Wednesday, August 24, 2016


Azerbaijan's Steady Descent Into Authoritarianism

Activists Adnan Hajizada (left) and Emin Milli were beat up while sitting with friends in a cafe, then charged for assault.
Activists Adnan Hajizada (left) and Emin Milli were beat up while sitting with friends in a cafe, then charged for assault.
By Elmar Chakhtakhtinski
Imagine you are sitting with your friends at an outdoor cafe on a pleasant summer afternoon. Suddenly, two men in jogging suits approach and start beating you and one of your pals.

Before the others drag you away from the assailants, you and your friend are badly injured -- his nose is broken, and the attackers, due to their superior muscle and fighting skills, have not sustained much damage.

When the two of you go to the nearest police station to file a report, you are initially denied access to a lawyer, then charged with hooliganism, and then, after a hearing closed to the public, remanded to detention for two months pending a trial that could result in a much longer sentence.

Meanwhile, those who assaulted you are set free without any charges.

This might sound unreal, but it is what reportedly happened on July 8 to Adnan Hajizada and Emin Milli, two young leaders of a pro-democracy movement in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, with which the United States has vital energy and security ties and where a struggle is under way to preserve the last remaining elements of free speech and civil society.

Continuing Rights Violations

The attack itself and the manner in which the case was handled constitute a gross violation of basic human rights and of the protections guaranteed by Azerbaijani criminal-procedural law and the country's commitments to international conventions.

In May, about 50 young demonstrators were arrested following a peaceful protest.
To the government's displeasure, the attack on Hajizada and Milli triggered strongly worded statements by the embassies in Baku of the United States and several European countries, Council of Europe and OSCE representatives, and major human rights groups calling for their release and an open and fair investigation of their case.

This is not the first time the authorities have detained and prosecuted independent journalists and political opponents of the government. There have been formal complaints of people being subjected to assault by individuals in civilian clothes. Pro-government mobs provoked and intimidated demonstrators who protested against fraud in Azerbaijani elections of 2003 and 2005.

Youth Leading The Way

As in Moldova and Iran, the opposition movement in Azerbaijan is increasingly led by the younger generation, which relies heavily on the Internet and online social networks -- which the authorities have difficulty controlling -- to spread its message and coordinate activities.

The organizations led by Hajizada and Milli, who studied at universities in the United States and Germany, respectively, represent the most pro-Western strain of the sociopolitical spectrum in Azerbaijan.

These youth networks have consistently promoted the principles of a free and open society, individual liberties, tolerance, and responsible governance, and have been openly critical of corruption within the Azerbaijani government and its authoritarian policies. They have also been strong advocates of maintaining friendly relations with the United States, Europe, and other democratic countries.

One possible explanation cited for the arrest of Hajizada and Milli is a satirical video they posted on YouTube, Facebook, and other social networks. That footage shows a person dressed as a donkey talking about emigrating from Germany to Azerbaijan. The donkey praises the opportunities and rights Azerbaijan offers donkeys, while the writing on the screen asks, "What about the people's rights?"

The video was posted in the wake of an official report that the Azerbaijani government spent hundreds of thousands of dollars importing a dozen donkeys in a deal that may have masked corruption or the theft of public funds.

Sending Dissent Underground

When it joined the Council of Europe in 2001, Azerbaijan undertook commitments regarding democracy and the respect of human rights. Its government enjoys friendly relations with the United States and other Western countries.

However, a comprehensive crackdown against all expressions of dissent and free speech has been gradually intensifying. Journalists have been murdered, beaten, jailed on bogus charges, and blackmailed. Peaceful protests have been violently dispersed by police and attacked by well organized pro-government groups. Elections continued to be rigged and free media suppressed.

Within the last seven months, the government has shut down all Western radio stations, which were the only remaining source of information it did not control, and conducted a constitutional referendum removing the limitations on incumbent President Ilham Aliyev serving more than two consecutive presidential terms. A draft bill introduced a few weeks ago that would have imposed severe restrictions on the activities of NGOs was amended only under pressure from Western governments.

While hopes for democracy and change are rapidly waning, the public is being largely deprived of the financial benefits from oil revenues. Economic opportunities for ordinary citizens are still very limited.

