Being a fly on the wall of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's office might not be a particularly prestigious calling, but, increasingly, as the dichotomy between events in Azerbaijan and the government's PR line grows ever broader, it might not even prove a particularly insightful one.
That notion came into play on February 7, after Western watchdogs and the international community took aim at Azerbaijan's recent arrests of two outspoken opposition members for allegedly inciting last month's disturbances in the town of Ismayilli, and pro-government news agencies featured the president talking about . . . Baku Magazine.
In an interview duly distributed in English by sympathetic news agencies on February 7, the president (and First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva) touted Baku's beauty, the country's economic growth and stability, and, in case anyone missed them, the "political reforms," which "have contributed to create a free society."
"In our country, all citizens are guaranteed freedom of speech, conscience, the press and others," Aliyev elaborated.
The timing of the interview's distribution perhaps was not accidental. Azerbaijan yesterday was hit by a barrage of mild to strong international criticism for its February 4 arrest of opposition Republican Alternative leader Ilgar Mammadov, a recently declared presidential candidate, and Musavat Party Deputy Chairperson Tofig Yagublu.
Amnesty International asserted that the case "has all the hallmarks of a politically motivated prosecution." Human Rights Watch called on the government "to produce credible evidence that the charges are justified.” The US embassy in Baku called for the Aliyev government "to observe due process of the law and ensure transparency and fairness." The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe's co-rapporteurs on Azerbaijan observed that "Freedom of assembly and freedom of expression are basic human rights which must be guaranteed in every Council of Europe member state.”
And President Aliyev noted that "Today every Azerbaijani can be proud that Baku has become one of the most beautiful cities in the world."
Granted, trying to change the story is old hat for Baku. On February 4, the day Mammadov and Yagublu were arrested, pro-government news agencies led with the news that the president had pronounced Azerbaijan and Baku "among the safest places in the world."
The need to keep the eye on the goal -- to bring greater prestige to Azerbaijan via such international impress-fests as Davos and the European Olympics -- drives these reactions. But as the detentions and interrogations related to the uprising and subsequent protests in Ismayilli continue, how long the government can realistically pretend to look the other way remains open to doubt.