How France turned the goal of Azerbaijan’s smear marketing campaign | EUROtoday

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What do the absence of French observers at Azerbaijan’s February 7 presidential election, a bunch denouncing “French colonialism” and a web-based marketing campaign concentrating on the 2024 Paris Olympics have in frequent? They are three aspects of a brand new offensive technique adopted by Azerbaijani diplomacy in direction of France. FRANCE 24 investigated this shift with the Forbidden Stories consortium and different media shops as a part of “The Baku Connection” challenge.

Azerbaijan’s February 7 presidential election, which handed President Ilham Aliyev an unsurprising and unopposed victory with 92% of the vote and a fifth time period in workplace, supplied the backdrop for the most recent illustration of deteriorating Franco-Azerbaijani relations.

For the primary time in not less than a decade, there have been no French elected representatives or impartial observers on the group of worldwide observers monitoring the vote. As Aliyev tightens his grip on energy and the nation’s electoral system, there have been fewer West European nationals on the worldwide monitoring group. But a couple of German, Austrian, Spanish and Italian nationals did make it on the observer mission.

Image showing Azerbaidjani President Ilham Aliyev.

Abzas media’s fearless journalists ended up in jail for delving into tales that challenged Azerbaijan’s regime.

Following their arrest, 15 media, coordinated by Forbidden Stories, joined forces to hold on their investigations. © Forbidden Stories

Escalating tensions

The absence of a French presence on the observer group is the results of a disaccord between France and Azerbaijan. French parliamentarians who’ve visited the previous Soviet republic previously as election observers now not need to hear about it. “When you have a president who systematically gets elected with over 80% of the vote, I wouldn’t call that free and fair elections,” stated Claude Kern, senator from France’s jap Bas-Rhin area, who was a part of the French delegation for the 2018 presidential election.

Even the Association of Friends of Azerbaijan on the National Assembly, France’s decrease home of parliament, has skilled an exodus of virtually all its members in latest months.

Azerbaijan additionally seems to have closed the door on the few impartial French nationals wishing to look at the presidential election on the bottom. This was the case with journalist Jean-Michel Brun, who contributes to the web sites, “Musulmans de France” and “Gazette du Caucase”, two portals with a really pro-Azerbaijani slant.

His candidacy was rejected by Azerbaijani authorities, with out clarification, a couple of days earlier than the election. “Relations with Azerbaijan are so rotten at the moment that they may have decided not to invite any French people,” stated Brun. When contacted by FRANCE 24 and Forbidden Stories, Azerbaijani authorities didn’t reply to the explanations for the absence of French observers.

The election observer subject is a part of a wider context of escalating bilateral tensions. The month of December was marked by a very sharp deterioration: a Frenchman was arrested in Baku and accused of espionage, Azerbaijan then expelled two French diplomats, Paris promptly responded, declaring two Azerbaijani embassy officers persona non grata. The diplomatic tit-for-tat was accompanied by acerbic statements from each side.

For French nationals in Azerbaijan, the message was clear. “French authorities made us understand that we had to be careful because we could be expelled overnight,” confided a Frenchman dwelling in Azerbaijan who didn’t want to be named. Despite the strained ties between Paris and Baku, the Frenchman stated he was fairly glad with dwelling situations in Azerbaijan. When contacted, the French embassy in Azerbaijan didn’t reply to FRANCE 24 and Forbidden Stories.

The speedy and overt diplomatic deterioration between Azerbaijan and France is a brand new low, in accordance with consultants. “It’s the first time we see this kind of development against a European country, a Western country,” stated Altay Goyushov, a political scientist on the Baku Research Institute, an impartial Azerbaijani analysis middle. “This is a completely new development, when a French citizen is arrested on spying charges, it’s never happened before,” he famous, including that Azerbaijani authorities have largely used “these kind of tactics” in opposition to the home opposition and the media previously.

A music in opposition to Macron

Historically, it hasn’t at all times been this manner. France, like different European international locations, has lengthy been the goal of what has come to be known as “caviar diplomacy”. It’s a time period employed by consultants and journalists for over a decade to explain oil-rich Azerbaijan’s notably lavish and distinctive lobbying technique, which incorporates expensive official journeys for international politicians and influencers, and offering costly items and funds for tasks such because the renovation of church buildings. The payback, documented in a number of information reviews, contains soft-power wins for Azerbaijan by securing its affect in Europe’s political and media worlds.

