Azerbaijan must be such a headache for Western diplomats. The Eurovision contest has served to spawn various protests, panel discussions, and reports on the country’s human rights record and failures as a democracy. Everywhere one turns these days, activists want Western governments to get tougher with Baku. Just over the last two days, I received a message from the International Federation of Journalists, calling for “Europe’s media to shine the spotlight on the state of media freedom and the mistreatment of Azerbaijan journalists in the build up to this month’s EurovisionSong Contest.” And yesterday, the reliably excellent European Council on Foreign Relations released a new policy memo, “Beyond oil: How Europe can promote democracy in Azerbaijan.” In the paper, the authors argue:
Azerbaijan poses the greatest challenge to the EU’s attempts to promote democracy in the Eastern Partnership region. The regime of President Ilham Aliyev has almost eliminated political opposition through a combination of state repression and election manipulation and has harassed independent media. But the EU has struggled to go beyond co-operation on energy issues and put more pressure on the regime to liberalise. Azerbaijan has no aspirations to join the EU, which limits the EU’s leverage. However, in the medium term the Aliyev regime is more vulnerable than it seems: unless it reforms and diversifies, Azerbaijan’s economic model is unsustainable.
The EU should revise its current condition free approach towards Baku and follow a “hug and hold” strategy – that is, hug Azerbaijan but also hold it to its commitments to reform. The EU should support transfer of know-how, exchange programmes and capacity-building in the public sector while re-directing more political and financial support to grassroots groups, SMEs and independent media who can put more pressure on the regime. Unless the EU takes this bolder approach towards Azerbaijan, it risks finding itself in the same position it was in the southern neighbourhood before the Arab Awakening: that of a quiet supporter of autocrats.
I was struck by how the ECFR announcement about the report described Europe’s relations with Azerbaijan as still “guided by narrow energy interests.” That critique sits well with the typical narrative about Western governments and international organizations, i.e. that they turn a blind eye to Azerbaijan’s sins because of its oil and gas wealth. Yes, as with Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan (among many others), the EU isn’t as tough as it should be because of energy issues. However, as a number of other recent reports and articles have pointed out, we need to do a better job of considering Azerbaijan’s role much more broadly, as a secular Muslim country that can both serve as a regional counterweight to Iran, and maybe, if it ever turns into a functioning democracy, a model for a someday more progressive Iran and other Middle Eastern states. Perhaps I’m being naïve, but I assume that Brussels’ softer-than-it-should be policy with Azerbaijan has that potential role in mind, just as much as energy interests.
In fact, Tim Judah, writing recently in The New York Review of Books, reported: “A senior Western diplomat told me that the fact that Azerbaijan is a secular Shiite state is a more important factor now in thinking about the region’s geopolitics than the fact that it is a major source of energy.” Another policy paper – “Eurasia’s Hinge: It’s More than just Energy,” released earlier this month by the German Marshall Fund – makes essentially the same point: “Eurasia’s future is likely to play out in and around Azerbaijan for reasons that are independent of the Caspian’s energy wealth but are amplified by it. Put differently, Azerbaijan’s importance to the West goes well beyond oil and gas.”
In no way am I advocating that the regime get a free ride because the country is so strategically important. Or that the West should increase the pressure simply so it doesn’t end up looking bad over its cooperation with an oppressive region. Just the contrary: With that new narrative at the core of its policy, the EU should do everything feasibly possibly to dedicate more resources toward pushing Azerbaijan to reform (the ECFR recommendations are a good place to start).
As the GMF paper concludes, “It is hard to imagine where modest investments from the West that reaffirm Azerbaijan’s inclination and predispositions might pay a larger dividend, nor where failure to do so could have more extended consequences.”
Map of Azerbaijan’s economic regions care of Wikimedia Commons.