By Annemarie Ulbrich
As the year 2011 marks the 20th anniversary of Azerbaijan’s independence from the USSR, it also offers the possibility to reflect on what has happened in terms of democratization within the country since it’s restoration in 1991. Azerbaijan has a rich democratic tradition: it was the birthplace of the Orient’s first Parliamentarian Democracy which was founded in 1918. Important achievements such as the implementation of universal voting rights for all citizens were linked to the new state. But under the influence of Soviet forces, the country became a Soviet Socialist Republic only two years later.
Since its establishment as an independent state in 1991, the Azerbaijani state has struggled to institute a prospering democracy. The country is ruled by an increasingly authoritarian regime under President Ilham Aliev who followed his father Heydar Aliev, a former KGB general. The regime is evaluated as highly corrupt. Transparency International ranked Azerbaijan 134 out of 178 countries, number one being the least corrupt country.
“The independence of Azerbaijan is a great achievement,” says Murad Gassanly, a British-Azerbaijani political activist, co-founder and Acting Director of Azerbaijan Democratic Association UK at a conference on the topic in the House of Commons in London on 20th October organised by the Henry Jackson Society. He states that the mobilization of the people as a whole to a national democratic movement has never been as big as in that moment when everybody came together to fight for freedom. People becoming active led to the independence, not only the fall of the USSR.
Gassanly identifies the ongoing conflict with Armenia on the Nagorno-Karabakh region as the biggest problem for the country today. The occupation of 16% of de jure Azerbaijani territory by the Armenians to whom the land belongs de facto as Amnesty International says has caused a severe refugee crisis. But as summits to achieve a peaceful solution end without results, the conflict remains unresolved since the early 90s, mostly because it has been discussed by an elite behind closed doors.
The unsolved dispute on the Nagorno-Karabakh region is not the only issue that restrains Azerbaijan from becoming a stable democracy: Gassanly criticizes the restrictions imposed on the media by the government, the persecution of journalists criticizing the regime and the policy towards protestors in the streets of Baku. Restrictions of the freedom of media as well as on the freedom of assembly have been repeatedly reported by Human Rights Watch.
The governments fears it might not be able to control political activists or critical organizations within the country such as NGOs or the media. It targets key figures, political parties or religious groups by harassing them or bending the justice system to suppress any uprisings, says John Dalhuisen, currently working as a Deputy Programme Director for Europe and Central Asia at Amnesty International. NGOs are closed down and the work of the media has been limited. Gassanly adds that even the BBC has been threatened by the Azerbaijani government which led to an significant reduction of the broadcasting station’s activities in the country.
The internet is under the control of the regime as well: Jabbar Savalan, student and member of Azerbaijan’s mayor opposition party, the Popular Front Party (PFP), was arrested after calling for protests against the regime on Facebook. He has now been sentenced to two and a half years in prison for drug dealing – causing an international outcry as well as a resolution passed by the European Parliament condemning the violation of human rights by the Azerbaijani government.
This is only one example of the treatment of regime opponents, but there have been other incidents: Most of the members of opposition parties are practically under house arrest, says Gassanly. Human rights lobbyist Michael Harris points to the example of an Azerbaijani blogger living in Strasbourg to show that activists often can not escape harassment, even by leaving the country. Families back home have not only been harassed but some have also lost their jobs due to the activities of their relatives.
But not only Azerbaijani journalists and investigators are kept from doing their work, as Human Rights Watch reports. The Norwegian journalist Erling Borgen was forced to place his camera as well as recorded footage in his checked bags while at the airport leaving for Norway in May 2010. When he arrived in Oslo all of his material on the Azerbaijani journalist Eynulla Fatullayev, a critic of the government, was gone – he was arrested for visiting the Nagorno-Karabakh region to pursue an investigation but released in May 2011 as a result of international pressure. Another incident was reported by Christoph Strässer, member of the German Bundestag and the Council of Europe. Strässer, planning research on the issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan, was refused entrance in August 2011 as the embassy of Azerbaijan was not willing to offer a visa to the politician.
While activists, journalists and politicians are eager to change the situation in Azerbaijan, human rights violations are widely ignored: As the government presents itself and the country as stable to international partners in an attempt to attract investors, other countries are less likely to address Azerbaijan’s problems, says Dalhuisen. He also criticizes the United Kingdom for being too tolerant of events in Azerbaijan. Even though Great Britain is a significant investor in the region, being highly involved in the oil and gas industries, the demise of democratic development should not be accepted.
In any case, countries which have economic and political relations to Azerbaijan should put more pressure on the government to follow European regulations as well as to guarantee freedom of speech, Harris argues. No member of the media shall be arrested and investigations as well as the development of free broadcasting shall be possible without defamation. Without this, the lobbyist fears that the country, which could have such a great future ahead, might turn backwards. Instead of pushing for fast change such as we have seen during the Arab Spring, Azerbaijan needs a slow but stable development. Dalhuisen agrees – stating that the as yet underveloped opposition needs more platforms. Moreover, young people at universities must be encouraged to contribute to the development by adding fresh ideas. If they do step up, a new era might be ahead of them. In either case, Azerbaijan can not easily be compared to other countries as it has a democratic heritage on which a new democracy can be built, Gassanly concludes. It is not necessarily about who changes the country but about the process that is necessary and this must be supported by the international community.
Annemarie Ulbrich is currently enrolled at the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder), Germany, where she is pursuing a Master of European Studies programme specialising in European Culture and Politics. In 2010, she graduated from Freie Universität Berlin with a Bachelor of Arts degree in French and Communication Science.