In the summer of 2022, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen traveled to Baku to ratify a memorandum of understanding between Azerbaijan and the European Union. The agreement was the first of several signed documents that deepened the Transcaucasian state’s cooperation with Brussels.
Set against the backdrop of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the EU desperately needed a new supplier of oil and gas; ostensibly, it had found it in Azerbaijan. Yet, Brussels’ increased reliance on Azeri oil has been roundly criticized. The Aliyev family, which has ruled Azerbaijan since the country’s independence from the Soviet Union, is infamous for its human rights infractions, effectively pioneering the repression of dissent through digital means. Even more concerning is Azerbaijan holding the dubious honor of being the first country to ever use spyware to wage war in Nagorno-Karabakh, where analysts have found Baku’s role to be analogous to that of Russia in Ukraine. With this in mind, it is ultimately worth asking whether Von der Leyen’s “crucial and reliable partner” for the sustained supply of oil to the EU is actually an improvement from Moscow.
The Many Kremlins of the Former USSR
With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, renewed attention has been given to the functioning of political systems in the former USSR. At the same time, it is worth remembering that a specific type of autocratic rule has proliferated in former Soviet states and is not exclusive to the Russian Federation. When the Soviet Union came undone, more often than not, the political elites in regional branches of the Communist Party remained in power after the independence of individual republics. In the context of privatization of Soviet state-run assets, state assets were often used by political elites to hold continued sway on the country’s economic, mediatic, and political life.
So it is that Russian oligarchs are a byproduct of the economic shock therapy implemented under President Boris Yeltsin and have had a symbiotic relationship with the Kremlin. Just as the Kremlin colluded with them to sell off state-owned assets, oligarchs have put their fortune, television stations, and newspapers at the service of Russian politicians, perhaps most blatantly seen during the 1996 presidential campaign. Shortly upon President Putin’s rise to power, a truce had been called between the Kremlin and the oligarchs, whereby the latter would relinquish any political ambitions and toe the line of the United Russia party in exchange for the state not interfering in their business practices. Effectively, the Kremlin allowed oligarchs to retain their hold over swathes of the country’s natural resources; a number of them retain favor in Russian circles of power to this day and are even personal friends of the Russian President. A similar pattern could be seen in Ukraine after 1990, where Ukrainian oligarchs also enjoyed considerable influence and control over the economy and politics, at times even taking over entire political parties to further their own agendas. With the election of Petro Poroshenko in 2014, Ukrainian oligarchs even saw one of their own at the helm of their country.
In the resource-rich republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus, privatization was essential in shoring up political support for rising political elites. Effectively, as the Soviet Union crumbled, political patronage and clientelism replaced inter-ethnic and regional alliances essential to hold the balance of power in the time of the CPSU. So it is that Heydar Aliyev, a leader in Azeri politics in Soviet times, successfully rebranded himself as a nationalist leader and was elected President of Azerbaijan in 1993. Ilham Aliyev, who succeeded his father in 2003, made use of mass privatization and clientelism to shore up support for his presidency by granting lucrative contracts and control over state resources to members of his family and allies.
In the two decades since his arrival to the Zuğulba Presidential Palace, this tendency has only accelerated and Azeri resources are now almost exclusively in the hands of the Aliyev family. Namely, Baku’s first family which received important stakes in the country’s gold, copper, and silver deposits on the taxpayer’s dime and shell companies with close ties to the Aliyev family have been used to privatize Azerbaijan’s largest telecom operator, costing Azerbaijani taxpayers upwards of US $600 million.
The Aliyevs also oversaw the creation of an intricate web of shell and offshore companies, which at one point held over US $694 million in prime Londonian real estate in the names of the son and daughter of the President and close family friends. The crown jewel of this shadow network is known as the “Azerbaijani Laundromat”, a money laundering operation that at its peak netted US $2 billion and was used to buy luxury goods, whitewash Azerbaijan’s image abroad, and influence businessmen and politicians across the European Union.
Although informal, these clientelistic structures ensure that the country’s elites remain in control of the country’s political life and economy. Ultimately though, these authoritarian regimes’ recourse to state capture of national resources beget similar outcomes, be they set in Russia or Azerbaijan. And so Baku’s campaign against journalist Khadija Ismayilova looks eerily similar to the Kremlin’s onslaught on Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian Laundromat existed long before its Azeri counterpart did, and International Criminal Court warrants against Russian officials for war crimes in Ukraine may soon be coming to Baku for war crimes in Nagorno-Karabakh. Surprisingly, the difference comes in the extent to which Azerbaijan is a leader in digitized political repression and institutionalized cyber warfare.
