Azerbaijan: Oxford’s suspect research centre

EducationWorld September 2021 | International News

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 (Rs.102.5 crore) 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. Prof. 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 in Azerbaijan and the wider region.

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’.

Ilham Aliyev and Mehriban Aliyeva

President Ilham Aliyev (right) & vice president Mehriban Aliyeva

And for decades, scholars and journalists have raised the alarm about Azerbaijan’s destruction of historic tombs, churches and cross-stones called khachkars of the minority Armenian community. “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,” says Marc Mamigonian, director of academic affairs at the US-based National Association for Armenian Studies and Research.

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 Prof. Pashayeva.

The foundation was listed as a project of the Anglo-Azerbaijani Society, a body also co-chaired by Prof. 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.

Excerpted and adapted from Times Higher Education

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