Friday, October 16, 2009

Baku Blues

"Shut up! Parliament is not for debate!" Make no mistake: These are the words of authoritarian statehood, words of utter arrogance to an open society of freedom and democracy. These are no heady opinions fired off in the heat of debate. They are the words of a speaker of parliament - the key guardian to freedom of speech in any nation that lays claim to democracy. The country is Azerbaijan, the situation a travesty of all values dear to the Western world.

Some 100 days have passed since Adnan Hajizade and Emin Milli were arrested by police in an apparent case of regime provocation. Their true crime was exercising their constitutional right to freedom of expression and conscience, with social media and the web as their venue. Freedom for freedom - its exercise in exchange for its loss - was the price the two young bloggers and student activists had to pay for something taken for granted as norms of civilized society. Despite fraudulent and fabricated criminal allegations, their true "crime" was making fun of realities known to all but raised by few. Did they speak the unspeakable, call for chaos and upheaval? No, Hajizade and Milli simply posted a parody of politics on the web, coming too close to realities of government in current Azerbaijan: A video of a mock press conference with a donkey commenting on the country's repressive NGO-legislation.

However, comedy turned tragedy, as government decided to set an example to deter others from even the most harmless forms of regime critique. With a unique display of foolhardedness, the Azeri police and legislature staged a travesty of justice, by prosecuting Hajizade and Milli for a crime they had been victims of, adding allegation to allegation, charge to charge. In the dark gulfs of government conscience, fears inspired by the role of social media during the green revolution in nearby Iran, may have been one reason why Azeri officials all of a sudden reacted so sternly against the bloggers. Any more concrete reasons are obscure, but for the normal workings of an authoritarian system.

In its 2009 "Freedom in the World" report, Freedom House ranks Azerbaijan as "not free" and provides the following analysis on the development up till 2008:

Azerbaijan received a downward trend arrow due to the increasing monopolization of power by President Ilham Aliyev and the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party, as reflected in a flawed presidential election in October and measures to eliminate presidential term limits. [---] President Ilham Aliyev and the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party further marginalized the political opposition and other institutions of democratic accountability in 2008. The government’s fierce suppression of media freedom was integral to Aliyev’s victory in a controlled presidential election in October. In December, the parliament approved a constitutional change that would eliminate presidential term limits, clearing the way for a referendum on the issue. Meanwhile, the country’s energy wealth continued to swell state coffers, stunting other sectors of the economy and permitting the government to postpone meaningful institutional reforms.
In its 2008 "Press Freedom Barometer" Reporters Without Borders ranks Azerbaijan as number 150 out of 173 countries worldwide, and points to the "difficult situation" of media in the country:
Ilham Aliyev’s relations with the very few independent media in Azerbaijan are tinged with authoritarianism and terror. Journalists who dare to speak out about the evils of the regime including corruption and high unemployment expose themselves to real danger. [---] And exposing crime in the country can be as dangerous as exposing corruption. [---] Several journalists are currently in prison in the country. [---] This hounding of the press also extends beyond the country’s borders as far as foreign media. [---] The BBC, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America can no longer be picked up [in] Azerbaijan. There is a lack of pluralism in the country’s media landscape. Energy policy has taken precedence over democratisation as Aliyev prefers to boast of his country’s oil and gas riches. Moreover the president secured the constitutional right in a March 2009 referendum to unlimited runs at the presidency.
One may easily conjure up predisposed images of Oriental despotism - of "East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet", but reality is starker than cultural prejudice. A country couched at the shores of the Caspian, Azerbaijan with its cosmopolitan metropolis Baku, has always been at the crossroads of cultures, trade and human encounters - whether conflict or cooperation. After soviet demise, Baku has looked westward, profited from its oil resources, and been embraced by the West, if for no other reasons than its still large energy reserves. Western sponsorship is however not unconditional. Despite projects such as the BTC oil pipeline and plans for the Nabucco gas pipeline, there is a limit to European and US indulgence with human rights' violations, which no dependency on oil may compensate for. Patience and tolerance is one thing, but even the greatest realist would realize that this kind of negative domestic developments eventually may amplify tendencies towards the entire region turning completely into a geopolitical and geoeconomic hotchpotch. That even the usually so market-conscious BP has reacted against the jailing of Hajizade and Milli shows that there is no turning a blind eye to Azeri human rights' violations anymore, especially if put in a larger context.

As the sun sets over the capital on the Caspian, the dusk of democratic disability descends on the people of Azerbaijan. Adnan Hajizade and Emin Milli have now been jailed for a hundred days. It is a hundred days too many. Enough is enough. Free Adnan and Emin!

1 comment:

Ilkin said...

Thanks for this post, Vilhelm.

The fact that West is still supporting Alievs baffles me. I really can't believe that oil/gas/whatever can be more important than basic human rights.