A European Union decision to double its gas purchases from Azerbaijan is proving divisive, with EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen facing accusations of switching reliance from one dictator to another.
The gas deal, formalised two days ago through a memorandum of understanding, will see the EU more than double its gas purchases from Azerbaijan over the coming years.
It is likely to set the stage for closer EU-Azeri cooperation in other sectors and gives the EU breathing room in its attempts to replace exports of Russian gas, following that country’s invasion of Ukraine.
The EU currently buys around 8 billion cubic litres of Azeri gas, with that now set to rise to 12 billion by 2023 and 20 billion by 2027.
Von der Leyen announced the deal at a photo op together with Azeri dictator Ilham Aliyev and lavished praise on Azerbaijan, calling it a “a crucial energy partner” that has “always been reliable”. The MOU describes the deal as a “roadmap for the future” and pledges infrastructural development to develop new gas pipelines, similar to those linking member states to Russia.
The EU Commission president’s comments drew criticism from international human rights groups, which noted Azerbaijan’s dire human rights record and said any deal should have been linked to commitments to political reform.
Human Rights Watch said the EU “should not say a country is reliable when it is restricting the activities of civil society groups and crushing political dissent,” while a spokesperson for Global Witness said Brussels was repeating the same mistakes that it had made with Russia and its dictatorial leader, Vladimir Putin.
Locally, EU expert and employment lobbyist Stefano Mallia described the deal as “unacceptable” and said it should be withdrawn.
“We have moved from one dictator and straight into the arms of another one,” Mallia, who serves as vice-president of the employers' group within the European Economic and Social Committee in Brussels, wrote.
Azerbaijan is ranked among the least free countries in the world and has a brutal track record of suppressing dissent. Its president, Aliyev, has been in power for 19 years.
A joint investigation led by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project found that Azerbaijan’s ruling elite moved almost $3 billion through UK-based companies in a single two-year period.
Azeri elites also used Malta’s now-shuttered Pilatus Bank to move millions into Europe, the Daphne Project found in 2018.
Malta has its own links to Azeri energy, having signed a secretive deal to buy gas from the country’s state-owned entity Socar for its Electrogas power station. That deal has been mired in corruption allegations.
One local commentator who welcomed the EU’s deal with relish was former prime minister Joseph Muscat, whose government signed the controversial 2015 deal.
In a Facebook post on Tuesday, Muscat gloated about the deal, asking whether critics would now “say von der Leyen is corrupt”.
“How they slammed us when, many years before others, we started cooperating with Azerbaijan,” Muscat said.
MEP David Casa – a strident critic of Malta’s deal with Socar – argued that the EU’s deal was “different” to Malta’s.
“There were no hidden agreements and the process was transparent at all times”, Casa said.