Ambassador Baer’s Interview with VOA Azerbaijan Service September 27, 2016

A TV camera positioned in front of a backdrop with OSCE logos prior to a news conference at the Hofburg in Vienna. (OSCE, Mikhail Evstafiev)

QUESTION:  Recently President Aliyev accused you of being mainly responsible for the closure of the OSCE office in Baku.  How would you comment on these statements?

AMBASSADOR BAER:  I was surprised to see that President Aliyev was talking about me.  His claim is not supported by the facts.  Unfortunately, the reason why the OSCE office in Baku was shut down is because the Government of Azerbaijan demanded that it be shut down, which was a loss for both the government and the people of Azerbaijan.

We continue to support constructive engagement of the OSCE with Azerbaijan — not only in the form of engagement of the institutions of the OSCE and engagement in Vienna at the OSCE Permanent Council — but we also continue to believe that an OSCE Field Mission in Azerbaijan could make a positive contribution to the people and government of Azerbaijan and to the security of the region.

QUESTION:  Is it true that you put pressure on the French government to expel Alexis Shakhtakhtinsky from the French Foreign Ministry?

BAER:  I think that it’s laughable that somebody would say that.  It’s not true.  The French Foreign Ministry makes its own personnel decisions without asking Dan Baer what to do.

What is true is that the United States and a number of other delegations did make clear, as we do with all field missions for the OSCE, our strong support for the head of the field mission to engage with civil society, not just with government leaders.  And what happens with the heads of mission for OSCE missions is that they are offered by governments to the OSCE, usually for a one-year term that can be renewed on the mutual agreement of the OSCE and the government that is lending the person to the OSCE.  My understanding is that Mr. Shakhtakhtinsky finished his appointment term, and you would have to talk to the French Government and the OSCE for more details on what led him to return to Paris.

QUESTION:  President Aliyev argued that resuming the OSCE office in Baku could be possible in exchange for the resumption of Mr. Shakhtakhtinsky’s diplomatic career.  What steps do you think should be taken to restore the OSCE Office in Baku?

BAER:  Well I can answer the second part of that question. The steps that should be taken to restore the OSCE presence in Baku are for Azerbaijan to signal its willingness to engage with the OSCE in that way and to welcome an OSCE presence.  If Azerbaijan came to Vienna and said “we’re ready to have a presence in Baku again,” the United States would strongly support that.  And we wouldn’t be alone – there would be strong support around the entire Permanent Council for Azerbaijan’s request.  With respect to Mr. Shakhtakhtinsky, that’s neither here nor there in my opinion.  That’s a conversation that President Aliyev can have with his French counterpart if he feels compelled to do so.

QUESTION:  Azerbaijan held its constitutional amendments referendum yesterday to vote for changes, which the Venice Commission described as “breaking the power balance by giving unprecedented authority to the President.”  To what extent do the proposed amendments in Azerbaijan comply with OSCE principles?

BAER:  I’ve looked at the Venice Commission report, and there were two different sets of points made by the Venice Commission.  One was substantive concerns, one of which you quoted.  The other was more of a process concern, which is, any time you’re making changes to a constitution, it’s a very serious matter.  And the public has an interest in that proceeding in a deliberate, and arguably, a way that is slow enough to allow for enough public discussion and debate over what the implications – whether intended or unintended – of that constitutional change might be.  And I think part of that debate that we would look for in any country when an amendment to the constitution — or changes to the constitution — are proposed would be, “is this consistent with universal principles, including the principles that are embodied in OSCE commitments?”  “Is it consistent with the universal principles embodied in international law in terms of protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms?”  And I think, in the way that the referendum was conducted, many have commented that it short-circuited that kind of open discussion and debate that gives legitimacy to constitutional changes.

QUESTION:  What steps should be taken to ensure improved elections in Azerbaijan? After the last parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan, OSCE ODIHR experts didn’t observe elections in Azerbaijan.

BAER:  Well, I guess the first step would be that, in the future, Azerbaijan — like all other OSCE countries, including the United States — has made a commitment to invite OSCE/ODIHR to observe our elections.  And OSCE/ODIHR has a gold-standard, world-respected methodology for doing that.  They are coming to the United States to observe our elections in fifty days or so.  And I think, in the future, it would be good if the Government of Azerbaijan worked early with ODIHR to make sure that it is ready to accept – consistent with ODIHR’s methodology – ODIHR observers for its elections.  Because part of the way of improving is to look at what international observers see, and what positive changes they notice, and to build on those positive changes.  And what shortcomings they notice – and to try to figure out ways to work with ODIHR and with others to address those shortcomings.  So the most important step the Government of Azerbaijan can take is to welcome OSCE observers in the future, and I think that it was regrettable that they weren’t present in last year’s elections because it deprived the government and people of Azerbaijan of knowing what progress has been made and what progress is left to be made in the future.

QUESTION:  Ambassador, you have repeatedly made statements condemning Azerbaijan for violating human rights and restricting freedoms, and urging authorities to release political prisoners. Do you really think your calls have been productive – that your statements were efficient and influential?

BAER:  Well, to be clear, neither myself nor the U.S. government makes statements only about Azerbaijan.  I know that sometimes people in Azerbaijan think we wake up each morning thinking about how to criticize Azerbaijan and going to bed each night thinking about that.  That’s not the case.  What we do is, in my case, we look at the OSCE commitments that we have all made, and we try to assess where there are shortcomings or actions that are inconsistent with those commitments.  And we try to measure everyone – including ourselves – by that same standard.  There is one yardstick within the OSCE, which is the commitments that we have all made.  And those are commitments we made to each other.  And we consider it a respectful and responsible activity to call out where we have concerns with the implementation of those commitments.  And so part of what we do, when my delegation raises our concerns about a particular case or a crackdown or a particular law or a particular political prisoner in Azerbaijan, part of what we’re doing is reaffirming those commitments that we have made to each other.  And the question about whether it’s effective – the whole point is that the Government of Azerbaijan should respect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the citizens of Azerbaijan and should release the political prisoners — not because of anything that Dan Baer says, but because that will help build a stronger, more prosperous Azerbaijan.  And the United States has a long-term interest in the partnership that we can have with a strong, prosperous Azerbaijan.  So when we speak out, we’re not only speaking out about the principles and commitments – which by the way, those principles and commitments are what we’re doing here in Warsaw – is looking systematically at those principles and commitments with respect to human rights and how each of us is living up to them.  It’s not only with respect to that, it’s also part of the foundation for a long-term partnership between the United States and Azerbaijan.

QUESTION:  How would you describe the current human rights situation in Azerbaijan?

BAER:  Well, I think, for a comprehensive assessment of the U.S. government’s view of the facts on the ground in terms of the human rights situation in Azerbaijan, I would refer to the most recent Human Rights Report.  And in general, I think it comes as no surprise that we’ve expressed many times our concerns with shrinking space for freedom of expression, freedom of association, and freedom of peaceful assembly in Azerbaijan.  And that the shrinking space for those independent voices is something that –while it can, in the moment, feel satisfying or it can even be argued by some in government that silencing a critic is important for stability — in the long-term really undermines the stability and security of the country.  So it is as a friend that we express our concerns about the shrinking space for civil society and for independent voices in Azerbaijan.

We are pleased that a number of civil society activists and independent voices have been able to make it to Warsaw and have been participating in this meeting.  And I’m also pleased that the Government of Azerbaijan is here so that when criticisms are raised, the government can share its perspective, because that’s an important exchange.  It’s an important dialogue for the civil society activists to say, “these are our concerns, these are things that we disagree with, or things that we think need to be done,” and for the Government to be able to offer its perspective as well.  And I think that is part of the value of this meeting here in Warsaw over these two weeks.

QUESTION:  Several U.S. Congressmen proposed draft legislation to impose sanctions on Azerbaijan.  Do you think such initiatives can be discussed at the Congress?  Do you believe that Magnitsky Act can be imposed on Azerbaijan?

BAER:  I hope it doesn’t come to that.  We will continue to engage as diplomats with our partners in the government in Azerbaijan and with civil society to express our ongoing support for continued progress on respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and OSCE principles and commitments.

QUESTION:  What do you think about U.S. Government work to strengthen human rights and freedom in Azerbaijan?  Last year Assistant Secretary Toria Nuland visited Azerbaijan and talked about a joint intergovernmental commission for democracy and human rights, but so far we haven’t seen any progress on it. Why do you think agreement hasn’t been reached?

BAER:  I know that the scheduling for that joint commission has not worked out.  I think the original motivation for it remains, which is that we — as a friend and partner of Azerbaijan — want to continue to support translating the commitments that Azerbaijan and the United States and other OSCE participating States have made into action.  And we will continue to look for ways to work with the Government of Azerbaijan – including through dialogues, etc. – when those opportunities for dialogue can be constructive and can be translated into action to help continue to advance progress with respect to human rights and fundamental freedoms.

QUESTION:  What steps should be taken to build constructive ties between Azerbaijan and Western and U.S. democratic institutions?

BAER:  Well, there are steps that we take every day to engage in good faith with each other.  And I think we have to continue to engage both government-to-government and people-to-people.  In terms of what steps can be taken, one of the reasons why it’s so valuable for me, personally, as a diplomat to be here in Warsaw and to get the chance to meet face-to-face with a number of activists and independent civil society voices from Azerbaijan is it’s a chance to listen to them and to understand what steps we can take to support the long-term strength and prosperity of Azerbaijan.  And, as I said, I remain personally, deeply committed to an ever stronger partnership between our countries.  And I think all of us who work on behalf of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the world, whether we’re doing it in government or civil society, and whether we’re doing it in our hometown or internationally, we’re all working to build a system of rule of law that gives people a fair shake and that is a stable system over the long run.  And I look to civil society voices to continue to point out the opportunities to do better.

QUESTION:  Ambassador, I want to thank you again for this opportunity and this interview, and I remain hopeful that this kind of communication – these kinds of interviews – will continue in the future.  Thank you very much.

BAER:  Thank you.