In case you puzzled why Trump happened — why the country just voted for a populist leader who campaigned on targeting “the corporate lobbyists and elite,” basing a large amount of his platform on “ridding Washington of corruption,” here is an interesting story for you to consider:
Early last week, top U.S. peace negotiator in Caucasus, whose mandate includes working with local leaders to seek a long term peace between Azerbaijan and Armenia, announced on his Twitter account that he will “step down on December 31,” to become… “a partner in Russia’s largest and most prestigious law firm.”
No, you didn’t hear me wrong.
Ambassador James Warlick, a career U.S. diplomat with more than three decades of experience, who has spent his last three years representing the U.S. as a peacemaker in the Caucasus, will join a leading Russian law firm thought to be associated with the main troublemaker — Vladimir Putin.
An EU-backed energy project that foresees the construction of a pipeline from Azerbaijan to Europe via Turkey is likely to shower Baku’s repressive leadership with new income.
The recent coup attempt in Turkey has raised concerns that political instability in the increasingly authoritarian country could jeopardize strategic energy projects including the Southern Gas Corridor, a European Union (EU) plan to import natural gas from the Caspian Sea region. However, repressive conditions in Azerbaijan are also cause for alarm. Given that past growth in Azerbaijan’s energy sector has fueled government corruption and related crackdowns on civil liberties, a boost in revenue and international status from the new pipeline route could worsen the country’s already tarnished human rights record—and thereby imperil its long-term reliability as a supplier.
Even as it nurtures an opaque business environment and starves the non-oil sector of growth and healthy investment, Azerbaijan’s energy wealth has enabled the corrupt leadership to entrench itself in power by tightening control over the media and other institutions.
Civil society groups have tracked the country’s authoritarian drift for many years, pointing to evidence of election rigging, arbitrary detentions, and violence against the opposition. But prominent investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova recently argued that matters grew steadily worse because the Azerbaijani government did not “encounter much criticism from democratic countries.” For example, President George W. Bush spoke of Azerbaijan as “a modern Muslim country that is able to provide for its citizens, that understands that democracy is the wave of the future.” In 2010, Hillary Clinton highlighted restrictions on civil society, but insisted, “We believe that there has been a tremendous amount of progress in Azerbaijan.”
Repression has escalated sharply over the past three years.
WASHINGTON. July 6, 2016: It is widely understood that corruption is a pervasive problem in many societies and undermines public confidence in the political system and government institutions. The scourge of corruption is generally viewed as a symptom of a larger problem of the failure of judicial, media, and other institutions of accountability in new or developing democracies. In kleptocracies, which is the term used to designate “government by thieves,” corruption is the lifeblood of the system and therefore the heart of the problem.
Karen Dawisha, the author of Putin’s Kleptocracy and one of the foremost experts on this issue, makes the observation that “in kleptocracies risk is nationalized and rewards are privatized.” Participation in the spoils of kleptocracy is organized and controlled by top political elites, who raid state resources with immunity and impunity. Whistleblowers, investigative journalists, and others who seek to expose corrupt practices become targets of law enforcement and are treated as enemies of the state.
By denying space for moderate political voices that offer possible alternatives to existing policies and leaders, kleptocracies open the way for extremists. Altay Goyushov, an Azerbaijani scholar and a former Reagan-Fascell Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, has observed that by repressing peaceful activists and reformers in Azerbaijan, the kleptocratic regime in Baku “argues that it is taking steps to ensure stability. They have this exactly wrong. By eliminating moderate voices in society, Azerbaijan’s leaders set the stage for an anti-Western environment that will serve as a breeding ground for extremists, who pose a grave security threat to both the region and the West.”
Khadija Ismayilova is an investigative journalist and contributor to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Azerbaijani service. She has been imprisoned in Azerbaijan since December 2014.
BAKU. April 1, 2016: I am writing this letter from jail in Baku, Azerbaijan, where I’m serving a 7½ -year sentence for a crime I never committed.
