Compassion fatigue: what happens in Eurasia when the world looks away

In Eurasia’s less geopolitically significant countries, democracy advocates are struggling to keep their priorities on the international agenda.

Ismail Djalilov Tamara Grigoryeva
27 April 2018

Ilham Aliyev, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Alexander Lukashenka. Image: anastasia vikulova. All rights reserved.At a recent international human rights roundtable, an activist from Venezuela was heard recounting the recent developments in his town. “Within a year, we saw hundreds arrested,” he started, when a journalist from Turkey interrupted “Wake me up when you reach thousands,” he said with a forced indifference. “This is nothing in comparison to our country, we even stopped counting our dead,” a Syrian defender called out.

However cynical, this exchange is emblematic of a clear pattern in human rights advocacy: while certain issues and countries are evergreen, others tend to pick up at certain points, then fade quickly.

In Eurasia, countries like Russia and Turkey are the usual headliners when it comes to the major events and discussions. In the past few years, with a coup attempt in Turkey, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and involvement in Donbass, Turkey’s referendum and re-election of president Vladimir Putin, these two have ascended to the top of the agenda for international human rights organisations, multilateral institutions and western governments.

With all these developments overwhelming the Eurasia portfolio, and the Syrian crisis ablaze on the other flank, one can’t help but wonder whether countries like Azerbaijan or its neighbours in the region, such as Belarus or Uzbekistan, receive any share of the already fragmented attention of international civil society. What does a country’s civil society do when its human rights situation no longer resonates with those in the global human rights community? Is it possible to prevent reaching the tipping point and avoiding the advocacy fatigue?

When the flavour runs out

“Obviously, cases of mass genocide occupy the attention of policy makers, first and foremost. Like it or not, there’s also a hierarchy of human rights violations, and genocide captivate[s] the public imagination,” says Steve Swerdlow, Human Rights Watch’s Central Asia researcher.

“Luckily, we didn’t have cases like that in Eurasia, we have the slow burning, perpetual slide towards authoritarianism. And those things are a little bit less dramatic, a little harder to make sexy, make interesting for a wider audience. That sounds cynical to put it that way, but I think that’s one of the reasons why Eurasia has been a little bit more ignored,” he adds.

“There are so many terrible things in the media, and policymakers especially hear so much terrible news all day long, that they suffer information fatigue/overload and become desensitised to it,” says Annie Boyajian, Advocacy Manager at Freedom House.

“The ECHR will sit and wait for a coup attempt to happen in Azerbaijan the same way it did in Turkey, and then it will consider the cases in a priority manner”

Azerbaijan is a victim of compassion fatigue all too often. A tiny country of nine million in the South Caucasus has just shooed in its president for the fourth term. The process — saddled with countless violations and could barely qualify as a bona fide election — handed Ilham Aliyev, president since 2003 and who happens to be the son of the previous president Heydar Aliyev, another seven-year term. But aside from a handful of news articles, this event has gone unnoticed by the international community. A country that was on everybody’s tongue once has fallen off into oblivion.

The times were quite different in summer 2014 as Azerbaijan became a spotlight country during the major crackdown when top human rights defenders were targeted for a wave of brutal reprisals, says Necmin Kamilsoy, an activist of the N!DA civic movement and son of prominent lawyer and former political prisoner Intiqam Aliyev. “International organisations, human rights watchdogs, Western governments considered that crackdown as a frontal attack [on] themselves, as those who [had] been promoting their values were locked up,” Kamilsoy concludes.

Prior to 2014, international organisations and western governments were engaging with Azerbaijani authorities on legislative matters and reforms, according to Rauf Mirqadirov, political observer of Ayna/Zerkalo Newspaper and a former political prisoner. International organisations then turned into firefighters putting out fires, and their work had become limited to rescuing the arrested opponents of the authorities, Mirqadirov adds.


Ilham Aliyev, president of Azerbaijan. Image: anastasia vikulova. All rights reserved.At the time, the stars of international human rights like Samantha Powell, former US Ambassador to the United Nations, to stars of a different sort altogether, like U2, helped elevate the cases of jailed Azerbaijani political prisoners — at press conferences in Washington or stadium concerts in Europe. But this enthusiasm didn’t last long. What changed, then?

“First of all, they are tired of waiting,” says Mirqadirov, adding that the international advocates noticed that “not only things aren’t changing for the better, the situation is becoming progressively worse.”

The attention of the international community towards human rights and political processes in Azerbaijan started to dissipate as of 2016, says Nicat Mammadbayli, an Azerbaijani civil society activist we reached for a comment in Geneva, on the sidelines of the United Nations’ Universal Periodic Review pre-session meeting on Azerbaijan. This drop in attention was connected with the fact that in March 2016, the Azerbaijani authorities released a large group of prominent Azerbaijani human rights defenders. While that was a positive move, the overall situation didn’t change. In fact, just two months later, in May 2016, the authorities arrested a later charged with 10 years of imprisonment each, two youth activists who painted graffiti on a monument to Heydar Aliyev. But the world had already moved on to the next gig.

