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Commentary

Ten Days In Baku That Shook My World

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev at the Baku Police Academy (file photo)
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev at the Baku Police Academy (file photo)
By Christel Fricke
Liu Xiaobo was recently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and China has once again shown us the ugly face of a totalitarian state.

Whether the choice of the Nobel committee will actually contribute to the promotion of democratic change in China remains an open question. International attention and pressure will hopefully be able to put an umbrella of protection over the individual dissident. But the drive for democratic change cannot reach its goal unless it is supported by the people.

Meanwhile, we should not forget that there are in the world many pro-democracy dissidents who have dedicated their lives to peacefully espousing democracy, freedom of speech, the rule of law, and the observation of human rights in the totalitarian countries of which they are citizens -- at great toll to themselves and their families.

Rude Awakening

I recently visited Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. Baku is a city on the move, one massive construction site on the Caspian Sea where extravagant modern buildings line up along the sea front and new apartment blocks replace old residential quarters. Only the old part of the city has been refurbished carefully and provides some picturesque sights. It took me some time to realize that I was on the front line that separates the political establishment from the small minority of Azerbaijan's democratic dissidents.

Christel Fricke
The front line? Isn't Azerbaijan a democratic republic? Constitutionally, it is, of course. But the constitution is one thing and the political culture and practice are something else. De facto, Azerbaijan is a totalitarian state with an almighty president at the top and political institutions that basically follow his orders.

All opposition is suppressed. There is no freedom of speech. There was no information in the official media about Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu. There is no rule of law. Human rights are constantly violated.

Pro-democracy dissidents pay a high price: They only jobs they can find are working for international NGOs. If they dare to attract any public attention to their cases, they risk being jailed under accusations of espionage or hooliganism.

Since 2006 there has been a program of Scandinavian studies at the University of Languages in Baku. This program is funded by the Norwegian Foreign Ministry and is now organized by the University of Oslo. I recently went to Baku for 10 days to teach a course within this program.

While I was there, two young men were released from prison. The case of these two bloggers had attracted considerable international attention. As members of the democratic opposition, they had been beaten up and then, by some powerful but invisible authority, been transformed from victims into perpetrators: They found themselves accused of hooliganism. They were sentenced to 2 and 2 1/2 years in jail.

What upset the president was a video blog post of a fake press conference at which a donkey responds to questions concerning corruption in the country. Probably, the president misinterpreted this post and felt personally offended.

What finally brought the sentences of the two bloggers to an end (after more than 12 months in jail) was a second intervention by the president. Probably, he hoped to silence international criticism of the recent parliamentary elections for first suppressing any opposition campaigning and for then manipulating the vote count so that no independent candidate won a seat in parliament.

'The Right Life'

I had the opportunity to join in the celebration of the release of the two bloggers. The father of one of them is an old friend of mine. I shared his concern for his son. More than a year in prison had severely affected his health. But it was difficult to find a doctor who would treat him. Helping a democratic dissident can bring any doctor under scrutiny and expose him or her to difficulties.

Then my friend suggested that I ask my students in Baku what they knew and thought about the bloggers' case. Since official media had reported nothing about the affair, I initially thought it would be a good idea to raise the topic. But in the end, I didn't.

You see, I had been instructed not to discuss Azerbaijani politics in class.

At the moment that I failed to speak, I realized how close I was to the front line of the struggle for democracy and how hard it actually is to be there. At this most harmless moment, I nonetheless refused to take any risk. I was a visiting professor who had been told to keep out of local politics and not do anything that could provoke the authorities into shutting down the program. My friend was disappointed, but not really surprised.

Back in the 1950s, philosopher Theodor Adorno famously said, "There is no right life in the wrong one." But political dissidents in authoritarian societies are struggling every day to prove Adorno wrong. Liu Xiaobo shows us what it means to live in the right way under political conditions that are wrong.

And the pro-democracy in Azerbaijan are doing the same. We have to recognize them as heroes of the right life. They confront us with the real value of our own political freedom and teach us how much is missing in the lives of those who are denied it. They deserve our attention and respect.

