Many in Azerbaijan had entertained hopes that, following his re-election in late 2013, President Ilham Aliyev in Azerbaijan would ease repressive policies targeting free speech and the flow of information, especially on the Internet. Unfortunately, it is now clear such hopes were misplaced.
The deadline is over a year away, but Azerbaijan is sprinting to complete preparations for the European Games, an Olympics-like competition for athletes from 49 European countries. In sprucing Baku up for the event, officials are taking a softer approach to urban renewal than during the run-up to the Eurovision song contest just under two years ago.
A common assumption among Western observers is that political opponents of authoritarian leaders in the Caucasus and Central Asia tend to be themselves relatively liberal in their political beliefs and tolerant in social views. But several recent incidents in Azerbaijan challenge this assumption.
"Politically motivated at the behest of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev" -- that was how former Health Minister Ali Insanov described his five-week retrial, which ended on February 25 with the judge upholding the 11-year prison term handed down to Insanov in 2007.
The informal Olympics creed of “Not to win, but to take part” is exactly what Caspian-Sea energy power Azerbaijan wants out of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
All four of Azerbaijan’s Olympic team members – alpine skiers Gaia Bassani Antivari and Patrick Brachner, and ice-dancing pair Alexei Sitnikov and Yulia Zlobina -- are naturalized foreigners; the only such team in the Games.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev was once dubbed corruption’s “Person of the Year” by an organization of investigative journalists. But to many Azerbaijani citizens, he is seen as more trustworthy than the courts, recent survey data shows.
In mid-November, an Azerbaijani court sentenced Rashad Ramazanov, an Islamist blogger, to nine years in prison on charges of drug possession. Two weeks earlier, Taleh Bagir-zade, a young and charismatic Shi’a cleric, received a two-year prison term after being convicted on similar charges.
Nearly 20 years after a ceasefire brought a halt to all-out warfare in Nagorno-Karabakh, the Azerbaijani government is still grappling with the challenge of accommodating the country’s 600,000 Internally Displaced Persons, without encouraging them to forget their former homes.