How a Secret Army of Azerbaijani Interns Infiltrated Germany's Democracy

For years, interns from Azerbaijan have networked in the Bundestag, maintaining strange contacts with the regime of Ilham Aliyev – and German politicians.
June 8, 2021, 4:14pm
The Secret Army of Azerbaijani Interns Within German Democracy
Photo: IMAGO / Future Image | IMAGO / MASKOT | IMAGO / ITAR-TASS 

This article originally appeared on VICE Germany.

Anyone who has ever been an intern at a large institution knows the feeling of invisibility. You’re right in the middle of things, and yet almost anonymous. For many, this is a disadvantage, but it can also be an advantage if you don't want to stand out at all.

In the Bundestag, the German parliament, interns with ties to the regime of Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev have been working in the centre of power for years. They are employed by MPs, some of whom themselves maintain connections with the country in the South Caucasus. 

The system that underpins these connections is large and complex, with many players: a renowned Berlin university that receives hundreds of thousands of euros from Azerbaijan; members of almost all parties in the German parliament; and the embassies of two countries. 

They all help to ensure that interns with close ties to the Aliyev regime were employed in the heart of German democracy. Aliyev leads an authoritarian regime that mistreats and imprisons opposition figures and persecutes journalists. He has ruled for almost 20 years, and last year he waged a bloody war over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia. 

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This network of Azerbaijani interns is spread across several parliamentary groups. It helps Aliyev, who likes to appear in public dressed in camouflage and appointed his wife as his deputy by decree a few years ago, consolidate his influence abroad to the disadvantage of the opposition in Baku. 

Interns in the Bundestag are given a pass that gives them access to most places: to the offices of members of parliament, committees, and meeting rooms.

Nurlan Hasanov is an elected deputy in Azerbaijan’s national assembly, representing Aliyev’s ruling party. But back in 2012, as Azerbaijan prepared to host the Eurovision Song Contest, he began an internship in the Bundestag through a scheme called the International Parliamentary Scholarship (IPS). 

Hasanov’s five-month internship was in the office of Steffen-Claudio Lemme from the SPD (Social Democratic Party). After the internship ended, Hasanov and Lemme went into business together: based on information from Germany’s trade register their business activities cover hiring nursing staff from Azerbaijan, importing and exporting goods from the Caucasus, among others.

In February 2020, Lemme observed the parliamentary elections in Baku on his own initiative. Aliyev's party won an absolute majority. Unlike the official OSCE election observers, who complained of massive violations in the counting of votes, unclear voter lists and pressure on voters, and unlike the opposition, which spoke of manipulation, Lemme gave the regime good marks. The elections were conducted democratically, he said, and media close to the regime quoted him as saying “no violations were recorded”. Lemme did not answer questions about his private election observation mission when contacted by VICE. 

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Hasanov was himself elected to the National Assembly in this election as a deputy for the Shamkir region on behalf of Aliyev's party. Lemme declined to comment when asked if he observed the election in Hasanov’s district.

Lemme is not an outlier: European politicians close to Aliyev’s regime regularly travel to Baku on their own initiative to observe the elections. They attest to Aliyev's excellent record and whitewash the dictatorship. 

The IPS scheme through which Hasanov entered the heart of German democracy is operated under the patronage of the Bundestag’s President, who has a role similar to that of a Speaker in other legislative assemblies.

The entire process is precisely regulated. First, the German embassy in the respective country sorts the applicants. Then a three-person selection committee chooses the future scholarship holders from all over the world, including Azerbaijan. At the moment, 50 countries are participating in IPS. IPS provides the interns with lodgings, a monthly stipend of 500 euros (about £430), insurance and travel expenses to Berlin.

In the case of Azerbaijan, it is striking that the vast majority of candidates already lived in Germany prior to their internship and had to fly back home for the selection round at the German embassy in Baku.

