Azerbaijan: Suffocation of NGOs Raises Questions About Donor Strategy
The Azerbaijani government has forced the local chapter of the global corruption watchdog Transparency International to scale back its activities in the South Caucasus nation.
The move is part of a long-running crackdown on the country’s civil-society sector. But this particular episode perhaps resonates more than others because the local chapter had developed a reputation for being cautious in its approach toward the government, which international watchdogs – including Transparency International (TI) – contend is one of the more corrupt in the world.
It is also stoking criticism of Western governments and advocacy organizations that fund many of Azerbaijan’s largest civil society groups for adopting an allegedly restrained approach in dealings with Baku.
On August 1, Transparency Azerbaijan (TA) closed two legal aid centers in the cities of Ganja and Guba, and its main office in Baku “substantially scaled down its activities,” the group said in a statement.
The organization indicated that its actions were prompted by laws – adopted in 2012 ahead of the last presidential election – designed to restrict foreign funding for Azerbaijani civil society organizations. Transparency Azerbaijan has traditionally gotten most of its financing from foreign donors, and as financing rules tightened, it came to rely entirely on the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which provided 100 percent of the organization’s funding for the last year.
“This should not be allowed to happen. Transparency Azerbaijan is a non-partisan organization, like all Transparency International chapters, with no political affiliations,” the Berlin-based TI said in a statement.
USAID has estimated that most of Azerbaijan’s still-active, independent civil society organizations have substantially cut back their operations in recent years.
Transparency Azerbaijan is now the only anti-corruption organization operating in the country that is not affiliated with the government. And while Transparency International is one of the fiercest critics of the Azerbaijani leadership, the national chapter has increasingly come under fire from other local civil society activists, who complain that the local chapter’s survival came at the cost of its interest in directly challenging high-level corruption in Azerbaijan.
“In other post-Soviet countries, the TI national chapters have much better reputations,” said Anar Mammadli, a prominent human rights activist. “Unfortunately, [TA] had not worked to establish public oversight over the government, and their work on combating corruption … didn’t respond to what the public needed.”
TA has conducted a variety of programs to combat corruption, develop governance skills for other local NGOs and help implement the government’s ASAN e-governance system. But it has tended to avoid any direct confrontation with authorities. In one prominent example, in 2011, TA publicly disagreed with TI’s assessment of the country’s level of corruption.
“There are fundamental corruption-related problems in the country. For instance, elected officials don’t declare their income. There are corruption scandals. But TA doesn’t address these issues,” Mammadli said.
“It’s possible that the reason that the government was cooperating with Transparency Azerbaijan could be to soften the criticism from Transparency International. But TI has continued its activities honestly and that may be the reason for the pressure on TA,” said Zohrab Ismayil, a civil society activist and head of an NGO, the Public Association for Assistance to Free Economy. In spite of TA’s relatively docile stance, the scaling back of its operations “is still a loss to civil society and will narrow opportunities for people in the provinces,” he added.
TA, however, disputes that criticism. “It is not our job” to deal with specific issues of corruption, Rena Safaralieva, the organization’s executive director, told EurasiaNet.org. “Our job is to give recommendations to the government and monitor various areas,” Safaralieva said.
In the bigger picture, the fact that such a relatively non-confrontational organization has had to retreat raises questions about foreign donors’ approach to funding civil-society groups in Azerbaijan.
USAID’s interactions with the government of Azerbaijan have generated controversy in the past. “Why... does the US government continue to fund misguided programs in authoritarian and semi-authoritarian countries that display no interest in reform? Why does USAID write seriously of President Aliyev’s benign intentions when he has shown minimal respect for the rights of his own citizens? The reason is as banal as it is galling: bureaucratic self-interest, inertia, and the assumption that more is always better,” wrote Melinda Haring, fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, in a 2013 article in Foreign Policy.
Since then, the ongoing crackdown has prompted foreign donor organizations, including USAID, to shift programs to less sensitive issues, critics charge. If donors previously funded projects in areas like corruption, freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly, they have now shifted to projects related to areas such as infrastructure, ecology, and agriculture.
“Until about 2015, foreign donors have funded many projects in Azerbaijan involving young people in important areas like political campaigns, political leadership,” said Abulfaz Gurbanli, a political activist and board member of the youth opposition group N!DA Civic Movement. “Under the current conditions, donors have stopped implementing politically sensitive programs in order not to create a confrontation with the authorities.”
“Western states have sold Azerbaijani civil society out,” claimed Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, a Harvard-educated activist who spent two years in prison on politically motivated charges.
Most recently, he complained, Western representatives in Baku have remained largely silent, as the government has heightened pressure on a prominent independent news organization.
“Western countries are under the mistaken impression that in Azerbaijan, leaders from the democratic front … will someday make democratic changes, and then, when everything is ready, they will say ‘we are ready to work with you.’ But this is not going to happen,” Hajiyev asserted.
USAID, in response to questions from EurasiaNet.org, did not directly address critics’ allegations. “The United States seeks a strong, stable, independent, prosperous, democratic Azerbaijan. We have worked together with Azerbaijan in three equally important areas to help realize this goal: security, energy-economics, and democracy and human rights,” the US Embassy in Baku told EurasiaNet.org in a statement. “USAID provides a wide spectrum of development assistance in two sectors: economic growth (policy reform, access to finance and economic diversification) and democracy and governance (assisting vulnerable populations, strengthening civil society).”
Even when donors want to keep working on more politically sensitive projects, they can be thwarted by other factors. The German Marshall Fund, for example, continues to work on projects to provide free legal aid and promote freedom of speech. But the organization sometimes has difficulty in identifying local partners.
“Apparently the all-around pressure has done its job,” said Mehriban Rahimli, the Black Sea Trust Consultant of GMF on Azerbaijan and Georgia. “Applications for funding have decreased noticeably, because people are avoiding projects that are politically sensitive. It is understandable.”