Protestors outside Place du Luxembourg in the run up to the Baku European Games. FIDH/flickr. some rights reserved.
On the fourth of July, while America celebrated Independence Day, OSCE representation in Baku ceased to exist. In 2013 Baku lowered the OSCE’s representation to Baku to a “project-coordinator” level. Now, the coordinator, Alexis Chahtahtinsky, has been forced to leave.
Whilst the choice of date may have been coincidental, the Azerbaijani leadership chose the Fourth of July as a deadline for the OSCE to close its office and leave Azerbaijan, with the OSCE’s website stating that“…[O]perations in Azerbaijan were discontinued on 4 July. The OSCE remains open to other forms of co-operation with Azerbaijan”.
The OSCE’s closure was the last link in the chain of shutting down US and/or Western offices by the Azeri government. In 2014 alone, Baku closed four Western-affiliated offices: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) Baku office (December 2014), Peace Corps - Azerbaijan (December 2014), International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX) - Azerbaijan (September 2014) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI) - Azerbaijan (March 2014).
The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), RFE/RL and Voice of America (VOA) have all been banned from broadcasting on public frequencies since December 26, 2008. Ironically, this was the same date that RFE/RL’s office would be raided and closed six years later.
British Oxfam’s office to Baku faced criminal charges in May last year. 2015 has not been any better: Giorgi Gogia of Humans Rights Watch was barred from entry to Azerbaijan in March.
This leaves us with the question: why is the Azerbaijani President, Ilham Aliyev, cracking down on the last remnants of independent media and civil society?
Officially, Baku claims these actions are necessary due to “non-transparent” financial activities of international NGOs in Azerbaijan and their criticism of President Aliyev. In a letter to the editor published by the Washington Post, Azerbaijani MP Asim Mollazade, who claims to be an opposition activist, surprisingly supported the closure of RFE/RL and named it “no more than a mouthpiece for the personal agenda of President Ilham Aliyev’s enemies.”
The unofficial story according to analysts, however, is that that Aliyev has become paranoid about a possible Arab Spring-type scenario in Azerbaijan. To him, these institutions are instruments that may promote a revolution and threaten his rule. This was evident when Aliyev’s top aid, Ramiz Mehdiyev, published a 60-page treatise complaining of a “fifth column” of international NGOs. The paper was released just before RFE/RL’s office was shut down.
In June of this year, Baku hosted the European Games, a mini-model of the summer Olympics, which was being held for the first time in history. The Azeri government’s “know how” in hosting a sport tournament solely for the Europeans fewer participants attended the Baku European games than the Olympics, this was not reflected in the money that the Azeri government spent on it. The two-hour opening show in the capital of Baku alone cost twice as much as the London 2012 Olympic Games opening ceremony.
Azerbaijani journalists and opposition activists, who could potentially have criticised the government publicly over the European Games, were jailed in the run up to June. According to various estimates, close to 40 journalists, bloggers and human rights activists were jailed in 2014.
Those international journalists who could potentially report on the games in a critical manner, such as Owen Gibson from The Guardian, were not allowed to cross the border. Gibson had already been to Baku last year and ostensibly “exposed” himself to the Azeri leadership by reporting on corruption and the crackdown on civil liberties.
Apart from the worrying deterioration in human rights, there is another pressing issue that Azerbaijan currently faces: the Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) conflict. The problem of Nagorno-Karabakh dates back to the 1920s, when dictator Joseph Stalin put this region, together with its 95% Armenian population and millennia old Christian-Armenian heritage, under Soviet Azerbaijan’s rule.
When the U.S.S.R. began to crumble in 1988, the dispute resulted in a war between the Armenians and Azerbaijanis. The Nagorno-Karabakh Republic proclaimed independence in 1991 and a ceasefire was signed in 1994. The negotiations, conducted through the OSCE's Minsk Group, are still ongoing, however.
So why is Azerbaijan’s attack on liberties so damaging to the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process?
Firstly, the message that the international community hears from president Aliyev’s regime with regards to Nagorno-Karabakh is more war mongering than constructive dialog. RFE/RL was one of the few media outlets that was able to convey messages of peace but now this important channel has been blocked in Baku.
Secondly, it is easier to advance conflict resolution with democratic rulers than with dictators. For instance, had the United Kingdom been an autocracy not a democracy, would it have allowed a referendum for Scottish independenceand would the majority of the Scottish people ever agree to remain within UK if the latter was not a free democracy?
The growing incompatibility between the deteriorating democracy in Azerbaijan versus the developing democracy in Nagorno-Karabakh has become a reality. The people of Nagorno-Karabakh enjoy more liberties that those in Azerbaijan. Both VOA and RFE/RL continue to broadcast in Karabakh, and no journalist has ever been jailed there. Freedom House ranks Nagorno-Karabakh as “partially free,” while Azerbaijan has been identified as “not-free.”
Nagorno-Karabakh’s exclusion of any subordination to Azerbaijani leadership is not only based on historical grievances, but also because the growing authoritarianism in Azerbaijan would threaten the advancing liberty in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Getting back to the fourth of July, the day when the Azeri government expelled another international institution from the country, one may recommend to the Azeri government the statement of founding father Thomas Jefferson: “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost."
This was true for America 239 years ago is also true today for Azerbaijan.