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Azerbaijan -- A Questionable Partner For The West

Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev's ace in the hole?
Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev's ace in the hole?
The favorite line promoted by the Azerbaijani government and its apologists abroad is that Azerbaijan is "an indispensable strategic partner" of the United States. While the country's geographic location and energy riches present a genuine opportunity for such an alliance, there is nothing strategic about the current cooperation between the Azerbaijani petro-dictatorship and the United States. Even the most basic elements of Baku's partnership with the West -- energy and security -- are casually threatened by Azerbaijani officials themselves.

For the past year, frustrated at growing criticism of its authoritarian policies and rampant corruption, as well as the perceived neglect of the Obama administration, the government in Baku repeatedly hinted about cutting back its cooperation to support NATO's efforts in Afghanistan. In November, Azerbaijani Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov, in a speech at Columbia University in New York, even entered the heated internal U.S. debate on Afghanistan policy, citing the lack of any real American war strategy and predicting the failure of the U.S. troop surge.

Pro-government parliamentarians in Baku have suggested kicking out Western oil companies. The authorities also stopped state funding for Azerbaijani students studying in the United States, and the state-controlled media ratcheted up openly anti-American rhetoric.

How can the country that claims to be the "closest U.S. ally" in the region so easily undermine every significant link that ties it to American interests in that region?

Irreconcilable Difference?

The answer lies in the fundamental incompatibility between the system that rules Azerbaijan today and the idea of its reliable partnership with and eventual integration into Euro-Atlantic structures. After all, this is the country where pro-government mobs are deployed along with police to disperse opposition rallies, bloggers are subjected to brutal attacks by civilian-clothed "athletes" and then thrown into jail, journalists are killed or kept behind bars in defiance of the decision by European Court of Human Rights, and Western radio stations are banned from local airwaves.

In spite of the above-mentioned developments, both U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently visited Baku, trying to defuse the tensions. In an apparent attempt to please Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, Gates delivered a personal letter from U.S. President Barack Obama. And Clinton, to the dismay of rights groups and free-media advocates, even praised the regime for its nonexistent "progress" on human rights.

In a telling answer to these American reverences, the Aliyev regime responded by increasing and upholding jail sentences for the imprisoned journalists and bloggers whose cases Clinton raised during her Baku trip. Aliyev signed an agreement doubling natural-gas sales to Russia, which is seen to come at the expense of Azerbaijan's crucial supplies for the Western-backed Nabucco project.

Questioning The Course

Such actions by the Azerbaijani leadership should serve as sufficient evidence that it lacks any strategic commitment to the pro-Western course. The regime views its relations with the United States and other powerful democracies as a mere tactic for protecting its own very temporal interests. It has neither the will nor desire to reform, as it considers the introduction of even basic political freedoms a threat to its hold on power. It thus veers eagerly toward Russia when it has a disagreement with its Western partners.

Used to running the country by bullying opponents into silence, the Azerbaijani government seems to believe it can apply a similar strategy in foreign policy, albeit in a slightly more concealed manner. Indeed, looking at the recent U.S.-Azerbaijani discourse, one might conclude that the world's most powerful democracy is being forced by a small authoritarian petro-dictatorship to tone down the criticism of its human rights violations.

But U.S. policymakers should be aware of the real cost of continuing, unquestioning support to the Aliyev regime, which results in alienating the growing segments of the population unhappy with the government's corrupt and oppressive policies.

The windfall of oil revenues masks the absence of any sustainable economic model in Azerbaijan. Petro-dollars are being squandered through corruption in multimillion-dollar projects with inflated costs, with only a little trickling down to the general population. All major industries are monopolies tightly controlled by the circle of ruling oligarchs, leaving no viable avenues for other businesses. A decline in oil prices or some other financial downturn can easily lead to violent unrest with unpredictable consequences. As happened with other countries in that region, the forces of dissent turning against the despotic and corrupt government might also retain unpleasant memories of U.S. support for the falling dictatorship.

Instead of futile and shortsighted efforts aimed at pleasing the ruling Azerbaijani dynasty, Western policies should focus on supporting those forces within Azerbaijan that promote the shared values of democracy and individual liberties. This is the basis upon which a true strategic alliance can be built.

Elmar Chakhtakhtinski is the chairman of Azerbaijani-Americans for Democracy (AZAD), an American organization that advocates U.S. support for democracy in Azerbaijan and other countries. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL