Sunday, August 08, 2010

Creditors of conscience

What makes it all so hard to understand? That is the question that arises with authoritarian regimes and comprehension of basic political dynamics. On the surface, it seems they are rather daft, but perhaps it is the corrupt system, the brutality out of which they are born and bred, and the sense of no tomorrow that make them turn a blind eye to realities? So, does it take a child to point out that the emperor is naked or is he well aware of the fact and simply pretends being dressed?

For over a year now, Azeri bloggers and youth activists Adnan Hajizade and Emin Milli have been jailed on fabricated charges in a travesty of justice that would rock most legal systems – but Azerbaijan’s.

On the eve of 8 July 2009, Hajizade and Milli were assaulted and beaten by two strange men in a Baku restaurant. Reporting the incident to the police, they were – instead of their assailants – detained on charges of hooliganism. After a prolonged legal process, Hajizade and Milli were sentenced to two and two and a half years’ prison respectively – severe convictions for such petty crime. That allegations were unreasonable must have dawned on the officers of the court. The two plaintiffs were former professional athletes trained in martial arts, and the accused two slender bloggers. What is the likelihood of Hajizade and Milli provoking a pub brawl with karate clones, except possibly for a severe death wish? No, their true crime is saying “The emperor is naked!”

Making a mockery out of a regime with no sense of humor may prove dangerous, which Hajizade and Milli experienced first-hand. As youth activists, they used comedy as means of opposition, and this was obviously regarded dangerous by the regime. In this respect, their destinies differ little from most similar cases worldwide. While peculiarities of each individual miscarriage of justice can never be underestimated, there is no need to go into further detail here. Suffice to say, for once, international reactions have been stern, by e.g. the UN, the EU, and the US. Amnesty International has declared Hajizade and Milli prisoners of conscience.

So, is that all there is to it? Perhaps not, for there is an aspect often overlooked in cases like these. Despite international pressure, most regimes do not budge to demands of releasing political prisoners with relatively short prison sentences. Getting amnesty for prisoners of conscience is a long-term commitment, and most regimes simply do not care if they get another smudge on an already smeared international image. Instead, an economic analogy may be in place to get the message through, in currencies and denominations comprehensible for a regime where power is a pyramid-scheme for personal enrichment. In such a system, the persecuted are creditors of conscience.

We have all seen this before – an authoritarian regime ruling a strategically situated country with natural resources in international demand. The result is most often a system where corruption is endemic al, government office distributed as fiefdoms for a limited élite, and a small degree of wealth distribution. The only things that trickle down to ordinary people are oppression and the sense of no future. Politics is economics and economics is politics.

Lessons learnt should be evident, but still the same mistakes are made repeatedly. For the outside world, Azerbaijan carries strategic importance, but there is little strategic about the country’s politico-economic system. Certainly, the going may be good in the short run, but in the long run, all stand to become losers. For states and companies alike, strategic investment in an unsustainable system is putting one’s capital at stake – whether a capital of confidence or of hard cash. In Azerbaijan, there is as little transparency to actual governance as there is to real oil reserves. Basically, you invest in junk bonds both politically and financially, and the only reason you stay on is because there is a line of people behind you willing to fill your place for short term gain. The hard question is when to opt out, but then quitting is not an option, although you know deep down that sooner or later the bubble will burst. Somewhere down the line, investors will have had enough and start asking hard questions needing good answers.

So where do two jailed bloggers fit into this scheme? What makes them creditors of conscience? Basically, people like these are like inconvenient auditors of a Lehman Brothers, a Freddie Mac or a Fannie Mae, threatening to shake the foundations of the system by posing fundamental questions. That the system is unsustainable is for all to see, but most people choose to turn a blind eye to realities. It is just the way it should be, as it always has been, and always will be. For the whistleblowers, there is a high price to pay, pointing to greater or minor absurdities, and in the process challenging the system and its persistence. Repression of critique and opposition only serves to demonstrate mounting regime deficiencies. This is the political equivalent of economic indicators. The greater need for repression the more the curves turn downward in terms of political – and indirectly economic – stability and development.

In essence, it is all like a great poker game with a cheating gambling addict trying to persuade you to be let in on the game: “Hey, Hilary! Tell them I’m good for it… I’ll even bring my own stack of marked cards.” And when reminded of old unpaid debts, there is always some rationalization like: “Just look at what happened in Iran last year! Is that what you want also here in Azerbaijan – the spread of Islamic fundamentalism?” That there is no reason or rationality in such flawed and faulty arguments seems irrelevant, as the main message is: “Don’t rock a sinking boat!” The Azeri government asks the world to bankroll it in terms of non-existent politico-economic legitimacy, with the empty threat of turning to another casino where moral debts are considered null and void. Perhaps it is time to call this bluff as gambling at “Casino Moskva” holds too great stakes with debts collected as “pounds of political flesh.” There simply is no fresh start with a regime burdened by moral debt and even if there were, old habits die hard – resulting in the same situation as before – in one form or another.

Eventually, the flow from the cornucopia of unchallenged credibility must end. The question is who will make the call – spectators of a naked emperor or players of a greater gamble. They all know that authoritarian Azerbaijan lives on borrowed time. The difference is pointing this out to the world, which obviously needs to be reminded that – as with any debt collection – it is often the small creditors, perceivably standing the least to lose – that are the first to call for bankruptcy making the fraud collapse like a house of cards. That is why creditors of conscience – whether a Hajizade, a Milli, or a Sakharov – provoke such fears with repressive regimes.