Concern over Azerbaijan ruling family influence at Oxford centre

Sister-in-law of Azerbaijan’s autocratic president sits on board of centre set up to study country after brokering a £10 million donation

July 22, 2021
A man stands outside the House of Culture damaged by Azerbaijani military strikes  for Concern over Azerbaijan ruling family influence at Oxford centre
Source: Getty

A member of the family of Azerbaijan’s autocratic ruler sits on the board of a University of Oxford research centre that studies the country, raising conflict of interest concerns for academics.

A body representing Armenian scholars expressed concern that the Oxford Nizami Ganjavi Centre, founded in 2018 by a £10 million donation from an undisclosed source, could neglect the study of Armenian heritage in the central Asian country, which, they say, the current government is trying to erase.

The donation was brokered by Nargiz Pashayeva, sister-in-law of President Ilham Aliyev, who since 2003 has ruled Azerbaijan amid accusations of torture, the jailing of political opponents and corruption.

Professor Pashayeva, rector of the Baku branch of Moscow State University, sits on the seven-person board of the Oxford centre, which decides which applicants are awarded scholarships to study Azerbaijan and the wider region.

“It is a source of concern that the Nizami Ganjavi Centre at Oxford came into being through a large donation of mysterious origin made possible by an individual with the closest possible ties to the Azerbaijani state’s rulers,” said Marc Mamigonian, director of academic affairs at the US-based National Association for Armenian Studies and Research.

The focus of the centre is on the history, culture and languages of the region, but some topics are more contemporary – in May it hosted an event titled “Beyond the Boom: Toward Human and Social Development in the Post-Oil Era in Azerbaijan”.

And for decades, scholars and journalists have raised the alarm about Azerbaijan’s destruction of historic Armenian tombs, churches and cross-stones called khachkars in its territory.

“There is reason to be concerned about the potential impact on how the study of the South Caucasus, past and present, will be framed – that is, what will be included, what will be excluded, and what forces will influence these ostensibly academic decisions?” Mr Mamigonian said.

There is no suggestion that the centre’s existing research is politically biased or flawed.

The ultimate source of its funding remains a mystery. Announcing the creation of the centre in 2018, Oxford said it had been made possible by “generous philanthropic support from the British Foundation for the Study of Azerbaijan and the Caucasus” (BFSAC), a UK-based charity established in 2016 and chaired by Professor Pashayeva.

The foundation was listed as a project of the Anglo-Azerbaijani Society, a body also co-chaired by Professor Pashayeva that aims to build relations between the two countries. Although its website is no longer functional, it counted the Azerbaijani ambassador to London as a patron.

An Oxford spokesman said its donations review committee “was made aware of the original source of funds for this gift, which does not come from a government”, but he did not offer any more information about the source.

Robert Hoyland, professor of late antique and early Islamic Middle Eastern history at New York University, and one of the foundation’s trustees, told Times Higher Education that the gift came from “a donor based in Europe, not in [Azerbaijan], was not made to or from BFSAC, but to Oxford University directly, and the deed of gift was made between those two parties”.

Elspeth Suthers, senior manager for Caucasus Programs at the US-based National Endowment for Democracy, which has warned about autocratic donations to Western universities, said it was “absolutely correct to question where these funds came from”.

She said Azerbaijan’s information strategy outside the country “has been focused on making sure that there are competing claims – at least one of which is sympathetic to their position – on any issue they have a vested interest in, rather than in trying to suppress competing narratives”. 

The Oxford spokesman said: “The centre’s board comprises seven members, five of whom are Oxford University academics. Each member serves a three-year term, which is extendable for one further term, and the board reports into the university’s Faculty of Oriental Studies.

“The centre is formally constituted according to the university’s standard provisions guaranteeing academic freedom and research independence. Applications to the centre’s graduate scholarship and visiting fellowship programmes are considered on academic criteria alone.”

He stressed that the centre studies not just Azerbaijan, but also "Armenia, Georgia and Central Asia from antiquity to modern times". 

"All relevant topics for research are encouraged and supported in the Centre and at Oxford University more widely. For example, Oxford has the Calouste Gulbenkian Professorship of Armenian Studies (the only such professorship in the UK), a number of academics have studied and published on the Armenian Genocide, and a Visiting Fellow will join the Centre during the next academic year to conduct research on a topic in Armenian and Georgian literature," he said. 

Professor Pashayeva did not respond to a request for comment.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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