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So Much for Azerbaijani Democracy

Last week Azerbaijan conducted another rigged election just a few short months after several government officials said to my face that this time things would be different.

Advisors to President Ilham Aliyev insisted that observers from the European Union, the Council of Europe, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe would fan out all over the country to monitor the election and even stop the process entirely if they detected fraudulent activity. All this was confirmed by the Israeli ambassador. Yet Aliyev was just “re-elected” with 89 percent of the vote in an election boycotted by the opposition.

Aliyev’s opponents say it was impossible for them to compete, which sounds about right. “The choice of candidates was skimpy,” Sabrina Tavernise wrote last week in the New York Times. “There were six, aside from Mr. Aliyev, but they were political nobodies, and few voters interviewed in Baku on Wednesday could identify any of them.” Imagine how free and fair our own presidential election would be if only Senator Barack Obama or Senator John McCain had name recognition.

It’s no wonder the president’s political opponents are almost completely invisible. Azerbaijan’s television stations are controlled by his government. Eight journalists were arrested for “libel” in the past year. Three are still in jail. Several citizens told me privately that they’re afraid to say anything critical of the government in public. It may make little difference if European election observers ensure ballots are processed and counted fairly in this kind of environment, but the OSCE and the U.S. State Department did see some improvement compared with the last election.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs invited me and seven of my colleagues – including Abe Greenwald and James Kirchick from this very magazine – to spend a week there in August. We had a chance to meet and interview some of the most powerful people in the country. Several ministry officials, advisors, and members of parliament said they sincerely want to democratize, but that they need more time. Some complained about the constant pressure from Western governments and seemed to expect me to sympathize. I did not. Western governments need to pressure them more in the future, not less.

When they said they sincerely wanted to reform the system, I wanted to believe them. Azerbaijan has enormous potential and seems more than ready enough for democracy. It is not Iraq, and it is not Syria. It has a booming economy, a vibrant and tolerant culture, a well-educated population, and a thoroughly modern outlook.

Azeris are pro-Western and would like to join NATO. They sent troops to Iraq and Afghanistan. They help the United States, and they could use help from us. They’re bordered to the north by Russia and to the south by Iran. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline that begins in Azerbaijan and cuts across the South Caucasus to the Mediterranean is the only route from the resource-rich Caspian Sea to Europe that bypasses Russia. Azeris are feeling more pressure than ever now that Russian troops have dug into carved-up Georgia next door. I wish the country well, and I think you should, too.

Azerbaijan’s leaders could be a whole lot worse than they are. They aren’t tyrants; they’re autocratic technocrats. They seem to be able to balance their own appetite for power with a genuine concern for the well-being of their country. Overall, they’ve done a pretty good job since they bolted from the Soviet Union in 1991. I’ve only visited once myself, but those I know who can compare Azerbaijan today with Azerbaijan even a few years ago say the progress is so extraordinary they hardly recognize the place. Aliyev could easily win a real election on his record simply by asking average citizens if they are better or worse off today than they were eight years ago. But that’s not what happened. His government rigged it again.

“We want to be part of the Euro-Atlantic community,” said former Ambassador to the United States Hafiz Pashayev.

I think that’s terrific, and that may be where they end up. Azerbaijan is an Eastern country, but the northern portion is actually inside Europe. Many Western cultural values were imported through Russia after Moscow acquired it from the Persian Empire in 1828. I’d be happy to see Azerbaijan become an integrated member of the Euro-Atlantic community whether or not NATO membership is in the cards. But that is never going to happen if its leaders don’t scrap the autocratic system of government inherited from the Persian, Russian, and Soviet empires. The Azeris may not want to hear it, but they need to because it’s true.



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