Azerbaijan: still U.S. ‘strategic partner’ despite suppression of independent voices

Thomas_Melia_100912The United States wants to engage with Azerbaijan “more vigorously” and at higher levels, a top State Department official said on January 12, RFE/RL reports:

Thomas Melia (left), who is Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, said at a National Endowment for Democracy event that the United States is “looking for a way to engage constructively with our partners in the government of Azerbaijan.” 

At the same time, Melia said the United States “will continue to support the independent voices that are seeking to move their country more briskly into the modern democratic world.” The comments came amid what Western officials and human rights activists describe as a crackdown on critics of the government in the oil-rich Caspian nation.

azerb Ilgar NasibovAzerbaijan remains a “strategic partner” of the United States, said Melia, but Baku must be tolerant of dissident voices for that partnership to thrive. The government should “reboot” the country’s experience as a secular democracy in a Muslim majority country. “It is vital that the rights of citizens of the country were recognized for implementation of their fundamental freedoms – freedom of expression and association,” he insisted.

The regime has sought to justify the crackdown on dissident voices as a means of safeguarding the state’s security and countering Islamist radicalism. But “the absence of the rule of law opens the way for the religious radicals and this is the most dangerous thing,” said Altai Geyushev a professor at Baku State University. The government was more concerned to curb liberal democratic activists who had demonstrated an ability to exploit “social media for social mobilization,” he said.  

The deterioration of human rights during Azerbaijan’s chairmanship at the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe has killed the myth that integrating authoritarian regimes into such international institutions will have a democratizing effect, said Miriam Lanskoy, the NED’s director of Russia and Eurasia programs. Since 2003, Azerbaijan has degenerated from a Freedom House rating comparable to that of Georgia to one equivalent to autocratic Uzbekistan, she said. The regime has hailed about 100 political prisoners and their number is growing.

A recent Vienna Commission report and 12 European Court rulings confirm that Azerbaijan has consistently violated the European Charter’s provisions on freedom of association yet Washington still considers the regime as a strategic partner, Lanskoy complained.

azerbaijan ilham-aliyevThe lack of a robust Western response to Russia’s invasion of Georgia had encouraged the regime, said Audrey Altstadt, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The country was still tainted by the “vestiges of the Soviet system,” she said, while Aliyev’s “front row seat” to the color revolutions had convinced him of the regime’s vulnerability. Azerbaijani authorities have suffocated freedom of expression by systematically persecuting international media and civil society groups, said Kenan Aliyev, director of RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani service.

“In recent years, the government of Azerbaijan has actually kicked out of the country such American organizations as IREX, the National Democratic Institute and the Peace Corps,” he noted.

Azerbaijan rejects U.S. criticism of crackdown

azerbaijan ilham-aliyevAzerbaijan, which has the most imprisoned journalists in the former Soviet Union, rejected U.S. criticism of its crackdown on civil society and media and denounced what it calls efforts to sow strife in countries under the guise of promoting democracy, Bloomberg reports:

Relations between the U.S. and the Caspian Sea nation have been on the rocks in the past several months as the Azeri government arrested opposition activists, lawyers and journalists using whatA mnesty International and Human Rights Watch have described as bogus charges to silence dissent. The former Soviet Union’s third-biggest oil producer provides the only westward route for central Asian crude that bypasses Russia via a U.S.-backed pipeline…..

Among the most prominent Azeris targeted by the government are activists Leyla and Arif Yunus and Khadija Ismayilova, a reporter at Radio Azadliq, the Azeri service of the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Police last month raided and closed down the Baku offices of Radio Azadliq, five days after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry phoned Aliyev to raise his concerns about Azerbaijan’s respect for human rights.

AZERB YUNUS REFRLThe International Forum for Democratic Studies at The National Endowment for Democracy cordially invites you to a presentation entitled

The Crackdown on Independent Voices in Azerbaijan

Altay Goyushov Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow, National Endowment for Democracy Professor of Turkic History, Baku State University

Kenan Aliyev Director, RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service

Audrey Altstadt Fellow, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Professor of History, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Catherine Cosman Senior Policy Analyst, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom

Thomas O. Melia (invited) Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor United States Department of State

with comments by

Miriam Lanskoy Director of Russia and Eurasia Programs, National Endowment for Democracy

moderated by

Christopher Walker Executive Director, International Forum for Democratic Studies

Monday, January 12, 2015 12:00–2:00 p.m.  (light lunch served from 12:00–12:15 p.m.)

1025 F. Street, N.W., Suite 800, Washington, D.C. 20004 Telephone: 202-378-9675

RSVP (acceptances only) with name and affiliation by Thursday, January 8.

Azerbaijan cracks down on independent voices

azerb Ilgar NasibovThe current crackdown on independent voices in Azerbaijan is unprecedented. Although the country has long held a poor record on human rights, the precipitous decline in recent months has halted the work of Azerbaijan’s brave and resilient civil society. Arrests, detentions, and media smear campaigns against independent activists have become a regular occurrence, and now have reached the country’s most prominent journalists and human rights defenders. This harsh rhetoric and the larger crackdown on civil society set a dangerous precedent and are reverberating throughout the region. Azerbaijan’s deepening repression is being watched carefully by other regimes in the neighborhood that are beginning to implement similarly repressive measures in their own countries.

azerbaijan dissidents2There is more than one motivation behind this crackdown, which is a response to domestic and international factors. There were several instances of grass roots protests over social issues in the winter of 2013 that demonstrated considerable popular frustration with corruption and social inequality. In the presidential election in the fall of 2013 the opposition united behind a single candidate demonstrating a degree of organization and cohesion among opposition forces that had not existed in the past. The crackdown against civil society started as a response to these factors but grew in intensity over the course of 2014.  

