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.
Azerbaijan 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.
The 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.