Recent sanctions imposed by the USA and the European Union strengthened the need to reduce energy dependency from Russia’s supplies, which currently make up 30% of EU gas imports.
To this aim, the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) is due to start in 2016, costing $45 billion. The planned pipeline would run from Azerbaijan through Turkey and Greece to finally reach southern Italy, where the local population has been fiercely opposing the projects due to environmental concerns.
To tackle this and other challenges that the project presents, last July, a British petroleum-led consortium hired former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair to advise them on the export of natural gas from Azerbaijan to Europe, the Financial Times reports.
Azerbaijan is probably better known to the wider European public for having hosted the 2012 edition of Eurovision Song Festival. This was an occasion for the regime to polish its international image by showcasing the wonders the country could offer, from modern buildings in its capital, Baku, to its resorts on the Caspian Sea. All the while, activists were incarcerated for protesting – they hoped to engage media attention about the country’s poor human rights record.
Whatever interest Azerbaijan arose, it soon quietened after the competition ended. President Ilham Aliyev, son of Heydar Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s president from 1993 to 2003, was swiftly re-elected in October 2013 for a third term with a 84.5% majority, but the regime’s crackdown on activists, protesters and the press continues to this day.
Despite calling himself a“strong supporter of democracy,” Mr. Blair is not new to cosying up with undemocratic regimes in the former Soviet countries, as in 2011 he became a consultant to Kazakhstan’s regime. This was, officially, to guide the country through reforms to improve its human right record, but these efforts left human rights activists dissatisfied: “We’ve not documented or been informed of any tangible positive human rights improvements as a result of Tony Blair’s two years of work,” Hugh Williamson of Human Rights Watch (HRW) told EurasiaNet.org.
Human rights abuse is not all that should concern those getting into business with Azerbaijan. A recent wave of tweets from President Aliyev’s account claim Azerbaijan’s readiness to resume the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, an area disputed with Armenia for over 20 years. In 1988, the region, originally part of Azerbajan, demanded to be annexed to Armenia due to its ethnic composition. Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia declared unification in December 1989 and war with Azerbaijan broke out. Despite the military confrontation effectively ending in 1994 due to a cease-fired brokered by Russia, a peace treaty was never signed, and border clashes periodically claim fatalities on both sides of the conflict.
To avoid dealing with Russia for its “unwillingness to recognize that Ukraine can chart its own path,” as declared by President Obama, businesses in the West and their envoy, Tony Blair, are ready to get down and dirty with a regime unwilling to let go of its own Soviet past.
Let us always be known by the company we keep.