Foreign Interference: Analysis of the Baku Initiative Group

Foreign Interference: Analysis of the Baku Initiative Group

On 16 May 2024, while New Caledonia was in the grip of violent riots over a bill to unfreeze the electoral body, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin accused Azerbaijan of interference, led by the Baku Initiative Group. This article takes up two threads from @NeuroneIntel describing the group’s methods and its links with the power.

Origins and links with the Azerbaijani government

Since the start of the riots in New Caledonia on 13 May, Azerbaijan has been surprisingly much in the spotlight, culminating in the accusatory remarks made by the Minister of the Interior. The image of the Azerbaijani flag on the T-shirt of a pro-independence woman also aroused curiosity at the start of the week.

However, Azerbaijan has been meddling in Caledonian affairs alongside the pro-independence movements for several months now. This is illustrated by the presence of the country’s flags at a pro-independence demonstration last January, the portrait of the Azerbaijani president in March and the mention of the Baku Initiative Group on pro-independence demonstration posters.

Azerbaijan has already attempted destabilisation operations in New Caledonia. In December 2023, two spies posing as journalists were spotted by French intelligence on the sidelines of a visit to the island by the then Minister of the Armed Forces, Sébastien Lecornu. At the end of 2023, Paris also accused Azerbaijan of being behind a disinformation campaign aimed at boycotting the 2024 Games.

It was against this background, arising from tensions between the two countries following France’s support for Armenia, which provoked the ire of Baku, that the NGO Baku Initiative Group was created in July 2023. A conference organised by the Azerbaijani authorities, to which independence fighters from Martinique, French Guiana, Polynesia and New Caledonia were invited, led to the creation of this group, ‘against French colonialism’. This was the starting point for a whole series of rapprochement between these independence movements in the French DROM-COMs, as well as Corsica to a lesser extent, and Azerbaijan.

For several months now, representatives of independence movements from the French DROM-COM have been taking part in meetings, visits and conferences organised by the Baku Initiative Group. The high point of this rapprochement with Baku was the signing of a memorandum of cooperation between the Parliament of Azerbaijan and New Caledonia, signed unilaterally by a pro-independence elected representative of New Caledonia on 18 April.

Very involved in the fight against colonisation, particularly in New Caledonia, the Baku Initiative Group is no ordinary NGO.

It is currently run by Abbas Abbasov, an Azerbaijani citizen.

On the latter’s Facebook profile, a post by the Baku Initiative Group relaying a video of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev praising the merits of the NGO, ‘created in Azerbaijan’, was shared.

In another speech a few months earlier, extracts of which are widely shared on the NGO’s page, the President referred to the Baku Initiative Group as ‘our child’, which ‘we are creating’ and with which ‘we are organising events’. He also stated that ‘we will contribute to the denunciation of French neo-colonialism and to the process of liberating the French colonies from the French colonial yoke’.

The activities of the Baku Initiative Group are therefore approved and promoted by Azerbaijani political power at the highest level. The question of whether this NGO has been set up from scratch by the authorities is also open to question. This is all the more the case as the Twitter account of the Baku Initiative Group only follows 3 people: the President, the Vice-President and the head of the Azerbaijani foreign affairs department.


The repeated use of bots

As well as forging links with pro-independence political movements and supporting local demonstrations, the Baku Initiative Group is also very active on social networks.
Indeed, the targets of the account’s editorial line are overwhelmingly France and its DROM-COMs, including New Caledonia, which is particularly mentioned, and to a lesser extent Corsica.

In addition to the direct publications by the Baku Initiative Group, several waves of publications targeting France in the context of the riots in New Caledonia have been spotted over the last few days, which are similar in every respect.

These destabilisation campaigns are the subject of a Viginum technical report published on 17 May. On Twitter alone, these publications were copied and pasted by more than 1,600 accounts, totalling more than 5,000 posts. The report states that many of these accounts mention Azerbaijan, either visually in their profile pictures or in their biographies, which mention the presidential party. These accounts also relay the same content praising President Aliyev and his party.
This method of artificialising engagement on Twitter, which is tantamount to the massive use of bots, has also been observed in the past to promote publications by the Baku Initiative Group. Indeed, if we explore some of the hashtags currently used for New Caledonia, such as #FrenchColonialism, we find hundreds of publications sharing visuals from the Baku Initiative Group, following the same pattern, as here in February 2024.

Other probable campaigns of the same type carried out last year for the NGO use the same accounts currently relaying publications on New Caledonia, proof of a well-established and organised network.

All these elements indicate that it is very likely that the Baku Initiative Group has a direct link with the Azerbaijani political authorities and uses bots to artificially share publications hostile to France in order to harm it. Despite this, the Azerbaijani government denounces France’s “unfounded” accusations of interference and “insulting” remarks, and denies any link with the pro-independence leaders.

It is important to note, however, that this foreign interference is not the cause of the current independence revolt. Its sole purpose is to artificially amplify, in a way that is difficult to quantify, an anger that has deep historical roots. Azerbaijan’s opportunistic rapprochement with these pro-independence movements is designed to destabilise France and make it pay for its support for Armenia, without there probably being any real desire on Baku’s part to support these movements in the long term solely in their goal of independence.