Was it prudence or cowardice that caused me to remain silent when I had the chance to discuss my friend's son and bring his fight to the attention of my students in Baku? I really don't know.

But through the experience, I acquired a better understanding of the pressures that pro-democracy dissidents face. I can better understand what it is like to live on the front lines of the wrong life without any ticket of escape.

Living the right life inside the middle of the right is easy. I wonder whether if I had had the misfortune to be born in a country without freedom of speech or the rule of law or respect for human rights, I would have the courage to live the right life within a wrong one. But I know that Baku changed me.

Christel Fricke is director of the Center for the Study of Mind in Nature (CSMN) at the University of Oslo, Norway. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
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by: J from: US
January 02, 2011 15:50
At least give us the names of these 'dissidents' and pro-democracy activists or something. Who are they? Also, what course was that, only 10 days long? How were the students btw, could they learn any scandinavian languages, I wonder.
In Response

by: RedWhiteBlue from: Texas
January 03, 2011 13:28


Here are some examples of people persecuted by the oil thieving Aliyev regime:
- Thousands of opposition activists arrested, tortured and beaten after the government conducted election frauds in 2003 and 2005.
- Tens of activists detained and/or beaten after each and every rally
- Thousands who lost their jobs, businesses and homes for speaking out
Also, some names of more well-known persecuted dissidents:
- Eynulla Fatullayev (journalist)
- Qanimat Zahid (journalist)
- Adnan Hajizada (blogger)
- Emin Milli (blogger)
- Elmar Huseynov (murdered) (journalist)
- Ruslan Bashirli (youth activist)
-Mirza Sakit (journalist)
- Mushfig Huseynov (journalist)
- Novruzali Mamedov (died in jail under suspicious circumstances) (minority rights activist)

... the list can go on for a long time. But the main point stands: this article is right on the mark - dissidents who have a courage and convictions to struggle against the despotic corrupt dictatorships like the one in Azerbaijan deserve our admiration and support. The corrupt despots like Ilham Aliyev deserve our condemnation and disgust.

by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
January 02, 2011 18:21
Appreciate your candid and contrite comments. I’m afraid that most in the west are willing to avoid uncomfortable truths (especially when it comes to oil-exporting nations), lest it upset their contented status quo. After the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the recent economic slow-down, and the steady growth of China, I’m afraid that concern for democracy and human rights among western leaders is almost non-existent. As long as the autocrat is not too bloody, quasi-repressive order is better for the bottom-line.
In Response

by: Truth Serum
January 03, 2011 14:28
Scrolling down a bit, here's a more candid view of the situation:

Does Liu Xiaobo Really Deserve the Peace Prize?
http://www.counterpunch.org/tariq12132010.html
In Response

by: hakeem
January 03, 2011 14:47
"Candid"? About what? Just a dumb article. He won because he was a well-known dissident jailed for circulating a petition. That article is just pointless muck-raking for the sake of a cheap "gotcha" on the West for the usual leftist conspiracy nuts who search so desperately for some utopian option to capitalist democracy.

To paraphrase Churchill, it may be messy and imperfect, but it's better than everything else.
In Response

by: Truth Serum
January 04, 2011 10:59
Not at all.

The article faults the Chinese government for giving more attention to someone who doesn't really deserve such coverage.

Your rebuttal doesn't address the reasons given for why the person in question serves as a dupe.

by: Zoltan from: Hungary
January 02, 2011 22:03
Aliyev = Lukashenko

Both are despots.

Down with them!

by: Fariz from: Baku
January 03, 2011 07:12
This article is so superficial. 10 days and she thinks she knows everything. Instead, the author is embarrassing herself. I wish she had come to Baku in 1993 and saw all the chaos of civil war and stood in bread lines. Then she would speak differently. Anyway, such shallow reports are so typical for "come for 1 week" type reporters and analysts.
In Response

by: Mamed from: Washington DC
January 03, 2011 23:03
Comparing the present with 1993 is a huge mistake. So many but so many things have changed since then. In 2009 I stayed in Baku for 2 weeks and I had to go under a huge psychological treatment. People who live there with their daily lives ( problems) do not or can not see it but it is a huge mess in there.
In Response

