The US on July 16 issued a friendly reminder to Azerbaijan that it would like to see more democracy there ahead of and during the South-Caucasus country's presidential vote this October.
American officials at the US Senate Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe hearing on “Growing Authoritarianism in Azerbaijan" could not emphasize enough how much Washington appreciates its friendship with the country, a key partner in regional energy and security matters for all its alleged democracy warts. “A friend would speak with no curtain or veil,” observed Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Thomas Melia, borrowing an Azerbaijani saying.
The concerns are well-known and range from a clampdown on the press, most recently exemplified by jamming the signal of the US-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, to the jailing of political dissidents and growing reluctance among lawyers to defend them in court.
Melia offered ways for Azerbaijan to improve this record: A. Let the Azerbaijani people make free political choices. B. Allow the free flow of information through the media. C. Allow freedom of assembly for political rallies and a free electoral process open to international observation. C. All of the above.
To what extent Azerbaijan’s political elite is willing to learn these democracy dance moves, especially ahead of the election, which will see President Ilham Aliyev square off against Oscar-winning screenwriter Rustam Ibragimbekov, is unclear, however. Based on what the Azerbaijani ambassador to the US, Elin Suleymanov, had to say in response to the criticism, Baku is not exactly independently motivated to comply with the calls for change or to admit all the democracy faults.
“We always appreciate friendly and helpful advice from our friends,” Suleymanov said, conceding that "We're not perfect," but rejecting any notion of "growing authoritarianism" in Azerbaijan; calling it instead “a young democracy.” He denied the criticism count by count, and then took notice of "the elephant in the room" -- Armenian troops' occupation of the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region and surrounding territories, which, to Baku, is the real problem these days.
He said that Russia-based opposition candidate Ibragimbekov is free to come to Azerbaijan and conduct a presidential campaign free of harassment, so long as his candidacy meets legal requirements.
Melia and others did not make any carrot-or-stick offers as an incentive for Baku. The next couple of months will probably show if the expression of a wish alone is enough to encourage change in Azerbaijan's "young democracy."