In the previous, France held a particular place for Baku’s political elites. France is a member of the OSCE Minsk Group, which additionally contains the US and Russia. Since the early 2000s, Paris has tried to play a key function, throughout the Minsk Group, to attempt to discover a diplomatic answer to the Nagorno-Karabakh territorial dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

France was subsequently thought-about an essential European energy in Baku, one price wooing and making an attempt to maintain on aspect. For Azerbaijan, that is notably essential since Baku has lengthy believed the Armenian group in France to be very influential in French energy circles, a place echoed by a number of pro-Azerbaijan figures interviewed by FRANCE 24 and the Forbidden Stories consortium.

The September 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which resulted in Azerbaijan reclaiming a 3rd of the disputed enclave, marked the start of the bilateral break. Two years later, in an interview with France 2 TV station, French President Emmanuel Macron declared that France “will never abandon the Armenians”.

The French president’s avowal was seen as a diplomatic slap by Baku. “It was very frustrating for Ilham Aliyev, who wants to be able to impose his demands on a weak Armenia, which is not the case if Yerevan thinks it can count on French support,” famous Goyushov.

This French help started to take form after French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna’s October 2023 go to to Armenia when she introduced that “France has given its agreement to the conclusion of future contracts with Armenia which will enable the delivery of military equipment to Armenia so that it can ensure its defence”. The announcement sparked disapproval from Aliyev, who accused France of “preparing the ground [for] new wars”.

Azerbaijan then started a diplomatic shift that more and more resembled a 180-degree flip.

The tone was first set by a music carried out on public tv and soberly titled, “Emmanuel”. Broadcast per week after Macron’s France 2 interview, the lyrics featured criticisms levelled on the French president – accusing him of “betraying his promises”, for example – whereas kids punctuated every verse, singing “Emmanuel” in refrain.

It was a really public show of Azerbaijan’s new disaffection for France. Official accusations – such because the one regularly adopted by  Elchin Amirbayov, the Azerbaijani president’s particular consultant for the normalisation of relations with Armenia, accusing France of “undermining the peace efforts” with Armenia – symbolize simply the tip of the iceberg of Baku’s new diplomatic flip. The submerged element contains a variety of initiatives aimed toward denigrating France.

Outrage over ‘French colonialism’ by the Azerbaijani state

In November 2023, a video extremely essential of the organisation of the 2024 Paris Olympics emerged, sparking a media stir in France. According to VIGINUM, the French authorities company for the defence in opposition to international digital interference, it was an affect marketing campaign linked to “an actor close to Azerbaijan”.

In its technical report, seen by FRANCE 24 and Forbidden Stories, VIGINUM concluded that the operation, amplified by faux websites and accounts on social media, is “likely to harm the fundamental interests of the nation”.

On one other, parallel observe, Azerbaijan is selling the claims of a brand new construction known as the “Baku Initiative Group”. Its members, independence fighters from French abroad territories and areas similar to French Guiana, Martinique, New Caledonia and Guadeloupe, have been denouncing France’s “colonisation” and “neocolonialism”, and have been calling for “decolonisation”.

Watch moreThe Baku Connection in Azerbaijan: ‘They won’t stop our investigations by arresting us’

“At the final Non-Aligned Movement convention [chaired by Azerbaijan] in July 2023 in Baku, we needed to take inventory of the scenario within the territories nonetheless below French domination, and determined to type the Baku Initiative Group,” explained Jean-Jacob Bicep, president of the People’s Union for the Liberation of Guadeloupe, a far-left political party in the French overseas region. “The goal is to make the world conscious of France’s colonial coverage,” added another representative who asked to remain anonymous.

These pro-independence activists have already been able to make their case against what they call “French colonialism” before the UN on two occasions: first at a conference in September at the UN’s New York headquarters, then at its Geneva office in December. Both events were organised by the Baku Initiative Group.

What does this have to do with Azerbaijan? It’s not just a coincidence that Azerbaijan held the rotating presidency of the Non-Aligned Group at just the right time. The executive director of these “anti-French colonialism” gatherings is Azerbaijani Abbas Abbassov, who has long worked for Azerbaijan’s State Oil Fund. 

In addition, a July 2023 roundtable in Baku titled, “Towards the Complete Elimination of Colonialism” was organised by the AIR Center, one of Azerbaijan’s leading think tanks, whose chairman, Farid Shafiyev, is Azerbaijan’s former ambassador to the Czech Republic.

The Baku roundtable ended with an agreement on the establishment of “the Baku Initiative Group against French colonialism”, according to an AIR Center statement. When contacted, the think tank did not respond to questions from FRANCE 24 and Forbidden Stories.

Denouncing the ‘Macron Dictatorship’

The group of French nationals who have attended the Baku Initiative Group meetings includes well-known figures in the pro-Azerbaijani camp, such as journalist Yannick Urrien. “It was Hikmet Hajiyev who requested me to return to a convention of the group in Baku in October 2023,” explained Urrien.

