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.
The brewing rapprochement between the United States and Iran, signified by the Geneva nuclear deal signed in January, seems likely to scramble American strategic priorities in the South Caucasus, especially for Azerbaijan.
In mid-November, an Azerbaijani court sentenced Rashad Ramazanov, an Islamist blogger, to nine years in prison on charges of drug possession. Two weeks earlier, Taleh Bagir-zade, a young and charismatic Shi’a cleric, received a two-year prison term after being convicted on similar charges.
At a cabinet meeting in mid-July, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev lashed out at the European Parliament for supposedly conducting a “dirty campaign” against Baku. The shrill tone of Aliyev’s comments indicate that European pressure on Azerbaijan to respect basic rights is stinging the Aliyev administration.
The military coup d'etat in Egypt is generating debate among democratization proponents in Azerbaijan. Some blame the exclusionary politics of the deposed president Mohammad Morsi for provoking the coup, others see it as conventional military meddling.
Kseniya Sobchak, a well-known Russian political activist and social butterfly, is an outspoken critic of Russian leader Vladimir Putin. But, curiously, she seems to be taking a much softer line on Azerbaijan’s authoritarian-minded ruler, Ilham Aliyev.
There's a coffee shop in an out-of-the-way part of Baku where the walls are covered with illustrations from an early 20th century satirical magazine called Molla Nasreddin. The magazine represents a bygone era, when Azerbaijan was a font of new cultural trends in the Muslim world, pioneering such issues as female emancipation, anti-clericalism, anti-colonialism and labor rights
Azerbaijan’s efforts to host the European Olympic Games and other high-profile international events show that Azerbaijani leaders yearn to be taken seriously in European Union capitals. But that doesn’t mean Baku is willing to listen to Brussels.