A common assumption among Western observers is that political opponents of authoritarian leaders in the Caucasus and Central Asia tend to be themselves relatively liberal in their political beliefs and tolerant in social views. But several recent incidents in Azerbaijan challenge this assumption.
Before examining the Azerbaijani examples in depth, it should be noted that President Ilham Aliyev’s administration in Baku has clamped down in recent years on basic freedoms, closing open space in the political arena and muzzling the press. At the same time, the political opposition in the country lacks cohesion and doesn’t seem likely to pose a serious political challenge to Aliyev’s authority anytime soon.
The weakness of the political opposition may actually help hide the illiberal attitudes held by some of its most prominent elements: some relatively high-profile Aliyev critics have recently voiced opinions that are at odds with the principles of democratization.
The first incident involved the late January suicide of a young gay-rights activist, Isa Shahmarli. In reacting to the tragedy, most civil society activists deplored the pervasive homophobia in Azerbaijani society that was widely seen as a factor in prompting Shahmarli to take his life. Several opposition politicians, however, embraced a socially conservative viewpoint: for example, Erkin Gadirli, one of the leaders of the opposition Republican Alternative (ReAl) stated that the homosexuality was a "choice", which is why "all religions” condemned it. Meanwhile, another opposition activist, Murad Gassanly, a UK-based exile who used to represent the National Council of Democratic Forces (NCDF), an umbrella opposition organization, criticized "ultra-liberals" for prioritizing LGBT rights, while downplaying the "mainstream of Azerbaijani public opinion."
A few weeks later, at the end of February, again the same duo made news. Gadirli called for the assassination of Armenian officials, including the president of the country, for their role in ethnic cleansing of Azeris from the village of Khojaly in Nagorno-Karabakh. When Richard Kauzlarich, a former US ambassador to Azerbaijan, condemned the call as "a pure incitement to terrorism," Gadirli refused to retract and proudly announced that he was neither liberal nor humanist. Meanwhile, Gassanly, in what looked more like a Facebook rant than a serious counter-argument, accused Kauzlarich of "hypocrisy" and "ultra-liberals" of being ready to "give up Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenians".
It is telling that both Gadirli and Gassanly emphatically rejected liberalism in their comments. That, however, does not make them non-democrats because they both endorse the principle that people should be able to choose their rulers via the ballot box. Also, sadly, their dismissive attitude of LGBT rights may well reflect the feelings of many Azerbaijanis. What the incidents also show is they are not liberal democrats in the sense that they can tolerate differences, champion individual rights or show a willingness to protect the rights of the minority against the will of the majority.
Azerbaijani opposition parties on the whole don’t exude much of a liberal vibe. Most are structured along the same lines as the ruling New Azerbaijan Party (YAP); each has an unrivaled leader who expects unquestioning obedience from the rank-and-file; and each tends to reflect the will of its respective leader, rather than reflect a well-defined political philosophy.
An example of an illiberal pattern that Azerbaijan could easily mimic is Turkey. There, Prime-Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government is becoming increasingly intolerant of dissent, trying to impose its own religiously conservative values on society, while at the same time undermining judicial independence and freedom of speech. And it is doing all this in the name of the majority's will.
The reality in Azerbaijan should prompt US and European Union officials to rethink their democratization strategy for Azerbaijan, and perhaps for other countries in the region.
Establishing the formal institutions of democracy is relatively easy - they already exist in Azerbaijan. But for genuine change to be possible, it is much more important to promote liberal values. This is going to be an inevitably long and frustrating process. It will not satisfy those who, faced with pervasive corruption and abuse, yearn for immediate change. But, over the long term, the spread of liberal values would increase the odds that any future political change would be sustainable.
The example of Turkey shows that liberalism is not a luxury, but a basic requirement for a well-functioning society. The heavy-handed treatment of dissent by Erdogan threatens to reverse many of the democratic and economic gains made by Turkey over the last decade.
Eldar Mamedov is a political adviser to the Socialists & Democrats Group in the European Parliament. He writes in his personal capacity.