by: Nemesida from: Baku
January 04, 2011 00:19
One year of Elchibey government have been overthrown by coup organized by Heydar Aliyev. So Heydar Aliyev played great role in instability of the time. Give us a break, stop comparing 17 years of robbery of Aliyevs with one year though painful, but reform time of Elchibey.
Elchibey introduced national currency despite IMF protests, test system for universities, got rid of Russian troops. All in one year. And didn't sell out any of oil fields.
Then Aliyev came, and gave up Azeri share of oil profits to russian, build corruption system from the bottom to the top and signed oil contracts with worse conditions for Azerbaijan.
You wanna tell that Emin and Adnan were not arrested for nothing, Eynulla Fatullayev is not under custody despite ECHR ruling, elections are not falsified?
Come on. RFE/RL readership is very well aware.






In Response

by: Anonymous
January 15, 2011 04:03
Fariz, are you an undercover pro-governmentalist service man?

by: Ali Aliyev from: Baku
January 03, 2011 08:35
J,

Their names are Emin Milli & Adnan Hajizadeh.
I don't know what the course is, but the overall level of education in Azerbaijan is quite low. People who study foreign languages don't even properly learn English or German or French, which are far more popular & accessible than Scandinavian languages. So, my guess is, those who learn Norwegian in Azerbaijan actually end up with very poor Norwegian skills.

by: butler from: usa
January 03, 2011 09:53
Azerbaijan .Uzbekistan North Korea Burma Belarus Zimbabwe

Run by thugs Dictators and Murderers...

But they will all have there day as they rot in hell.

Freedom and Democracy will overcome...and we welcome you all to the free world.

because there all going down...its just a matter of time.

good luck and keep the faith...

the rest of the free world is with you.


by: Paul Griffin from: USA
January 03, 2011 16:55
Dear Ms. Fricke,

Regarding your decision to avoid the political question, you probably made the right decision. Had you decided otherwise, then your decision would likely have affected others - students and colleagues - who have non-political goals.
In Response

by: Adnan Hajizada from: Baku
January 03, 2011 21:07
Can you really draw a clear line between politics and everyday life? If you have no political goals, sooner or later you will become a target for big politics.
In Response

by: Ald from: Baku
January 13, 2011 19:42
that is very true. You cannot draw that line coz politics is inescapable. Politicians are nothing without the people. Each of us can find himself caught up in the political turmoil, if you want it or not -- particularly in undemocratic, unfree countries.

Now to the point. There's no doubt that Azerbaijan has little (or pretty much nothing) to do with a western-style liberal democracy, but to call it a "totalitarian regime" is, Ms Professor, either an ignorance from your side or deliberate exxageration. the latter does not really gets us any closer to a true picture of the situation. Im aware that this is a commentary but still, certain standards should be adhered to.

Im also negatively surprised that with all your sympathy to the bloggers case you duly followed an informal ban on talking politics in class.

this is how this system works -- conformism keeps stifling hopes for a better future.

and, last but not least, as we all know, silence has never been the friend of democratic dissidents.





by: Leyla from: Baku
January 04, 2011 11:26
By discussing the bloggers case Ms Fricke you would only provoke a political discussion, but it would not be leading a political discussion as a lecturer you should know that. And that you didn't raise this question does not really surprise anyone, Europe, regardless of Norway's strong democratic position, has double-standard politics, and absolutely no European (especially politician) will put their interest at risk for the freedom of expression. And of course freedom is something is not to be brought on a plate to anyone, but those who know its taste should remember it's not only a advantage to live in a free country, but also a responsibility and burden..

by: Osman from: Baku
January 04, 2011 19:42
Norwegians are one of the most honest, incorruptible,principal people, that help our freedom-loving citizens.

by: Teymur from: Baku
January 05, 2011 08:12
" There was no information in the official media about Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu"

Ms. Fricke, I agree that the situation with human rights and democracy in my country is ugly, but you should check your facts. Here's link to the news about the Xiaobo's award at state news agency AzerTac's website:

http://azertag.com/jsp/shownews.jsp?id=343&cdate=2010-10-08&lang=en
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