Thorbjørn Jagland, the former Norwegian prime minister who’s been serving as secretary general of the Council of Europe since 2009, has landed in conflicts both at work in Strasbourg and, once again, at home in Norway. Jagland is now fiercely fending off scathing criticism over his failure to act years ago on corruption claims against Azerbaijan at the Council of Europe, while also being the target of an unusual formal complaint from the government of his native Norway.
Jagland has earlier been caught in conflicts within his own Norwegian Labour Party, in his role as former head of the Norwegian Nobel Committee and now at the Council of Europe itself. Oslo newspaper Aftenposten has been reporting during the past week how Jagland is accused of failing to act on years of complaints and suspicions about Azerbaijan’s alleged bribery of members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).
The Council of Europe itself, with 47 member nations, is charged with defending human rights, the rule of law and democracy. Norway was among 10 founding nations of the council when it was established in 1949. Jagland was elected to a five-year term as secretary general after a campaign backed by Norway, and re-elected in 2014.
Aftenposten reported that Jagland was told about Azerbaijan’s influence peddling as soon as he arrived at the council in 2009. The authoritarian regime’s own ambassador to the council at the time, Arif Mammadov, told Aftenposten he had several secret meetings with Jagland, and Jagland confirmed he was told about how Azerbaijan’s court system is politically controlled, how power is distributed and that Azerbaijan is no open democracy. Mammadov had reportedly had enough of his homeland’s abuses and alleged bribes of PACE members that were aimed at stopping them from criticizing Azerbaijan.
Mammadov claims he also told Jagland how Azerbaijan authorities were using their so-called “caviar diplomacy” and extravagant entertaining of PACE members to win support from them. Jagland denies he was told about that or Azerbaijan’s alleged corruption, telling Aftenposten that he instead wondered “how an ambassador could talk like (Mammadov) did about the authorities he represented.” Mammadov was later called a traitor by Azerbaijan, threatened, and felt forced to all but defect to Belgium, where he now works as a taxi driver.
Others also told Aftenposten that Jagland was informed about Azerbaijan’s tactics. Jagland ventured to criticize Azerbaijan himself in 2012, claiming that “Azerbaijan’s caviar” was a threat to the independence of PACE and “totally unacceptable.” That enraged Azerbaijan authorities who want to maintain membership in the council in an effort to boost legitimacy both at home and abroad. They called Jagland’s remarks “groundless.”
Then the issue went quiet. Jagland has stressed to Aftenposten that PACE is independent of the council, and that he, as secretary general, couldn’t take the initiative for an investigation of the corruption claims against Azerbaijan.
Aftenposten reported that the think tank European Stability Initiative has published reports about the alleged corruption since 2012 and criticized Jagland for not engaging himself in the issue. “There’s something wrong when independent organizations (like the think tank) are more worried about public confidence in the Council of Europe than the secretary general is,” said European Stability Initiative’s leader, Gerald Knaus.
Andreas Gross, a member of PACE from 1995 to 2016, also claimed Jagland hasn’t done enough, because he lacked sufficient support from members countries. “Jagland has been completely passive on this issue,” agreed Frank Schwabe, a PACE member from Germany. He and others claim Jagland could have taken up the concerns in the media and at the ministerial council. He could have built coalitions, they say, among parliamentarians and member countries critical of Azerbaijan, and challenged PACE to take up the issue in his quarterly addresses to the parliamentary assembly.
Jagland rejects the criticism while also claiming that he has worked actively to combat violations of human rights in Azerbaijan. The work was difficult, he said, because many western countries wanted to maintain relations with Azerbaijan for economic or political reasons. Norway also has nurtured ties with Azderbaijan, even though a visit in 2011 by Crown Prince Haakon and Norway’s oil- and foreign ministers at the time (Ola Borten Moe of the Center Party and Espen Barth Eide of Jagland’s own Labour Party) was highly controversial in Norway. Statoil’s business interests in oil-rich Azerbaijan seemed to take precedence.
Now Jagland, who had lost a power struggle within the Norwegian Labour Party before leaving for Strasbourg, is furious with Aftenposten over its lengthy and detailed coverage of the issue. Jagland has claimed Aftenposten is trying to defame him, and Jagland used his Facebook page to fire off criticism of Aftenposten that’s been so harsh that other Norwegian media picked up Jagland’s tirade, which can be compared to US President Donald Trump’s campaign against the media. On Wednesday, the communications director for the Council of Europe also accused Aftenposten of publishing “intolerable claims” against Jagland, and suggested its articles were not credible.
Aftenposten’s editor-in-chief, Espen Egil Hansen, is standing by the paper’s coverage, claiming in Thursday’s edition that Jagland must tolerate criticism. He conceded that Jagland “has a point” that Norwegian media hasn’t covered the Council of Europe closely enough over the years, adding that its coverage now reveals how “many warned (about corruption at the Council of Europe) and Jagland knew about it. That’s the core of the case, and it’s well-documented.” Jagland is now moving forward with a process that can result in Azerbaijan’s expulsion, after some of the allegedly bribed PACE members including PACE President Pedro Agramunt have faced criticism and face investigations of their relations with Azerbaijan.
Aftenposten, meanwhile, isn’t the only one under attack by Jagland lately. Jagland has also suggested that Norwegian media withheld stories critical of Labour leader Jonas Gahr Støre until just before the election. Ever since Norway’s conservative minority coalition government beat Jagland’s Labour Party in last month’s election, Jagland has also been criticizing the government’s policies on his Facebook page on almost a daily basis.
On October 1, Jagland continued his criticism by claiming that the Norwegian government had been too passive about police violence in Barcelona in connection with Catalonia’s referendum on independence from Spain. That angered Conservative Prime Minister Erna Solberg, who claimed Jagland misunderstood a government reaction to the violence, erred in his conclusion and should apologize.
Solberg got so fed up with how the Council of Europe’s secretary general was “meddling” in Norway’s domestic politics that her foreign ministry sent a highly unusual formal complaint to the organization two weeks ago. Norway’s foreign ministry, she said, “expects a bit more of the secretary general of the Council of Europe.” Jagland shouldn’t, she said, “take answers to one question and misinterpret them in another. He’s involving himself in a Norwegian debate with the authority he has. We think that’s wrong.”
Norway’s outgoing foreign minister Børge Brende also reacted negatively to Jagland’s claim that Norway had neglected to attend meetings at the ministerial level of the Council of Europe. “That’s wrong, I have met up there,” Brende told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “He needs to go through his books. I have been in Strasbourg and attended a ministerial council meeting and, among other things, taken up the human rights situation in Turkey.”
Brende claimed that Jagland, as secretary general of the Council of Europe, “can’t express himself on political issues like a private person.” Brende noted that NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, also a Norwegian, “is very conscious of what he writes on Twitter and other social media.” Jagland, he suggested, should be the same.