— OCCRP (@OCCRP) 5 september 2017
Back in June, TOC published an article on ‘Caviar corruption’ within Parliamentary Assembly Council of Europe (not an EU institution), Europe’s Human Rights organisation with 47 member states. One element of which was the subordination of human rights concerns to Azerbaijan ability to bribe its way out of damning reports. At the time, TOC wrote that:
“Six-figure transfers are said to have been made through banks in the Baltic states by shell companies based in the UK and in the Marshall Islands. Between the end of 2012 (when the ‘Strasser’-report was finished) and the end of 2014, Volonté is supposed to have received a total of €2.39 million. Money, that investigators have established was being sent by Azerbaijan. The transactions came to light after Volonté’s bank, BCC Barlassina, reported the suspicious transactions, after about a year.“
On 5 September The Guardian published an article, stating that an external investigation body has begun hearing evidence in the case. As TOC reported in June, Azerbaijan has, in May 2012, been accused by the think tank European Stability Initiative (ESI) of widespread corruption, and of influencing Parliamentary Assembly Council of Europe (PACE)-MP’s back in June. Gerald Knaus, the ESI’s chairman was quoted as responding to the beginning of the trial against Volontè, the linchpin of the corruption charges, as saying:
“The Council of Europe is the most important human rights institution in Europe, but in recent years it has been captured by autocrats.“
Emblematic of this, was the claim by a senior Azerbaijan policymaker that:
“There are a lot of deputies in the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly whose first greeting, after ‘hello’ is ‘where is the caviar?’“
The Guardian reports on Knaus’ annoyance that it has taken years for the Volontè case to generate a response, claiming that “the PACE code of conduct is more lax than that of FIFA.”
Pieter Omtzigt, the Dutch MP who called for PACE to set up an investigation earlier this year, is quoted as saying that the European Council is finally doing “serious and credible” work on fighting corruption, but says that nevertheless, the Volontè-case:
“clearly points to deficiencies within the whole assembly. In any normal parliament, if a foreign court decides that you have paid a member of parliament and that [person] is being investigated for corruption, some kind of procedure is staring you in the face.“
In the case of the European Council, the President of PACE, Pedro Agramunt, initially resisted calls for an inquiry. Agramut is expected to be voted out of the Presidency in October, but not for his failure to investigate the multi-million scandal, but over meeting with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad while on a Russian government trip, days before a deadly chemical attack on Idlib.
Meanwhile, Andres Herken, Estonian PACE-MP, said PACE’s credibility has been damaged by the allegations. Herkel, the body’s rapporteur on Azerbaijan from 2004-2010, claims that
“personally, I never witnessed bribery in [the] strict and narrow sense. But I witnessed many strange interventions, opinions, voting. Many people were manipulated and now they start to understand what happened with their participation. I think the Azeri lobby was rather unique in having so many different contacts and capacity to mobilise their ‘political friends’.“
It is sobering to realise that these international bodies, which have such reputations and are seen as moral guides, have feet of clay. These practices, this corruption, should make clear that institutions like PACE should be scrutinised more by a critical press, not just quoted as authorities. Especially in view of the fact that PACE herself now publishes a report detailing concerns about the “increasing number of allegations of violations of certain human rights and fundamental freedoms” in Azerbaijan.