This should have been a week of triumph for Azerbaijan's still youthful president, Ilham Aliyev.
On 25 May, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and a host of other world leaders and businessmen will arrive in Baku, the Azerbaijani capital, to celebrate the launch of the $4 billion Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline. Instead, his government is under a cloud of international condemnation for its violent handling of an opposition demonstration on 21 May.
The Azerbaijani authorities have been undermined by their own authoritarian reflex and their complete failure to anticipate international reaction. And this despite the fact that the U.S. Embassy in Azerbaijan had issued a statement the day before the rally, urging the government to guarantee the right of Azeri citizens to free assembly.
"It makes it difficult to see how Azerbaijan can have free and fair elections if people who are trying to promote their opposition to the government are constantly being arrested."
If the intention of the authorities was to silence the opposition, its ban on the rally was an abject failure. Even the opposition concedes that no more than a few thousand took part, but the heavy police presence in Baku guaranteed domestic and international publicity.
Norway's Ambassador to Azerbaijan Steynar Gil was among those on hand to witness the beatings and arrests.
"Of course, one would have liked things to have happened differently. The right to assembly is established by the constitution. It's a universal right. They could have conducted this demonstration calmly, just as happens in all democratic countries. I saw the [police] violence with my own eyes. It was serious violence, I would say," Gil said.
Which is not to compare Azerbaijan with Uzbekistan, where earlier this month government troops shot dead hundreds of protestors in Andijon and elsewhere. But the international expectations placed on Azerbaijan in Europe and elsewhere are higher – as are Azerbaijan's own pretensions. Azerbaijan is a member of the Council of Europe and, like neighbouring Georgia, aspires to membership of the European Union and NATO.
The government's claim that it banned the rally because of its proximity to the upcoming ceremony to launch the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline has convinced no-one. And now Baku must face U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit, cringing in the knowledge that she may use the occasion to press for faster democratic reform in Azerbaijan. Elections This Year
A more likely cause for Baku’s jittery response to the rally is November's fast-approaching parliamentary elections.
The head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Baku office, Maurizio Pavesi, is among those taking a critical interest in that upcoming poll.
"I think we are at the beginning of a very difficult electoral campaign and all the parts should show responsibility because the electoral campaign will be very long. It is unacceptable that the constitution is not implemented, in other words that public manifestations are not allowed. This is a measure that is already going on since the presidential election in October 2003. It's 19 months now since we have no public manifestation authorised by the local authorities," Pavesi said.
It's a point underscored by others, including the Council of Europe, whose rapporteur on political prisoners, Malcolm Bruce, spoke today to RFE/RL of his concern about the situation in Azerbaijan.
"It makes it difficult to see how Azerbaijan can have free and fair elections if people who are trying to promote their opposition to the government are constantly being arrested. What we're looking for is that Azerbaijan as a member of the Council of Europe -- it's signed up for pluralism, democracy, and the rule of law, and the Council of Europe wants to work with Azerbaijan to enable this to happen," Bruce said.
If the government is worried about the forthcoming elections, it has cause to be. A new wind of change is blowing through the region. Much has happened since Aliyev was elected president in October 2003 amid accusations of extensive ballot rigging.
The Rose Revolution in neighbouring Georgia and U.S. President George Bush's state visit to Tbilisi last month have given fresh vigour to civil society in Azerbaijan. And the state authorities have the examples of Georgia and Ukraine to remind themselves of the dangers of cheating the electorate in parliamentary elections.
This week, Azerbaijan celebrates the launch of a pipeline that will soon be bringing billions of dollars into the state budget. Most governments would be confident of contesting an election with the promise of so much new money flowing into the country. But state corruption and the opacity of government institutions have undermined popular trust. Oil revenues have been pouring into the state coffers for years but few in Azerbaijan have seen the benefits.Related:
Azerbaijani Police Quash Rally In Capital