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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.
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