Sarajevo Film Festival 2024

The other war against European human standards

JOURNALISM / How autocracies find their way to undermine democratic institutions.
Director: Benoît Bringer
Producer: Laurent Richard
Country: France

For another perspective on this film also readWining and dining one’s way to endless rule

In a white fairy costume, Lady Gaga is singing her songs in the brand-new sports stadium in Baku, Azerbaijan. We are in June 2015. Does she know what she is doing? And if she knows, does she care? The presence of – very well paid – pop and film stars is an important instrument of the image and reputation of commercial production. Dictatorships with their prisons full of political prisoners who have disappeared, and tortured bodies, can find here a successful legitimization in the worldwide perception. No surprise that we can also recognize Putin in the VIP stand of the stadium.

We don’t have to imagine the attacks on democratic structures only as evidence of military or direct industrial and bank business confrontations. There are more invisible and always hidden ways to undermine democratic decision processes, up to the central institutions, such as the European Parliament and the Council of Europe.

Investigative journalists are usually the only ones who defend this functionality by way of delivering facts. One of those is Khadija Ismyiliva. At the beginning of Benoît Bringer’s documentary The Caviar Connection, we only hear her voice because she is imprisoned when the stadium celebrations occur. She is one of those very few, bringing light to corruption proceedings at the highest national level. At this moment in 2015, she is maybe the only publicly visible voice of rebellion in her country.

The Caviar Connection, a film by Benoît Bringer
The Caviar Connection, a film by Benoît Bringer

Looking back

After a short period of successful protest against Russia’s influence and the resulting independence declaration in 1991, the democratically elected President Abulfaz Elchibey was overthrown in 1993 by a military insurrection led by Colonel Surat Huseynov. The military coup was followed by the rise to power of the former leader of Soviet Azerbaijan and head of the KGB, Heyday Alike.

The military systematically suppressed democratic efforts. Opponents of the regime were given titles such as persons who «had no place in our nation», as pronounced by Ilham Aliyev, Heydar Aliyev’s son, who became chairman of the New Azerbaijan Party as well as President of Azerbaijan when his father died in 2003. Since then, he has been re-elected four times as president. He and his family spend a luxurious life on yachts and private properties in different countries, which they can reach by private aeroplanes, a life enjoyed by stolen money from the nations and its people.

Another fact delivering the prominent voice against corruption is Gerald Knaus, founder of the NGO, European Stability Initiative. He deconstructs the simulation of democracy’s power structures compared with the mafia and its obsession with honour and family interests.

Already in 2005, the Azerbaijani journalist Elmar Sabir Oglu Hüseynov was killed with five bullets in his mouth. We omit here other «accidents» that took place. An outside investigative journalist took over – Paul Radu, Co-Founder of OCCRP (Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project), in collaboration with a hacker, got access to banking transfers concerning the collaboration with or ownership of companies in Panama, 2008-09, and discovered a money washing and corruption proceeding machinery.

Investigative journalists are usually the only ones who defend this functionality by way of delivering facts.

Meanwhile, Jennifer Lopez sings her «Happy Birthday, Mr. President» in Uzbekistan, an even more dangerous dictatorship than Azerbaijan, as did Gerard Depardieu, who sang a song with the President’s daughter there, available on video. The organization of Formula-One races and other sports events are always good business. The autocrats benefit by controlling hotels, banks, and construction companies, as Drew Sullivan, Journalist, and Co-Founder of OCCRP, uncovered.

One should also not forget the usual meetings with the world leaders like Merkel, Sarkozy, Hollande, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, etc., as high-profile representatives of European institutions. Rich in oil and raw materials, Azerbaijan is a money-making country that can’t be ignored.

Instead of recognizing the 10,000 reports about political prisoners, in 2013, the Council of Europe refused to adopt a resolution proposed by Christoph Strässer, which asked for consequences against the even-growing delicts against the European Charter of Conventions of Human Rights. This European Council meeting was surprisingly well visited. This refusal definitely empowered Azerbaijan’s regime.

Meanwhile, Khadija Ismyiliva is threatened and captured on video recordings from hidden cameras in her bedroom and bathroom. Instead of being silenced, she goes public. In 2014 she was arrested. Other journalists who start to take action are attacked in the streets.

The situation changed when Arif Mammadov, a senior diplomat and ambassador of Azerbaijan to the Council of Europe, 2007-2012, went public himself and delivered information about dirty lobbying, money presents, expensive clocks, and smartphones, given in Brussels hotels to many top European politicians: «Caviar diplomacy» being just a metaphor for pure corruption. In fact, 13 Million worth of bribe money was delivered and spread out by Azerbaijan’s Elkhan Suleymanow to key figures in their own national contexts to build up and send to committees responsible for monitoring Azerbaijan’s election process. Of course, they were invited to luxurious hotels, and private massages were delivered. Tana Zulueta – Former Italian Senator – testified as a neutral observer of around 3,700 faulty documents related to the elections.

It was merely a comical detail that the election results were published by error before the elections had started, a fact published by The Washington Post. All those specially invited delegations confirmed the «European standards» of the election process.

On the other side, in 2017, the banking records of 16,000 transactions through the Danish bank Danske went public. Members of National Parliaments like in Germany: Gerald Lintner (Germany, CSU) and Karin Strenz (Germany, CDU); Rachida Dati (Les Républicains, Justice Minister in France), Luca Volonté (Italy, Ex-Leader European Popular Party), etc., received money transfers. Fourteen members of the Council of Europe have been since expelled for life following the revelations of corruption. Some are even facing prison sentences.

Finally, in January 2020, a new report was published by the Council, testifying political confinement, but only 38 political prisoners were released weeks later. Dozens of others are still in jail. In February 2020, the European Court of Human Rights condemned Azerbaijan for the arrest and illegal detention of Khadija Ismayilova.

The Caviar Connection, a film by Benoît Bringer
The Caviar Connection, a film by Benoît Bringer

A must see

Benoît Bringer’s straight-forward documentary is based on the statements of well-informed investigators and personal experiences, like those of Ismayilova, who couldn’t even join her dying mother in a Turkish hospital, or Arif Mammadov, who always checks his car before giving access to this children, in case it may explode.

The Caviar Connection is one of the must-see documentaries for anyone interested in the survival of democratic systems. As Gerald Knaus points out – if a small country like Azerbaijan can undermine the highest European institutions, what can big autocracies do?

If parts of our democratic institutions are for sale, the journalist’s critical reports also lose their last defending line. The victims die silenced.

What could be required by this most important documentary is to follow up the question, how the main European structures plan to protect themselves against corruption in the future? Will it still be only the life-risking work of reporters who can alarm us? Are there no more extensive and effective procedures to bring light in the darkness?

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Dieter Wieczorek
Dieter Wieczorek
Wieczorek is a film critic and regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

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