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Money, sex, caviar, and 17 delegates: what you need to know about the bribing scheme in PACE

Left: Azerbaijani President Ilhan Aliev. Azerbaijan has long been accused of “caviar diplomacy” in PACE, but only its recent internal report has had a bombshell effect. Collage:
Money, sex, caviar, and 17 delegates: what you need to know about the bribing scheme in PACE
Article by: Serhiy Sydorenko
Translated by: Peter Koropey
Edited by: Alya Shandra

On 22 April, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) released a fundamental report on Azerbaijan corruption within the institution. Although allegations of such corruption, dubbed “caviar diplomacy,” have been discussed for many years, only this report has had a bombshell effect. Here is what you need to know about it – in this article by Serhiy Sydorenko, editor of the Ukrainian outlet European Pravda writing from Strassbourg, which we translated to English.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) has become infected.

The infection began a long time ago, but old wounds have suddenly reopened and exposed the scale of the problem. An internal investigative group formed ten months ago for the purpose of investigating crimes of corruption has fully met expectations.

The current president and several retired presidents of political parties and committees within PACE; the ex-president of the Assembly; a sizeable number of other delegates, from Malta to Finland, from Great Britain to Poland… all are united by a love of bribes and pay-offs from the Azerbaijani government.

A report which was drafted and sanctioned in a regime of secrecy unprecedented for PACE confirmed rumors which for long had resonated in the corridors of Strasbourg: a large-scale, systematic scheme of pay-offs and “stimulation” of delegates to vote on specific matters existed within the Assembly. A significant part of those questioned (some anonymous, and some named) declared that some of the offered bribes could not be refused.

However, this rule was not set in stone: for example, all of those who told about bribes involving prostitution assured that they refused these offers.

European Pravda read through the 219-page report and summarized the most fascinating portions.

What is this report?

PACE has been accused of corruption for quite some time. Back in 2012, activists from the ESI Organization published a series of articles about the systematic bribery of delegates by the Azerbaijani government.

The scandal was hushed up, and not only because of those wanting to conceal their actions. At that time, such accusations sounded ridiculous, and nobody believed in such a large-scale problem.

For several years social and anti-corruption activists were thought of as the local wack jobs and their findings were disregarded. Only in 2015 did it become clear that the problem was real: ex-deputy Luca Volonte, who headed the largest political group within PACE, was arrested in Italy. The financial police found out that he received non-monetary bribes valued at several million Euros.

The scandal was not about to fade, so last year the Council of Europe gave in: two key organs, the Committee of Ministers and the Parliamentary Assembly, announced the establishment of an Internal Investigative Group. Three reputable Western European judges came out of retirement to join the group: Nicolas Bratza, a former president of the European Court of Human rights; Jean-Louis Bruguière, a French Judge, known for resonant decisions in cases of terrorism; and Elisabet Fura, another former judge on the European Court of Human Rights, and currently, a Swedish Ombudswoman.

The report was prepared under a regime of absolute secrecy.

European Pravda knows beyond doubt that even the leaders of PACE did not have access to the document. The report was published by members of the Bureau of the Assembly for Special Matters on 22 April, a Sunday, when there were no “inessential personnel” at the Palace of Europe. The upper-levels of the building were closed off (for the first time in the history of Bureau, it seems!) so that journalists could not approach.

It is worth noting that the investigative group collected evidence exclusively regarding Azerbaijan; even Russia is only briefly mentioned in the report. But this is natural. Official Baku really did buy up votes in the most open, systematic, and brazen ways, therefore the investigation focused on Azerbaijan.[…]

Gifts from the bottom of my heart

One of the times when a resolution on Azerbaijan was blocked. Photo:

While many Western politicians doubted corruption in PACE, some in Strasbourg had a better grasp on reality.

The author of this article heard more than once from Ukrainian and other Eastern European politicians about the Azerbaijanis knowledge of how to “buy votes.” The workers at the PACE apparatus saw these purchases with their own eyes – some of them volunteered accounts of what they saw to the investigative group.

Those who analyzed votes in the Assembly also knew about the problem.

“…when matters concerning Azerbaijan were discussed in PACE, the activities seemed to be orchestrated as there were always many more people present, including those who were otherwise rarely seen in the Assembly, who cast their votes in favor of Azerbaijan,” the report states.

Bribery cannot always be proven, but the number of occurrences is impressive. For example, one Lithuanian delegate, whose own parliament (due to an investigation in his homeland) did not assign him a business trip to PACE, nonetheless traveled unexpectedly to Strasbourg to vote on Azerbaijan’s behalf, and then went home. It is unlikely that he financed this journey at his own cost.

The incentives for voting were diverse.

“A number of witnesses heard by the Investigation Body, both from the PACE secretariat and MPs, stated that they had received various gifts… [they] explained that it was not always easy to refuse such gifts and that instances in which the offers had been declined had given rise to ill-feeling…” the report states.

Azerbaijan’s actions are known as “Caviar Diplomacy.”

The classic gift from Azerbaijan is black caviar. This is no small present, as a kilogram of the highest-quality beluga caviar costs several thousand dollars.

Wojcech Sawicki, the General Secretary of PACE, acknowledged that he received cases of caviar from Azerbaijan. In his words, it was very difficult to refuse this gift, and that after a session of the Assembly, PACE’s employees together with some colleagues organized a caviar breakfast. There are several such accounts in the report. It is curious that an official from the Venice Commission in Baku had been given 500 grams of caviar – a treasure in monetary value. However in the official’s words, the jar of caviar “spoiled” on the road, and he threw it away.

There were also more traditional gifts: business-class tickets, a week in a five-star hotel, tickets to concerts or equestrian shows. Doris Fiala, a deputy from Switzerland, reported that she received a gold chain with pearls and diamonds during her official working visit to Azerbaijan. She reported that she returned the chain to the Azerbaijani PACE delegation.

Still one more interesting story from the report: when Lord David Russell-Johnston, the President of PACE from 1999 to 2002, undertook an official tour of the Caucasus, the regional states outdid each other in their hospitality towards him. In Baku, where the tour concluded, the guest’s hotel room was literally packed with gifts.

Mr. Russell-Johnston… diplomatically explained to the Azerbaijani delegation that he would be happy if they could bring only a quarter of [the gifts] to Strasbourg,” the report quotes from a participant in this tour.

The report had no shortage of juicy details.

Mr. Yves Cruchten (Luxembourg) also stated that when working on his report on the restriction of NGO activities in Europe, he had been approached by Azerbaijani lobbyists, who explained that there was good caviar and girls in Azerbaijan. However, he did not suggest that any specific form of gift had been offered to him…)”

Some witness)es mentioned what appeared to have been the provision of the services of prostitutes. For instance, Mr. Dick Marty (Switzerland) stated how on one occasion during an official mission to Baku, at around 1 a.m. somebody had knocked on the door of his hotel room. He had looked through the spyhole and seen a platter with a bottle of champagne and two young women barely dressed. He had not opened the door,” the report states.

An unnamed representative of the Secretariat of the Venice Commission also reported that in Baku a woman came to his hotel room and offered him her services. The representative from the European agency also insisted that he refused.

High-quality oriental rugs were offered as a more down-to-earth, but no less expensive, type of gift.

According to a representative of the PACE apparatus (she, like the other Council employees, is not named), during a visit to Baku in 2014 a large number of very expensive oriental rugs were brought to her hotel room. Specifically, these gifts were given to the Maltese delegate and at-that-time attaché to Azerbaijan Debono Grech.

The Council employee left her oriental rug in the hotel, but not only from ethical considerations. She explained that the rug was too heavy, and somewhat ugly. But Grech accepted that gift graciously and, of course, failed to declare it, even though it is necessary to do so.

The Best Gift? Money!

On another note, several employees of the Council of Europe stated that they became witnesses to the delivery of gifts from countries other than Azerbaijan. Moldovan and Georgian wine, Armenian cognac, Russian portraits… Several countries made unhidden attempts to “cajole” deputies.

However, only Azerbaijan resorted to the banal method of handing out money.

Several witnesses from the PACE secretariat alleged that there was a system of distribution of money within PACE. It was suggested that Jaako Laakso [a former member of PACE from Finland], who lobbied in PACE in favor of Azerbaijan, had been distributing banknotes of EUR 500 and that Stef Goris [one more ex-delegate, from Belgium] had been in charge of distributing envelopes with money within the European People’s Party political group,” the document states.

There was also allegedly a system of envelopes which were distributed to delegates when it came to the election of high Council of Europe officials in PACE. The money was coming from Azerbaijan and was distributed either in delegates’ hotel rooms or in the offices of national delegations. The envelopes contained cash in small bills. A group of MPs would be in charge of distributing the money, thereby literally buying the votes,” the report affirms.

The investigative group found sufficient evidence of such lobbying on the part of five former deputies. However, according to PACE’s rules those delegates who receive an important position within the Assembly retain the right to go to the session chambers in the Palace of Europe, even after they resign. Sometimes Baku’s agents become heavyweights. For example, the former German delegate Eduard Lintner, who for three years led PACE’s judicial committee (one of its essential organs), after his resignation decided to return, making use of his capacity as an ex-delegate.

This work brought him loads of money.

Lintner is one lobbyist for whom there is concrete evidence of financial transfers. Documents have surfaced during the investigation into the case of Luca Volonte, the delegate who was financed by Azerbaijani middlemen.

“The Investigation Body itself obtained from the Italian criminal case file against Mr. Volontè, bank statements showing that Mr. Lintner received EUR 799,500 on his personal accounts from the following companies linked to Azerbaijan…” the report states.

These accounts do not include all the financial payments; other sources calculate even higher sums.

Apart from Lintner, Laakso and Goris, detailed evidence of lobbying to Baku’s benefit implicate still two other ex-delegates: Karin Woldseth (Norway) and Göran Lindblad (Sweden).

Agramunt and Company

The name “Pedro Agramunt,” the scandal-ridden ex-president of PACE, can be found 165 times in the report – more than any other.

We already know about the disgraced Spaniard through his pro-Russian actions and trip to visit Bashar al-Assad as part of a Russian delegation. But the “Russian Trek” is far from the only thing that made the Spanish senator famous. He was one of Azerbaijan’s most important friends, one of the foremost speakers on Azerbaijan’s behalf and a frequent observer of Azerbaijan’s elections.

Each of the missions to Azerbaijan formed and led by Agramunt had the audacity to speak about democratic elections “practically without violations,” at the same time that all other observer-missions, including the OSCE’s, saw horrible problems totally contradictory to democracy. To that effect, the election of Agramunt to the office of President each year became an example of corruption – and several deputies recognized these episodes that way.

For example, Volodymyr Ariev (head of Ukraine’s PACE delegation) explained how votes were gathered for Agramunt for president of the European People’s Party (a position which allowed Agramunt to become head of PACE).

Mr. Ariev stated that the day before his departure from Kyiv to Strasbourg for the 2013 autumn session, he had received a phone call from a person who had introduced himself as Elchin Mammadov, the president of SOCAR-Ukraine [the Ukrainian division of the Azerbaijani State Oil Company – Ed]. Mr. Mammadov had come with his bodyguards and said that he knew that Mr. Ariev was going to Strasbourg and requested Mr. Ariev to support the candidature of Mr. Agramunt rather than that of the candidate from Finland… Mr. Mammadov had also explained that he would give any assistance needed to Mr. Ariev if he would vote for Mr. Agramunt… it had been clear to Mr. Ariev that this offer amounted to a bribe,” the report cites from Ariev’s testimony.

Agramunt’s zenith lasted between 2009 and 2015 when he was an advocate in all matters concerning Azerbaijan.

It seems that his decisions and reports from that time were written by the Azerbaijani Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Employees of the Council of Europe say that the Spaniard was not particularly oriented on events, but he issued finely-written documents. One more fascinating detail – he traveled to Azerbaijan for two days on an official delegation.

