Bush’s legacy: autocracy in Azerbaijan

The US presidential race is run and the question on most people’s lips is whether or not George W. Bush intends to go out with a bang; with the recent raid on Syria having fuelled much speculation on the subject.

The US presidential race is run and the question on most people’s lips is whether or not George W. Bush intends to go out with a bang; with the recent raid on Syria having fuelled much speculation on the subject. Well, here’s one of his plans, revealed in a letter written to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev which was published on the Today.az website on October 28: “In the coming few months we will strive for deepening the bilateral partnership and friendly relations between our countries. In particular, we hope for further advancement towards our goals in the sphere of global energy security and attainment of agreements on basic principles of the resolution of Nagorno Karabakh conflict.”

Given that Russian President Dmitri Medvedev beat Mr. Bush in the race to host Mr. Aliyev and his Armenian counterpart in talks aimed at preventing the frozen Karabakh conflict from escalating into a South Ossetia-style crisis, Bush is left with one priority – draining Azerbaijan of all the oil he can get and shoring up NATO influence in the region, while turning a blind eye to political realities in the Caucasian country sandwiched between Russia, Turkey and Iran; and faced with a staggering refugee and IDP (internally displaced persons) problem.

The occasion of Bush’s foray into the sophisticated world of letter-writing was Mr. Aliyev’s re-inauguration as president following elections on October 15. According to official statistics, 3,232,259 people – that is to say, over 87% of the 75% of the electorate who showed up at polling stations – voted for Mr. Aliyev. Not one of his six rivals received even three percent of the vote. The main opposition parties all boycotted the elections in protest against what the the Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe(OSCE) called a “lack of robust competition and vibrant political discourse facilitated by the media”. All in all, a pretty poor return on attempts to democratize the post-Communist country. But nonetheless, Mr. Bush saw fit to congratulate Mr. Aliyev on the results and even express his support for efforts at “strengthening democratic institutions”.

It’s hard to imagine any of Mr. Bush’s Cold War predecessors sending a similar letter to Mr. Aliyev’s father, Heydar, a man who ruled Azerbaijan for over thirty years in both its Soviet and post-Soviet form. In 2003, the dying Mr. Heydar transferred power to his son in an election which was characterized by violence and other violations of democratic norms. Since then, Mr. Ilham has cashed in on his father’s legacy, sponsoring a cult known to its critics as Heydarism. Everywhere one goes in Azerbaijan – after one’s arrival at the Heydar Aliyev airport – one finds Heydar Aliyev streets, Heydar Aliyev squares, Heydar Aliyev monuments, Heydar Aliyev schools, libraries and cultural centres. Along the roadsides, Heydar smiles down from enormous billboards, occasionally accompanied by his son in pictures of the two of them gazing out over building sites in Baku and oil rigs in the Caspian, or enjoying a talk in an impressive looking office. I was lucky enough to be in Baku to celebrate what would have been Heydar’s 85th birthday – had he lived. The cult of personality surrounding Mr. Heydar – and, by extension, his son – reminded me irresistibly of the traces of the cult to Lenin that remain indelibly marked on Russian towns. The difference being that the Lenin cult is so old it has become a quaint sort of novelty, whereas Heydarism is terrifyingly current.

A few stories from the past twelve months serve to demonstrate the limited reach of efforts to democratize the Azerbaijani media. This time last year, members of the Azadliq (Freedom) opposition block and independent media representatives were on hunger strike, protesting their lack of a free press. At the time, journalist Eynulla Fatullayev had just been sentenced to eight and a half years in prison on charges of threatening terrorism, inciting racial hatred, and tax evasion. This followed an article he had written suggesting that Azerbaijan would be at risk in the event of U.S. military strikes in Iran, and implying that the authorities were obstructing the investigation into the murder of Elmar Husseynov, the editor of the Russian language newspaper Monitor who was assassinated in 2005. Part of the evidence against Fatullayev was an article posted online in his name, but which he denies having written, accusing Azerbaijani troops of participating in the 1992 killings of inhabitants of the Nagorno-Karabakh town of Khojali.

In December 2007 Mr. Aliyev pardoned five out of the eight journalists then facing jail (Mr. Fatullayev wasn’t one of them). However, the following March, courts went on to sentence Ganimat Zahidov, editor of the Azadliq newspaper, to four years in prison for “deliberately causing light injuries” and “hooliganism”. Key witnesses were prevented from testifying at his trial. In his final speech, he made the following statement: “The mind of the 21st century calls on the state to be the locomotive of progress and direct the community towards the most progressive ideas. We live in Azerbaijan and we are engaged in media activities. We do our best to establish the traditions of media in our country in a way which will correspond to international standards. But we have to do that taking the risk of death, being beaten half-dead, or arrested because of the articles we wrote. Why? Why does the logic of the 17th century shows up to this degree in the present governance of Azerbaijan?”

The run-up to October’s election was notable for Ilham Aliyev’s – and the late Heydar’s – dominance of the media, and a general sense of fatigue amongst the opposition. Following the election, the opposition also cancelled protest rallies after being denied permission to assemble by authorities in Baku, no doubt remembering the widespread arrests and beatings that followed the fraudulent 2003 election. Then on November 1st it was announced that the State Council for Television and Radio Broadcasting intended to put a stop to local broadcasts by Radio Liberty, Voice of America and the BBC. The body’s chairman said that it was now policy to broadcast only programs of national origin, adding that these stations would remain accessible by satellite, cable and Internet. Bearing in mind that in their 2007 report, which classified Azerbaijan as not free, Freedom House estimated that only 10% of the population has Internet access, this will be another significant strike against the media in Azerbaijan if it comes to pass.

Through all of this, Elmar Husseynov’s murder has remained unsolved.

Along with the bigger headaches inherited from the Bush administration, Mr. Obama will also have to deal with the problems posed by states such as the overlooked, oil-rich, illiberal and uncompromisingly nationalist Azerbaijan. It may be that Azerbaijan will remain an overlooked ally of the oil-hungry superpower, just as it was in Clinton’s day. Or it may be that Mr. Obama will push Mr. Aliyev closer to Moscow, sacrificing a strategic foothold in the Caucasus to criticize the increasingly repressive Aliyev dynasty.

It should prove interesting. After all, they say you should judge a man by how he treats his servants, not his equals.