Genuine political representation can’t be bought — but an illusion of respectable democracy is for sale with a surprisingly low price tag in Europe, according to The Caviar Connection, which screens at the Copenhagen International Documentary Festival and shows how corruption at the highest levels in the Caucasus is hushed up on the global stage.
The film is directed by Benoit Bringer, who was part of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2017 for work on the Panama Papers leak. «Caviar diplomacy» is the term used for the strategy by which Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, who has ruled for almost two decades and heads an authoritarian regime run like a family dynasty, is able to shore up his hold on power. He has harnessed the nation’s oil wealth to invest in prestige abroad and avoid foreign sanctions, paying mammoth sums for stars like Lady Gaga and Jennifer Lopez to perform there, and influencing political players with expensive, luxury gifts, and, most brazenly, monetary bribes in the form of bank transfers. These associations serve to legitimise the regime in the face of its dismal record on human rights, its repression of dissent, and its incarceration of political prisoners. The brutal human consequences for those who do speak up are underscored in the film, as it sets out the experiences of several journalists from the former Soviet nation, who do their jobs at great risk to their own lives and safety, suffering reprisals and dirty set-ups to destroy their reputations.
Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative journalist and radio host reporting on financial corruption among the ruling elite in Azerbaijan and their offshore assets, features prominently in the film. She was subjected to a blackmailing campaign after hidden cameras were installed in her home, and footage of her and her boyfriend engaged in sexual activity was recorded, which was then used to threaten her with public humiliation. She did not give in to the threats, instead of taking to Facebook to detail what had occurred. The footage was then uploaded online — a smear campaign with a particularly serious potential for damage in such a conservative society in regard to women’s freedoms. The government denied orchestrating the aggressive plot to shame her — an ordeal she said caused her «total emotional devastation». Charges of embezzlement and tax evasion, widely seen as trumped-up and politically motivated, resulted in her imprisonment in 2015 and subsequent release on probation, leaving her blocked from travel. Emin Huseynov, a journalist who was seriously beaten in police custody after reporting on crackdowns by authorities on peaceful protesters and who eventually fled the country to live in exile in Switzerland, where he runs the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety to protect at-risk journalists in Azerbaijan, also features.
The Caviar Connection is ultimately concerned not so much with the dangers of journalists’ professions in Azerbaijan — which are great — but the mechanisms that allow them to be persecuted with relative impunity. And it is here that supposedly upstanding members of the Council of Europe (the body that defines the policies and political direction of the European Union) are revealed to be deeply, cynically complicit. The film details the crooked and underhand means by which the Strasser report, a controversial report prepared by German Social Democrat Christoph Strasser into the alleged eighty-five political prisoners being detained in Azerbaijan at the time, was voted down and rejected from consideration by the Council. Bribes to voters in a complex Azerbaijani money-laundering scheme, which also involved Italian representative Luca Volonte, ensured that Azerbaijan’s reputation was whitewashed and information kept quiet that could lead to the wider world recognising it as a dictatorship that abuses human rights to maintain its grip. The film contends that the vast trans-national corruption network, with Aliyev at its centre, was also able to influence election monitoring through bribes so that the ruler’s perceived popularity could be effectively rigged. German politician Eduard Lintner is heavily implicated, having received bank payments through money laundering in exchange for lobbying for the Azerbaijani government. He organised an election observation delegation for the presidential elections in 2013 that concluded that the elections met international standards, despite widespread ballot-box stuffing and other fraudulent irregularities having been witnessed (the accidental publishing of the supposed results before voting had even taken place did not help the Electoral Commission’s pretensions to integrity.)
Amid the various shady incidents and self-serving figures that appear in The Caviar Connection as all too willing to sell out any principles for the sake of a pay-out or two being slid into their pockets, a disturbing picture emerges. Whether or not those complicit in the west are a few bad apples, or represent, instead, European institutions that are rotten to the core, they show that it is the basic lure of easy money, as much as geopolitical interests, that threatens freedom of expression and dissent in the oil-rich Central Asia region’s shakiest democracies.