There is good news coming out of Azerbaijan these days. But much of it seems to be coming from the Twitter feed of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.
"A free society has emerged in Azerbaijan. All democratic institutions are available and they operate successfully," he wrote on September 1.
Followed moments later by: "All freedoms, including the freedom of speech, the freedom of conscience, the freedom of the press and free Internet, are available."
And: "Azerbaijani society is a free society, and this is our great achievement."
But if you dig a little deeper for your news about Azerbaijan, the picture is much bleaker. The European Stability Initiative, a Berlin-based think tank, recently issued a five-page report detailing what it calls "the most serious and brutal crackdown on civil society in Azerbaijan ever" since Baku assumed the chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe in May.
From the conviction and eight-year prison sentence handed down to journalist and activist Parviz Hashimli on May 15 to the brutal beating of journalist Ilgar Nasibov by unknown assailants on August 21, it is a depressing litany of arrests, detentions, searches, and court hearings of bloggers, journalists, and prominent activists.
Squeezing Out Independent Media
Mehman Aliyev is the head of the Turan information agency. He says that the crackdown is particularly severe because Azerbaijani society was already strictly repressed. "There were more media outlets in the past and when one or two was hit, it did not seem very dramatic," he says.
Journalist İlgar Nasibov was brutally beaten in August.
"But now they have reduced the information space so dramatically that critical media are limited to just one or two outlets. The government is open about this. Apparently it's in Azerbaijan's national interest not to have critical media."
Aliyev told RFE/RL on September 8 that he might be forced to close Turan, the country's last remaining independent news agency.
Rahim Haciyev, first deputy editor in chief of the opposition "Azadliq" newspaper, tells a similar story. "The authorities believe the press should work under the guidance of official propaganda," he says. "The government's policies cannot be criticized."
The most recent list of political prisoners in Azerbaijan, published in June under the supervision of activist Leyla Yunus -- who was arrested herself in July -- includes 98 names.
Blaming 'Foreign Forces'
The driving force behind the crackdown is Ramiz Mehdiyev, President Aliyev's chief of staff. He held a closed-door meeting of government officials and pro-government media executives on August 29 at which he attacked independent and Western media for their coverage of Azerbaijan and, in particular, the conflict with Armenia over the de facto independent Azerbaijani region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
He said the "main purpose" of nonstate media in Azerbaijan -- including RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, the Voice of America, and the BBC -- was "to discredit the state of Azerbaijan, to blacken its achievements, and to confuse the public by stressing groundless, fabricated issues."
He said "foreign forces" use nongovernmental organizations and independent media to take advantage of "the tolerant and democratic environment in Azerbaijan" to disseminate "absurd lists of 'political prisoners'; information about alleged violations of human rights; fabrications about pressure on civil-society organizations, media, and journalists; and exaggerations about the corruption problem in Azerbaijan."
On September 5, Azerbaijani security forces raided the Baku office of IREX, a U.S.-funded nongovernmental organization that promotes democratic reforms around the globe. The organization's bank accounts have been frozen, as have those of other international NGOs including Transparency International and the National Democratic Institute.
At the same time, "The New York Times" on September 6 published an investigative report detailing how Baku uses its oil money to buy influence in Washington and "reinforce public opinion in the United States" that Azerbaijan is "an important security partner."
The crackdown comes at a sensitive time for Baku as it pursues its policy of finding a middle course between an increasingly assertive Russia and the West.
"The government is frightened most by recent developments around the world, especially in the post-Soviet space," says Baku-based political analyst Azer Gasimli. "Today the fate of Azerbaijan, to some extent, is being resolved on the battlefields of Ukraine. The West is preoccupied with the events in Ukraine and until that [conflict] is resolved, the U.S. and the West won't get strict with Azerbaijan."
Former U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan Richard Kauzlarich agrees that Baku believes the West is distracted by Ukraine and the Middle East and could be using the opportunity "to complete the internal repression and eliminate foreign NGOs."
In a written response to a query from RFE/RL, Kauzlarich also says Baku might be giving in to Russian pressure to distance itself from the West. Another possibility, he says, is that Baku could be reacting to pressure from Washington to negotiate a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict "rather than [impose] the Azerbaijan solution on Armenia."
Azerbaijani investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who hosts an evening talk show for RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, says she believes the crackdown is largely targeting individuals who would protest if President Aliyev begins to pursue closer relations with Russia or the nascent Moscow-led Eurasian Union.
Journalist Haciyev of "Azadliq" says Baku was scared during a recent spate of violence along the Line of Contact surrounding Karabakh and on the border with Armenia. "We saw then that citizens did not rely on information from official sources," he says, making it difficult for Baku to control the narrative of the situation.
Next: 'Death To Traitors'?
Now the crackdown seems to be gaining speed. On September 2, state media published an interview with parliament deputy Yagub Mahmudov, who is also the director of the Institute of History of the Academy of Sciences. Mahmudov called for the restoration of the death penalty for "traitors."
"The death penalty should be imposed on such people," Mahmudov said. "We should have capital punishment. Why should traitors be forgiven?"
Meanwhile, EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele was in Baku on September 9 and promised 3 million euros ($5 million) in assistance to civil-society organizations. Activists, however, fear there is no one left at liberty in Azerbaijan to accept the gesture.
Written in Prague by Robert Coalson using reporting by RFE/RL's Azerbaijan Service