The European Azerbaijan Society (TEAS) exists to raise ‘awareness of Azerbaijan’ and foster ‘closer economic, political and cultural links’. In practice, this means representing the interests of the mega-rich and repressive Aliyev regime. Azerbaijan’s ruling elite has used the country’s oil and gas wealth to establish a system where there is almost no press freedom and peaceful protests are violently broken up. In the run up to last year’s elections the regime conducted a systematic campaign of intimidation, putting rival candidates in jail, beating their children and banning rallies. On the day of the vote there were 143 political prisoners in Azerbaijan and videos emerged of ballot boxes being stuffed by the regime.
With the 2015 European Games taking place in Baku, human rights monitors, activists and lawyers are facing increasing repression. Enter the European Azerbaijan Society – its job is to win the regime friends among European decision makers, and it’s very good at it.
TEAS is as close to the regime as you can get without being run by a member of the Aliyev family. It was set up in 2008 by Tale Heydarov, whose father, Kamaladdin, is Azerbaijani minister for emergency situations. A leaked US embassy cable described him as possibly ‘more powerful than the president himself’.
Fronted by lobbying guru and wannabe Tory MP Lionel Zetter, the London-based group has offices in six countries. It founded Conservative Friends of Azerbaijan, and has donated to the Blairite Labour pressure group Progress. It also provides secretarial support to the Azerbaijan all-party parliamentary group – whose remit is framed to exclude any mention of human rights or democracy.
According to the register of MPs’ interests the society has given almost £90,000 to MPs – the vast majority Tories – to pay for trips to Azerbaijan. The list of MPs who have connections with TEAS is extensive. Lord Laird and Conservative MP Mark Field formerly held paid roles with the TEAS advisory board; Field received £6,000 a year. Former Tory defence secretary Liam Fox recently declared that he received £5,700 for translation rights to his 2013 book Rising Tides – a treatise on why Britain should continue attempting to mould the world in its own image.
MPs on TEAS trips do not meet independent civil society groups and instead spend their time talking to the plethora of companies connected with the Aliyev elite. Azerbaijani investigative journalist Khadija Ismayil has revealed the vast corruption. Most of the companies involved in it are linked to just three families – the Aliyevs, the Mammadovs and TEAS founders the Heydarovs.
TEAS doesn’t just lobby MPs; it is adept at using Azerbaijan’s rich cultural heritages to promote it as a democratic, open country with which Europe should be doing business. At the UK party conferences TEAS organises jazz receptions; it puts on regular film screenings and events in London; and has arranged charity football matches featuring Mo Farah, Fabric Muamba, Ian Wright and Tony Adams.
TEAS also organises business forums in Paris, Brussels and London. It invites those with business interests in Azerbaijan to become members – and for £10,000 a year will set up high-level meetings.
Azerbaijan has had a ‘special relationship’ with Britain for years, thanks to the country’s oil and gas wealth, with renewed significance now that politicians are looking for alternatives to Russian gas. Azerbaijan is lined up to supply 10 bcm of gas through the Euro-Caspian mega pipeline. This huge piece of infrastructure will run from the BP-operated Shah Deniz II gas field off the coast of Baku all the way to northern Italy, creating militarised strips of land where the pipeline will be guarded with normal civic rights suspended.
Thanks to TEAS, and Azerbaijan’s fossil fuel wealth, our political elite is happy to embrace Aliyev. David Cameron recently welcomed him to Downing Street and according to a TEAS poll 72 per cent of MPs believe he is ‘a reliable partner of the west’.
Elmar Chakhtakhtinski, chair of Azerbaijani-Americans for Democracy, argues the most important function of the Aliyev lobby machine is ‘to send a message back home that there is nothing that can be done to remove this family from power… it sends a powerful signal that even the west is behind it’. For democracy activists facing the daily threat of violence, the stories of western support for Aliyev serve to underline their own vulnerability. TEAS provides a crucial weapon in Aliyev’s arsenal of repression.