US analyst Karl Rahder: `ZaurHasanov was deprived of dignity, of worth, of every ounce of hope` [Turan Information Agency (Azerbaijan)]
(Turan Information Agency (Azerbaijan) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) 2013 was marked by a series of the events in Azerbaijan that had an impact on the country's political, social and economic transformation; but is the oil-rich former Soviet state moving forward or backwards if compared with previous years?
The October election didn't bring a progressive change to the country's political stage despite increasing concerns regarding corruption and major crackdown on fundamental freedoms following the mass protests in Baku and the regions.
TURAN's Washington correspondent interviewed analyst Karl Rahder, who was until recently the South Caucasus correspondent for ISN (in Zurich) and has taught international relations at universities in Georgia, Azerbaijan, and the US, on political outcomes of the year 2013 in Azerbaijan and what the country should expect in the months and years ahead?
Q. As 2013 is about to end, what were the most outstanding negative and positive events that attracted attention among Azerbaijan watchers in the west? How did they affect the country's image and future prospects?
A. The past year in Azerbaijan was marked by two bookends - the mysterious death in Istanbul of Sevinj Babayeva in late December of 2012, and the shocking death of Zaur Hasanov, almost exactly a year later, in a Baku hospital not long after immolating himself on Christmas Day.
Ms. Babayeva's short life will forever be linked to the scandal surrounding the apparent bargaining for a seat in Parliament between her mentor, Guler Ahmedova, and university rector Elshad Abdullayev. By the time that she fled to Istanbul, Ms.Babayeva was clearly in over her head, an insignificant go-between in a massive corruption scandal that didn't directly affect her, while Mr.Hasanov reportedly lost his only valuable asset - a parcel of land along the coast - to a prominent bureaucrat with deep connections.
It has to be acknowledged that the "official" cause of death for Ms.Babayeva, a heart attack, is at least plausible, albeit hard to believe. Whatever the case, she was certainly a willing participant in a massive payoff scheme, while Mr.Hasanov appears to have been an innocent, powerless victim. Nevertheless, they were both expendable, they didn't really matter. No one-not the courts, not the compliant state-controlled media, not the parliament-were there to protect their rights.
It's not only about an absence of impartial and robust legal mechanisms, however. Zaur Hasanov was deprived of dignity, of worth, of every ounce of hope. And it's this abandonment of hope, experienced by people like Zaur in a thousand different ways, that is so tragic.
The other major events included the increasing number of arrests of dissidents, the attempt to cut off life-support for Azadliq and Yeni Musavat newspapers, the closure of Azad Fikir University in April - the list goes on and on.
Perhaps I should add as a significant event the recent signing of the US $45 billion Shah Deniz/Tanap deal, a major milestone for the Aliyev government that, politically speaking, will further cement good relations between it and the EU.
Q. We have witnessed several massive protest outbursts earlier in 2013 both in Baku and the regions, which would result, as many watchers were convinced, in government's attempt (specially after the election) to implement certain reforms to calm them down. Instead, the government responded by targeting activists, international organizations, media and rising prices. Why do you think this is happening, and how would you characterize the domestic politics rationale?
A. Heydar Aliyev displayed a "Goldilocks" approach to dissent and open political discourse. What I mean by that is the former president assessed the potential for such discourse and how it would affect the power structure as well as how it would lead-in a tightly controlled fashion-to a more developed and prosperous society.
Of course, your Goldilocks threshold may be radically different from mine, and it isn't news to anyone that Ilham Aliyev's threshold is much lower than was Heydar's. That is, he has a remarkably low tolerance for dissent, but until recently has carefully allowed just enough pluralism-an opposition newspaper here, a political entity there-to maintain the mirage of democratic development.
But the overall pattern has been a tightening of the screws. Again, this is no surprise, although it's true that some people did want to convince themselves that incidents, such as the Bina Market protest and the riot in Ismayilli, might lead to meaningful reforms. The dismissals that did occur were, it should be noted, superficial and designed to maintain the mirage mentioned above and thus head off more serious, grass-roots challenges.
I tend to return to psychological factors for some reason, and I'll just repeat a point I've made in the past year or two: the president sees no intrinsic value in the ingredients that make up a civil society. These concepts, I believe, are to him completely alien and abstract. Or actually, they are alien but also a threat.
