Azerbaijan is a Dictatorship - Getting Real about Azerbaijani Autocracy
22 January, 2015
Azerbaijan is a Dictatorship - Getting Real about Azerbaijani Autocracy
It is time Georgia is honest about the situation in Azerbaijan. Slowly but steadily since Ilham Aliyev became president ten years ago, but accelerating in recent months, the situation has become worse. This is particularly the case with the increased pressure on independent media, most importantly with Khadija Ismayilova being thrown in jail and many others.



Controlling the state means controlling the oil and gas which means guaranteed money and lots of it. The oligarchs who get that money don’t
want this to end, so they want to be sure that the current regime stays there for as long as possible.


There are some in Georgia who would say that because Azerbaijan is Muslim, it will suffer from autocracy. But in reality it was not that much worse than Georgia before 2003. The real culprit is oil and gas. These are half of the entire economy measured by GDP, three quarters of government revenue and 95% of all exports. It is not a diverse economy. This means that controlling the state means controlling the oil and gas which means guaranteed money and lots of it. The oligarchs who get that money don’t want this to end, so they want to be sure that the current regime stays there for as long as possible. Most countries with oil or gas have the same problems, certainly Russia does. Armenia also has oligarchs and media pressure but not to the degree that Azerbaijan does. Armenia doesn’t have the resources that make control of the state so lucrative.
So what should Georgia do about this? The previous authorities spoke a great deal about the lack of democracy and free speech in Russia and not at all about the situation of democracy and free speech in Azerbaijan. Of course Georgia is heavily dependent on Azerbaijani gas, making things more complicated. But Georgia is now one of the most democratic countries in the region, and its voice matters. If democracy matters for a country and they talk about it, then they have a responsibility to apply nearly the same standard when talking about democracy abroad.
Aside from energy dependence, the other complicating factor for Georgia is that Russia faces greater international isolation than at any time since the Soviet Union. Few world leaders want to talk, much less be seen with Putin. So he is looking with renewed enthusiasm for anybody who will be or appear friendly. He particularly looks at the countries that look like his own in terms of their view on the role of the state. Azerbaijan and Russia have never been closer than they are now. And the last reason Georgia has to be careful is sensitivity. I don’t know why but the Government of Azerbaijan is the most sensitive to criticism in the world. The tiniest NGO or free lance journalist on the other side of the world can say something critical about freedom of speech in Azerbaijan and the full force of the Azerbaijani government’s well funded cheer leading squad will become mean and jump all over them. If a Georgian government official were to make the smallest realistic comment about democracy in Azerbaijan, it would become a big issue between the two countries.
But the role Tbilisi has played in the politics of Azerbaijan is old and important, particularly in the period before the Soviet Union was formed. But these days, where real political discussion within Azerbaijan is becoming increasingly dangerous, Tbilisi should make space for that discussion, as much of it as possible. There are many educated Azeris who find it stifling in Baku but want to remain near by. Welcome them and make it easy for them to work and organize politically.
In the long term, regimes change. When there is oil and gas they hold on tight but that just means that they make more noise when they finally go. There is no question that it is in Tbilisi’s long-term interests to be on friendly terms with Azerbaijani democracy, rather than simply the current regime.
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