18 October marks the 25 years of Azerbaijan’s independence from the Soviet Union. Ordinarily this would be a cause for celebration, but the country’s president Ilham Aliyev has decreed it should be marked with a “solemn ceremony”. This seems appropriate given that the country has so much to be downbeat about. Most of his compatriots will be keeping a lid on it too.
The breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 was a tale of sharp contrasts. The states of central Europe and the Baltic region quickly threw off the shackles of communism to rejoin the European family of nations and embrace the human rights and freedoms that came with it. Other former Soviet countries have made more chequered progress, and none more so than Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan is not alone in the region in suffering from the constitutional gerrymandering of its leaders, but arguably it has come off worst.
Of all the Caucasian and Central Asian states to have regained their freedom, Azerbaijan drew the luckiest hand. Blessed with some of the largest oil and gas reserves on the planet, the country has been able to leverage its carbon wealth to evade the close attentions of its former imperial overlord. Its strategically important position between Russia, Iran, Europe and the Middle East has also enabled it to enjoy the courtship of America and Europe, both eager for a solid foothold in the region.
Indeed, in light of the volatility in the wider region, the importance of a stable Azerbaijan for the west cannot be overstated. Here is a country with enough secure energy resources to provide the much needed diversity of supply into European and global markets. A country seemingly immune to the radical and extremist Muslim fundamentalism spreading from Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Middle East.
This goes a long way to explaining why the west has proven so supine in the face of Azerbaijan’s deplorable human rights record. It explains why president Aliyev is greeted so warmly by Secretary Kerry when he visits Washington, as he did last month. And it explains the muted comments of the European External Action Service following the visit of its Sub-Committee on Justice, Freedom, Security and Human Rights and Democracy to Baku this week.
People are denied fundamental rights, there is no independent media and political prisoners rot in deplorable conditions.
Confronted with a civil society that UN Human Rights Rapporteur Michel Forst recently described as “paralysed” and facing “the worst situation” since the country’s independence in 1991, all the EU could say was that it “remains engaged in dialogue with Azerbaijan as regards [Human Rights and Democracy] and other key issues.” One wonders what the Committee would say if it got really angry.
So what is Azerbaijan’s record in the 25 years of independence since 1991? How have its citizens fared with regard to rights and freedoms. Transparency International’s latest corruption ranking puts Azerbajian 119th out of 167 with a score of 29 out of 100. In 1999, the first year Azerbaijan featured in the index, it ranked 96 out of 99. In 2005 it was 137 out of 158; and in 2010 134 out of 178. Not great.
In this year’s freedom rankings, Freedom House designated Azerbajian ‘not free’ with a score of 6.5 (North Korea received a 7.0, the worst score available). In 1998, the first year Freedom House produced the index, Azerbaijan was judged “partly free” with a 5.5.
Contrast these declining scores with the growth of GDP over the same period and you can see why people are protesting. According to World Bank figures, GDP in 1991 was $8.8bn. By 2015, it was over $75bn.
With western attention distracted by the horrors of Aleppo, the fallout of the UK’s Brexit vote and a US Presidential campaign descending into farce, president Aliyev has evaded criticism
On constitutionalism, the bedrock of a country’s rights and freedoms, the Azeri experience is similarly regressive. A constitutional referendum last month confirmed a massive power transfer from the country’s parliament to the president. Again, the international response has been muted. With western attention distracted by the horrors of Aleppo, the fallout of the UK’s Brexit vote and a US Presidential campaign descending into farce, president Aliyev has evaded criticism.
In a comment bordering on the comical, presidential aide Ali Hasanov said the constitutional amendments were needed “to cut red tape”. However, there is little doubt that the changes are designed to perpetuate the Aliyev family’s grip on power. They extend the presidential term from five to seven years; and they allow for him to appoint loyal courtiers to the new posts of vice and first vice president which will ensure an seamless transmission to his son, when the time comes.
Azerbaijan is not alone in the region in suffering from the constitutional gerrymandering of its leaders, but arguably it has come off worst. The Financial Times wrote this week that, in the past year alone, four of the eight countries in post-Soviet Central Asia and the Caucasus have rewritten their constitutions. A fifth, Kyrgyzstan, is set to do so this year. In most cases, the changes have strengthened the position of the sitting President. Independence celebrations are likely to be similarly “solemn” in Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
As always in corrupt countries, it is the ordinary people who pay. Yet not every Azeri is suffering: readers of glossy magazines in London and Paris could be forgiven for thinking the lavish lifestyles of Mehriban and Leyla Aliyeva are commonplace in Baku. They are not. People are denied fundamental rights, there is no independent media and political prisoners rot in deplorable conditions. There is no democracy as such; and little prospect of any improvement in the next 25 years.