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Commentary: Why Policy Forums Should Be Held In Authoritarian States

A more familiar situation for bloggers and journalists in Azerbaijan
A more familiar situation for bloggers and journalists in Azerbaijan
Last week, thousands of foreigners descended on the Azerbaijani capital to attend the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), an annual conference sponsored by the United Nations to discuss digital technology and politics. This is similar to when thousands of foreigners descended on Baku in May for the Eurovision Song Contest, only with less sartorial splendor and a renewed sense of hypocrisy.

Baku’s hosting of Eurovision was condemned by activists who thought the singing competition allowed authoritarian Azerbaijan to gloss over its terrible track record on human rights and free expression. Others, though, countered that Eurovision provided a platform for those violations to be publicized -- only to find that the international community soon lost interest. Given Azerbaijan’s poor record on Internet freedom, IGF’s opening was heralded with editorials condemning the choice: “Azerbaijan is the wrong place to hold a forum on internet freedom,” argued "The Guardian." “Why is a crucial conference on internet freedom taking place in a dictatorship?” asked "The Telegraph."

I was in Baku for the IGF and, as I described in an article for Al-Jazeera, the forum was plagued by logistical problems and probable state interference. Foreign delegates claimed that their computers were hacked and speculated that their conversations were monitored. Azerbaijani delegates complained of intimidation and harassment. The conference was held in a cavernous building with no interior walls, making group conversation impossible and, on opening day, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev shunned the UN delegation to schmooze at a technology showcase next door. Delegates complained online and on the ground of a level of incompetence so spectacular it seemed intentional.

One may conclude from this that the editorials were right -- a UN governance session had no business being held in a country that shuns basic democratic precepts. But I argue the opposite. Meetings like the IGF should be held in countries like Azerbaijan whenever possible. Doing so allows delegates attending such conferences -- the fabled “stakeholders” -- to realize what is truly at stake and local activists get a chance to make their voices heard. Perhaps most importantly, such a gathering holds accountable the claims of all sides -- the Azerbaijani government, which proclaims to promote free speech while punishing those who speak freely; the international media, which decries the choice of host country while ignoring it otherwise; and the delegates, whose newfound willingness to help Azerbaijanis needs to be borne out in practice.

Holding the IGF in Azerbaijan made possible a cultural and political interchange that would be impossible under other circumstances. “You know the only reason you two got in here is because of IGF,” a journalist said to me and another writer who had criticized the government, before we debated with a state official about Internet use in the country on RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service.

Azerbaijan is sometimes referred to as a “semiauthoritarian state,” and it is the “semi” part that is of note. Unlike fully authoritarian regimes like Uzbekistan or North Korea, Azerbaijan does not want to close itself off from the world. Conferences like the IGF open up the possibility of respectful critical dialogue in an environment where dialogue rarely takes place.

Many Azerbaijani activists have noted how events like Eurovision and the IGF give them an international platform through which to raise awareness of their country’s problems. Hosting the IGF in Baku gave several Azerbaijani writers and intellectuals the opportunity to describe in detail their political situations, educating delegates, and humanizing their cause in the process. But it is also important that the other side -- the state-sanctioned side -- be heard and taken seriously. It is irresponsible to criticize a government without an informed understanding of its political culture, and a good way to gain that understanding is by visiting the country itself.

One of the highlights of the IGF was an event held by Google in which an online activist writer debated a blogger sympathetic to the government. The debate was civil, lively, and informative. While it is important to spread awareness of state abuses, it is also important to understand why people in authoritarian states support their governments. Holding an event like this in an authoritarian state reminds foreigners of the strategies people have for surviving within this system, the rationales behind political alliances, and the formidable obstacles all citizens face. Exposure to the day-to-day reality of dictatorship may inspire more informed and nuanced ways of contesting it.

Finally, holding policy forums in authoritarian states may force sustained interest in the problems citizens endure after the delegation departs. Numerous officials, most notably European Commission Vice President Neelie Kroes, harshly criticized Azerbaijan’s media and freedom of speech policies during IGF sessions. Whether that interest translates into effective policy dialogue -- or even extends to 2013 -- remains to be seen. Events like the IGF are different than Eurovision: there was no expectation for starstruck spectators to scrutinize Azerbaijan’s political system, whereas for IGF delegates, the obligation is explicit. Having spoken out so passionately on the issues facing Azerbaijan, delegates now face the challenge of providing meaningful support to the Azerbaijanis who were briefly the focus of their attention.

Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist who recently received her doctorate from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL. Follow her on Twitter @sarahkendzior.