Hikmet Hajiyev is a well-known figure in Azerbaijan power circles: he is the foreign policy advisor to Azerbaijan’s president and a close associate of President Aliyev. “He is the mastermind behind the smear campaigns in opposition to different international locations, together with France,” explained Emmanuel Dupuy, president of the Institute for Prospective and Security in Europe (IPSE) and a former advisor to Azerbaijan for around six years.

Aliyev himself used a speech at a decolonisation conference in Baku in November to deliver a scathing broadside against France. In his address, the Azerbaijani president referred to France more than 20 times, accusing Paris of “inflicting conflict” in the Caucasus and committing “many of the bloody crimes within the colonial historical past of humanity”.

Some of the French participants in Baku’s decolonisation conferences deny being instrumentalised or prefer to ignore the issue. “It’s none of my enterprise. We seize each alternative to realize our objective, and all France has to do is settle its personal issues with Azerbaijan,” said Bicep, the leader of the far-left People’s Union for the Liberation of Guadeloupe.

Another participant, who asked to remain anonymous, admits that the creation of the Baku Initiative Group came at the best possible time for Azerbaijan, which “does not actually have any chemistry with France for the time being”. It’s probably a way of asking the French government “to place its personal home so as earlier than criticising what others are doing [in Nagorno-Karabakh]”, he added.

Azerbaijan has also proved to be creative in increasing the resonance of these pro-independence demands on social media. On Twitter, they are relayed by anonymous Azerbaijanis and influential personalities, such as AIR Center director Farid Shafiyev.

Since October, the Azerbaijani parliament has even hosted a support group for the people of Corsica, the French Mediterranean island which has had a tumultuous relationship with mainland France since it became French in the 18th century. A communiqué published in early February by the people of Corsica support group set up by Azerbaijan’s parliament denounced “the Macron Dictatorship”. ().

In December, Azerbaijan was accused of sending journalists “recognized for his or her proximity to Azerbaijani intelligence companies” to cowl French Defence Minister Sébastien Lecornu’s journey to New Caledonia, a French archipelago within the Pacific. Their mission was to put in writing articles “with an anti-France angle”, said radio station Europe 1, which broke the story.

A leaf from the Russian playbook

The creation of the Baku Initiative Group and the media hype surrounding the issue of anti-colonialism are “a monumental mistake”, according to Dupuy. The former advisor to Azerbaijan asserted that this strategy has “no chance” of moving France one iota on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, while scuttling relations between the two countries. It’s an opinion he says he shares with his contacts in Azerbaijan.

But it’s not surprising that Baku is resorting to this kind of tactic, explained Goyushov of the Baku Research Institute. With its internet disinformation operations and anti-West rhetoric harking back to the colonial era, Azerbaijan is taking a leaf out of the Kremlin playbook for winning friends and gaining influence in Africa.

“You have to take into account one thing: Azerbaijan was a part of the Soviet Union,” stated Goyushov. Aliyev’s father, Heydar Aliyev, who was Azerbaijan’s president for a decade earlier than his son took over the workplace, was a former KGB official – like Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Of course they are still almost the same,” added the political scientist. “They are copying each other in many ways. Their rhetoric against the West uses the same methods against their opponents, employs the same tactics on social media.”

But Goyushov does not anticipate the Azerbaijani offensive to succeed. Firstly, as a result of Azerbaijan doesn’t have the identical sources as Russia to deploy large-scale operations, similar to Russia’s Doppelgänger disinformation marketing campaign, which has been spreading false info in a number of European international locations since 2022.

Secondly, Azerbaijan “is much more economically dependent on Western countries than Russia”, famous Goyushov. Aliyev, he believes, doesn’t have the posh of getting completely upset with an influence like France.

“It’s quite similar to what happened in 2013 with Germany,” defined Goyushov. Back then, Germany criticised the infringements of non secular freedom in Azerbaijan, a rustic with a Muslim majority. In the lead-up to a presidential election in Azerbaijan, “there were numerous attacks on Germany for about two years”, famous Goyushov.

But then the anti-German assaults abruptly stopped. The motive, in accordance with Goyushov, is that these smear campaigns serve primarily inner political functions. “In an authoritarian regime, you sometimes need to find a common enemy that allows the country to unite around the leader,” he defined. Perhaps COP 29, the 2024 local weather convention to be held in Azerbaijan in November, will likely be a chance for the authorities to redress the diplomatic steadiness with the West, and France specifically.

Eloïse Layan from Forbidden Stories contributed to this report.

This article has been translated from the unique in French.