The anti-corruption revolution in Ukraine has contributed to the Azerbaijani government’s continued sense of insecurity and the growth of Russian propaganda and influence in the region provides legitimation for Azerbaijan’s crackdown. Although Azerbaijan continues to work closely with some European institutions, especially the Council of Europe, international institutions have largely proven unwilling or unable to hold Azerbaijan to its democratic commitments. Calls for sanctions against Azerbaijan from intergovernmental organizations, civil society organizations, and prominent individuals are mounting as Azerbaijan fails to fulfill its international commitments.  

In this panel, Altay Goyushov, Audrey Altstadt, Catherine Cosman, Thomas Melia, and Miriam Lanskoy will examine the domestic and international dimensions of this crackdown, as well as the implications it will have for the future of Azerbaijan, and the region.

The International Forum for Democratic Studies

at The National Endowment for Democracy 

cordially invites you to a presentation entitled 

The Crackdown on Independent Voices in Azerbaijan 


Altay Goyushov

Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow, National Endowment for Democracy

Professor of Turkic History, Baku State University 

Audrey Altstadt

Fellow, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

Professor of History, University of Massachusetts, Amherst 

Catherine Cosman

Senior Policy Analyst, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom 

Thomas O. Melia (invited)

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

United States Department of State 

with comments by 

Miriam Lanskoy

Director of Russia and Eurasia Programs, National Endowment for Democracy 

moderated by 

Christopher Walker

Executive Director, International Forum for Democratic Studies 

Monday, January 12, 2015 12:00–2:00 p.m.

(light lunch served from 12:00–12:15 p.m.) 1025 F. Street, N.W., Suite 800, Washington, D.C. 20004 Telephone: 202-378-9675 

RSVP (acceptances only) with name and affiliation by Thursday, January 8




Livestream of the event will be available here.

Twitter: Follow @ThinkDemocracy and use #NEDEvents to join the conversation.

Azerbaijan’s two-faced regime no friend of the West

azerbaijan dissidents2Azerbaijan’s most famous investigative journalist, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Khadija Ismayilova, is the latest in a long list of Azerbaijani activists to become political prisoners, Altay Goyushov writes for Foreign Policy.

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.”  

Ismayilova’s current predicament serves as a perfect illustration of Azerbaijan’s two-faced policy towards the U.S., Goyushov notes: 

azerbaijan ilham-aliyevThe 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. … 

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 mediamembers 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.

“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,” Goyushov suggests.

“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,” he contends. “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.” 


1989: failed transitions due to ‘legacy of fear’?

1989gartonashThe fall of the Berlin Wall not only ended the Soviet empire in East Europe, but also led inexorably to the collapse of the Soviet Union two years later. In the United States, hubris reigned as pundits decreed “the end of history” and democracy’s global triumph, notes analyst Trudy Rubin.

“This was a period of a lot of illusions,” the National Endowment for Democracy’s Carl Gershman said at a conference called “Does Democracy Matter?” she notes:

Twenty-five years later, democracy is on the defensive, and that question is now a matter for hot debate….Meanwhile, Russia’s Vladimir Putin is promoting his toxic brew of ultranationalism-authoritarianism as an alternative ideology to democracy.

Never mind that Moscow can sustain this new authoritarianism only on the back of high oil prices. From the outside, Putin’s model looks attractive to some leaders — for example, in Egypt and Venezuela — who are crushing free media and political opposition. Meanwhile, China, too, hypes its brand of authoritarian rule as a better alternative for Asia than messy democracy or any political alliance with America…

In Gershman’s words, we “must find a way to rebuild a sense of democratic conviction.” RTWT

Twenty-five years on, the biggest surprise is how badly most of the post-communist nations have done, David Brooks writes for The New York Times, citing a recent essay by former World Bank economist Branko Milanovic which broke down the growth rates of post-communist countries into four groups:

In the bottom group are basket-case nations that haven’t even recovered the level of real income they had in 1990, as measured by real G.D.P. per capita. These failures include Ukraine, Georgia, Bosnia, Serbia and others — about 20 percent of the post-communist world. …

The next group includes those nations that are merely moderate failures, with per capita economic growth rates under 1.7 percent a year. These are nations like Russia and Hungary that continue to fall steadily behind the West — about 40 percent of the post-communist world by population.

The third group includes those with growth rates between 1.7 percent and 1.9 percent. These countries, like the Czech Republic and Slovenia, are holding steady with the capitalist world.

Finally there are the successes, the nations that are catching up. This group includes Poland, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. ….

To put it another way, only 10 percent of the people living in post-communist nations are living in a place that successfully made the transition to capitalism. Ninety percent are living under failed transitions of one sort or another.

The principal reason for the failures is that these societies lacked the necessary “cultural brew,” Brooks contends:

Worse, life was marked by fear, by arbitrary power, by suspicion that people are watching you, by distrust. People raised in this atmosphere of distrust have trouble forming companies and associations. They are more likely to be driven by a grab-what-you-can logic — a culture of corruption and appropriation. They are more likely to hunker down and become risk averse.

Many of the ailing countries are marked by distant power relationships. Those with power — even in an office or neighborhood — are aloof and domineering. Those without power hanker for security at all costs. They’re nostalgic for the imagined stability of communism. When everything seems arbitrary and crooked, people tolerate strongman rule.