Energy profits are emboldening the government of Azerbaijan. As a result, officials in Baku are now more likely to disregard the advice of Western states, in particular the United States, on matters concerning democratization and human rights.
In spite of the global economic slowdown, Azerbaijan remains one of the fastest growing economies in the world, thanks mainly to its energy exports. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. GDP for the first half of 2008 was up 15 percent, according to Minister of Economic Development Heidar Babayev.
With its economy booming, the country's leadership seems less inclined than ever to listen to criticism, both from critics inside the country and abroad. This trend was evident during President Ilham Aliyev's recent address to international diplomatic corps in Baku. Aliyev bluntly told foreign diplomats that efforts to criticize Azerbaijani government policies in the sphere of civil-society development would damage relations.
"The government knows well what it is doing and will not allow interference in Azerbaijan's internal affairs," the president said. Aliyev believes that "those who say that 'something going wrong in Azerbaijan,' and 'there are shortcomings' should look in the mirror at their own countries."
"Attempts to apply pressure will just cause tension in our relations," the president continued. "While several years ago we may not have reacted to this [pressure], or kept silence, we are not silent today. If someone wants to blur Azerbaijan's perfect image, we will fight these forces and we have power and opportunities to do this."
Aliyev indicated that he feels some international organizations unfairly criticize Azerbaijan, specifically accusing the Council of Europe of employing "double standards." During a different portion of his comments, Aliyev appeared to suggest that Azerbaijan would prefer withdrawing from international organizations, rather than complying with demands or requirements that Baku opposed. "If someone is not happy with our membership in these organizations let them say it frankly," Aliyev said. "Nothing would happen if we are not members of these organizations. Azerbaijan will not fail."
US leaders have been critical of Azerbaijan's democratization process of late. In the spring, both US President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice singled Azerbaijan out for democratization and human rights flaws. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/insight/articles/eav051208a.shtml
In late June, David Kramer, the US assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, was in Baku to promote a fair and transparent Azerbaijani presidential election this fall. "This election is a big opportunity for Azerbaijan," Kramer told Azerbaijani journalists. "If the election meets international standards, it will open up big opportunities for Azerbaijan."
Aliyev's comments to diplomats, coming just over a week after Kramer's visit, may have been calculated to tell foreign states to, in effect, not to interfere with the presidential election, local experts suggest.
Aliyev's "back-off" message did not extend to economic/financial matters. Azerbaijan has vigorously promoted foreign investment, and Aliyev called on the various diplomats present at the July 7 ceremony to help the government hasten the influx of foreign capital flowing into the country. During the first six months of 2008, Azerbaijan attracted almost $4.4 billion in foreign investment, about a 31 percent increase over the same period the previous year, according to the State Statistics Committee.
Opposition politicians in Baku predictably lambasted the president for his confrontational rhetoric. "Human rights and democratic values are not internal affairs of states in the contemporary world. As long as Azerbaijan is a member of the international community, it has obligations to international organizations and must comply with [them]," Isa Gambar, leader of the opposition Musavat Party, was quoted as saying by the Turan news agency on July 8.
Some Baku-based political observers concur with the opposition assessment of Aliyev's comments. Hikmet Hajizade, Baku-based political analyst, said that as a member of the Council of Europe, the United Nations and the OSCE, Azerbaijan has no choice but to tolerate criticism concerning human rights. "Legally Baku delegated part of its authority to these international organizations," Hajizade said in a July 19 interview with EurasiaNet. "If Azerbaijani authorities do not want to hear criticism, they should leave these organizations."
Rauf Mirgadirov, a political analyst for the Baku-based Zerkalo daily, sees two possible reasons for Aliyev's tough tone. One option, according to Mirgadirov, is that Aliyev's comments were designed to let his opponents know that "he is not afraid of Western pressure, and [thus] they should not have high expectations" about the competitiveness of the presidential election. Aliyev is running for re-election, and most experts expect him to be the easy winner.
Another possibility, Mirgadirov added, is that the infusion of profits from energy exports has changed attitudes in a fundamental way in Baku. If this is the case, then Aliyev seemed to be telling Western diplomats that "they should not ask for what he does not want to deliver," Mirgadirov said.
Regardless of the motivation for the remarks, virtually all political experts in Baku believe the government will maintain tight control over the presidential election. Togrul Juvarly, another Baku-based political expert, said Aliyev's speech showed that Baku was, in effect, "suspending the process of its integration with the West until [after] presidential election."
At the same time, Juvarly doubts Aliyev's comments were indicative of a major shift in Azerbaijan's foreign policy. He predicted that after the vote the government would maintain its general pro-Western course. At the same time, he expressed the belief that the United States and European Union would quietly deemphasize democratization. "The West does not want to irritate Aliyev, and stimulate an Azerbaijani foreign policy turn toward Russia during this critical time of implementation of energy and other geopolitical projects in the region," he said. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/insight/articles/eav070308.shtml
Shain Abbasov is a freelance correspondent based in Baku.