Some comments that [Agramunt] had provided on the report had been drafted in such good English that it was clear that Mr. Agramunt himself had not drafted them,” one witness remembered.

He also fully revised project reports written by the Secretariat, something which is not usual for the Monitoring Committee.

When in 2014 a council of dissidents in Azerbaijan was arrested, the Secretariat of PACE prepared for Agramunt a statement condemning the arrests, but the Spaniard simply ignored letters and calls from the Secretariat.

There had also been an idea at a meeting of the judicial committee to prepare a response to the arrests. Agramunt, obtaining the draft documents, knowingly broke the deadline for a response. Furthermore, he added to the project a revision which eliminated criticism and clarified that “Azerbaijan is a new democracy.”

When considering these facts, it is not strange that Agramunt was seen in the Assembly carrying large sums of cash (which is nonsense in Europe, where everybody uses credit cards).

The other “hero” of this report is Jordi Xuclà, one more delegate from Spain, who also accompanied Agramunt on his disgraceful trip to visit Assad. But this report is not about Syria, it is about Azerbaijan. Here Xuclà had a no-less odious role. He headed the PACE mission during the 2015 Azerbaijani elections, despite the fact that the OSCE generally refused to observe these elections (during this time massive repressions against the opposition did not allow one to speak of even a minimal level of compliance with democratic norms).

Clerks from the Council of Europe testified that Xuclà, despite standing rules, independently specified everything about this mission – the sites which would be observed, the list of meetings and so on. This, usually, would not be evidence of cooperation with Baku, even if it is a violation of standards.

But he got “busted,” like Agramunt, on translation matters.

Several witnesses reported that Xuclà “individually wrote” memoranda and final documents for projects.

The Spaniard refused to deliver prepared drafts of statements to mission participants.

“The Secretariat (concluding its duties) together prepared a project statement, however Xuclà would not even read it,” one of the clerks who traveled to Baku at that time stated.

The deputy simply did not have any need to.

“…Mr. Xuclà had produced [for the pre-electoral mission statement] a seven-page statement in perfect English within forty-five minutes,” one of the participants in the mission explained.

In his estimation, it was technically impossible to prepare such a large document in such a short time, in large part because the quality of the text exceeded Xuclà’s knowledge of English. Xuclà clarified that he wrote the document in the Catalan language, and a translation was written by one of his colleagues in Spain.

The same occurred after the elections: the deputy gave his colleagues a prepared mission report, written in ideal English.

The investigative group tried to understand who the mysterious helper was who could complete such perfect translations in such short times. They asked Xuclà himself. A bit later he gave the investigators the contact information of his acquaintance in Spain, who is supposed to have written these translations.

In her statement, written in non-perfect English, she [Xuclà’s acquaintance] confirmed that during the week preceding the election week, Mr. Xuclà had asked her to remain available on 1 and 2 November to help him with the drafting of some texts in English.”

This answer dispels all doubts: the deputy is lying.

PACE employees consider that statements (of the missions which observe elections) were prepared by someone closely-linked to Azerbaijan,” the report declares.

The language question uncovered still one more deputy, Alain Destexhe.

The Belgian in his time was a speaker for the Monitoring Committee for Azerbaijan. His statements contain practically no criticism against the Baku authorities, and his work violates all imaginable ethical standards.

This goes beyond bribes. For example, he asked all staff members of the Council of Europe to leave their offices when he had meetings with President Aliyev of Azerbaijan and the head of Aliyev’s administration.

“The second unusual issue was that Mr. Destexhe had asked the secretariat members accompanying him to hand over to him the handwritten notes concerning the visit. Later, Mr. Destexhe had prepared a note on the basis of the handwritten notes and had given it to the secretariat. That document had not been critical towards Azerbaijan. It had been drafted in bad French, containing mistakes which a native speaker would not make, which suggested that perhaps the document had not been drafted by Mr. Destexhe, ” the investigative group concludes.

