TOL and others have observed that, despite what the WikiLeaks people probably intended, some of the released embassy cables leave us admiring the men and women of the U.S. diplomatic corps for their eloquence, integrity, and perspicacity. Among them, I want to make special mention of Donald Lu, who is now at the embassy in India but until July was the charge d’affaires in Baku. In a September 2009 cable, he elaborated on a an analogy that he had heard, from a redacted source, between Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliev (TOL does not use the “y” in the president’s name that appears in the passages below) and the sons of Vito Corleone. The premise was that in foreign affairs, Aliev is akin to Michael Corleone, not taking things personally and looking to balance alliances. But in domestic matters, he is more like the hotheaded Sonny Corleone.

Forgive me the long citation, but in making the case for Aliev as Michael, Lu puts it as well as I could hope to:

With the overarching goal of maintaining and increasing Azerbaijan’s independence and sovereignty, he encourages involvement with NATO and Euro-Atlantic security and political structures and supports a policy of westward transit of Azerbaijani oil and gas through non-Russian channels. Otherwise, though, he alternates between assertiveness and appeasement where his powerful neighbors Russia and Iran are concerned. For example, Azerbaijan routinely accuses Russia of supplying Armenia with weapons and pointedly absents itself from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), while participating in GUAM. At the same time, Aliyev constantly plays up his relations with President Medvedev with frequent visits and has kept open the channels of negotiation on energy issues, concluding a small but symbolically important agreement with Gazprom to supply gas to Dagestan. He is assertive enough to defend Azerbaijan’s prerogative for an independent policy, but discreet enough that he is in no danger of joining Saakashvili on Moscow’s hit list.

Similarly, Lu goes on to dissect Aliev’s “horror” at the prospect of a Turkey-Armenia rapprochement but judges that the president is not about to do something rash, like threatening gas or oil transit to or through Turkey.

But in domestic affairs, Lu argues:

As Aliyev perceives a challenge to his authority or affronts to his family dignity, even minor ones, he and his inner circle are apt to react (or overreact), much to the detriment of the country’s democratic development and movement toward Western alliances. The example of the crude retaliation against the young bloggers Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizade is the most recent and public example. Earlier, defending his decision to rescind licenses for foreign broadcasters, Aliyev expressed his anger that Radio Liberty had mocked his plan to build the world’s tallest flagpole in the Baku port area, demonstrating exceedingly thin skin.

Trying to account for these two identities Lu emphasizes the importance of stability and the survival of the Aliev dynasty among the ruling elite. He also considers two possibilities: Is the president especially insecure in the area of domestic policy and therefore easily swayed by Soviet-era hardliners, or are his actions fully his own, with those hardliners acting as convenient cover?

Whichever is the case, Lu makes the crucial point that I have heard before – that as autocratic as Azerbaijan may look, Baku does care about international opinion, and he cites a few climb-downs in domestic policy as evidence.

Given this imperfect state of things, Lu attempts to divine the best the West could hope for from Aliev:

It is clear that Azerbaijan’s future development would better suit United States policy goals if Aliyev pursued his domestic policies in a manner that resembled his foreign policy methods, however imperfect they may be. A full-scale democratic conversion, however, is an unlikely outcome, and the record of presidents in this region leaving office voluntarily is rather thin. What is desirable and perhaps achievable, however, is that Aliyev would govern as a manager of alliances, viewing the political space occupied by dissents as a source of ideas and a warning system for when policies are hurting the national interest; and ceasing to feel that he should strike hard at every criticism that arises, or that he can do so without consequences. At least this type of evolution would better prepare Azerbaijan for the post-Ilham Aliyev era, whenever that begins.

Lu ends his cable with the observation that the elderly and frail Ramiz Mehdiyev, chief of Aliev’s administration and an autocratic influence, won’t be around forever. If Aliev is under his sway, then much will depend on “whom Aliyev will turn to for help in maintaining the same firm grip on the instruments of power,” Lu writes.

I like Lu after reading this cable. For sure, he seems smart – smart enough to know that the tree of liberty is not exactly going to flourish in this infertile post-Soviet soil. But more importantly, he seems like someone who is trying to make sure the seeds of the best Western ideals don’t wither there, either. If I were the secretary of state, I would want people like Lu on my payroll. As a U.S. citizen, I’m glad he’s there, too.

Barbara Frye

Barbara Frye is Transitions Online’s managing editor. Email: barbara.frye@tol.org

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