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Interview: Council of Europe Official Warns Azerbaijan Over Democracy

Ian Micallef (right), president of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, says "we are...concerned also about the way the government in Azerbaijan wants to control local democracy."
The head of the Council of Europe's Chamber of Local Authorities says amendments to Azerbaijan's constitution, reportedly approved in a March 18 public referendum, violate commitments that the country made on democracy when it joined the Council of Europe. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz speaks with Ian Micallef, president of the Council of Europe's Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, about the controversy and the punitive action Azerbaijan could face.

RFE/RL: According to the official results of the March 18 referendum in Azerbaijan, voters supported amendments to the constitution which will allow President Ilham Aliyev to run for reelection for the rest of his life. Can you explain to the people in Azerbaijan why it is important for a democracy to limit the number of presidential terms that an individual can be in office?

Ian Micallef: We are speaking here on democracy and the rule of law. We believe that if there is no limit [on presidential terms], the fact is that a president can turn into a dictator. We believe that a country should be working on very sound principles of democracy which were obviously part of the commitments which Azerbaijan gave to the Council of Europe upon its accession to the Council of Europe. Then we are there obviously to defend such values.

RFE/RL: What kind of action can be taken legally against Azerbaijan at the European level for failing to meet its commitments to democracy?

Micallef: We have already decided that if the Azerbaijani government does not respect its commitments, as a congress we are prepared to start all the necessary proceedings to have the delegation of Azerbaijan to the Congress suspended. That would be the ultimate [legal action by the Congress against Baku].

But obviously the process would start immediately when the government shows that clearly it is not going to respect such a commitment.

RFE/RL: Are there other issues of concern to you about the constitutional amendments in Azerbaijan besides the elimination of presidential term limits?

Micallef: Basically, as a congress, we are concerned also about the way the government in Azerbaijan wants to control local democracy. This is another issue which we have been speaking about because, even in that respect, it is clearly stated in the amendment that the state would control local government.

We have said clearly that this runs counter to the commitments to the European Charter for local self- government. And this has been confirmed by the Venice Commission -- [also known as the European Commission for Democracy Through Law].

RFE/RL: Why should suspension from a chamber of local authorities within the Council of Europe matter to people in Azerbaijan, beyond the obvious public relations fiasco it would cause for the government in Baku?

Micallef: What I can say at this stage is that, as a congress, we are part of the Council of Europe. We are part of this institution. So basically it could well mean that it is a signal about Azerbaijan. The Parliamentary Assembly [of the Council of Europe, PACE] and the Committee of Ministers could follow suit.

It would mean that Azerbaijan would be outside of the European Club. And therefore, they have to understand that they must respect all the guarantees which they have given to the Council of Europe when it comes to democratic principles which they have to enshrine. It is not only to the Congress [of Local and Regional Authorities] that they have committed themselves. They have committed themselves to the Council of Europe as an institution.

RFE/RL: Are economic sanctions or any other kind of punitive sanctions possible against Azerbaijan for failing to meet commitments on democracy it made to the Council of Europe?

Micallef: In the Council of Europe, we don't have this type of [economic] sanctions. What we have as an institution is the suspension of the member state. That is not something which falls within the powers of the Congress [of Local and Regional Authorities]. What we can do as a Congress within the Council of Europe is take one step forward and suspend the delegation [to the Congress]. Then there is the delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly [of the Council of Europe]. There are also the members of the Committee of Ministers. And all of these could end up with the same action.

RFE/RL: You mentioned the Venice Commission, which supported your concerns about Azerbaijan just two days before the March 18 referendum. It also has called on officials in Baku to honor their commitments on democracy. What comes next from the perspective of institutions within the Council of Europe?

Micallef: I have written to the prime minister [of Azerbaijan] making it clear, now that the Venice Commission has published its views, and therefore it is in conformity with what we have said. I expect that they will take the necessary action to implement what was said.

This will mean that if they do not get a positive answer from Azerbaijan's government, our next meeting of the [Congress in early April] would then decide on the next action to be taken [against Azerbaijan]. And I presume that if no action is taken by the government [in Baku], then the proceedings for the suspension of the delegation would start.