The Caviar Connection tells the story of how the European Council, an organization mandated to uphold human rights, democratic standards and the rule of law, was corrupted by the country of Azerbaijan. The story, which took place over the past decade, is not new (the events were covered in The Guardian among other publications) but the story merits further attention.
This dense but followable investigation/thriller from French filmmaker Benoit Bringer (he was part of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2017 for their work on the Panama Papers leak) seems essential to understand how former Soviet Bloc autocracies have had an outsize toxic effect on democratic institutions. The work of American journalist and Al-Jazeera, Foreign Policy and Globe and Mail contributor Sarah Kendzior, who analyzed the rogue Trump presidency through the lens of her anthropology studies of Central Asian dictatorships, would serve as a useful background here.
The film, broken into two 52-minute episodes (for television), first follows the career of Khadija Ismayilova, who was imprisoned for her exposés on state corruption, specifically naming President Ilham Aliyev, his wife and children. We are also introduced to Gerald Knaus, head of the European Stability Initiative think tank, which first coined the term “caviar diplomacy.” That colourful phrase describes Azerbaijan’s approach to achieving international legitimacy, through international sports events, invitations to movie and pop stars, and lavish gifts including hard cash to politicians, in order to distract from public theft and human rights abuses. Paul Radu, a Romanian investigative journalist specializing in transnational criminal activities in Eastern Europe, explains how journalists, fighting corruption locally, have learned to pool their resources internationally.
The second episode introduces follows Emin Huseynov, an Azerbaijani journalist, who, after being severely beaten, assumed a disguise to escape from his country, to seek asylum in Switzerland, and Arif Mammadov, a former Azerbaijani ambassador to the European Union and the main whistleblower in the case, who says he had a 30-million Euro budget to buy European politicians, some of whom were paid to monitor and approve of the Azerbaijan elections. The façade of legitimacy was mocked in a memorable 2013 Washington Post headline: “Oops. Azerbaijan released election results before voting had started.”
The Caviar Connection premieres at Hot Docs 2021.