The release two weeks ago of journalist and political prisoner Eynulla Fatullayev reminded me of what a strange animal Ilham Aliev, Azerbaijan’s president, can be.

Like others that TOL covers, the country limits freedom of expression and political activity, even resorting to some notorious pretexts to lock up its critics. Fatullayev, a journalist who published two newspapers critical of the government, was convicted of defamation and other charges in 2007. Last year, when the European Court of Human Rights ruled he had not received a fair trial and he must be released, he was then convicted on drug charges after prison officials “found” heroin in his cell.

Also like other countries TOL covers, the fact that Azerbaijan has plentiful deposits of natural gas and oil has theoretically blunted the leverage of governments that would push it in a more liberal direction. It’s an old, simple story. According to a WikiLeaks cable obtained by a Norwegian newspaper, Aliev berated a Norwegian energy official in 2007 who dared bring up the subject of human rights and later declared that Norway’s Statoil would not get a chance to market gas from a major Caspian field.

But those other countries typically adopt a “talk to the hand” approach to Western criticism. They just don’t seem to hear it, all the while assuring outsiders that their people are prosperous and content.

Here is where Azerbaijan is different. In a conversation I once had with a human rights worker, I asked what the world could do, given Baku’s energy wealth, to prod it forward on the issue. He told me that Azerbaijan’s government cares about the opinion of the West. In that same WikiLeaks cable, Anne E. Derse, the U.S. ambassador to Baku at the time, wrote that government of Azerbaijan “interlocutors emphasize that Azerbaijan’s maturing foreign policy includes the goal of Azerbaijan being treated with “respect” and as “an equal”. …

But Derse wrote that Baku’s “rising confidence also is reflected in a growing resistance to some outsiders´ policy prescriptions, including Western advice on democracy and human rights.”

That may be true, but as various WikiLeaks cables show, Azerbaijan wants something from the West besides markets for its oil and gas. It wants a sympathetic ear on Nargorno-Karabakh and it wants help dealing with Iran, its southern neighbor, with whom it has officially cordial but unofficially tense relations.

Those are some of the reasons why doing business with Aliev is likely easier than with, say, Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan. A February 2010 WikiLeaks cable recounts a meeting between Aliev and U.S. Undersecretary of State William Burns, who prodded him on the release of Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizada, two bloggers who had poked fun at the government and were subsequently convicted of “hooliganism” after being attacked in a Baku Internet café:

U/S Burns said that one of the ways Azerbaijan could
show leadership as a tolerant and secular country was in
advancing democracy and human rights. He specifically asked that, following the appeal process of the two youth
activists, the President find a way on humanitarian grounds
to release the two men. Aliyev made no firm commitment, but responded, ‘I think this can be done. I had no intention to hurt anyone.’ When U/S Burns expressed the hope that the government could quietly take this step, the President said, ‘Okay.’

Since then, both have been conditionally released, although their convictions have not been quashed.

Which brings me to the recent pardon of Fatullayev. He was released along with nearly 100 other prisoners, which might seem like a good-faith gesture until you consider that “Since January 2011 the list of political prisoners has been enlarged by 26 people, including the [banned] Islamic Party’s leaders, youth and opposition activists and bloggers,” human rights activist Leyla Yunus told EurasiaNet. (One other trait that sets Aliev apart is that he seems to want to do things his way and to seem enlightened.)

Bloggers and commentators have speculated that the scrutiny brought on by Azerbaijan’s victory at Eurovision this year and its hosting duties of the contest next year could be behind the prisoners’ release. I suppose it is the most logical answer to the question, “Why now?” Whatever the reason, it’s long overdue. Still, I do hope there’s a better reason than that annual cheese parade.

By the way, for a fascinating interview with Fatullayev about his time behind bars, go to the blog for the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Photo of Eynulla Fatullayev from a video by the Institute for Reporters Freedom and Safety.

Barbara Frye

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

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