Georgia used to be a pocket of safety for political dissidents from Azerbaijan, but this hospitable reputation is under serious threat. After some high-profile cases, of which Afgan Mukhtarli’s has attracted the most international attention, more and more exiled activists from Azerbaijan are leaving the country. Some of them by force, as they no longer receive residence permits, others pro-actively leave Georgia in search of safer places to stay.
Afgan Mukhtarli’s case may be the most debated example, but it certainly isn’t the only one. A journalist based in Tbilisi, one evening in May this year, Afgan disappeared whilst making his way home. The next day, he resurfaced in a prison in Baku, even though his passport was still at home. His wife Leyla said her husband was investigating the Azerbaijani president’s family business in Georgia, and that the secret service of their home country abducted him and forcibly returned him to his birth soil. There he was charged with possessing an illegal amount of money, which was most likely put on his person by the kidnappers, and illegally crossing the border.
The fact that Afgan was able to cross that border without his passport raises the question of whether Georgian authorities were involved in the case. As Georgia is relying on gas from Azerbaijan, some speculate that Tbilisi caved under pressure from Baku in order to secure their supplies. Since Georgia has been profiling itself as the most liberal and democratic state in the region, and considering their agreements with the EU and recent visa-free regime with the Schengen zone, those recent vanishings and deportations of journalists and activists come as a bit of a surprise.
Berlin-based musician and producer Jamal Ali is another Azerbaijani political opponent who recently got into trouble in Georgia. Upon his arrival at Tbilisi airport in April, he was told he wasn’t allowed into the country. After waiting around for a day without any updates on the situation, he was sent back to Berlin. Since he was denied entry only two weeks after Georgian citizens were allowed to travel to the Schengen area without a visa, Jamal assumed that such an incident was impossible as it would cause a big scandal. “But obviously after Afgan’s case, they don’t care about big scandals.”
Afgan’s much-discussed story drew attention to possible irregularities in the prided Georgian transparency. Leyla had been struggling to get a residence permit in Georgia for years, as the government told her the journalistic work she was doing was too dangerous. After her husband’s disappearance however, Tbilisi offered her Georgian citizenship – which she declined. Jamal praises her decision, but doesn’t have high hopes for Afgan’s trial, predicting a 10 year prison sentence and “of course he will be tortured, like everybody else.”
The tactics used, making a person cross the border without proper documentation and putting illegal amounts of money or drugs in their pockets, is a very old technique of the Azerbaijani government, Jamal explains. “They arrest someone and accuse him of something they are actually doing themselves. Abuse of power, tax evasion, and sometimes drugs… but not so often. Not everybody in opposition can be a drug dealer, right?”
Reflecting on his own entry denial, he suspects he was put on a blacklist after making a controversial video about the Georgian church allegedly receiving free resources from Socar, Azerbaijan’s state-owned gas and oil company. “To me it is a surprise that the Azerbaijani government would have so much power and influence in Georgia to tell them who not to let in,” he says. He initially thought it was the powerful church in fear of him organizing a protest, but in the end, he says, it’s all about gas. Jamal, who also works for MeydanTV, a Berlin-based news outlet critical of the political situation in Azerbaijan, points out that Georgia gets its natural resources from them or from Russia. And even though Georgia has more common interests with Azerbaijan, it surprised him that “this degree of giving up democratic values is even possible.”
Having resided in Berlin for the past five years, Jamal came to Germany after his arrest in Baku in 2012 for insulting the president and participating in a protest. As it was just before the Eurovision Song Contest finals, which were hosted by Azerbaijan the same year, the government gave him two options: either spend five years in jail, or be exiled for the same amount of time. Shortly after Jamal arrived in Berlin, he was issued a refugee passport by the German government under the 1951 Geneva Convention.
“Of course they check how dangerous it is for you to be sent back, and Azerbaijan has a ranking among the most dangerous countries at the moment. For example, according to the statistics, Afghanistan is safe now, so they started to send people back. This could happen to us one day as well, but our country is actually sinking in the rankings of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. There might be no war, but a lot of persecution is happening.”
Turkey, a beacon of freedom?
Contemplating the political situation in his homeland, his conclusions are bleak. He considers the geopolitical situation to be very unfavourable at the moment, with Erdogan in Turkey, Putin in Russia, and “Iran, I don’t even want to talk about. Georgia was our only hope.” Now at the age of 30, he remembers the day he arrived in Turkey as an 18 year old student, and was introduced to political satire for the first time in his life. Even though now it may seem unimaginable, Turkey was an example of democracy and freedom of expression back then: “I saw an image of a donkey with Erdogan’s face on it and remember thinking: ‘They can do this? Nobody is getting arrested for that? One day, our country will be like that.’”
That day, however, seems far away, and the election of Donald Trump made things even worse for the future of freedom of speech and expression, he points out. But whereas in, for example, the Netherlands, prisons are being turned into refugee shelters due to a decline in the number of prisoners, in Azerbaijan they are building new ones as there is not enough space to house all the convicts.
“New hobby,” Jamal sarcastically remarks, “instead of building schools or hospitals, they are building jails.” Nevertheless, Azerbaijan is presently very focused on harvesting international status and prestige, according to the activist. “They are hosting the European Games, Islamic Games, and Formula 1 races, also because it is a good way to launder money. Like our president said: “Nobody knew about Azerbaijan before Eurovision, and now we are all famous in the world.” But famous for what?”
The consequences of activism
His friends who are still there tell him it gets increasingly harder to be critical of the government, and to oppose authorities by creative and artistic means. Barely anyone wants to cooperate, and if they do, they are very aware of the troubles it might land them in. Being an activist in Azerbaijan does not only jeopardize your own security, but also that of your family and friends, as Jamal has experienced. His mother was held at the police station for days, and his brother was taken and interrogated a couple of hours before his own wedding – all because of Jamal’s protest songs.
“They told my brother: “You have to tell your brother he is a piece of shit.” If they arrest him, I cannot even go there and visit him. So it is hard: I write a song and he might go to jail. It’s not me taking responsibility for that, the consequences are for the people who are close to me. They are getting punished for it.”
However, quick to reassure that he is not completely despairing, he concludes on a hopeful note: “I always carry my passport with me in order to go straight to the airport and buy a ticket to Baku, in case something changes,” he says. Pausing for a while, and finishing his cigarette, he adds, “I just don’t know when that will happen.”