If these trends continue, and if the authorities succeed in destroying the secular democratic opposition, the frustrated population may turn to extremist ideologies to express its resentment. Over the past decade, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of followers of various radical religious sects. They stay away from open political discourse for now, but it may only be a matter of time before they organize and start filling the ideological vacuum that the government is creating.

Whether these religious groups can mount a real challenge and seize power or whether they too will be crushed and Azerbaijan will become as totalitarian as Belarus or Turkmenistan, it's hard to see how and why the country's leaders would maintain their mostly pro-Western orientation, rather than coordinating policies with Russia and Iran. That would be a sad turn of events for Azerbaijani democracy and a big loss for U.S. and European interests in the region.

Elmar Chakhtakhtinski heads the informal U.S.-based organization Azerbaijani-Americans for Democracy (AZAD). The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
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Comment Sorting
Comments page of 3
by: Nemesida from: Baku
July 30, 2009 12:06
It becomes dangerous to live in Azerbaijan. Sometimes we gather with friends and sometimes we discuss politics and social issues. Emin and Adnan's arrest was one of those. But now the owner of the cafe we frequently gather in asked us to find another place even though we are very good clients. The owner said they had been threatened with fiscal sanctions if youth gatherings will be observed further. I didn't even know if I should be pissed off or just move our friend gatherings to another place. <br />

by: Democrat from: USA
July 31, 2009 05:16
Excellent depiction of what is happening in Azerbaijan. Hopefully, more and more Azeris will understand what is going and and raise their voices like Adnan and Emin. Ghandi said oppressor's strength is in in the amount of the weakness of the oppressed. More empowered youth protesting against the regime in Azerbaijan will mean less authoritarianism in the country.

by: Kenan from: USA
July 31, 2009 13:04
Unfortunately for of us, government of Azerbaijan is moving more and more towards accepting totalitarian regime as it is in Egypt, former Iraq etc. History is a spiral of events and whatever is happening there will happen to Azerbaijan in the future.

by: Alan from: Europe
August 01, 2009 05:23
Elmar’s report is good and gives inside information about current Azerbaijan’s political life.<br />RFE must not give only commentary on subjects but also give explanation by asking the question WHY.<br /><br />Here is one explanation. After collapse of Soviet Union many ex-communist leaders with modest salaries took the life time opportunity in each new country to become minister, prime minister, president and sometimes absolute ruler (dictator). <br /><br />In case of Azerbaijan, two important things shaped its leadership structure, one taking advantage of oil resources and two, Western support of the current regime.<br />When somebody moves from abject poverty to highest altitude of wealth, power and Western support then only thing the person will think of how he will keep these powers, that is WHY you get police state, wars, full control of people and media and movement, seeking military superiority and in some cases to create a leader of mystical supremacy. <br /><br />In all cases the end will not be good and the Western backers will lose more than they gain from support of these type of regimes but does any body cares because in the West there are also some corrupt leaders. <br />

by: Babak from: USA
August 02, 2009 03:00
I read the earlier article about the Satirical Donkey with amusement. Now I see that it is really not anything funny at all. Something like the foolish stories we used to read about Turkmenbashi which only put a silly face on the human tragedy behind it.

by: Nasser from: Baku
August 03, 2009 15:24
Dear friends (Babak, Alan,Kenan, Democrat, Nemesida and of course Elmar),<br /><br />I agree and disagree with you in the same time. <br />I agree that democracy must be protected. But disagree that democracy in Azerbaijan is under a threat. It appears from the article that there were &quot;only two last persons in Azerbaijan who are protecting democracy&quot; which is an exajuration. Democracy in USA has developed through minimum of 2 centuries. This two hundred year US has faced problems such as mafia gangs and hippy movement. Does it mean that US was a bad place. I don't think so. My country is developing much faster and believe me, our President (who is not a dictator at all) and his team will take care of the problems soon. Regarding the police officers, I can say that I never have trouble with them because simply I have no time to spend in caffees. I am an oilman and have not much time for leasure, we work together with western and eastern colleagues to produce oil &amp; gas that is needed for all of the countries. For those of you who are scared to leave in Azerbaijan I can say: please, do not exagurate. Just an example: a traffic police stop somebody passing the crossroad on red light. The officer wants to write a ticket, but the man offers a bribe to the officer and the &quot;problem is solved&quot;. Who do you think is more criminal - the policeman or the driver? Let's be good citizens and everything will be fine with democracy. For those who are suspicious about my country, I can recommend to visit Azerbaijan and see it for yourself - do not judge using second hand information.<br />By writing this comment I have no intention do hurt anybodies feelings. I appreciate your democratic idea need to state that article does not match with the reality. If these two young men are innocent, I am sure they will be released soon.

