The Two Faces of Azerbaijan’s Government

Azerbaijan's leaders like to pretend that they’re friends of the West. Time for a reality check.

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Azerbaijan’s most famous investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova is the latest in a long list of Azerbaijani activists to become political prisoners. Ismayilova, a journalist with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, has just been sentenced to two months of administrative detention on charges of driving a fellow reporter to attempt suicide, following, an accusation that observers called “ridiculous.” Ismayilova, a long-term critic of the government who has published numerous reports about official corruption, was denounced as a “traitor” by the head of the presidential administration Ramiz Mehdiyev in a lengthy anti-American treatise that appeared a day earlier.

The article denounces United States democracy assistance efforts as undermining foreign states, and refers to domestic civic organizations as a “fifth column.” Mehdiyev attacks Ismayilova by name, accusing her and her collaborators of devising “anti-Azerbaijan programs” that are “the equivalent of working for foreign security services.” In November, Ismayilova was prevented from participating in a Helsinki Commission hearing on corruption where she was supposed to testify, and earlier in the year she was accused of leaking information to U.S. intelligence officials following a meeting with U.S. Senate staffers.

Ismayilova’s current predicament serves as a perfect illustration of Azerbaijan’s two-faced policy towards the U.S. The government of Azerbaijan has been bankrolling Western lobbyists and think tanks in order to convince policymakers in the U.S. and Europe that it is a credible and democratic partner. At home, however, the government’s actions tell a different story. During the past few years, the regime in Baku has systematically destroyed independent institutions such as the media, political parties and, most recently, non-government organizations — all under the guise of safeguarding against Western influence. (The photo above shows U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel welcoming the Azerbaijan defense minister to Washington last August.)

This is especially ironic, considering that these things are happening in a country that was once proud to call itself the first secular Muslim democracy in the world. In 1918, a few months after Russia was taken over by the Bolsheviks, Azerbaijan declared its independence. Local leaders of a firmly liberal-democratic bent formed a government backed by the majority of parliament. President Woodrow Wilson described meeting “with a very dignified and interesting group of gentlemen who were from Azerbaijan,” noting that they “talked the same language that I did in respect of ideas, in respect of liberty, in respect of conceptions of right and justice.” The men he referred to were the founding fathers of the first Azerbaijani Republic.

Although a Bolshevik takeover ended the brief independence of Azerbaijan two years later in 1920, the collapse of the USSR in 1991 paved the way for Azerbaijan to regain its sovereignty once again. Azerbaijanis once again showed a strong desire to build a secular democratic system and to become part of the free world. In 1992 the last Soviet-appointed leader of Azerbaijan was forced to flee to Moscow in a popular uprising. Former Soviet dissident and political prisoner Abulfaz Elchibey was elected the nation’s new leader.

Sadly, this attempt to restore democracy in Azerbaijan did not last long: the freely elected president of Azerbaijan was overthrown in a Russian backed military coup a year later. The former KGB general and Soviet Politburo member Heydar Aliyev seized advantage of the turmoil to seize power. Although President Aliyev continued cooperation with the West in the spheres of energy, security, and counterterrorism, his power gradually grew more and more authoritarian.

When President Aliyev’s young and well-educated son Ilham replaced him in in a highly contested election in 2003, many believed Azerbaijan had a chance to revive its democratic legacy. Those hopes have steadily faded, and over the past two years the situation has deteriorated dramatically. The ruling elite has clearly set out to destroy the last remnants of free media, civil society, and liberal political opposition.

This crackdown has been accompanied by an ambitious lobbying campaign in Western capitals, one that encompasses policymakers, government officials, the media, and think tanks. The aggressiveness of these efforts have drawn international and Western media attention. In July 2014, for example, the Houston Chronicle disclosed the funding of a visit to Baku by U.S. lawmakers, who attended a conference sponsored in part by the SOCAR, Azerbaijan’s national oil company. Last September, the New York Times published detailed evidence of the Azerbaijani government’s intimate relationship with a U.S.-based lobbying firm and several think tanks. A few days later, Radio Free Europe ran a piece shedding light on Brenda Shaffer, a visiting researcher at Georgetown University who has used the media to promote the Azerbaijani government as a partner of the West without disclosing that she had served in the past as a SOCAR advisor.

To U.S. and European audiences, Azeri officials plead for support against neighboring Russian and Iran and assistance in overcoming the vestiges of Soviet rule. In this guise, the Azerbaijani government likes to claim that it is still on the path to Europe. Meanwhile Azeri officials and members of the ruling party are telling audiences at home a rather different story. “Recently the US has shifted from being a country that fights terrorism into a country that supports terrorism,” said Ali Guseinli, the chairman of the Legal Affairs and State Reform Committee of the Azerbaijani parliament.

Officials of the ruling party justify the crackdown at home by arguing that Western support for democracy is a neo-imperialist ploy intended to dismantle the statehood of developing nations, which must be protected against “agents of the West.” State-controlled media, members of parliament, and government officials point to Western powers as the real cause of instability in the region, accusing them of masterminding the Arab Spring, the Color Revolutions, the crisis in Ukraine, and ISIS.

Pro-government media accused IREX, a highly regarded organization that supports media development and people-to-people exchanges, of “pursuing the interests of Azerbaijani enemies.” Ultimately, the group was pressured to leave the country. Official interference has led Peace Corps to discontinue its programs in the country as well. In the wake of the crackdown, former U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan Richard Morningstar also received targeted, verbal attacks from a top Azeri official. According to independent activists, there are now more than 90 political prisoners in Azerbaijan.

These instances are of a piece with a wider campaign of repression that features new legislation designed to strangle civil society, criminal investigations, and the freezing of bank accounts of both international and local NGOs. Leaders of youth organizations have been jailed and travel bans on pro-democracy activists imposed.

This ferocious government crackdown of recent weeks comes at a time when pro-democracy youth activists have gained momentum. Liberal local initiatives like the Free Thought University and other youth groups have been closed due to their popularity. These initiatives have become primary targets of the regime, which intensified its repression while the world was preoccupied with the conflict in Ukraine.

The demolition of local democratic movements is all the more disconcerting because it paves the way for extremist religious groups to fill the vacuum. Azerbaijan’s authoritarian rulers, whose fragile legitimacy fuels its subversion of independent voices, are apparently interested in having Islamic radicals as their principal opponents. The specter of such opponents allows the regime to make the case for its own ostensible indispensability to Western governments.

Moreover, by portraying pro-democracy activists as subversives and traitors who serve the interests of Western imperialists, authoritarian regimes in fact repeat and strengthen the discourse of ISIS and other radical groups.

There is no doubt that the West has a vital interest in preserving good relations with Azerbaijan. It’s a secular Muslim country that cooperates on diversifying energy routes and a broad range of security issues. But, in an environment where basic human rights are denied, anti-western propaganda is flourishing, and democratic voices are stifled, local extremist groups will find fertile ground to take root. As such, the West has cause for concern.

In cracking down on peaceful activists and reformers, the regime in Baku argues that it is taking steps to ensure stability. They have this exactly wrong. By eliminating moderate voices in society, Azerbaijan’s leaders set the stage for anti-Western environment that will serve as a breeding ground for radical Islamists, who pose a grave security threat to both the region and the West. For these reasons, it is essential that the U.S. and EU underscore that the West’s full cooperation with Azerbaijan is contingent upon its adherence to democracy and human rights standards.


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