Lemme presided over the selection committee for three years: 2011, 2012 and 2015. The chair regularly alternates between MPs of all factions. Only Lemme has managed the process three times. What criteria does it use to select its fellows? It is not easy to answer such questions. The parliament administration did send over a list of the parliamentary chairs since 2008, but takes refuge in legal guidelines when it comes to the names of the other members, employees of the Bundestag or university envoys. The IPS works with three Berlin universities - Free University, Technical University and Humboldt University. Humboldt has links to Baku and in 2017, it received 1 million euros (about £860,000) from Azerbaijan.

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The Azerbaijan department at Humboldt is headed by Eva-Maria Auch, a history professor. She traveled to Azerbaijan in mid-April to meet Aliyev and visit a newly opened, martial trophy park that displays helmets of slain Armenian soldiers. The park features wax figures of dying Armenian soldiers.

“I’m very happy to be in Azerbaijan,” the professor said during a visit to a university, according to Azerbaijani media. “You have waited many years to free your country from occupation.”

The Humboldt University passed queries about its involvement in the IPS selection process on to the parliamentary administration. On a second inquiry the press office said Humboldt University has no influence on the selection of the interns.

On Facebook, VICE found pictures posted by the German embassy in Baku showing the IPS selection delegation visiting the Azerbaijani capital in the autumn of 2019: MP Jan Metzler from the CDU, a female employee of the parliament administration, and Prof. Dr. Peter Frensch, vice president of Humboldt University. 

In a subsequent statement Humboldt University said: “The IPS scholarship holders are chosen by an independent selection committee of the German parliament with the participation of the Berlin universities based on professional, social, linguistic and intercultural competencies.” 

When VICE asked the Bundestag administration once more who sits on the selection committee of the IPS, we were told that due to legal requirements, no personal details can be published. Instead of a list, the administration sent us references to court decisions, saying without the corresponding consent, we could not be given any names. 

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After some research, we found a picture of an employee of the parliament administration who is responsible for the IPS programme. In the photo, he stands arm-in-arm with Azerbaijani IPS interns on a beach in Sylt, an island in northern Germany known for attracting rich tourists. 

Mark Hauptmann, a CDU politician, also hosted an Azerbaijani IPS intern in his office. The MP from Thuringia resigned in March because of the Azerbaijan affair. The public prosecutor's office is investigating. For years advertisements financed from Azerbaijan appeared in the Südthüringen Kurier, a newspaper published by Hauptmann.

Many IPS graduates now occupy key positions. A former intern of Hauptmann’s works in the press department of the German embassy in Baku.

Another IPS intern worked at Humboldt University, under the supervision of Professor Auch. He is doing his doctorate with her. 

In a previous investigation we have already met the Azerbaijani IPS intern of Olav Gutting, a Christian Democratic MP from Baden-Württemberg. Gutting stood out because he spoke very favourably about the Aliyev regime, including in interviews with TV.Berlin. Research by VICE revealed that TV.Berlin was paid by Azerbaijan for pro-regime coverage. On Facebook Gutting’s intern celebrates Aliyev, posts war glorification and nasty insults towards Armenia. He has been known to refer to Armenians as “critters” or “dogs.” 

Interns in the Bundestag receive a blue ID card. This allows them to move around the parliament unhindered. There are only a few areas to which they have no access. Some MPs even give their interns access to email correspondence, to stored documents, to files, to the cloud. Interns are unobtrusive. They often sit in the back rows of chairs at working group meetings or committee meetings. In the cafeteria, if they want to, they can listen in on confidential conversations.

And the problem seems to be bigger: The parliament administration informs us upon request, that since 2008, 54 IPS interns from Azerbaijan have been employed in the Bundestag. And we are aware of many others – interns with ties to the Aliyev regime, placed in the heart of German democracy. 

The Aliyev regime has invested billions over the years to influence opinion in Europe and bribe politicians. The attempts at bribery ranged from gifting carpets and the supply of prostitutes to money via letterbox companies. Now German politicians are under investigation as well.

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