One of the challenges in dealing with Eastern Europe is the recognition that the end of communism did not magically deliver capitalism and democracy. Political reform remains more a hope than reality in several states.
Nevertheless, engagement remains the better default strategy for America and Europe. For instance, Azerbaijan sponsored the Eurovision song contest earlier this year. The Caspian Information Centre argued that the event provided “an important lever for change.”
Although reformers remain frustrated by the slow rate of progress, Azerbaijan is becoming an important alternative to Washington’s nemesis, Iran. Despite having an Islamic majority, Azerbaijan is looking west culturally. Reported the Washington Post: “Azerbaijan, Iran’s neighbor and longtime rival, is coming to relish its role as the region’s anti-Iran, a secular, Western-leaning country that is working mightily to become everything that Iran is not.”
With Iran under sanctions, Baku’s gain tends to be Tehran’s loss. And it is occurring because the West has been willing to deal with Azerbaijan, political warts and all.
Economic development may spur the country’s transformation. Baku sees itself becoming one of the region’s most advanced IT nations. Presidential aide Ali Hasanov declared: “Azerbaijan is implementing a big and ambitious project to launch its own satellite. The country will soon render satellite services not only to its citizens, but to the entire Eurasian region.”
Only time will determine whether such ambitions are realistic. But to the extent that the government pushes its people ahead in information technology, the more it will empower them to dissent politically and demand respect for human rights. Encouraging these ambitions may help achieve some of the political results sought by the West.
Although the Eurovision contest helped raise Azerbaijan’s profile in Europe, the country remains largely unknown in America. However, its growing role as the anti-Iran is likely to bring more public attention. Positive attention.