I am a journalist and my only “crime” was to investigate high-level corruption within the government and family of Azeri President Ilham Aliyev . Aliyev inherited power from his father in 2003 and changed the constitution in 2009 so he could stay in power indefinitely. He has been called an enemy of the press by international watchdogs, while abusing other fundamental freedoms and violating people’s right to truth and decency.
Aliyev is in Washington this week to attend the Nuclear Security Summit that began Thursday. To get an invitation to this event from President Obama, he had to pardon several political prisoners. A lthough they have been released from jail, they remain confined within the country, barred from leaving, and justice has not been restored.
This is a very costly invitation for Aliyev, who for years refused to accept international pressure or criticism on this issue. His response was, always, that Azerbaijan doesn’t have political prisoners. In December, Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) introduced the Azerbaijan Democracy Act to recognize Azerbaijan’s violations of human rights and freedoms and to hold individual officials accountable. It must pass.
WASHINGTON. December 21, 2015: As President Ilham Aliyev decimated the Western-funded civil society in Azerbaijan over the last three years, Washington issued a statement after statement expressing mere concern at the sentencing of dozens of journalists and activists to lengthy prison terms. Every time the Azeri dissidents complained about the inadequacy of Western actions, the “concerned” segment of Washington replied saying that the West had no significant leverage over Baku and virtually nothing could be done to get the political prisoners released. In that sense, last week’s developments can be viewed as a small victory for the proponents of a practical approach to dealing with tyrants like Ilham Aliyev. The introduction of “Azerbaijan Democracy Act” by Representative Christopher Smith which envisages financial/visa sanctions against Azeri officials and the ensuing docile reaction from Baku shows that pressure works and it works well.
Ogtay Asadov, speaker of the Azerbaijani parliament, announced that the Azerbaijani government was already preparing to amnesty a number of prisoners. This statement came directly after the announcement of the bill proposal by Christopher Smith. It is widely expected that in the coming weeks numerous civil society activists will be released in reaction to the tough talk from Washington. Azeri Report further maintains that such form of discourse would have been productive from the very beginning when Ilham Aliyev first launched his campaign against what he termed as the “fifth column”. Had Washington sternly conveyed to Ilham Aliyev that his friendship with the West was contingent on his treatment of the civil society, lives could have been saved, individuals such as Khadija Ismayilova would not have to spend a day in prison, and RFE/RL would likely have a burgeoning operation in Baku. Instead, Washington’s continuous placation and incomprehensible refusal to deal with Aliyev in a more effective language, led to an entirely avoidable tragedy that has now unfolded before our eyes in Azerbaijan.
WASHINGTON. November 16, 2015: Once again, the Iranian State TV aired a racist show insulting Iran’s largest ethnic population – the Azerbaijani people. An Iranian State TV aired a “comedy show” where an Azerbaijani was portrayed as someone who mistakenly uses a toilet brush instead of a toothbrush because according to the comedy show an Azerbaijani wouldn’t know the difference between a toilet brush and a toothbrush. For decades, racism, discrimination and harsh treatment of non-Persian ethnic minorities in Iran became the Persian-dominated regime's official state policy. Every now and then, the media outlets controlled by the regime openly deliver a racist message in the form of TV shows, movies or kid's educational programs on state media sparking angry protests by an offended non-Persian minority.
WASHINGTON. November 6, 2015. Lately, Azerbaijan's lobbying in the US came under public scrutiny. Located at the edge of Europe in volatile Caucasus region, Azerbaijan is ruled by President Ilham Aliyev - the man who was recognized as the planet's most corrupt person and who inherited the top post in fraudulent "elections" from his late father, a former KGB general and leading Soviet communist boss. The country has one of the world's worst records on democracy, human rights and corruption. However, the ruling Aliyev regime spends significant fortunes to prop up its image abroad and secure support for itself from the US and European governments. With top dollars spent on influential lobbyist firms, grandiose events, and expensive gifts to Western officials and "experts", Azerbaijan's charm blitzkrieg even earned a name for itself: "caviar diplomacy".
BAKU. April 1, 2015: I just spent 31 hours in Heydar Aliyev International Airport in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan – but not by choice.
