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Azerbaijan -- Turkmenistan Of The Caucasus

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (left) with his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, in July. It is easy to see how Aliyev is calculating.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (left) with his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, in July. It is easy to see how Aliyev is calculating.

*Correction appended

In 1993, the government of Azerbaijan began an ominous tradition. That year, following an election in which they smashed their political opponents, the authorities felt strong enough to crack down on political freedom throughout the country.

This sort of "victory celebration" followed the 1995 parliamentary elections and the 1998 presidential poll. We saw it again after the 2000 and 2003 election cycles, and again following the 2005 parliamentary elections and last October's presidential ballot, which all major opposition politicians boycotted.

This is what Azerbaijani democracy has been brought to.
In each case, the government's actions were methodical and effective. Either a major political party was evicted from its offices or some independent newspapers ended up being slapped with heavy fines as a result of petty legal complaints from government officials.

After the 2000 and 2003 elections, the nonstate ANS-TV went through the state's grinder and, when it emerged, it was more pro-government than the formally state-controlled television channels. In some cases, prominent journalists were arrested or worse.

The tactics varied to some extent, but the lesson was simple: Civil society in Azerbaijan -- political parties, independent media, NGOs, etc. -- can expect an onslaught after each manipulated election in which the Aliyev regime (first, Heydar Aliyev and, now, his son, Ilham) emerges predictably victorious.

Weak, Divided, Marginalized

This year, the confident regime has begun targeting foreign broadcasters -- RFE/RL, the Voice of America, and the BBC have been shut down in the country -- and the Azerbaijani Constitution. The government is in the process of amending the constitution in order to remove the current two-term limit for the president. The goal is to enable the 47-year-old Ilham Aliyev to seek a third term. And then, no doubt, a fourth and so on until he dies. Or until some other "glorious leader" deposes him.

This is what Azerbaijani democracy has been brought to.

After years of being pushed back and abused by the authorities, the country's democratic opposition is now weak, divided, and marginalized. The government has scheduled a referendum on abolishing term limits for March 18, and the opposition is simply not strong enough to stimulate an adequate public discussion of this issue and its implications for the country's future.

Musavat and the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, together with a few smaller allies, have joined forces to campaign in defense of the current constitution, but the matter has been eclipsed in the country by a seemingly irrelevant tragedy, the conflict in Gaza.

The state-dominated media in Azerbaijan have focused society's attention on the anti-U.S. and anti-Israel rallies in the Baku suburb of Nardaran and on a campaign organized by the Association of Azerbaijani Doctors to collect blood donations for the people of Palestine. The opposition has argued that the government is intentionally diverting attention from a discussion of the future of the country. And it seems to be working.

Only a handful of media outlets in Azerbaijan today are willing to stray from the government's line: the newspapers "Azadliq" and "Yeni Musavat," which are associated with opposition political parties; the independent Turan news agency; and the independent daily "Zerkalo." This is all that remains of a once influential and pluralistic camp of opposition and nonstate media.

If the present pattern continues, even these remnants and the remaining political parties may disappear by the 2010 legislative elections, and if that happens, it will be hard to distinguish Azerbaijan from neighboring Turkmenistan. This may seem like dire speculation, but such a turn of events seems increasingly probable these days.

Feckless International Community

The government's willingness to crush the opposition and civil rights has been well established, and its ability to do so, in the face of a weakened opposition and a downtrodden public, is unparalleled in the recent history of the country. And to these circumstances, we must add another -- the fecklessness of the international community's efforts to keep the country's democratic institutions alive.

Kicking international broadcasters out of the country may have been the government's final test of the levels of global reaction to its actions. And if any lesson has been learned in Baku, it is that the authorities need not be overly concerned with even pretending to adhere to internationally accepted democratic norms.

Azerbaijan's transformation into the new Turkmenistan has significant implications.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a clear political division has fallen across the former Soviet republics. Some countries -- the Baltic states, Ukraine, and Georgia -- oriented themselves toward the West, accepted its political norms, and pursued Euro-Atlantic integration. Others -- Belarus, Armenia, and the Central Asian countries -- opted to remain under the heavy influence of Russia, maintained their Soviet-style autocratic systems, and have become increasingly authoritarian.

For most of the post-Soviet period, Azerbaijan teetered on the fault line between these two worlds. It was a pioneer of independent energy projects in the Caspian region and reached out to the West in an attempt to develop its energy sector independently of Russia. Moscow, on the other hand, has resisted these efforts and continued to try build a monopoly over Caspian energy exports. Azerbaijan needed the West's protection from Russian pressure. Former President Heydar Aliyev sought to maintain a balance between Russia and the West, a balance that was reflected in his handling of the country's domestic political dynamic.

Central Asia-Style Dictatorship

Unlike Belarus and the countries of Central Asia, Azerbaijan in the 1990s had viable opposition parties and media that were independent of the state. Political competition was rigged and heavily managed, but it existed nonetheless. However, over the last five years, Baku has moved steadily and rapidly toward a Central Asia-style dictatorship -- the kind of regime that most easily finds accommodation with Moscow.

In the wake of Russia's military intervention in Georgia last August, the authorities in Baku have been thinking more and more about the dangers of allying with the West, which is far away and has proven ineffective in defending its friends from Russian aggression. Russia, on the other hand, is close and strong and willing to accept the government in Azerbaijan just as it is.

It is easy to see how Aliyev is calculating.

As a result, 2008 saw significant shifts in Azerbaijan's international orientation, and it seems that this year will be a key turning point. Russia has now placed on the table a proposal to purchase all of Azerbaijan's natural gas and sell it on international markets. Moscow already has such a pact with Turkmenistan, the country that is seemingly Aliyev's role model.

So far, Baku has hesitated to commit to Moscow's offer. But it doesn't seem likely the authorities will continue to straddle the fence between Russia and the West for much longer. With the closure of international broadcasters in the country and the ongoing assault against the constitution, it looks as if Aliyev has already made up his mind.

Gorkhmaz Asgarov is the Washington correspondent for RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

Correction: A reference to Azerbaijan's presidential election in the second paragraph has been reworded to reflect that the vote took place in October 2008. A referendum on abolishing presidential term limits is set for March 18.

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