EU need for Azerbaijani gas emboldens authoritarian Aliyev

Frankie Vetch

 

Almost 200 people died over two days, between September 12 and 14, when fighting erupted between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Last week, the two leaders of the belligerent nations sat down with the French President Emmanuel Macron and President of the European Council Charles Michel. The foursome agreed that the EU would send a mission to the border to maintain peace.

After a two-month war in 2020 between Azerbaijan and Armenia, it was Russia that brokered a ceasefire. Since Russia is currently preoccupied, there has been an opening for the EU and the U.S. to play peacemaker.

Although Vladimir Putin may no longer be calling the shots, the consequences of his decision to go to war with Ukraine are reverberating through the region. In July, the EU signed a memorandum with Azerbaijan to double exports of gas to the bloc by 2027, in order to help the EU wean itself off Russian fossil fuels.

The deal has emboldened President Ilham Aliyev to use his newly found leverage to step up a crackdown on dissent in Azerbaijan, while the EU looks away. 

The government in Azerbaijan blocked access to TikTok on several service providers as early as 14 September, possibly to stop the proliferation of a video that allegedly shows a female Armenian soldier being mutilated by Azerbaijani forces. Videos like this from the frontline are likely why TikTok has remained widely blocked since then, according to data collected from a monitoring app run by the Open Observatory of Network Interference, an organization that documents internet censorship around the world.

During the 2020 war Aliyev’s government shut down several social media sites. This even though support for the war was widespread, according to several Azerbaijanis I spoke to, including the prominent journalist Mehman Huseynov.

Huseynov believes that this time around attitudes have changed. Online opposition to the war has increased. One activist, Ahmad Mammadli, was arrested and then sentenced to 30 days in jail after writing some scathing tweets about the conflict. 

Even before the recent violence though, a journalist was sentenced to prison in July for defamation. Some human rights organizations and Huseynov believe the journalist was targeted for reporting on a high profile case in which Azerbaijani military personnel have been accused of torturing fellow soldiers.

Ramute Remezaite, a Senior Legal Consultant at the European Human Rights Advocacy Center, dates Aliyev’s crackdown on criticism to 2014, with the EU’s increasing reliance on Azerbaijani gas emboldening Aliyev’s regime to disregard international law with impunity. She is currently working on filing a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights against the Azerbaijani state on behalf of twenty people targeted by the Pegasus spyware.

“I remember when that crackdown started in 2014,” Remezaite told me, “our Russian colleagues would say, ‘Oh, we hope Russia doesn’t get to where Azerbaijan is.’”

The picture in Azerbaijan is in stark contrast to Armenia, which is a democracy whose patience with its longtime authoritarian protector, Russia, seems to be wearing thin. That said, TikTok in Armenia was temporarily blocked during the September clashes. This has left some, such as Artur Papyan who co-founded an organization called CYBERHub-AM that provides IT support to Armenian civil society, feeling worried that in the face of a hostile authoritarian neighbor the little democracy might be tempted to use some of the same tools.

IN GLOBAL NEWS:

Vietnam is taking steps to exert more control over news and information online. The government is preparing new rules to limit which social media account can post news-related content, according to recent reporting. Hanoi — which already enforces strict censorship laws — is aiming to establish a legal basis for controlling news dissemination on platforms like Facebook and YouTube. The new rules are still being finalized and are expected to be announced by the end of the year. As we recently reported, the Indonesian government has also moved to limit free speech online, turning the country into one of the world’s most repressive internet regimes.

Got Musk whiplash? You’re not alone. The Tesla CEO grabbed headlines last week after he proclaimed he would buy Twitter, after all — at the original price of $44 billion — after a months-long saga over the deal. With the U.S. midterms in less than a month, much of the conversation has focused on what Musk taking the helm could mean for the elections, especially if he moves to reinstate former Donald Trump’s account ahead of the elections. But, as Coda editor Ellery Biddle explained last April, adapting Musk’s free speech absolutism to Twitter could play out dangerously in countries vulnerable to violence and civil unrest. “We have real world consequences from the kind of speech that Twitter enables,” an India-based tech expert told her. “Our political parties are really, really adept at understanding how the algorithms work, how to create trends, how to make something shareable. What they excel at is essentially fueling hate.”

Journalists and activists in Mexico are still being targeted with Pegasus spyware. According to a new blockbuster report by the Mexican digital rights group R3D, the phones of at least three journalists and activists were infected with Pegasus from 2019-2021. The use of Pegasus in Mexico was first uncovered in 2017 under former President Enrique Pena Nieto, whose government used the technology to spy on journalists and activists. Since taking office in 2018, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has repeatedly declared his opposition to the practice and vowed that it would end under his administration. The latest revelations call Lopez Obrador’s promises into question. “This implies the possibility of two scenarios,” the digital rights group Article 19 said in a statement. “The first is that the President lied to the people of Mexico. The second, that the armed forces are spying behind the President’s back and disobeying the direct order of their Supreme Commander.”

WHAT WE’RE READING

The White House recently unveiled an AI Bill of Rights that it claims will protect Americans from the discriminatory use of artificial intelligence and other abuses. But the proposal is drawing heat from experts, who say it’s “toothless against big tech.” Wired has more.

This newsletter is curated by Coda’s staff reporter Erica Hellerstein. Liam Scott contributed to this edition.