A Flawed Report on Azerbaijan Nevertheless Tells Important Truths

A sign of the increasing uselessness of international bodies is that they have trouble getting the obvious right.

Earlier this week, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) received a report on Azerbaijan’s democratic development. While the report itself was uneven (more on this below), it nevertheless almost got the most obvious truths of Azerbaijan’s current politics right, and then only after a fight.

The report correctly recognizes that — as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has noted — the Presidential elections of 2013 were “free, fair and transparent.” This was in no small part reflected in Azerbaijan’s invitation to hordes of NGOs and international bodies to observe those same elections, a process that is set to repeat for the parliamentary elections this year, which will no doubt also be free, fair and transparent.

Yet the most critical aspect of Azerbaijan’s political situation — the fact that a fifth of the country is illegally occupied by an armed and aggressive occupier — almost did not make it into the report.

Just last week, the European Court of Human Rights concluded — in a statement of the obvious — that Armenia had illegally invaded and occupied Azerbaijan. This finding — which echoes that of basically every international body that has ever considered the question, from the United Nations to the European Union and beyond — should have marked, yet again, a turning point in how the world deals with the so-called “frozen conflict” of Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia is and has been illegally occupying Azerbaijan for two decades; it is time that the world call it to account for its ongoing war crime.

The effect of that occupation is undeniable. Azerbaijan has spent those two decades settling, caring for, and integrating over one million internally-displaced persons (essentially internal refugees). Azerbaijan’s politics, foreign and domestic, are quite reasonably inextricably bound up with this fact. Domestic politics calls for a strong hand to ensure stability and safety against invaders literally inside the front door. Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, has enjoyed extraordinarily high approval ratings in independent polling precisely because he has demonstrated a strong hand in the face of this conflict; during the 2013 presidential elections, his strongest support came from those regions bordering the Armenian-occupied territories.

This is the central fact of Azerbaijan’s politics and foreign policy: It must deal with a Russia that is carving up Ukraine and supporting Armenia; Armenia and its occupation; and a resurgent Iran. These are interlocking truths without which it is impossible to understand the country at all.

Yet Armenia and its allies in PACE worked to remove this from the report altogether — and very nearly succeeded.

One of the report’s authors, Tadeusz Iwinski, pushed back on this effort. He told PACE at its summer session that “to remove all reference to Nagorno-Karabakh from the 23-page document would have been a failure to acknowledge the ‘complex geopolitical context of Azerbaijan,’” according to media reports.

“The war over Nagorno-Karabakh that started in 1992 resulted in the occupation of 20 percent of Azerbaijani territory with more than one million IDPs,” he said after the session.

“The issue of Nagorno-Karabakh overshadows everything (in Azerbaijan),” he concluded.

The references remained in the report, but at a muted level.

Azerbaijan, as with almost all of the former Soviet Republics seriously aspiring to modern democratic norms, still needs reforms and has further strides to make. No one, especially in Baku, disputes this, and the report outlines several reforms of various utility and necessity. It is to Azerbaijan’s credit that it recognizes and acts on the need for continuing reform; it is reasonable to expect the upcoming parliamentary elections to reflect this trend, as the last presidential elections did.

But the resolution of the ongoing Armenian war crime in Nagorno-Karabakh and its surrounding territories remains Azerbaijan’s most obvious need. An international body that cannot even say this is one whose usefulness may be drawing to an end.

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