I travelled there to attend the trials of two close colleagues and friends, prominent Azerbaijani human rights defenders who have been behind bars since August 2014 on a slew of bogus charges. Instead of being present to give support to my friends, I was stripped of my passport and spent the best part of a day-and-a-half in a kind of limbo, questioned by officials, marched back and forth between the passport control area and the transit zone, and questioned again.
Unlike my friends, I got to leave at the end of it. But throughout, I was made to feel like a dangerous criminal. That’s what it’s come down to in Azerbaijan: in the eyes of the Azerbaijani government, if you work on human rights, you are a dangerous criminal.
One of the people on trial today is Intigam Aliyev. He has represented hundreds of victims of human rights abuses before the European Court of Human Rights. I couldn’t help but reflect on Aliyev’s words at the time of his arrest: “Those who defend human rights, and political prisoners and report on election fraud are considered criminals in this country. [So,] I am one of those criminals.”
The other person on trial is Rasul Jafarov, who had been involved in compiling a comprehensive list of victims of politically-motivated prosecutions in Azerbaijan, and pressing for their release. Clearly, a “dangerous” guy.
WASHINGTON. March 31, 2015: In recent years, Azerbaijan has sought recognition as a country that punches above its weight on the global scene. Its leaders, bristling at the suggestion that Azerbaijan is yet another corrupt petro-dictatorship, would like to project the image of a modern European state. Having already hosted the Eurovision song festival and other high-profile gatherings, Baku has announced plans for a series of international sports competitions, culminating, the country’s rulers hope, in the Olympics.
Unfortunately, Azerbaijan’s greatest claim to global leadership is its well-earned reputation for political repression. Even as it announces plans for Formula One events and international soccer tournaments, Azerbaijan regularly makes news by shuttering civil society groups, persecuting independent journalists, and adding to its roster of roughly 100 political prisoners.
One victim merits special attention. Khadija Ismayilova, an accomplished investigative journalist, is currently in jail awaiting trial on charges that have rapidly grown in number and severity. She was originally arrested in December 2014 on the bizarre charge of having “influenced” a fellow journalist’s suicide attempt. Since then, the state has added charges of tax evasion, embezzlement, illegal entrepreneurship, and abuse of power.
BAKU. March 27, 2015: Life is not easy for the people of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan’s prisons are full of political prisoners. Hundreds of thousands of people are practically expelled out of their country. The remaining people have removed themselves from the political life in the country fearing death, prison, or exile.
Another dimension of the problem is that there is an ongoing debate on how to treat the governments which are engaged in massive human rights violations. Some would consider a more cautious approach to avoid isolating such countries with sanctions, fearing that isolation would only harden those regimes and that the only available avenue to improve the situation is to somehow engage the predatory governments of these countries and hope that political reforms carried out by these governments would somehow ease the grips of their authoritarian rule.
The Azerbaijani government’s lobbyists actually use this line of reasoning in order to defend the Aliyev regime.
The passage above is a basic-plan propaganda argument of an average lobbyist for the Aliyev regime in the US or any Western European country. Another “argument” is added for the behind-the-closed-doors meetings with the western government officials. That the Azerbaijani government is not homogenous, that there is an ongoing struggle between the pro-Russian and pro-Western factions within the Azerbaijani government and that any human rights criticisms from the West undermines the positions of the so-called pro-Western faction of the Azerbaijani government and strengthens the dreaded “pro-Russian” faction.
WASHINGTON. March 24, 2015: Azerbaijan is making itself a welcome home among neighboring states — from Russia to Iran, to the wider Middle East — that deny basic rights to their citizenry and ignore ways democratic states treat their citizens.
Does Ilham Aliyev government care about its image in the West? Until recently it seemed like it did.
For years, the oil-reach Caspian country has been trying to spruce up its image by hosting international events such as Eurovision, Global Internet Forum, OSCE Parliament Assembly summit, as well as the first European Games, due this summer. Aliyev and his team have also been spending a sufficient amount of money for lobby efforts in the U.S. and European capitals.
However, recent moves by the government of Azerbaijan to crack down on western and local organizations as well as restrict the media have caused a very negative effect on the country’s international image and, according to some analysts, also on perceptions of the business climate in Azerbaijan.