Democratization activists in Azerbaijan are increasingly pessimistic about what they describe as the West’s lack of support for reform and the protection of basic rights in the energy-rich South Caucasus country.
The soured mood follows a new wave of arrests of youth activists, the closure of the Western-funded Free Thought University, an alternative education center, and a scandal over offshore companies reportedly linked to President Ilham Aliyev’s family.
Although the arrests and university closure have sparked statements of concern from international human rights activists and Western governments, the alleged offshore activities have not. An October 2012 decision by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) not to adopt a resolution calling for the release of alleged Azerbaijani political prisoners, along with a report about Baku’s alleged use of “caviar diplomacy” to woo PACE deputies added to the unease.
Government critics charge that the lack of forceful responses from Western governments and organizations – including the United States, the European Union as well as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe, the continent’s top human-rights monitor -- undermines their role as a catalyst for democratic change.
“It is clear that there is little, if any, support for the Azerbaijani pro-democracy movement in the West,” charged Murad Gassanly, director of the London-based Azerbaijan Democratic Association-UK, a pro-opposition pressure group. “The US and Europe have considerable interest in preserving the status quo in Azerbaijan.”
Oil fields and gas pipelines to Europe explain that position in part, as do discussions about withdrawing North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops from Afghanistan via Azerbaijan, he added.
“All this means that Western capitals are not keen to antagonize Aliyev in this presidential election year and perhaps even beyond that, in the 2015 parliamentary elections.”
One of the Aliyev administration’s most vocal critics, formerly jailed blogger Emin Milli, went a step further, recently claiming on Facebook that the “[s]ilence of [the] international community at this moment is a crime!”
An opposition leader, however, cautions that Azerbaijani activists’ “idealistic approach to politics” is a source of their disappointment in the West.
“It is naïve to expect that the international community will solve the democratization problems of Azerbaijan,” commented Erkin Gadirli, a leader of the Republican Alternative (REAL) group. “Each country tries to satisfy its own interests, then the interests of its allies and only then, all remaining issues.”
During a March 13-14 visit to Baku, the British Foreign Office’s permanent undersecretary, Simon Fraser, the senior policy advisor to British Foreign Minister William Hague, gave a sense of how the United Kingdom views this issue. In comments at the Azerbaijani Diplomatic Academy, Fraser claimed that the British government has always supported human rights in Azerbaijan, but added that “the UK has also other joint interests with Azerbaijan, including the economy and energy sectors.”
Such a duality of interests should come as no surprise, underlined longtime opposition leader Ali Kerimli, head of the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan. “I’ve said it many times … they [Western governments] have their own interests and follow their own policies,” Kerimli said. “Therefore, we should rely on our own resources … in order not to get disappointed later.”
Ironically, President Aliyev also recently called for self-reliance in political affairs. At an April 14 cabinet meeting, Aliyev repeated the familiar theme that Azerbaijanis “know better how to rule our country.” and “do not want interference [by foreign powers].”
Where opposition to the government is concerned, Baku-based blogger Ali Novruzov, an activist for the OL youth group and former coordinator of the Free Thought University, believes that self-reliance already has begun.
Organizers of recent unsanctioned protests in Baku against the non-combat deaths of Azerbaijani soldiers, or the January crackdown on protesters in the regional town of Ismayilli targeted locals rather than the international community with their message, noted Novruzov, whose OL group was among the events’ participants. A Facebook-based campaign was organized to raise funds to pay the fines of those protesters detained, he added.
“It means that the understanding that changes have to come from the inside is growing,” Novruzov said.
Some political analysts reject the notion that the West isn’t responding to civil or human-rights crackdowns. An April 17-18 visit to Baku by US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Melia “sent several important messages to the Azerbaijani government concerning democratization issues,” noted political analyst Elkhan Shahinoglu, head of the Atlas research center, a Baku-based think-tank.
Nonetheless, the investigation of the National Democratic Institute, a Washington, DC-based democratization entity, and the loss of radio frequencies for the US-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America signaled that Americans “have restricted levers with which to pressure Baku,” Shahinoglu added.
Disappointment with the West for its perceived passiveness toward alleged government abuses does not necessarily mean that reform activists are now looking elsewhere for inspiration. “Most of the youth organizations and opposition parties aim for integration into Europe and the West,” Novruzov said. “The purpose is to achieve democratic change in Azerbaijan and it is not going to change.”
This story was amended on April 30, 2013 after the OL group denied any involvement in organizing unsanctioned protests.
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance reporter in Baku.