This interview was first published in Platform’s carbon web newsletter, issue 2.
There are few independent and publicly critical voices emanating from Azerbaijan. With the current regime of President Ilham Aliyev – like that of his father Heydar before him – enforcing its hegemonic control through both brute force and a strong hold over public discourse, speaking out is a daunting task. Yet the Centre for Civic Initiatives rise to the challenge. Mayis believes that political change will only become possible after challenging the role of oil corporations, in particular BP, in propping up Aliev. “BP has a strong hold on the government and other spheres of society.” “BP’s involvement in our country has moved this regime towards dictator-like behaviour. Until the signing of the ‘Contract of the Century’ [Heydar] Aliev had normal relations with the opposition. After the contract was signed in 1994, the political repression began. BP is a pillar of the Aliev regime. Why? Because BP profits from its control.”
The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline and Caspian offshore production were promoted as aiding regional development. Yet Mayis claims that the benefits are not reaching the people. “BP claims it has already invested $13 billion in the Azeri economy, possibly rising to $60 billion in the future. But money goes into expanding oil and gas operations. It is going to BP and the Consortium, not to the Azeri economy nor its people.”
ERM, the London-based consultancy which carried out questionable Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) for BP’s BTC pipeline, has been voted top consultancy on issues of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) by EDIE.net. ERM is increasingly focusing on large multinational clients such as BP and on helping these clients to communicate their message. Unfortunately for many affected communities ERM has been less good at consulting them. Last year ERM posted profits of $38 million. Executive chairman Robin Bidwell said that the company might consider a flotation but not for another five years.
Although Azerbaijan has several private newspapers and television stations, Mayis argues that these have become dependent on or intimidated by BP. “Several journalists told me of agreements where financial support from BP depends on articles critical of the pipeline being blocked. This is why I want to publish an independent bulletin about BP’s activities in Azerbaijan.”
“We are no longer independent, we are living under corporate occupation. Just look at the pipeline guards: 650 armed men on horseback patrolling the pipeline corridor. They are operating under the Ministry for Internal Affairs’ Division for BTC Security. Yet their recruitment, training and deployment is paid for and co-organised by BTC Consortium. According to the agreements, these guards must use their weapons to protect BP property, not to provide security for local residents.” Mayis is not optimistic about the Parliamentary Elections on 6th November. “At the most, the opposition will take 20-25% of the seats. They will be under the control of the government and BP. The opposition parties died two years ago, after the EBRD’s decision to finance BTC. Now they try to keep good connections with BP to receive funds. They believe that they need BP to earn power in the future. This election [Ilham] Aliev won’t even need to attack the demonstrations, they won’t be a threat to him anymore.”
Despite the difficulties, the Centre for Civic Initiatives has created the political space and skills to critique BTC. When BP attempted to drown Azerbaijan’s fledgling civil society in PR, Mayis sourced original project documents and provided rigorous analysis of implications. To counter BP’s control over ‘official’ monitoring mechanisms, Mayis joined these and fought for their independence, while simultaneously organising parallel human rights monitoring on the ground. Azerbaijan’s civil society is far from independent or vigorous – but Mayis is dragging it in that direction.
Member groups of the international BTC campaign met in Tbilisi in mid-September to strategise. The result was a new declaration of action based on the idea that “the injustice does not stop when the oil starts to flow”
Subsequent Fact Finding Missions in Georgia and Turkey found many of the impacts of construction – such as land compensation and damage to houses – still remain unresolved, after two years, while new human rights abuses are feared.
Preliminary findings and a full report will be available shortly.