary seats.

The European banks as well, need to be more vigilant in such cases of money laundering and bribery, especially British ones, which are now at the center of this scandal. And maybe, just maybe, the traditional British support to Azerbaijan might be questioned as well.

Ten days after the revelations, on September 13, 2017, the European Parliament in Strasbourg adopted a resolution in which members of the European Parliament “condemn the recent ‘Azerbaijani Laundromat’ revelations...attempts by Azerbaijan and other autocratic regimes in third countries to influence European decision-makers through illicit means." The resolution was approved by 578 votes, to 19, with 68 abstentions. The resolution goes on to say that the European Parliament should investigate and adopt robust measures to prevent such corruption occurring. Unfortunately, without European politicians who are ready and willing to be influenced, the Azerbaijani Laundromat scheme would not have worked.

I am confident, that my former colleagues at EAFJD and the Armenian National Committees in Europe and the Republic of Armenia’s relevant bodies will follow the points adopted in the resolution and make sure that the European Parliament and other bodies adhere to the text. Not doing so regionally and internationally, would give Azerbaijan a free hand to go to war.

Whatever the case, and no matter what Azerbaijan or European organizations do or say, we must continue working hard towards breaking the isolation imposed on Artsakh, ensure that more Europeans visit Nagorno Karabakh to see the reality on the ground while ensuring Armenians of  Artsakh travel to Europe, to raise their demands and support for freedom. Of course, as Armenians of the Diaspora, Armenia and Artsakh, we need to work harder to strengthen and modernize our army and work doubly hard to establish real democracy the republics of Armenia and Artsakh, which will strengthen our position in the negotiations for a sustainable peace and our position in the world.

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