A number of current and former delegates of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe are rather likely to have accepted bribes from the Azerbaijani government. Such conclusions were drawn by the independent investigation panel that published a 200-page report on 22 April. The PACE has already taken a number of urgent measures. So what does the report say and what could be its consequences – let’s figure it out.
When and why the investigation panel was set up?
The PACE delegates were first accused of corruption back in 2012, when a non-profit organization European Stability Initiative (ESI) published its first report that claimed European politicians had been receiving jewelry, carpets and caviar (the so-called “caviar diplomacy”) from the Azerbaijani government in exchange for complimentary reports on the state of democracy in that country. Other investigations began appearing soon after that (particularly, that of the OCCRP).
The assembly had been ignoring these charges until 2015, the Milano prosecutor’s office initiated a criminal investigation into the Italian delegate to the PACE Luca Volonte, who was accused of receiving €2 million from a member of the Azerbaijani delegation. A number of the PACE members urged the then president Pedro Agramunt to initiate a criminal investigation at the assembly, but the latter did everything to delay the process. The scandal was further reinforced by Agramunt himself, who visited Syria on a Russian aircraft. In 2017, the PACE finally agreed to assemble an external investigation panel. It included three retired judges: Nicolas Bratza (a former president of the European Court of Human Rights), Jean-Louis Bruguière (a French judge, notable for his rulings on cases regarding terrorism) and Elisabet Fura (a former judge at the European Court of Human Rights, currently serving as the Swedish ombudsman).
What did the commission find while investigating corruption at the PACE?
Systematic external influence on documents and the PACE’s decisions in favor of Azerbaijan
According to witnesses, the rooms were always full whenever the assembly was voting on Azerbaijan issues. Also, the interests of that country in particular committees of the assembly was allegedly observed.
The Monitoring committee. On a number of occasions, some “nuances” came up while appointing a reporter on Azerbaijan. One of the brightest examples of that was the appointment of Debono Grech (Malta), although the position was supposed to be given to Liz-Karin Kristoffersen (Norway). However, her candidacy was rejected by “the allies of Azerbaijan” (including Agramunt), who eventually appointed “one of their own”. After Grech, one of the candidates refused to replace him at this position, as she was convinced by Agramunt, who subsequently himself became a co-reporter (served in 2010-2015).
After Agramunt became the president of the PACE, his former position of a co-reporter on Azerbaijan was given to Agustin Conde (from Spain), who had never visited the country, yet supported its government. Soon after that, in 2016, Cezar Florin Preda (from Romania) was appointed and he was also very supportive of the Azerbaijani government. He visited the country on a few occasions (including a visit to a Formula-1 race), sometimes with his family, and once took his son with him. During his visits, he had meetings with the country’s government, where representatives of the PACE office were not allowed to attend.
The Human Rights committee. Alain Destexhe (Belgium), the committee’s chairman, visited Azerbaijan in 2017 in order to examine the situation with political prisoners. He also had a one-on-one meeting with the president Ilkham Aliev (and the head of his presidential administration). Destexhe also ignored the PACE office guidelines on meetings. Witnesses claim he requested members of the office to make handwritten notes about the visit and to hand them to him. Based on the handwritten notes, he produced a report in broken French, which is weird, given that it is his native language. The report was then used by the office to make a presentation (which was far from tough), which was subsequently amended by Destexhe, who praised the Azerbaijani government for its measures against poverty and for maintaining religious tolerance, as well as misled on the situation with political prisoners, while keeping demands to the government rather modest.
The Political Affairs and Democracy committee. Reporter Robert Walter (United Kingdom) was preparing a report on Nagorno-Karabakh. In order to do that, he visited Azerbaijan, whereas Armenia denied him entry due to alleged anti-Armenian statements. Also, his wife (a Turkish national) owned a business in Azerbaijan. Therefore, he was accused of conflict of interests at the time of preparing the report. He then denied all of these allegations, at the same time pointing to the close relationship between the Azerbaijani president and Leonid Slutsky, a member of the Russian delegation to the PACE, who has received a medal from Azerbaijan.
What it comes down to, according to the witness testimonies, after the PACE officials visited Azerbaijan, their reports changed significantly, obviously, to the benefit of that country.
“Caviar diplomacy”: what kind of gifts PACE members received from Azerbaijan?
A number of witnesses (delegates and PACE members) have spoken about the gifts they had been given by the Azerbaijani government. Caviar and carpets were the most common.
