Now More Than Ever, Baku Needs Support from Western Capitals

Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, the pro-democracy activist jailed in Azerbaijan over a year ago on dubious charges, was set free two days before a visit to Baku by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  Baku has been under increasing pressure in recent weeks to free Hajiyev, who was convicted on disputed charges of failing to perform mandatory military service.  Hajiyev maintained that he twice received legal deferments to attend Harvard University and a doctoral program in neighboring Georgia; Baku was insistent that no such deferments had been given

Hajiyev’s imprisonment drew international attention as the government of Ilham Aliyev was seeking to capitalize on the Eurovision song contest, held in Baku late last month, to increase business and tourism ties with Europe.  Concerns over the country’s human rights record partially overshadowed the contest, as activists used it as a backdrop for protests against the government and to publicize their demands for greater press, speech, and political freedom in the country.

In Baku, Clinton met with Hajiyev, praising his work and calling on the government to, “respect their citizens’ right to express views peacefully, [and] to release those who have been detained for doing so.” Hajiyev’s release was an important step forward that earned deserved praise for the government from the West.  However, just one week after Clinton’s departure, in an apparent step back, police interrogated and arrested another activist, Mehman Huseynov, who was connected to the Eurovision protests.

An Interior Ministry spokesman said that Huseynov was arrested for “hooliganism,” and “openly disrespect[ing] society by using abusive language against police officials,” during a protest on May 21, during the Eurovision contest.  But associates of Huseynov say he was arrested because the protests embarrassed the government in front of Europe’s watching eyes when Swedish participant and eventual winner Loreen visited Huseynov before the final competition.  Loreen expressed solidarity with the protesters, saying, “Human rights are violated in Azerbaijan every day.  One should not be silent about such things.”

On the same day as Huseynov’s arrest, another opposition figure was brought in for questioning over the protests during Eurovision.  Although he was not arrested, Natiq Adilov, head of the opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, says he was accused of calling for mass demonstrations against the government and was “advised” by the police to quit his party and cease any “anti-government activities.”

Tensions in the Caucasus have been rising in recent weeks as Russia continues its drive to reestablish hegemony over the region and Iran continues to defy the international community over its nuclear program.  Azerbaijan and Armenia have also seen a resurgence of violence in the decades-long dispute over the Azeri territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.  Five Azerbaijani and three Armenian troops were killed in clashes along the border this week.  State security services have also been battling terrorist plots hatched by Iranian backed groups inside Azerbaijan against Western diplomats, including former U. S. Ambassador Matthew Bryza.

Now more than ever, Baku needs support from Western capitals.  Clinton pledged “new approaches” during her visit to solving the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, which some observers are saying hints of stronger United Nations involvement, something Baku wishes.  She also reportedly offered incentives to Baku to hold its interest in the Southern Gas Corridor, a pipeline that would open the European market to Azerbaijan’s Caspian gas stocks as well as give Europe a degree of freedom from Russia’s energy dominance.

Future security and economic development ties will be increasingly linked to Baku’s respect for human rights and political pluralism at home.  Its release of Hajiyev on the eve of Clinton’s visit shows that the Aliyev government understands what will be expected of it and that it is willing to take steps necessary to forge good relationships with the West.  The government must resist the impulse toward control that could curtail its great national potential.  Azerbaijan lives in an unstable and dangerous neighborhood.  Having friends in Europe and the United States would help keep the neighborhood bullies at bay.

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