Three Years Too Many: Ilgar Mammadov and a Crossroads in Azerbaijan

Today marks the third anniversary of the unjust imprisonment by Azerbaijan authorities of Ilgar Mammadov, a member of NRGI’s advisory council and passionate advocate for reform in his troubled country. Calls for his release from the international community have been consistent, widespread and—so far—fruitless. Languishing in prison, Ilgar has been subject to harassment and savage beatings.

Ilgar Mammadov

This woeful anniversary comes at a grave inflection point for all of Azerbaijan’s citizens. The government, made wealthy by Caspian oil deposits, is now on its knees due to cratering oil prices, with reports emerging last week that it is seeking a bailout from the IMF. It is widely suspected that any IMF bailout will come with conditions for reducing corruption and political reform—conditions that the government is thought to have already rejected.

Citizens are raising their voices and attempting to leverage global transparency programs like the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative and the Open Government Partnership to engage government. Such open dialogue with civil society could diffuse social tension as the government wrestles with challenging decisions ahead. However, to date Azerbaijan’s government has continued on a path of civic repression.

US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power has called upon countries of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) to speak out against cases like Ilgar’s, particularly when they involve authorities who claim to support open government. Azerbaijan’s membership is under active review as OGP seeks to address the persistent and persuasive complaints that the Azerbaijan government is failing to uphold commitments to freedom of expression, association, and opinion core to the partnership. The action–or inaction–of OGP in response will have tremendous impact on the credibility of the initiative.

In parallel, following deep concern for the ability of Azeri civil society to engage critically in the EITI process, the EITI international board conducted an early review of Azerbaijan and subsequently downgraded its status in the initiative. The government has until mid-April to demonstrate compliance with the required corrective actions or risk delisting or suspension.

Push is quickly coming to shove in Azerbaijan. Total dependence on oil and darkest opacity among the ruling elite have together left the country in a terribly weakened position. Azerbaijan’s government is desperately searching for a quick fix, making promises to raise salaries and pensions and to control inflation; however, without systematic reforms and a clear crisis management strategy, these attempts would seem to be futile.

The “arbitrary application of the law in Azerbaijan […] to silence critical voices” has motivated Thorbjørn Jagland, the secretary-general of the Council of Europe, to launch an official inquiry into Azerbaijan’s implementation of the European Convention on Human Rights. We call on the Aliyev administration to free political prisoners like Ilgar, allow them to create and participate in peaceful dialogue between civil society and the government, and work together toward solutions to the nation’s many troubles.

Suneeta Kaimal is the chief operating officer of the Natural Resource Governance Institute (NRGI). Galib Efendiev is NRGI’s Eurasia director.