by: Armen from: NKR
August 04, 2009 00:16
Good man Nasser.<br />Armenians understand you, but your leaders must understand that Soviet Azerbaijan is finished, gone, caput, dead, &quot;oldee&quot;. so Karabakhi people for sefl defence and because of new realities they chose to be independent, part of Armenia, self determinant etc etc. this is because old war, bloody history and Armenian Genocide of 1915. <br />today no one can determine or control one nation over other. if your leaders want Soviet Azerbaijan then put proposition to join back to Russian federation then Karabakh may join too but for Nagorno Karabakh people Armenia is safer bet naturally. Always remember that Azerbaijan started the war for quick win instead of conducting civilised negotiation, not Armenians like the person who crossess the red traffic light. <br />The destructions happened in Spanakert not in Baku, refugees were on both sides because again of the war.

by: John Harduny from: Reston, VA
August 04, 2009 01:24
As the article has demonstrated, Azerbaijan has become is an irreversibly nasty Muslim oil autocracy where corruption, censorship of mass media and the harassment of intellectuals are all the defining characteristics of the regime and the country overall. Protecting the Christian Armenian democracy of Nagorno Karabakh from this Muslim petro-dictatorship should become a cornerstone of Western foreign policy in the region.

by: Hasan from: USA
August 04, 2009 06:27
Nasser, <br /> <br />Looks like you not only have no time for hanging out in cafes in Azerbaijan, but no idea about the state of affairs in the country. Of course you will not have problems with police, as long as your support the government and are willing to pay them bribes.<br /> <br />Are you kidding: &quot;our President (who is not a dictator at all)&quot;? Of coruse he is a dictator. He conducted a referendum to stay in office for life and rules unopposed with judiciary and parliament rubber-stumping all his decisions. Under his and his father’s rule Azerbaijan is becoming more like Turkmenistan. Emin and Adnan might not be the &quot;only two last persons in Azerbaijan who are protecting democracy&quot;, but they definitely are among the remaining few ones who still were speaking out, and now they too are in jail, joining Ganiman Zahid, Eynulla Fatullayev and others.<br /> <br />Funny that you compare Azerbaijan to US 200 years ago – even then the US had more free speech and was ruled by laws and elections, not by family clan like Azerbaijan now. The problem is not that democracy is building too slowly in Azerbaijan – but that the country is moving the opposite direction, with less freedom every day.<br /><br />Thanks to Radio Liberty for publishing this article. The only think I would argue is that Azerbaijan is not just &quot;decending&quot;, but might have already reached the bottom of authoritarianism.

by: Zoltan from: Hungary
August 04, 2009 15:43
Finding oil on any country's soil is as a great fortune as a huge disaster...<br /><br />Exactly I have never seen any country with flourishing democracy while having oil reserves. (except perhaps Norway)<br /><br />Unfortunatelly Azerbaijan whether its leadership is authoritarian or not - is too important for the West. It has oil, it is a neighbour of Iran and it can provide the vital corridor to Central-Asia.<br /><br />Therefore the West will tolerate anything Azeri leadership do without risking of alienating it.<br /><br />The West only pressures countries where it has no interest like Belarus. Look Belarusian leader was a pariah until recently while Aliyev always welcomed in western capitals.<br /><br />Look also the Uzbek example. Karimov massacred many hundred peaceful demonstrators in Andijon and after only 4 years the West recinciled with him just to provide land route to Afghanistan and possibly a new military base.<br /><br />Poor Azeris you are left alone. It's only you who could achieve freedom and democracy.<br /><br />But the recent example of young Moldovans' achievement can be in front of you. <br />Their struggle finally prevailed!<br /><br />Good luck to You!
Comments page of 3