Who Needs a Democratic Azerbaijan?

6 November 2013, 13:30

Aliyev Jr. has been Azerbaijan’s President since 2003. This year, he used the referendum amendment to Constitution he had pushed through the legislature back in 2009 to run for presidency for the third time.

For the past 40 years, Azerbaijan has been ruled by one political dynasty started by Heydar Aliyev, chief of counterintelligence department of the KGB in Azerbaijan, Secretary of the Communist Party and the first president of the independent Azerbaijan. The election of his son for the third term on October 9 was nothing special to the West which sees Azerbaijan as its important energy ally. Just like 10 years ago, Ilham Aliyev has a solid grip on the state wheel. This guarantees mutually-beneficial deals between Baku and European capitals yet runs counter to democratization plans for this Caspian republic and EU accession under the Eastern Partnership programme.

Aliyev’s victory in the election was yet another defeat of the Azeri society, not just that of the opposition which took too long to nominate a single candidate and did not have a clear strategy.

Gas and caviar policy

With its rich oil and gas deposits, Azerbaijan can do many things in economy and politics, including massive smoke screening and manipulation. “Friendship” with the EU including its institutions and politicians takes little efforts from Ilham Aliyev. It is no secret that Baku averts to the delicacy policy to lobby its interests, legitimize the government and demonstrate progress in “democratic transformations”. The media buzz of lavish receptions for European delegations, MEPs and PACE members, and of luxury gifts, including sturgeon caviar that the Caspian Sea is famous for, being sent to their headquarters. All this resembles the Soviet practice of bribing its promoters abroad with expensive cognacs and fur. These gifts hardly qualify as bribes, but news of them taints the reputation of the European establishment. In return, Europeans provide far-fetched assessments of the terrible situation with human rights protection and democracy in this small yet important country both for Europe, and South Caucasus.

In a joint statement on the presidential election posted on the Council of Europe’s official website, PACE and European Parliament stated that they came to Azerbaijan “to witness and encourage the transition process towards democracy that the country is experiencing” and that “Overall around election day we have observed a free, fair and transparent electoral process”. Few speak of the fact that democratic procedures hide undemocratic senses. Those who try to somehow shed light to these inconvenient aspects are either Azeri opposition politicians who did not recognize results of the election and demand re-election, albeit in vein, or independent monitoring organizations. Tana de Zulueta, head of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, reported violations at 58% of polling stations, numerous errors in candidate lists in the ballots and intimidation of observers and physical attacks on representatives of the mass media and journalists.

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The EU employs double standards in relations with Azerbaijan, whitewashing this owner of valuable energy resources that allows European companies to extract them on its territory despite its authoritarian political regime. The South Gas Corridor is what interests Europe today as it tries to diversify its own gas and oil sources and gain independence from the dictate of Russia’s gas monopoly Gazprom. The Kremlin-initiated South Stream is thus not on the EU’s list of priority projects, as proven by one of the European Commission’s latest statements.   

This summer, the EU has finally decided on the alternative source of gas. It opted for the Azeri energy consortium Shah Deniz and the Trans Adriatic Pipeline instead of Nabucco West which is expected to transit up to 20mn cu m of Caspian gas through Greece and Albania to Italy and further north. SOCAR, Azerbaijan’s state-owned oil company (present in Ukraine through a chain of gas stations by the same name), is an important player in the consortium. SOCAR was established by Heydar Aliyev in 1992  and still under his family’s control. Contracts with it are a gate to independence from Russia’s gas dictate for European energy companies including BP, Statoil, Shell, Bulgargas, Gas Natural Fenosa, the Greek DEPA, the German E.ON, the French GDF Suez, the Italian Hera Trading and the Swiss AXPO.

Meanwhile, Europe is driving itself into the trap of values vs interests. The authoritarian regime in Azerbaijan will flourish in impunity as long as Brussels and Strasbourg play hide and seek with the Aliyev family. Cooperation with another authoritarian state may be the price the EU will pay for energy independence from Russia. Baku does not have Moscow’s ambitions in foreign policy yet its reality and political culture are in contrast to all of the EU’s basic values.

Sticking head in the sand

A day before the presidential election, Amnesty International published an analytical note titled  Downward spiral: Continuing crackdown on freedoms in Azerbaijan. It highlighted the lack of free press, as well as politically motivated persecution and imprisonments. An unspoken rule of the past few years for the Azeri press and opposition has been to speak good or nothing about President Ilham Aliyev. The reality that virtually all countries turn a blind eye to is the growing crackdown on public activists, journalists, pro-democratic and opposition parties in the National Assembly, the Azeri legislature, or beyond it.

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Aliyev Jr. inherited the habit of persecuting any opponents from his father, a one-time KGB Major General. Heydar Aliyev was not original in this. Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan, Saparmurat Niyazov in Turkmenistan and Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus have all averted to tools tested by Soviet authorities to crush political opposition and dissent. It is no wonder that their democratic oppositions have failed to build muscle to resist authoritarian regimes over the past two decades since the USSR collapsed.

According to a joint report by the Media Performance Institute (MPI) and a number of Azeri NGOs that monitor freedom of expression, 36 criminal cases were opened against journalists and mass media in Azerbaijan in the first six months of 2013 upon charges of “libel, insult and disclosure of classified information”. Another wave of violence against representatives of the media that are out of the government’s control began with a police crackdown on the peaceful protest on January 26. The protesters were accused of holding weapons illegally, drug storage, hooliganism and violation of public order. Since the beginning of the year, 9 journalists have been put in jail in Azerbaijan and 26 have been attacked. Any means are good for the regime, from arrests to detention and interrogations without bringing charges, as in the case with photo journalist and blogger Mekhman Guseinov, or Aliyev’s personal request to the US Ambassador to help get Khadija Ismailova fired from Radio Liberty. She investigated corruption in top echelons of the Azeri government, including the involvement of the President’s family in a profitable construction project for the Eurovision 2012 song contest in Baku. For this, she has recently been labeled “a long-time opposition activist who considers herself an enemy of the government”, faced intimidation and threats. Similar mechanisms are used against opposition politicians.

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Azerbaijan has nowhere deeper to tumble other than to the model of the isolated totalitarian North Korea perhaps. The explosive cocktail of the growing social inequality, violation of civil liberties and the deepening ethnic conflict with the Armenians will sooner or later result in an internal explosion in Azerbaijan. Aliyev’s regime is trying to not just cooperate with the West but gain good reputation in its eyes. The question is how long the regime’s massive efforts and generous investment will manage to keep the situation cemented as it is now. 

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