How an Authoritarian Regime Infiltrated a Government in the Heart of Europe

A VICE investigation reveals how a little-known TV station and large sums of money were part of a lobbying strategy to polish Azerbaijan’s image in Germany.

Angela Merkel’s ruling center-right alliance between the Christian Democratic Union and the Christian Social Union has recently been plagued by pandemic infighting and scandal. But there is an arguably larger scandal engulfing playing out: The Azerbaijan Affair.

A VICE investigation can reveal the previously-unknown extent of the authoritarian regime’s influence on conservative German MPs. Oil-rich and with a tendency to lock up critics, Azerbaijan has been attempting to buy itself a better image in Europe for years.

It’s done this by sponsoring sporting events – and bribing politicians. And not always successfully. For example, in 2020 Luca Volontè, a conservative Italian member of the Council of Europe, was found to have been paid around two million euros in order to prevent a critical resolution against Azerbaijan and was sentenced to four years in prison by a Milan court. According to experts, Volontè is only the tip of the iceberg. In Germany, investigations are underway into a number of German MPs, including Karin Strenz and Axel Fischer, both members of the CDU.

Scratch the surface and you’ll find that Azerbaijani influence on Berlin involves a wide network of politicians and lobbyists. Endorsements by German politicians, mostly from the CDU/CSU, are celebrated in Azerbaijan’s state media. And that’s because the republic desperately needs good press abroad – for decades, Azerbaijan has been at loggerheads with its neighbor Armenia. Last year, Azerbaijan started a bloody war with Armenia over the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region. The number of casualties is thought to be in the thousands.

Human Rights Watch has described as “conspicuous” the fact that so many conservative German MPs clearly side with Azerbaijan in the dispute, and continue to support the regime despite the state of democracy and human rights in the country.

MP and Parliamentary State Secretary Thomas Bareiß, a key figure in Chancellor Merkel’s economic policy, has visited Azerbaijan several times. Last year, at the height of the first wave of COVID-19, he lobbied to send a shipment of ventilators to Azerbaijan. With ventilators still in very short supply in Germany, the request was denied.

Olav Gutting, another CDU MP, has repeatedly attracted attention with kind words about Azerbaijan – speaking at the first German-Azerbaijani economic summit in 2018, and also praising the state’s “long democratic history”. Jailed critics of Ilham Aliyev’s regime probably hold a different view. According to VICE investigations Gutting employed an Azerbaijani intern in his parliamentary office whose Facebook posts include fawning over dictator Aliyev and referring to Armenians as “animals” or “dogs”. In the first 22 months of the current election cycle, Gutting declared a supplementary income of 450,000 euros (about £380,000) on top of his parliamentary wage. As a lawyer, he is legally able to keep his clients and the specifics of his income under wraps.

MPs like Gutting regularly land themselves in Azerbaijan’s state press for their sympathetic comments. Meanwhile, Azerbaijani media often broadcasts interviews from a German television station, TV Berlin. Not a big name in Germany, but well-known and well-connected in the capital, TV Berlin narrowly escaped insolvency in 2013. The station’s showpiece is Peter Brinkmann, a greying journalist who some say brought down the Berlin Wall.

A good 30 years on, Brinkmann seems to have lost faith in critical journalism, especially when it comes to the authoritarian Aliyev regime and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. It’s a topic the station reports on surprisingly often – and surprisingly patricianly. In 2015, German media journalist Stefan Niggemeier called TV Berlin an “Azerbaijani government channel”.

That same year, Brinkmann interviewed CDU MP Strenz, who died earlier this month. The interview was a study in how not to conduct political interviews: No critical inquiry, only approval. After the interview, Strenz praised Brinkmann as a “real journalism legend”.

Strenz was at the center of the Azerbaijan Affair until she collapsed and died on a flight from Cuba on March 21. The Frankfurt public prosecutor’s office was investigating Strenz on suspicion of bribery, bribery of elected officials and money laundering. She had received at least 15,000 euros (about £12,700) from Azerbaijan in 2014 and 2015. If convicted, she would have faced up to five years in prison.

n addition to Strenz, TV Berlin has also aired several interviews with Germany’s Azerbaijani ambassador, plus cheerful reports on President Aliyev’s visit to Germany, and pleasant documentaries on the country and its culture. One YouTube commenter sums up the elements conspicuously absent from the documentaries: “What about the unjust state of Azerbaijan? What about the free press, the opposition, just being shot in front of the house?”