For example, in 2017, at the time when Azerbaijan was holding an International Forum on “Expanding the Role of Women in Cross-Culture Dialogue”, all of the attending PACE members got their expenses covered – from accommodation at 5-star hotels to entertainment. Many delegates traveled to Baku together with their family members or friends. A special room was designated for gifts, where carpets, scarves and souvenirs were stored.
Low-level officials were given small carpets, those at the top were given large carpets. An aircraft in Baku was stuffed with gifts for those who paid president Aliev a visit. The head of the Azerbaijani delegation to the PACE SamedSeyidov was handing out small gifts such as cans of caviar.
Azerbaijan had been sending caviar (and sometimes cognac) to the PACE even before the country joined the Council of Europe. In particular, the former secretary-general of the assembly Wojciech Sawicki recalls that it was very difficult to refuse such boxes, so the assembly’s officials held caviar breakfasts after sessions. An official from the Venice commission also had a similar experience during a mission to Baku (2003 or 2004), but that caviar turned out to be expired.
According to the data from the investigation body, only six instances of PACE officials receiving gifts were filed throughout the entire period (the gifts included scarves, watches and a painting from Russia to Agramunt).
Among the undeclared gifts received from Azerbaijan, there were books, pens, a gold chain with pearls, diamonds, and invitations to concerts or horse shows.
When Lord David Russell-Johnston, who chaired the assembly between 1999 and 2002, visited Azerbaijan, his hotel room was literally full of gifts. Staggered by the generosity, he asked the staff to ship only a quarter of the gifts to Strasbourg.
There were other, even more compelling offers. In particular, a few officials at the assembly have told that Azerbaijani lobbyists had been pitching Azerbaijani ladies to them, hinting sex services. It even got further than mere pitching: during official visits to Baku, naked women repeatedly entered the European lawmakers’ hotel rooms pursuing a rather obvious goal. However, all of the witnesses assure they refused the sex services.
It is interesting that the majority of delegates that accepted gifts from Azerbaijan did not declare them. In some cases, this fact was revealed by their respective national parliaments, not the PACE. Most of them claim they accepted gifts out of politeness, as some of them contained a cultural component. Also, they did not want to offend the representatives of the Azerbaijani government.
“The Azerbaijani way” to lobby the PACE
The investigative body has obtained evidence that confirms facts of lobbying activities from the outside favoring Azerbaijan in PACE. Particularly, such lobbying regarded various forms of persuasion towards delegates in order to act in the interests of that nation. The thing is that, according to the PACE guidelines, even former delegates, who have occupied higher positions at the assembly, may enter the session room after resignation. Hence, repeated use of access cards by former lawmakers, who are considered Azerbaijan lobbyists has been revealed.
Many point to Eduard Lintner, a former Bundestag deputy, who served as a member of the assembly from 1999 to 2010. Between 2012 and 2014, the German politician received over €819 thousand from Baku through UK-registered rogue firms. Nevertheless, Lintner himself claims the money came from an NGO based in Baku. He admits supporting Azerbaijan and says he visited the country often, independently from the PACE.
Stef Goris – is an ex-delegate from Belgium to the PACE (1999-2007). He was frequently spotted on the assembly’s premises when issues regarding Azerbaijan were discussed; he actively opposed the Strasser report on political prisoners in Azerbaijan. Other alleged lobbyists include Finland’s Jaakko Laakso, Norway’s Karin S. Woldseth and Sweden’s Göran Lindblad.
Lobbyists were rewarded for advancing the interests of Azerbaijan.
Evidence of corruption at the PACE
According to the witnesses, the PACE had a system of fund distribution. As such, Laakso handed out €500 notes, whereas Goris was in charge of distributing envelopes with money at the European People’s party. The other way for Azerbaijan to “thank” lawmakers for electing officials of the Council of Europe was with money in envelopes.
The investigative body has serious grounds to suspect Agramunt, Volonte, and Azerbaijani intermediary lawmakers Elkham Suleymanov and Muslim Magomedov of corruption. In particular, witnesses say that the “dirty lobbying” was done through Azerbaijan’s presidential administration and Suleymanov was in charge of it, keeping some €30 million for these purposes. Also, money was transferred to Strasbourg with Azerbaijani students who were sent to study abroad on a government program. Those students were forced to transport up to €10,000 in cash, which was then given to Suleymanov, who distributed them among members of the PACE.
Suleymanov frequently met with the PACE members off the Council of Europe’s premises and visited their hotel rooms at night.
Agramunt’s involvement in Azerbaijan’s corruption schemes.
While serving as a reporter on Azerbaijan, Agramunt visited the country multiple times and wrote rather positive reports after coming back.
He has met with Aliev behind closed doors without reporting it to the committee, visited political prisoners in Azerbaijan, openly had ties with the government. Once, he arrived in Azerbaijan two days before the rest of the delegation.
