MUNICH, Germany (The Guardian) – Revelations over payments by Azerbaijan to European politicians have seeped into the German election as it emerged that a close ally of Angela Merkel allegedly received money from the authoritarian regime.
The revelations are embarrassing for the German chancellor who on Tuesday was due to campaign with Karin Strenz, a Christian Democrat member of parliament, in the Baltic port city of Wismar.
According to the Süddeutsche Zeitung , Strenz was paid between €7,000 and €15,000 (£6,000-£13,000) sent to her via a firm set up by Eduard Lintner, a former German MP and lobbyist for Azerbaijan.
Strenz has refused to comment and did not respond to emails from the Guardian.
The scandal threatens to shake up what has so far been a sleepy election campaign, lacking any of the personal mudslinging or scandal-ridden offensives typical of the US or Britain, with Merkel’s CDU on course to secure victory. Latest polls show it to be on 36% – 14 points ahead of the party’s nearest rival, the Social Democrats.
Lintner was one of several prominent Europeans to have received large sums of money from a scheme nicknamed the Azerbaijani Laundromat, exposed this month by the Guardian and other media partners. Lintner admits the payments but says he did not personally benefit and he was unaware of the original source of the payments.
Azerbaijan’s ruling elite used the $2.9bn (£2.1bn) fund to silence criticism of the country’s dismal human rights record with a series of under-the-table payments made to leading European politicians.
Leaked banking data shows that Lintner received more than €800,000 through UK shell companies. Some of this money was paid to other parliamentarians in Germany and Belgium. The payments to Strenz in 2014 and 2015 were sent through Lintner’s company, Line M-Trade, based at the office of his Nuremberg lawyer.
She registered the money but the ultimate source of the funding was previously unknown. It is not known whether Strenz was aware of its origin.
Strenz has visited Azerbaijan on several occasions, including as an election monitor, and is chairwoman of the German-South Caucasian Friendship Group. She has posted a photograph on her website – slogan “Politics can be different” – with Azerbaijan’s authoritarian leader, Ilham Aliyev.
Strenz, a former teacher, has been a member of parliament since 2009. She is now under pressure to explain whether the payments may have influenced her voting record in Berlin and in the Council of Europe, where she is a member of the parliamentary assembly.
In June 2015, Strenz voted against a parliamentary assembly motion calling on Azerbaijan to release its political prisoners, who include several journalists. She was the only German representative who voted no. Strenz has given an approving verdict on Azerbaijan’s elections, in contrast to other observers who have been critical.
On Saturday, Alain Destexhe, one of the Belgian delegates caught up in the Laundromat scandal, resigned from the Council of Europe. Destexhe was the author of a parliamentary assembly report on Azerbaijan that failed to mention human rights. A German-Azerbaijan friendship society set up by Lintner funded trips by Destexhe to the capital, Baku.
In a separate move, the European parliament last week called for an investigation into the “laundromat” revelations. MEPs have demanded a comprehensive inquiry into “attempts by Azerbaijan and other autocratic regimes … to influence European decision-makers through illicit means,” following a last-minute amendment to a report on corruption.