Relatively small enough in Germany to fly under the radar for its propaganda, TV Berlin is the ideal station for the Azerbaijani lobby. Whereas in Baku, the name “TV Berlin” carries weight and is easily marketed through state press. TV Berlin’s head of programming wouldn’t talk to VICE, while TV Berlin management offered us a telephone interview shortly before deadline. Brinkmann also refused to respond to our questions surrounding his particular interest in Azerbaijan and the regime.

An insider familiar with TV Berlin’s production processes told VICE that many programs were commissioned and indirectly paid for by the Azerbaijani government. Other sources close to TV Berlin confirmed this. We asked TV Berlin for a written statement on the allegations, and did not receive it by deadline.

The commissions and finance came via lobbying organization “The European Azerbaijan Society” (TEAS), since dissolved. Documents seen by VICE confirm the business relationship. Headquartered in Baku, TEAS lobbied in London, Paris, Istanbul, Berlin and Brussels between 2008 and 2018. The organization was originally set up by Nijat and Tale Heydarov, the ambitious sons of Kamaladdin Heydarov, Azerbaijan’s influential minister of disaster management. Its stated goals were to highlight the country’s economic potential and to “raise awareness of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict”.

Insiders describe the lobby as trying to strike a balance between achieving the greatest possible influence, with minimal visibility. And to be fair, the work of TEAS has attracted basically no media attention, with the exception of a few reports on its German head Shahin Namati.

Lobby experts describe Namati as a party animal – a dazzling businessman from Essen with Iranian-Azerbaijani roots and impressive access to German parliament. Equipped with a rare house pass that allowed him to visit MPs’ offices at any time, he regularly strolled the corridors of German parliament. Not infrequently, he worked on pro-regime statements with conservative MPs, which were then shared on news sites in Azerbaijan.

Namati organized trips to Baku for select politicians, threw parties at the posh Hotel de Rome and dinners at celebrity venues. At jazz concerts organized by TEAS, he drew attention to the suffering of Azerbaijani refugees – one of the regime’s central strategies for gaining sympathy. According to VICE sources, Namati and anchorman Brinkmann are also said to be close friends. Namati did not respond to our questions regarding TEAS, TV Berlin and the flow of money from Azerbaijan to Berlin.

Gutting also refused to speak to VICE. Two days before the news of her death, VICE emailed Strenz with questions regarding her previous trips to Azerbaijan and her connections to TV Berlin and to TEAS, and received no response.

We also asked Bareiß, parliamentary state secretary to the Ministry of Economics, about his visits to Azerbaijan and contact with Namati. Bareiß responded that he has been to the country five times, and the trips were officially reported to the parliament or were part of his remit as parliamentary state secretary. He has been to Armenia only once. He said he has never had any contact with TEAS or Namati, and has never received money or other benefits from TEAS, either directly or indirectly.

Unlike conservatives, Green politicians are considered out of reach for Azerbaijani lobbyists. We spoke to Tabea Rößner, a Green MP who is openly a member of the German-South Caucasian Parliamentary Group. Rößner traveled to Baku in 2015 with a delegation from the parliamentary group, including Strenz. Before a meeting with Aliyev, Rößner recalled Strenz insisting on moderating the conversation. Later, Rößner witnessed Aliyev stop by the hotel again and greet Strenz in the lobby with kisses.

It is important to make the distinction that not every German MP dedicated to Azerbaijan relations is disreputable. There are those who care about the country and not just personal profit. But if they care about Azerbaijan, they should also stand up for human rights. Like for Mahammad Mirzali, for example.

In mid-March, the well-known Azerbaijani blogger in exile was stabbed by multiple attackers in Nantes, France. He has a quarter of a million subscribers on his YouTube channel. Mirzali regularly reports on the persecution of opposition figures and on corruption in his native Azerbaijan.

The attackers reportedly tried to cut off his tongue.