The witnesses also claim that Agramunt made amendments to the report at the request of the head of the Azerbaijani delegation SamedSeidov (this information must be confidential).
At times, his comments on reports were written in perfect English (which was surprising, as he is Spanish), while the reports themselves were often rewritten by Agramunt (which was unusual). Apart from that, Agramunt disrupted deadlines on Azerbaijani political prisoners reports and ignored suggestions to officially condemn the actions of the country’s government in this field.
His election as the president of the PACE, according to the witnesses, was nothing but a corruption scheme. Notably, a member of the Ukrainian delegation to the assembly Volodymyr Aryev testified that prior to leaving for the 2013 autumn session, he was visited by the president of SOCAR Ukraine Elcin Mamedov, who offered him a bribe in exchange for voting for Agramunt.
Agramunt was often seen operating large sums of cash at the PACE, which certainly caused suspicion.
Who is under suspicion
According to the president of the assembly Michele Nicoletti, the corruption report mentions five current members of the PACE: Pedro Agramunt (Spain), Cezar Pred (Romania), Stefan Schennach (Austria), SamedSeidov (Azerbaijan) and Jordi Shukla (Spain).
The entire report mentions 17 names that the investigative body has substantial evidence to accuse of violating the ethical norms of the PACE. Four of them are “rather reasonably” suspected of corruption activities: Agramunt, Volonte, two intermediary lawmakers from Azerbaijan: Suleymanov and Magomedov.
The investigative body’s findings and recommendations
- Corruption-related problems at the PACE are not limited to Azerbaijan (the report also briefly mentions Armenia, Kazakhstan, Monaco, Hungary, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine), but it was focused primarily on that country due to lack of time.
- There are reasonable grounds to claim that Volonte, Suleymanov, Mamedov were engaged in corruption activities. In that context, there is a “strong suspicion” regarding Agramunt. These individuals seriously violated the PACE’s code of conduct.
- There was a group of individuals at the PACE, who was acting to the benefit of Azerbaijan. At the same time, there is not enough evidence to suggest that those people belonged to a single organized crime ring.
- On the Azerbaijan election. Some former and current members of the PACE had a conflict of interests, although no evidence of inappropriate conduct was found.
- The PACE delegates and members of the office received different gifts from Azerbaijan, but most of them were symbolic and, thus, insignificant. The body failed to determine if any particular gift was given in exchange for a specific action or decision. The only documented confirmation in this instance were the papers included in the Italian criminal case againstVolonte.
- Two means of financial influence on the PACE activity on Azerbaijan were discovered: paying for lobbyists (former PACE members), corruption activities in exchange for any kind of support for Azerbaijan.
Therefore, the agency suggests to clarify the guiding principles of the future election monitoring in countries (observers must follow the ethics part); to make the procedure for PACE members accepting gifts and other benefits more transparent (file declarations), as well as to make the process of appointing reporters and the committee voting procedures more transparent; any attempted falsification during voting needs to be sanctioned, etc.
What’s next? Is a big scandal about to erupt?
According to the information from the testimonies (of which there were more than 50), gifts and various rewards (sometimes even money) played a particular role in the decision-making process regarding Azerbaijan. Investigators complain that they failed to conduct a thorough investigation, as a number of key figures (for example, Agramunt) recused themselves from testifying. This is why the report is published in order for the relevant EU agencies to figure out how to act on the findings as they see fit.
Right after the report was published, the PACE Bureau asked the delegates that were mentioned in it to step down from participation in the assembly. The Bureau also urged the Committee on Rules of Procedure, Immunity and Institutional Affairs to consider actions towards the current and former the PACE members suspected of corruption.
On 26 April, the PACE is going to hold an urgent debate to discuss the report. At the same time, at least one victim of this corruption scandal has already been revealed. Evropeyska Pravda writes that the president of the European People’s party faction at the PACE Cezar Florin Predahas been suspended for the period of investigation. The Cypriot Stella Kiriakidesis expected to replace him as the head of the group.
Ukraine’s permanent envoy to the Council of Europe Dmytro Kuleba points out that the published document is not part of any criminal proceedings or investigation, but rather an internal document. “This is why now it is curious what the assembly is going to do, what the reaction is going to be, what those people mentioned in the document are going to do, what other facts are going to come out. I believe it is a start of a big scandal that is going to cause more turmoil inside the Parliamentary Assembly, as well as political confrontation”, - he said, adding that in fact, no sanctions are outlined in regards to the PACE members, their conduct is stipulated by ethical standards.