Azerbaijan Tilts

Current calculus, between the Caucus States, Russia, China, Islam and the US, can barely be solved; the calculations dicey; potentially insidious, or explosive.

Bush’s Sharansky-isms get caught up in Defence Department considerations and State Department and diplomatic delicacies; opposition activists and dissidents, in Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan for example, are confused. What does the (2nd term) Bush Doctrine amount to, exactly? What will dissidents gain by actively challenging their dictators? Yugoslavia or (Bush’s “beacon of liberty”) Georgia? (On that latter score, as a clear shot in each direction (bang! bang!) check this little unraveling.)

One thing, almost certainly: it will not be Yugoslavia. (And yet, there’s always almost, isn’t there?) And, more importantly, there’s a trust thing. Eastern Europeans and Kurds could, or would, trust the US more than Uzbeks, Tajiks, Turkmen or Shi’ites could or would, ad esempio. A split of this kind has been exposed in and between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Aliyev and Kocharia claim exemption from the Bush push for political reform; “we are functioning democracies already,” both say, with a bloodhound sneer. Meanwhile, opposition groups react differently in each case.

In Armenia, Bush’s self-consciously historic trip to Georgia hardly registered: the Armenian public are pro-Putin, and at best indifferent to Bush. Opposition groups acknowledge Bush’s pro-reform nudge with caution; which is understandable when US Ambassador to Armenia, John Evans, says that the Kocharian regime is “headed in the right direction.” In Azerbaijan, where the new Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline enters into the equation (or solves it), current US policy is almost identical. When Razi Nurullayev of Yokh! asked Abassador Reno L Harnish III for support he was pointedly ignored. As Nurullayev told Ian Trayner during May’s epochal meeting of dissident youth groups in Tirana, it seemed to him that “the Americans don’t want a revolution in Azerbaijan after 13 years of dictatorship.” But, then, after riot police broke up an opposition rally in Baku on May 23, Condi Rice’s (big prefix!) State Department gave Aliyev a prod: we can’t work with you if you behave like this. 10,000 demonstrators attended a follow-up rally on June 4, many carrying framed photographs of Bush, according to Eurasia. Aliyev didn’t touch them.

But here’s the paradox the Azerbaijani opposition face. If Aliyev bows to US demands for reform he maintains good-standing with US diplomats and the opposition has less influence, and little chance of victory. Aliyev will not allow any reform that could theaten his status quo, which he seeks to consolidate in the November election, after all. The best thing Aliyev can do, in fact, from the opposition’s point of view, is to go too far; to continue down the path of gratuitous oppression, rather than moderate under US pressure (Madeleine Albright and Deputy Sececratry of State Paula Dobriansky made separate trips to Baku in July, to urge improvement of “election credentials”).

Well, he could be doing just that. On August 3rd, Ruslan Bashirli, head of Yeni Fikir, was arrested again; this time charged with plotting a coup attempt with Armenian special forces in a deal blessed by the National Democratic Institute. A video, broadcast ceaselessly on national TV, shows Bashirli signing a $2000 dollar cheque in the company of two allegeded Armenian agents; according to Bashrili’s defence attorney, however, the two agents are, in fact, Democracy Without Borders activists who had been providing Yeni Fakir with technical assistance. All opposition leaders have condemned the “political” arrest of Bashirli; both the NDI and Armenian Special Services have denied involvement. And, after all, can one really execute a coup for $2000?

Meanwhile, since the arrest, the offices of the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan (PFPA) have come under attack from Pro-Aliyev thugs, who have thrown stones, eggs, and tomatoes at (or through) windows, with police indulgence. On August 8th, groups of these “demonstrators” tried to force entry into the PFPA headquarters, while police pinned opposition activists to the building’s walls. In an even stranger twist, the Minister of Youth, Sports and Tourism Abulfaz Garayev asked national athletes to lead the anti-PFPA attacks; on August the 10th, the PFPA claims that its office in Lankaran was indeed attacked by a group of athletes under the direction of the local government ministry. Meanwhile, government-controlled TV channels and newspapers are on a propaganda offensive, slandering the PFPA and peddling the official verdict on Bashirli.

The Yeni Fikir site has reopened here.

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