Saturday, May 26, 2012

Azerbaijan's "Caviar Diplomacy"

I'm sure you have seen and heard "diplomacy" used in many different forms and configurations. Well, now you can add "caviar" to the list, as well. This one refers specifically to Azerbaijan, however.

With Eurovision 2012 being held in Baku, the Azeri regime thought they could seize the moment and turn it into a great public diplomacy opportunity. They built a massive Crystal Hall, cosmetically brought their house into order, and are now trying to maintain it as they host their guests from all over Europe (and beyond). This is backfiring now, however, as instead of updates on who made it to the Final and who didn't, the West (where many couldn't care less about Eurovision itself) is reading media reports on political and human rights abuses in the country. The government's desperate attempt to cover it all up isn't helping much either.

Crystal Hall in Baku. Image from Belgovision.

Then, on May 24, there was a report put out by the European Stability Initiative titled "Caviar Diplomacy: How Azerbaijan Silenced the Council of Europe. Part One." The email sent out announcing the report said it "describes how an authoritarian regime in Baku has managed to sidestep its commitments to the Council of Europe, silenced its critics and turned international election monitoring into political theatre."

The timing was perfect. Or couldn't have been worse, depending on the perspective.

Here are more quotes:

Gift giving is a part of traditional Azeri culture. But sometimes it comes at a price. As a recent book on customs and culture in Azerbaijan put it:
“Big-hearted gestures, such as paying for an entire table of friends dining at a restaurant or other costly favors for friends and guests are still a norm ... The generosity shown towards friends is expected to be paid back some day, however.”
This was certainly the logic behind a policy that Azerbaijani officials referred to in private as “caviar diplomacy.” It began in 2001, not long after Azerbaijan joined the Council of Europe – the continent’s club of democratic nations. It gathered speed after Ilham Aliyev, who had served in the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly (PACE), became president of Azerbaijan in 2003. Once the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline was completed in 2005 and the Azerbaijani state coffers were awash in oil revenues, the “caviar policy” shifted into top gear.
This report suggests a few answers. It describes how an authoritarian regime in Baku has managed to sidestep its commitments, silence its critics and turn international election monitoring into political theatre. It is a story of how Europe’s oldest human rights organisation has been neutered.
When Azerbaijan was admitted to the Council of Europe, despite well documented democratic failings, it was with the idea that Council of Europe membership would gradually transform Azerbaijan. Sadly, the reverse has occurred. The outcome is a tragedy for the citizens of Azerbaijan, particularly those brave pro-democracy activists who languish in jail as political prisoners. But it is also a tragedy for Europe, whose values have been trampled on. For the PACE parliamentarians enjoying the benefits of caviar diplomacy are also sitting members of national parliaments across Europe. And it is certainly a tragedy for the Council of Europe itself, which urgently needs to recover the values its founders entrusted it with if it is to justify its continued existence.

I suggest you read it in full, if interested.

Of course, the major focus of the report is on high diplomacy, lobbying, and corruption, but I believe it still merits the attention of public diplomacy enthusiasts, as it can be a classic example of how NOT to attempt PD in such a context. I have mentioned it before and will repeat yet again: when it comes to public diplomacy, bad press cannot still be "good press". As this example shows, many more people - who might not have heard of Azerbaijan before or could not have located it on the map - now see the bigger, more accurate, and not-so-positive picture.

More on Eurovision later...

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