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Big problems in Baku, and the man to deal with them

In my last posting, I praised Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s early July trip to Poland and Georgia but noted I had reservations about her stop in Baku. Despite the passage of a few weeks, those concerns have not gone away. Nor have worries about the direction in which Azerbaijan is heading. Making matters worse, ...

By , a senior fellow at Florida International University’s Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs.
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

In my last posting, I praised Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's early July trip to Poland and Georgia but noted I had reservations about her stop in Baku. Despite the passage of a few weeks, those concerns have not gone away. Nor have worries about the direction in which Azerbaijan is heading. Making matters worse, the United States has been without an ambassador in Azerbaijan for more than a year and the current nominee has been delayed in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC).

In what was an otherwise good trip to the region, Clinton offered the wrong answers during a joint press availability with Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov. In her opening comments, Clinton offered hope that some "difficult cases" involving media freedom and the status of civil society would get resolved in Azerbaijan. But then in response to a question concerning human rights in the country, Clinton touted "a lot of progress" in Azerbaijan in the last 18 years. Her amplification of that initial response only muddied the waters further:

And we continue to support the efforts that are undertaken by the government to expand and protect free expression and independent media, and have called that more be done because we think these are pillars of democracy. I have in the past, and did again, raise the cases of the two young men. And it is something that has a great deal of attention focused on it, not only in our country but around the world.

In my last posting, I praised Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s early July trip to Poland and Georgia but noted I had reservations about her stop in Baku. Despite the passage of a few weeks, those concerns have not gone away. Nor have worries about the direction in which Azerbaijan is heading. Making matters worse, the United States has been without an ambassador in Azerbaijan for more than a year and the current nominee has been delayed in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC).

In what was an otherwise good trip to the region, Clinton offered the wrong answers during a joint press availability with Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov. In her opening comments, Clinton offered hope that some "difficult cases" involving media freedom and the status of civil society would get resolved in Azerbaijan. But then in response to a question concerning human rights in the country, Clinton touted "a lot of progress" in Azerbaijan in the last 18 years. Her amplification of that initial response only muddied the waters further:

And we continue to support the efforts that are undertaken by the government to expand and protect free expression and independent media, and have called that more be done because we think these are pillars of democracy. I have in the past, and did again, raise the cases of the two young men. And it is something that has a great deal of attention focused on it, not only in our country but around the world.

So, we believe that there has been a tremendous amount of progress in Azerbaijan. But as with any country, particularly a young country — young, independent country like this one — there is a lot of room for improvement." [emphasis added]

What efforts to expand and protect free expression and independent media? Sadly, there have been none in Azerbaijan. It is good that democracy and human rights issues are "part of our ongoing dialogue," as Clinton said, but it is important that she get her talking points right. It is good that Clinton raised the case of the two bloggers — Adnan Hajizada and Emin Milli, jailed last year on spurious charges of hooliganism after they themselves were attacked by unknown assailants — but within 24 hours of Clinton’s departure from Baku, a court sentenced another journalist, Eynulla Fatullayev, to prison for a third time after finding him guilty of "storing drugs" while in jail. Coming immediately after Clinton’s visit to Baku, the sentencing of Fatullayev showed real disrespect toward the U.S. secretary of state. In addition, an appeal by one of the jailed bloggers, Hajizada, several weeks later, was rejected by a court because he hadn’t admitted guilt or exemplified good behavior while in prison.

Two other journalists, including one affiliated with the opposition, report having been assaulted at the end of July on the outskirts of Baku. Police dispersed a rally in the center of Baku on July 31, arresting nearly 100 demonstrators. As the country moves toward parliamentary elections this fall, the political situation is only going to get worse. The authorities in Baku, it appears, have concluded that, given their energy resources and contributions in security, they simply can get away with it.    

Contributing to that conclusion is a sense in Baku that the Obama Administration is currently on the backside of its pendulum approach to Azerbaijan. Before, President Ilham Aliyev who inherited his current position when his father died in 2003, felt slighted because he had not been invited to President Obama’s nuclear security summit in April and was being neglected last fall while the U.S. was pressing for Armenian-Turkish reconciliation. More recently, the U.S. has gone to the other extreme, showering Aliyev with lots of high-level attention, first with a visit to Baku by Defense Secretary Robert Gates who brought with him a friendly letter from Obama, and then Clinton’s stop. The United States needs a more consistent, principled approach to Azerbaijan. Ongoing tensions over Nagorno-Karabakh underscore this need.

Having an ambassador in Baku would certainly help. Matt Bryza’s nomination to be the next ambassador went to the SFRC in the spring and immediately generated controversy and questions from certain groups, including the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), whose executive director voiced a "number of concerns" about his nomination. Interested parties have a right to raise concerns about any nominee, and Bryza is no exception. But he met with a number of senators, endured a grilling at his confirmation hearing, and appears to have passed the test. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), however, requested a delay in considering Bryza’s nomination, and his name was pulled from a group that was approved by the Committee on Aug. 3.

In the interest of full disclosure, Bryza is a friend and a former colleague from when we worked together at the State Department first in the Europe and Eurasian bureau and then when I moved to the democracy, human rights, and labor bureau. I found Bryza to be a very competent and capable diplomat who knows the region and the key players extremely well.

One of the knocks against him is that he knows the players too well. But my experience is that that familiarity did not keep him from pressing U.S. interests, including in the areas of democracy and human rights. Having traveled to Baku to press human rights concerns twice in 2008, I know that Bryza was not only supportive but reinforced my efforts and those of the then-Ambassador Anne Derse. He pushed on media freedom, the case of the two bloggers, and protection of journalists. During his visits to Baku, he made a point of meeting with the opposition and civil society. He also played a key role in restoring the broadcasts of Imedi TV in neighboring Georgia after President Saakashvili imposed a state of emergency there and cut off the broadcasts.

The United States badly needs an ambassador in Baku. My experience with Bryza suggests that he is an excellent choice to fill that role.

David J. Kramer, a former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, is a senior fellow at Florida International University’s Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs.

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