At The Cutting Edge of Digital Repression
Lately, armed irredentism is perhaps the most striking commonality shared by Moscow and Baku. Like Vladimir Putin, Ilham Aliyev is intent on redrawing Azerbaijan’s map and has set his sights on the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region. As the situation on the front line develops, the Aliyev regime shut down several social media sites and, in an interesting instance of authoritarian pooling of resources, is using the same technology used by the Belarusian government to stifle protest against fraudulent elections in 2020. Access to social media platforms was particularly targeted, with OONI measurements indicating difficulties reaching Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram, Twitter, Skype, and TikTok from Azerbaijan and authorities threatening citizens with fines for using VPNs. This represented an amplification of the status quo in Azerbaijan, where the government has been routinely blocking access to websites on grounds of protecting national security.
Azerbaijan also ranks among the countries that are rising disseminators of misinformation through social media. The so-called Aliyev bot farms are highly active on Meta platforms and their disinformation, although repetitive and easily disproved, has successfully convinced American commentators and Ukrainian analysts in the past. As of the writing of this piece, Meta and X have been slow to remove Azeri bots from their platforms as networks of other state-backed bot farms are actively taken down. Deutsche Welle reports an uptick in media disinformation in the region since the COVID-19 pandemic and the return of armed hostilities, which is difficult to counteract given that mainstream media organizations in Azerbaijan are either state-run or in the hands of oligarchs friendly to the ruling family.
Azerbaijan also stands out in the country being one of the biggest customers of the Israeli spyware manufacturer NSO Group, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Gulf Monarchies. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict made Azerbaijan the first nation-state to make use of spyware in wartime, thus cementing spyware’s place as one of the most dangerous weapons of cyberwarfare. Between 2020 and 2022, over a dozen Armenian politicians and journalists as well as United Nations officials were successfully hacked by Pegasus, with the Citizen Lab tracing back some Pegasus one-click infections to infrastructure masquerading as Azeri political websites.
Within Azerbaijan, over 245 journalists and dissidents are estimated to have been targeted by Pegasus spyware. The Azeri government has previously launched campaigns to hack social media accounts of dissidents and investigative journalists, Azerbaijan police and security services also installed black-boxes on devices issued by Azercell, one of the country’s leading telecommunications providers, to spy on users. Baku is also at the cutting edge of spyware, with reports of Baku’s purchases of spyware going back to the early 2010s. When hacktivists leaked invoices from the Milan-based Hacking Team, Azerbaijan was shown to have purchased a software known as DaVinci, which allowed it to record instant messaging and audio conversations, copy passwords, and activate webcams on computers. Verint, another Israeli company, had also supplied surveillance technology to the Aliyev regime allowing the state to monitor communication in real-time by eavesdropping on internet traffic.
Baku uses the information acquired through these backdoors in ever more inventive ways to stifle dissent. Hence, Verint’s technology was used to scour through Azeri Facebook accounts and identify members of the LGBTQ community and engage in name-and-shame tactics. Female activists and journalists have had intimate photographs of theirs leaked in newspapers and on social media to foster animosity in the still deeply conservative country. Another activist has seen photos of his wife published on escort websites and social media after being outspoken on Baku’s shortcomings in the management of the COVID-19 pandemic. Smear campaigns such as these through obtained intimate material often follow steep incarceration sentences in dire conditions.
Khadija Ismayilova, now exiled in Istanbul, is intimately acquainted with the Aliyevs’ use of digital repression to stifle dissent. An investigative journalist closely keeping tabs on Baku’s excesses, Ismayilova has been the regime’s bête noire for years due to her willingness to pursue stories that may be unflattering to the country’s elite. In 2015, she was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison for tax evasion, illegal business activities, embezzlement, and abuse of power, all charges which she leveraged against the government in her reporting. A sex tape filmed surreptitiously at Ismayilova’s flat was leaked in 2012, a violation of privacy for which the journalist successfully took Azerbaijan to the European Court of Human Rights. Even away in Turkey, she was shocked to find out that Baku had deployed Pegasus to spy on her and her relatives, but even her neighbors and taxi driver.
In its pursuit of oil supplies from countries such as Azerbaijan, Brussels finds itself faced with the age-old international relations question of whether to prioritize self-interest or principles. After all, ever since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the European Union has touted itself as a community of nations united by a triptych of values of respect for human rights, free enterprise, and adherence to the rule of law. Yet this very event has profoundly altered international affairs, with dire implications for cybersecurity, as we have seen the might of unleashed cyberwarfare paired with military actions since Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Spyware has come to the forefront of the conversation and the West is aware of this: Washington has blacklisted spyware manufacturers like NSO and the EU is tightening spyware safeguards within the Schengen borders.
With this in mind, the European Commission’s partnership with Azerbaijan is unlikely to foster a safer worldwide cyber space. Brussels runs the risk of whitewashing a hereditary dictatorship known for its human rights abuses and unafraid to use cyberwarfare to muzzle opposition at home and further its interests abroad. During the Cold War and despite fluctuating tensions, Washington and Moscow often worked together to limit proliferation of nuclear weapons. With the emergence of cyberwarfare across the globe since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a similar approach may be needed regarding tools of virtual warfare such as spyware. Whether the deciders of today will be able to heed these warnings and look at the actions of the deciders of yesterday to set the stage for tomorrow’s cyber space remains to be seen.