Kseniya Sobchak, a well-known Russian political activist and social butterfly, is an outspoken critic of Russian leader Vladimir Putin. But, curiously, she seems to be taking a much softer line on Azerbaijan’s authoritarian-minded ruler, Ilham Aliyev.
After visiting Baku last April, Sobchak marveled at the transformation of the Azerbaijani capital, comparing it favorably to Moscow. To her credit, she did mention the non-democratic nature of the Azerbaijani regime in comments that were published in Snob, a leading Russian cultural magazine. Yet overall, after reading her take on Baku, one is left with an impression of a country ruled by a benevolent "Oriental ruler" who, although occasionally harsh, cares about the well-being of his subjects. Her somewhat glowing review of Aliyev’s leadership is especially ironic when set against her views on Putin.
Also recently, when a senior European diplomat was confronted with the seeming inconsistency of the EU's policy toward authoritarian regimes in Belarus and Azerbaijan - sanctions and isolation in the case of the former, cooperation and engagement with the latter - he replied that there are two major reasons for the discrepancy: first, while Belarus is at the center of Europe, Azerbaijan is located "between Chechnya and Iran," he explained, the implication being that the democratic bar is set higher for Belarus; secondly, the diplomat bluntly stated that there are important strategic interests in relations with Azerbaijan, such as cooperation in energy sector and regional security issues, not least in containing Iran, which is widely believed to be pursuing a nuclear weapons program.
While perhaps distasteful, the “strategic interests” argument is easily defensible. It’s simply prudent policy to work with a government that is prepared to cooperate with the West on a whole range of strategic issues. Such pragmatism may not please human rights defenders in Azerbaijan and elsewhere, but it’s only realistic to accept the fact that foreign policy is not exclusively shaped by human rights issues.
At the same time, the double standard inherent in the diplomat’s comments, and more subtly contained in Sobchak’s assessment, is damaging. The “geographic argument” endorses a concept in which a less than perfect democracy is acceptable for an "Oriental" country like Azerbaijan. Such thinking represents a serious misreading of the emerging public mood in Azerbaijan that could end up harming US and EU strategic interests down the road.
There are plenty of people in Azerbaijan who yearn for a full-fledged democratic system. Tolerating anything less, then, means that the United States and EU are prepared to sell these Azerbaijani citizens short. Azerbaijanis want good governance, transparency and accountability from their rulers, just like people in Europe and elsewhere.
Evidence of widespread popular discontent with the current system is mounting in Azerbaijan. Over the past year, the country has experienced rallies against the deaths of the conscripts in the army, riots of traders over exorbitant taxes, protests of Muslims over what they see as curtailment of their religious rights, and explosions of unrest in provincial towns of Guba and Ismayilli. Social networking and pro-democracy youth movements such as NIDA played an increasing role in harnessing discontent and mobilizing it into protests.
Television viewing preferences also indicate that the population wants much more than what they are now getting. Since authorities tightly control the national media, more people, especially in the provinces, tune in the Turkish TV-based program Azerbaycan Saati (Azerbaijan's Hour), which provides a more pluralistic coverage of the events in Azerbaijan. This 2-hours program has proven to be so popular that local officials in some provincial areas are said to ordering the closure of teahouses for the duration of the program, in order to prevent people from gathering and watching it. Many Baku-based experts agree that the people increasingly are losing fear to speak out against what they see as the regime's abuses.
Where the argument of bad geography rings superficially true is in the fact that while Belarus borders three countries of the European Union, Azerbaijan has no consolidated democracies in its neighborhood. But even here the situation is dynamic. Azerbaijan's neighbor Georgia has made significant democratization strides in the past decade, most notably experiencing a peaceful transition of power via the ballot box last year. Meanwhile, Turkey, Azerbaijan's main ally, greatly improved its democratic practices in the 2000s, motivated in large part by the prospect of EU membership. If Turkish democracy is backsliding today, it is due to the unique combination of negative external and internal political factors, not because of cultural impediments stemming from Turkey's geography.
Most important of all, Azerbaijan itself has declared its Euro-Atlantic orientation and embraced extensive commitments on democracy and human rights. There is no reason why its European partners should go soft when Baku fails to deliver on these commitments.
Ultimately, strong emphasis on reform is in the EU's long-term strategic interests: if Baku heeds calls for reform, the EU can gain a partner with enhanced domestic legitimacy. If it doesn't, the EU can call Baku's bluff: whatever the rhetoric of some Azerbaijani officials, they are aware that the EU remains an essential partner and cannot be easily ignored. Most importantly, it will preserve the EU's credibility among Azerbaijanis. The worst possible signal that either the United States or the EU can send right now is that it that they will settle for an 'Oriental' style 'democracy' for Azerbaijan.
Eldar Mamedov is a political adviser to the Socialists & Democrats Group in the European Parliament, who writes in his personal capacity.