(This is the English version of my article that was published in the NRC Handelsblad and NRC.next, daily newspapers in the Netherlands.)
On the 7th of May the Eastern Partnership will be signed by the EU and 6 of her eastern neighbors. In the run-up a lot of attention has been devoted to the situation of human rights and democracy in Belarus. Oddly enough the situation in Azerbaijan is being ignored, whereas it should be just as much of concern, if not more.
Of the three Southern Caucasian republics, Azerbaijan is least known among the European public. It is at the crossroads of Russian, Persian and Turkish civilizations and has been dominated, both politically and culturally, by Russia since the start of the 19th century until the end of the 20th. Baku, the capital, was the center of 19th century petrochemical industry and the Nobel brothers as well as the Rothschildt family set up businesses in this swiftly westernizing city. Baku hence still feels very European, both in terms of construction style as well as living style.
The short lived Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (1918-1920) was the first Islamic country that implemented full (women) suffrage, remarkably earlier than many Western countries. At the end of the eighties and beginning of the nineties the Azerbaijani independence movement was one of the most strident of all within the Soviet Union and was at the base of the final disintegration of the communist bloc. Especially in the first part of the nineties, Azerbaijan was characterized by a dynamic democratization and a pluriform society, with partly fraudulent but still heavily fought elections.
Unfortunately there is very little to be seen back from that emerging democracy that Azerbaijan promised to become in the nineties. Freedom House marked the country as partly free until 2003, but since then it has been part of the non-free countries. The current dictator, Ilham Aliev, has continued the work of his father, the late leader until his death in 2003, in an all too effective manner and marginalized the opposition by intimidation, bribing and incarceration. Critical journalists are beaten up and students who bring attention to corruption at their universities are kicked out. The remaining media is of a depressing state, as became painfully clear at the recent, and for Azerbaijani standards absolutely unique, shooting attack in Baku where 13 students were murdered. News could only be gathered via Turkish and Russian TV and for those able via some new media, whereas the national media only brought the issue to light a couple of hours later.
Western governments have been closing their eyes for the deteriorating state of human rights and democracy in Azerbaijan for years. Belarus has opportunistically been dubbed the last dictatorship of Europe whereas Azerbaijan as member of the Council of Europe and the OSCE is just as much part of Europe and the government is just as notorious, if not more. During the scarce moments of honesty, Western representatives speak of this discrepancy as resulting from geopolitical considerations, meaning that good relations with the Azerbaijani government are that important for Western interests that human rights issues should be ignored. These considerations come down to the geographical position of Azerbaijan in the middle of Iran and Russia, as well as the role of Azerbaijan as an important alternative oil and gas provider for Russia.
Such opportunistic reasoning obviously turns Western human rights policy into a caricature. What might actually be even more problematic is the fact that such so-called realism testifies a shortsighted understanding of Western interests vis-à-vis Azerbaijan and that this could have disastrous effects already on the short term.
First, only a democratic Azerbaijan is a genuine alternative for Russian energy. The ties between the current Russian and Azerbaijani political elites are just as warm as they were in the past, politically, economically as well as personally. In the case of a further deterioration in the relations between Europa and Russia it will be unlikely that the authoritarian Azerbaijan will drop their Russian colleague. The renown Nabucco tap can be closed in a jiffy after a single call from the Kremlin.
Secondly, the close association of the West with the current regime has led to a sharp decline in the reputation of the West in Azerbaijan as a supporter of democracy. The remaining opposition is still very bitter over the lack of support after the fraudulent presidential elections in 2003, when the West withheld its support for the opposition whereas it did the opposite in similar situations in Georgia and Ukraine. In an environment with lots of dissatisfied youth, and in which the big southern neighbor is Iran, alternative associations are easily found. It is a public secret that radical muslim sects from Iran and the Arabian peninsula are actively promulgating.
Azerbaijan still has the potential to turn into a pluriform, stable democracy, which can be built on top of earlier, autonomous democratic traditions and institutions and hence does not need to be started from scratch. It is time that the West will be taking her own interests seriously and extends her explicit support to the few remaining democratic forces that remain in Azerbaijan, before it is too late.