Greece is in a constant near-state of collapse. Ukraine burns. Russia’s internal tyranny grows. Southern Europe’s economic stability is questionable at best. The future of the euro as a joint project is dim at best. ISIS rampages across North Africa and Asia Minor, sending waves of refugees into Europe’s strained safety net. Oil price collapses endanger economies across Europe. China’s economic freefall will almost certainly push Germany into recession. Following a lengthy trial, Azerbaijan convicts two people for violating the tax laws.
One of these things is not like the others — in more ways than one. Barely bothering to deal with the potentially world-historic crises inside its door and at its doorstep, Europe has nevertheless squeezed out a bit of time to attack Azerbaijan for trying, convicting, and sentencing two of its citizens for tax crimes. This is proof that Europe lacks the will to deal with the large problems consuming it from all directions, and instead uses what power it has to interfere with the criminal justice system of an actual ally — more simply, Europe is only brave where the danger is relatively low.
We have discussed Leyla Yunus before — several times, in fact — but she is back in the news, having now been convicted of tax crimes with her husband. Despite a request from the prosecution for a decade-plus sentence, the court entered sentences well under a decade for both. This was not enough for European Parliament President Martin Schulz, whose negative comments about the court and the sentence launched a small firestorm between Brussels and Baku.
Let us treat the comments on their merits. The same justice system so roundly condemned now awarded Mr. and Mrs. Yunus a sizable verdict for the taking of their property during Baku’s renovation, a verdict that Mrs. Yunus herself praised as proof of justice. The court that turned down the prosecutor’s request for decade-plus prison terms is now accused of being corrupt and brutal. There is no evidence of disparate treatment, no indication that Mr. and Mrs. Yunus were tried for crimes others were not, or received harsher sentences than others do. Instead, the complaint appears to be that because they are famous and because they are sometimes critical of Azerbaijan’s policies, they should be given special treatment.
A nation of laws, one that takes its judiciary and its rules seriously, would not do this. The high and the low, the popular and unpopular, must be subject to laws in the same way. It says a great deal about the European Parliament that its president would casually suggest this rule might be lifted here.
Yet on a larger view, the remarks are even more bizarre. With Russia actively eroding Europe’s hard work in the former Soviet Union, peeling back democracy in Armenia and in East Ukraine, undermining territorial integrity in its former satellites, this is not the time to attack an actual ally, on spurious charges, no less. This is a time to shore up Azerbaijan and whatever allies Europe can find, to prepare for the storm that is already underway.
Schulz’s comment sparked a furious retort from Elkhan Suleymanov, Chairman of the Azerbaijani delegation to the Euronest Parliamentary Assembly. In an open letter to Schulz, Suleymanov called out the hypocrisy and poor judgment implicit in Schulz’s comments. Noting that Schulz, like much of Europe, ignored the real charges and real evidence against Mr. and Mrs. Yunus, he asked, “How would you react if the Azeri Parliament would constantly call for the release from jails of various German citizens, tried and sentenced under German laws?”
This is a dangerous game for Europe to play, and not merely because it risks alienating one of the few allies it has left in the region. Baku has made it a deliberate policy choice to take part in European norms and governance even despite the near and dangerous presence of Russia. Yerevan is already lost to Moscow, and Tbilisi is in constant danger of joining that side. Baku is the one island of stability on which Europe can count — yet even this is in danger if Europe cannot keep its attention focused on real concerns.
Hard days are coming to Europe. Pray that someone recognizes this soon.
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