Eduard Shevardnadze once said that during the late 1980s, "We were all reading Immanuel Kant at the Kremlin." Suddenly, democratic theory was in vogue. (And since the USSR was in the throes of sudden change, it's no wonder that that the more progressive members of the Soviet inner circle were open to new-or old-ideas.)
But it is doubtful that Ilham Aliyev has ever entertained, even as a thought-experiment, the leap of faith from dynastic, clan-based rule to democratic evolution. There is simply no rational payoff that he can see.
And from his perspective, allowing the doors of change to open makes no sense, there being no incentive and little pressure domestically or internationally to motivate meaningful reforms.
Q. Speaking of the political arrests, how do the cases of Ilgar Mammadov, NIDA members and, most recently, Anar Mammadov resonate in the West and what consequences do they lead to for the Azeri government?
A. It is doubtful that any of these-not the arrests of human rights activists, not the flawed presidential election, not the slow suffocation of the opposition press-will have the slightest impact on Azerbaijan's relations with the West. The oil and gas picture, as well as Azerbaijan's cooperation regarding Afghanistan and other security issues tends to make relativist arguments easier. For the West, Azerbaijan's domestic political picture is mildly unsavory but vastly preferable to, say, Saudi Arabia or a host of other petro-states with whom Washington has warm relations.
And it is, after all, true that secular Azerbaijan is more pluralist and vibrant than these other regimes. That image, minus the troubling human rights situation, has been highlighted by President Aliyev and a number of public relations firms, among them the Podesta Group, in the US. And one has to admit that the president has succeeded perhaps beyond his expectations in cultivating the friendship of elected officials and other elites in Washington, London, Brussels and Strasbourg.
Q. Overall, looking ahead to 2014, how would you describe the main challenges in front of Azerbaijani government and the democrats?
A. As I've implied, there are scant "challenges" faced by the government in the coming year. The SOCAR pipeline deal is a triumph, as was the margin of victory in the presidential election, cooked though the numbers may have been. President Aliyev, whether from a personal financial incentive, or from the perspective of Azerbaijan's national interest, will continue to wield significant influence regionally while balancing against Iran and Russia.
The problem for the opposition has been and continues to be that the participants and the audience consist of exactly the same people. This stratum of Azerbaijani society, made up of (mostly) educated, westward-oriented young people as well as traditional opposition party members, is too small at present to mobilize public opinion. One of the lessons of 2013, which included an effort to gain traction and support after the arrests of activists such as Ilgar Mammadov as well as incidents in Ismayili and the Bina Market, is that the opposition has failed to convince ordinary Azeris that the opposition's struggles are their struggles.
No matter how justified the expressions of indignation and regardless of the repressive measures taken against opposition figures, the fact is that many or even most Azeris are reasonably comfortable with the Aliyev government. After the election in October, foreign analysts who dared to suggest this were attacked on Facebook for straying from the opposition narrative. ("How much money are you getting from the government?" was a favorite allegation.)
But to return to your question, surely the main challenge for Azeri democrats is to calmly and rationally, with a minimum of acrimony, examine the reasons for the president's popularity despite his long campaign against dissent, and determine what they can do to get their message out. And by that I mean out of Baku and into the regions. This will take patience and agreement on overall principles and a long-term strategy. This is where the National Council comes in, although unlike a number of prominent opposition figures, I actually don't think the Council's existence in and of itself is hugely significant. Since the October election, there seems to be too much emphasis on the Council as well as the mantra of "Just wait! We'll be back in 2015!"
Really? What did the 2013 election accomplish? Not much, except for the creation of the National Council and headlines about how the vote was rigged. As though that was news, somehow. It's like Captain Renault in "Casablanca" declaring, "I'm shocked, shocked:" Focusing a strategy on elections-including 2015-is, I think, futile in such an environment.
None of the above takes anything away from the programs advocated by Jamil Hassanli or Rustam Ibragimbekov. It's a pity that Ibragimbekov was prohibited from running, largely because he was such a compelling figure. And I personally found his comments regarding reconciliation with Armenia to be courageous. Jamil Hassanli's campaign was as vigorous as it could have been, given the uneven playing field. But contesting the election accomplished little in the end.
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