Should Maastricht University serve as a vehicle for the promotion of the Central-Asian Republic of Azerbaijan, a country with a questionable human rights reputation? This question was asked by German third-year exchange student at University College, Philipp Buchallik, after he had read last month’s online UM news bulletin, containing the announcement of an essay competition for students under the title of "What do I know about Azerbaijan?” The competition was organised at a high level, by the Embassy of the Republic of Azerbaijan with the support of the Ministry of Youth and Sport and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The ten best entries will be awarded with a prize in the form of a one-week trip to Azerbaijan. What triggered Buchallik in particular, was the list of subjects that was supplied. At the top of the list was actually the theme ‘Heydar Aliyev: National leader of Azerbaijan’; the rest was about history, economic developments and the relations with the Netherlands. Buchallik: “They want to create a pleasant image, just like they did with the song festival last year. But just look at the reports by Amnesty international, by Human Rights Watch, by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, they show a different reality.”
The reports refer to the restriction of the freedom of speech, violent action taken against protesters, jailing opponents of the regime, and torture, as can be read for example in an Amnesty annual report for 2012.
However, none of this information made it into the UM news bulletin nor in the publicity surrounding the celebration of an ‘Azerbaijan Day’ in Maastricht on 24 May, at the Maastricht School of Management (MSM). This festive event forms the framework for the essay competition. The day is being organised by the embassy “to celebrate the growing scientific and business relations between the two countries in an evening of Azerbaijan music, food, and art. There will also be a business information session by the Azerbaijan Export and Investment Promotion Foundation (AZPROMO) for companies interested in doing business in Azerbaijan,” the announcement states. This immediately highlights an important aim of the event: to do business. The fact that MSM is hosting the event can be explained by the relations and collaboration that the management school has had with the country, and - since last year - its involvement with a diplomat training institute in the capital city of Baku. Although MSM is separate from the university, it does have close ties to it. The present dean-director, professor Wim Naudé, for example, is also a professor at the School of Governance. The previous dean-director, professor Peter de Gijsel, developed far-reaching plans for a joint future with the UM. This work is still ongoing but the plans have remained confidential until now.
The announcement of the essay competition did not go down very well either with the director of the Maastricht Centre for Human Rights, professor Menno Kamminga. “I think that the MSM and the UM are being used by the embassy. Of course it is good to maintain contact with such a country. I am not an advocate of boycotts, I even teach in China, on human rights. In this way you can do something good for the next generation. But this is propaganda for the regime and that should not happen,” said Kamminga.
How did the announcement of the essay competition end up in the UM news bulletin? Denis Ancion from the Department of Communication and Marketing: “I believe that the message was passed on to us, at the request of MSM, through the Student Services Centre. That is how it became an internal message. We do screen messages, for example to avoid anything that reeks of commercialism, and we also look at texts to see if there is any reason why we should refuse. Having looked at this again, I think it was a borderline case; to be honest, I feel that we should not have passed it on. But we don’t have fixed policies for this kind of thing. Maybe we should block everything that comes from embassies. It is a difficult issue.”
MSM director Wim Naudé was unavailable for comment.