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'Azerbaijani Laundromat' brings German ex-politician into spotlight

An investigation into Azerbaijani influence peddling in Europe has brought attention to an ex-German lawmaker turned lobbyist. The allegations raise questions of whether Azerbaijan has undermined the Council of Europe.

In 2013, Eduard Lintner led a 36-member German election observation mission to Azerbaijan, where he declared that the reelection of President Ilham Aliyev was up to "German standards." Aliyev won with 85 percent of the vote.

Two weeks later, the former lawmaker from the German parliament for the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union, received 61,000 euros ($84,000) for "services."

The payment was one of 19 adding up to 819,500 euros made between 2012 and 2014 to Lintner, who after leaving politics in 2009 founded the Society for Promoting German-Azerbaijani Relations (GEFDAB), a lobby group.

That makes Lintner one of several high-profile beneficiaries of an alleged money laundering and slush fund scheme dubbed the "Azerbaijani Laundromat." A consortium of European newspapers and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) published reports about the scheme, which allegedly funneled 2.5 billion euros from four UK-based shell companies through an Estonian branch of a Danish bank to buy luxury goods and pay European politicians and Azerbaijani elites.

The OCCRP report noted that the origin of the money is unclear, but there is "ample evidence of its connection to the family of President Aliyev."

Aliyev was granted expanded powers in a September 2016 referendum that raised questions over increased autocratic rule

Aliyev was granted expanded powers in a September 2016 referendum that raised questions over autocratic rule

During the time of the alleged money laundering operation, oil-rich Azerbaijan continued to clamp down on dissent by arresting human rights activists and journalists. The 2013 presidential vote that Lintner called fair was deemed by the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to be seriously flawed.

OCCRP reported that Lintner said the money he received came from an NGO in Azerbaijan run by Elkhan Suleymanov, an Azerbaijani parliamentarian and member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). PACE has 324 members drawn from the national parliaments of the Council of Europe's 47 member states.  

Lintner defends his activities

Lintner's lobby group funded the 2013 German election observer mission at the invitation of the Central Election Commission of Azerbaijan. Lintner wasn't the only member of German observer mission to praise the vote that handed Aliyev his third five-year term. Alexandra Thein, a member of European Parliament from the Germany's liberal Free Democrats (FDP), also came under criticism for calling the election "a further step in towards international democratic standards" in Azerbaijan.

In an emailed response to DW, Lintner defended the German election observer mission by saying that it only evaluated the day of the 2013 election and was not a long-term mission like the OSCE observers who also take campaigning and local laws into account in their reports.

He also said funding for GEFDAB came from an Azerbaijani government-backed NGO to set up an office in Berlin, hire a small staff and cover his salary. 

"References to anything dubious with regard to financing, as they are now shown in newspaper articles, have not occurred to me or my staff," Lintner said. 

The main activities of GEFDAB revolved around advocating Azerbaijan's position on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Armenia and remembrance of the 1992 "Khojaly Massacre," he said. The lobby ceased operations in 2015 after its supporters in Azerbaijan dropped support.

Caviar diplomacy

Critics say Lintner has a long history of whitewashing Azerbaijan's autocratic record. As a member of PACE between 1999 and 2010, he and other members praised Azerbaijan's dubious parliamentary and presidential elections and otherwise helped shield the ruling regime from criticism, according to the Berlin-based European Stability Initiative (ESI).

ESI has described Azerbaijan's influence peddling in the Council of Europe, a human rights body separate from the European Union, as "caviar diplomacy."

"The aim was to win and retain the stamp of legitimacy conferred by Council of Europe membership while preserving the authoritarian structures of an autocratic regime," the ESI said in a 2012 report.  

Trouble at the Council of Europe

Other European politicians also received slush fund payments, according to the OCCRP.

Italy's Luca Volonte received payments of nearly 2 million euros from the same UK shell company as Lintner. The Italian parliamentarian and the former head of the European People's Party group in PACE currently faces corruption charges in Italy related to the payments. 

Luca Volonte

Luca Volonte is under fire over Azerbaijani influence peddling

Prosecutors also said he helped squash a 2013 PACE report written by German Social Democrat lawmaker Christoph Strässer condemning Azerbaijan for locking up political prisoners and other human rights abuses. The Council of Europe is now investigating possible corruption between PACE members and Azerbaijan in the decision to block Strässer's report.

As for the CSUs Lintner, it is unclear whether he broke the law, but he needs to be investigated, according to Hartmut Bäumer, the co-chair of Transparency International.

"We only know that Lintner got this money and everything that we know shows that he is very close to the government of Azerbaijan and acts like a very good lobbyist for them," Bäumer said, adding that members of PACE who are close to Azerbaijan and advocate on its behalf should be investigated for possible corruption.

"For me, it is necessary to investigate what really happened, because we can't believe him when he says the payment is only for lobbying. He got this money perhaps to whitewash a corrupt system, but we can't say yet that he was corrupt," said Bäumer. 

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