When the Secretariat prepared a report, Destexhe once more interfered, reducing criticism, and at a very late stage once more added changes to the final draft of the resolution, “[praising the Azerbaijani] authorities for securing religious tolerance.”

Who is in the report?

The entire report by the investigative group specifies 17 acting or former members of PACE for whom there is sufficient evidence to confirm violations of important ethical norms.

Regarding four, there are bases to talk about corruption. These are the already-mentioned Agramunt and Volonte, as well as two delegate-mediators from Azerbaijan: Elkham Suleymanov and Muslim Mahomedov.

True, only five among the “Group of 17” remain delegates to the Assembly to this day. However, all 17 were at one time or another important figures in PACE.

  • Romanian Deputy Cezar Florin Preda, head of the European People’s Party. After the publication of the report Preda stepped down as party head “for the duration of the investigation”;
  • The notorious Pedro Agramunt, ex-president of PACE and of the European People’s Party, today, he is not a member of any party;
  • Jordi Xuclà, who in his time led the Liberal Party, but because of the scandal was forced to leave this position;
  • Stefan Schennach, an Austrian and the Former head of the Monitoring Committee;
  • Samad Seyidov, acting vice-president of PACE and head of the Azerbaijani delegation.

This scandal has become a real blow to Schennach, for he truly stands out on this list. The Austrian was once the Attaché for Azerbaijan, but he had, contrary to the rest, criticized the Baku authorities. He specifically never took any bribes from Aliyev.

Nonetheless, the investigators decided that he violated the standards of impartiality. Only to the opposite side.

It is not impossible that he will in the future be exonerated  [The Rules Committee delivered findings on April 26th regarding Stefan Schennach, finding that he had undertaken “a minor violation of the code of conduct” – Ed]. The investigation into corruption cases in PACE is still ongoing.

Three deputies remained in the Assembly until last year, when it became known that the investigation was on their trail. These are Suleymanov and Mammadov, named in documents about corruption, and also the Belgian Alain Destexhe.

Also on the blacklist – Robert Walter (Britain, who left the Assembly in 2015), Luca Volonte (Italy, 2013) Tadeusz Iwinski (Poland, 2016), Agustin Conde (Spain, 2016) and five deputies from past times – lobbyists, whom were mentioned earlier.

This is not the full list of bribe-takers, even when referring to only Azerbaijan. For example, the Maltese Debono Grech, who worked with Agramunt, was extremely biased, and several pages in the report are devoted to him – however, the investigators consider the amount of evidence against his violations insufficient. (He left the Assembly a year ago, but not because of this scandal – the 78-year-old politician simply ended his political career.)

However, and this is important – the report does not deal with any countries other than Azerbaijan.

Who would believe someone who says that the Russians “have not violated ethical standards” in advancing their own interests at PACE? This is simply impossible! And the basic discussion in Strasbourg will soon revolve around this. [..]

Editor’s note: On 26 April 2018, PACE adopted a resolution which declares that “The Assembly believes that although the report deals principally with allegations and facts concerning Azerbaijan, similar practices have clearly also been used by the authorities and parliamentary delegations of other member States,” however, the resolution notes that the report could not “provide proof in the judicial sense of any corrupt wrongdoings it became aware of, let alone of any criminal offences potentially involved. This is the task of the competent national authorities.” The resolution puts forward procedural changes to PACE and declares that PACE, “seeking to restore its credibility, has undertaken to establish an environment of zero tolerance of corruption and of any practice which may leave any doubt as to a possible conflict of interests,” but unfortunately the resolution also concedes that it is up to “[PACE] members to ensure that this is achieved, without compromise.”

This resolution does not enact any individual sanctions against those mentioned in the report.

Other consequences of the report include:

  • President of the European People’s Party group Cezar Florin Preda has announced his resignation;
  • The Council of Europe has canceled plans to hold a historic summit on its 70th anniversary.

An investigation released by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project in September 2017 named maby

Serhiy Sydorenko is an editor at Euromaidan Pravda



Read also:

Translated by: Peter Koropey
Edited by: Alya Shandra
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