Forget the single-minded focus on election day. What Azerbaijan needs is support for its civil society.
Azerbaijan — a country that boasts lots of oil and little in the way of democracy — is holding a presidential election tomorrow. The current leader, Ilham Aliyev, is firmly in the saddle. The opposition is weak. The West’s efforts to promote democracy there have so far done little to change the situation.
All this means that the result of tomorrow’s poll is a foregone conclusion. But that doesn’t mean that supporters of democracy should give up. In places like Azerbaijan, election day merely serves as a reminder that democracy also depends on what happens during the other 364 days a year. Just to be clear: this is not to deride the importance of voting. But genuine democracy also requires a flourishing civil society, the myriad institutions that allow people to organize their lives and express their desire for change as they see fit.
President Aliyev knows this, and he’s correspondingly determined to prevent any challenges to his rule by cracking down on all and every manifestation of authentic associational life. In 2011, as the revolts of the Arab Spring were gathering momentum, reform-minded bloggers in Baku began to organize on Facebook. They intentionally scheduled their first antigovernment demonstration, called "Great People’s Day," one month after the day of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation. For the first time in Azerbaijan’s history, three separate opposition forces allied to oppose the regime. The regime sprang into action — with arrests, detentions, and fines.
As "Great People’s Day" approached, the government arrested a number of activists and raided and, in some cases, shuttered independent NGOs. The government also suspended the activities of foreign-funded organizations like the National Democratic Institute and Human Rights House in Azerbaijan, a partner of the international Human Rights House Network. The cabinet also approved stricter registration procedures for international NGOs.
The state marshaled its resources. Administrators prevented subway trains in Baku from stopping near a popular protest site, and Baku State University forced students to stay late and threatened to expel any student who participated in protests.
The regime began to employ more sophisticated methods after the early protests in March 2011. The Facebook page for a planned demonstration in April was deleted by Facebook after a spam attack of unknown origin. The authorities monitored social media sites and used the information they gleaned to arrest and intimidate activists.
These measures succeeded in tamping down the protests. Western-educated urban elites who had organized protests online, a group duly dubbed "the Facebook Generation," were quickly detained and arrested when they attempted to demonstrate in downtown Baku. In March and April 2011, the police employed a zero-tolerance policy toward public protests. A year passed more or less quietly.
In early March 2012, two months before Azerbaijan hosted the high-publicity Eurovision Competition, the tactics changed, at least outside of Baku. In Quba, thousands of protesters burned government buildings after the regional governor’s insulting remarks about local residents went viral on YouTube. Before this, most protests had been confined to Baku; when the government suddenly found itself confronting potentially explosive outrage in the countryside, it reacted cautiously.
President Aliyev promptly fired the governor, restored order and was praised for listening to public opinion. During the confrontation, Aliyev instructed local authorities not to use weapons on the protestors. For their part, the demonstrators limited their demands to local ones, namely the resignation of the regional governor. Demonstrators held placards with President Ilham Aliyev’s photo to show their support for him while demanding the local governor’s ouster.
But in Baku, the pattern was "wearingly familiar": Facebook Generation leaders would call for a protest and the authorities would immediately arrest those who turned out. During the Eurovision competition in May 2012, youth activists and opposition parties made multiple attempts to hold rallies calling for the end of the Aliyev in Baku that were easily stopped.
2013 has already seen four large protests — three in Baku and one in Ismayilli — and the authorities have responded by violently suppressing them with tear gas and water cannons. The demands coming from the 2013 protests were surprisingly parochial, however, and apolitical citizens organized three of the four demonstrations. None called for President Aliyev to resign.
No one should expect anything new from the presidential election on Oct. 9. The outcome of this more or less rigged exercise is hardly in doubt, but the opposition isn’t totally hopeless this time around. For the first time since independence, the country’s opposition nominated a single candidate for president, Camil Hasanli.
But the opposition’s unity will have a minimal impact on what is, to put it bluntly, a sham. The regime manipulates the elections — mainly through near-total control of the media — before voters set off to the polls. As a result, election day itself usually proceeds with few obvious irregularities. And yet, according to reports by reputable observers, Azerbaijan has never held an election that met international standards.
The bottom line is that Azerbaijan cannot continue to clamp down on freedom of expression, religion, and political life, or else it risks an Arab-style revolution, greater religious extremism, and even greater levels of human capital flight.
Many friends of democracy around the world might respond by pointing out that the Arab Spring itself hardly presents an encouraging precedent. The leader of the group, Tunisia, is experiencing profound domestic turmoil that has just led to the resignation of its elected coalition government; at the other end of the spectrum, Syria remains mired in a brutal civil war.
Yet it’s important to keep an eye on the bottom line. It is precisely the chaos in the Arab world that should cause us to redouble our commitment to a gradual democratic transition away from authoritarianism elsewhere in the world. The Arab uprisings began with thousands, then hundreds of thousands, and finally millions of citizens taking to the streets, chanting, "The people want the fall of the regime."
The fact is that nothing sparks hunger for change like authoritarian torpor. The upheaval that ensued is a potent reminder that the greatest threat to society — and international order — comes from the destruction of civil society that is the specialty of the most virulent authoritarian regimes. When associational life is destroyed and only radical underground groups survive authoritarian repression, there are no good outcomes. Peaceful democratic change remains the best chance of avoiding these negative scenarios.
In the end, Western policymakers looking at Azerbaijan (or any other authoritarian country) cannot reckon with the comfortable continuation of authoritarianism: they must prepare for the possibility of change. In order to increase the chances of a positive outcome, they should press for the development of civil society and the gradual but irreversible introduction of genuine democratic processes. At the same time, they should study the messy transitions underway in the Arab world and integrate corresponding lessons into the ongoing endeavor of movement toward a more democratic world.
As for policymakers in the United States, finding the right strategy might be a good start. In particular, it’s time for Washington to cut its assistance to programs that promote political party competition in Azerbaijan. Since independence, the United States has squandered $55 million in democracy and governance programs in Azerbaijan with little to show for it. Some observers would argue that the country is actually worse off than it was 10 years ago. Instead, the United States should focus on assisting civil society along the model of the National Endowment for Democracy and avoid funding government organized non-governmental organizations as it has in the past.
Let’s be realistic: the likelihood of even modest democratic change in Azerbaijan is infinitesimally low in the short term. Yet there’s no point in abandoning efforts to promote change simply because of discouraging election results. Gradual but determined steps toward democratization offer the only viable path toward long-term stability in the country. No one ever achieved democracy through a quick fix — and certainly not in a single day.