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Azerbaijan: Repressive climate ahead of COP29

Thomas Latschan
June 15, 2024

Human rights advocates are worried that Baku is locking up activists and journalists ahead of the UN climate summit this fall.

A police officer patrols a market in Azerbaijan's capital Baku
A police officer patrols a market in Azerbaijan's capital BakuImage: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP

Environmental organizations were incredulous when they learned that COP29, the next United Nations World Climate Change Conference, would be held in Baku, Azerbaijan this November.

A fossil-fuels heavyweight, the small Caucasus country the size of Austria produces 34 billion cubic meters of gas and 35 million tons of oil per year. And fossil fuels amount to around 90% of the country's exports.

On the sidelines of the COP preparatory conference in Bonn over the last two weeks, Environment Minister Mukhtar Babayev said that his country plans to continue expanding natural gas production in the coming years. However, Baku also wants to invest in renewable energies "at the same time," the minister, who will also chair COP29, told news agency AFP.

"I think in parallel — natural gas production and renewables — possibly will move together at the same time," he said.

Azerbaijan's Environment Minister Mukhtar Babayev
Azerbaijan's Environment Minister Mukhtar Babayev once made a career in Azerbaijan's state oil company SOCAR. Soon he will lead COP29 in BakuImage: Kamran Jebreili/AP Photo/picture alliance

'Authoritarian petrostate'

Critics are unimpressed with his plans. Babayev is a "former oil executive from an authoritarian petrostate," Alice Harrison from the international environmental organization Global Witness said back in January. German climate NGO Germanwatch declared around the same time that Baku was a "highly problematic" choice for COP29.

While such criticism can be voiced safely from abroad, domestic media and environmental activists in Azerbaijan don't enjoy the same freedom. According to Human Rights Watch, at least 25 such critics have been arrested or sentenced in the last year as the conference approaches. Numerous environmental activists and organizations there have also stated that their work is being hindered by the repressive atmosphere in the country.

Azerbaijani journalist Arzu Geybulla, who now lives in Istanbul, warned on the social media platform X that civil society in her country is in danger of being completely silenced before the start of the conference in November.

Autocratic rule

Azerbaijani authorities reject these accusations. But Azerbaijan has been ruled by the same family since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991. President Ilham Aliyev, son of the first president Heydar Aliyev, has now been in power since 2003.

Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have repeatedly alleged that political opposition and freedom of expression and assembly are being severely restricted. Azerbaijan is also said to be holding a "three-digit number" of political prisoners.

 Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has consolidated his power since the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict endedImage: Nagorno-Karabakh/IMAGO Images

The intensifying crackdown on journalists is due in part to a stricter media law that was enacted in 2022. Since November 2023, several legal steps have also been taken to close down the remaining independent media outlets, Amnesty International reported.

Meanwhile, Aliyev's autocratic rule has further solidified as a result of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Armenia, in which he claimed victory. For more than 30 years, dispute over the enclave, which is mainly inhabited by ethnic Armenians, has strained relations with Azerbaijan's western neighbor. In September 2023, Azerbaijani troops invaded Nagorno-Karabakh and expelled more than 100,000 Armenians. This escalation was preceded by a nine-month blockade of the only road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia, which triggered a humanitarian crisis in the region. War crimes, including the killing of civilians and prisoners of war, were reportedly committed by the Azerbaijani military during the conflict.

Corruption reaches Council of Europe

Azerbaijan is also one of the most corrupt countries in the world. In Transparency International's annual ranking in 2023, it came in at 154th out of 180 countries. The organization writes in its report that corruption "erodes various levels of society and state, while undermining civic and political rights." It thus contributes significantly to Aliyev's hold on power.

Bribery has also been deliberately deployed by Baku outside the country — including of officials associated with the Council of Europe, an international organization that upholds human rights and rule of law, but is not affiliated with the European Union.

Azerbaijan has been a member since 2001. In 2012, Baku was revealed to have hosted up to 40 officials from the Council of Europe annually, showering them with expensive gifts. With this "caviar diplomacy," Aliyev was apparently trying to buy favorable assessments of the human rights situation in his country.

Oil production near Baku, Azerbaijan
Oil production near Baku, where COP29 will be held in NovemberImage: Bulkin Sergey/Russian Look/IMAGO

Europe looks the other way

The fact that the European Union has not yet criticized such corruption more harshly is due to Azerbaijan's role as an increasingly important supplier of oil and gas, observers say. Since the start of Russia's war in Ukraine, the EU has worked to become less dependent on Russian fossil fuels.

In 2022, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen therefore signed a declaration of intent with President Aliyev, according to which Brussels intends to double its gas imports from Azerbaijan in the coming years. Environment Minister Babayev's statement this week about increasing gas production must therefore be seen within this context.

This role as an energy supplier for Europe lends additional legitimacy to Aliyev's role as head of state. Following what he would consider to be a successful conclusion of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, he is now primarily concerned with internal stability and brought the schedule for new presidential elections forward to take political advantage of his current popularity.

Aliyev will no doubt also want to use COP29 to present himself as a global player. But without any unwelcome criticism and dissent.

This article was originally written in German.