“It was Russia’s turn. The processes there were more important to the west, looked more attractive, maybe that was the reason,” says Mammadbayli.

Kamilsoy, another panelist at the Azerbaijan UPR pre-session (where he tried to draw attention to the worsening climate for dissent in Azerbaijan), agrees:

“There is a trend of increasing authoritarianism and populism in all parts of the world. In that context, non-democratic regimes are encouraging each other to become harsher in suppressing democratic institutions. It is understandable that international community… cannot [devote its] full attention to any specific country all the time. For instance, what happened in Turkey overshadowed the situation in Azerbaijan for many institutions that both of these countries are members of.”

The constant shifting of attention often happens due to international organisations’ being forced to be strategic and “refusing to waste efforts and resources on the ‘incorrigible’,” Mirqadirov says, illustrating it with an anecdote. “One of the Azerbaijani delegation members to PACE in a private conversation with me characterised the relations between the Council of Europe and Azerbaijan, saying ‘They always ask ‘When will you?’, and the reply from Baku is always ‘Why would we?’”  

Azerbaijan’s example is hardly unique. Other countries in the Eurasian region had gone through similar internal and external dynamics, such as Belarus and Uzbekistan.

Belarus: the little tractor that could

Back in the early 2000s, Belarus had its moment, and for all the right reasons. With political disappearances, scores of political prisoners, massive crackdown of president Aleksandr Lukashenka’s government on the civil society and academia, Belarus was at the centre of international attention.

According to Valery Kavaleusky, senior analyst at the Belarusian Institute of America, this was also due to Belarus civil society’s strong messaging on the violations. But in the 24 years of Lukashenka’s rule, as time goes by, “the regime weakens the society more and more, taking it under control, suppressing its will and ability to speak up. This in turn decreases the visibility of protests,” Kavaleusky says.


Alexander Lukashenka, president of Belarus. Image: anastasia vikulova. All rights reserved.The conditions in Belarus were stable but bad, but with more horrific crises happening in the region, the global human rights community and western governments became fatigued and moved on to other issues. “We aren’t sexy anymore,” says Ania Gerasimova, director of Belarus Human Rights House, adding that in order to be in the centre of international attention any country needs “constantly escalating repressions.”

On the one hand, Belarus is a country that experiences repressions continuously. But as things escalated in Russia and elsewhere in Eurasia, Lukashenka, who for years was the bearer of the “Europe’s last dictator” title, suddenly didn’t look so bad in comparison to, for example, Vladimir Putin.

“It's no longer the worst situation. Arguing the case of Belarus has become much more difficult”

“It's no longer the worst situation. Arguing the case of Belarus has become much more difficult,” Gerasimova says, admitting that she and her colleagues “discuss this fatigue issue frequently.”

So, why is Belarus no longer the flavour of the month? Gerasimova thinks that geopolitics dictate the level of attention closely, adding that the 2014 Ukraine-Russia standoff had majorly contributed to the shift, but also did the Syrian conflict, the migration crisis in Europe as well as the developments in Hungary and Poland. “The world doesn’t revolve around Belarus,” she concludes.

Another contributing factor to the diminishing interest towards Belarus is the “barely visible international role of Belarus in world affairs,” Kavaleusky says. “Major events happen that demand immediate attention of western governments and international organisations. At the same time, Lukashenka’s regime, albeit brutal and undemocratic, has always stayed within its national borders, never becoming a threat to international peace and security. And to the international community this is the most important threshold after which attention and counteractions escalate exponentially.”

On the other hand, “being a very close ally of Russia, Lukashenka has developed a deep, restraining dependence on the opinion and will of Moscow. The world does not see much impact from its actions on the behaviour of Lukashenka,” he adds.

Uzbekistan: a totalitarian middle-of-nowhere-land

Uzbekistan is another example of sudden global attention to an authoritarian state followed by complete consignment to oblivion just a few years later. In Uzbekistan’s case, ever since president Islam Karimov took over, the repressions have been steadily on the rise.

But as Umida Niyazova, director of the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, puts it, the international community tends to pay attention when something absolutely horrible happens. “In the case of Uzbekistan, that was the rebellion of 2005 in Andijon and the gunning down of this rebellion when the lowest estimates put the number of the killed at 500 that were gunned down... When you have 500 bodies, it’s hard not to turn your attention to it,” Niyazova says.

Nadejda Atayeva, president of the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, says that after Andijon, “the EU nations imposed sanctions against Uzbekistan, and the US government removed its military base from Karshi-Khanabad. Such a reaction of the international community led to the release of 27 famous political prisoners. Then, the EU sanctions started turning into a dialogue on human rights between the EU and the Uzbek government.”

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Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the current president of Uzbekistan. Image: anastasia vikulova. All rights reserved.But, just like with Azerbaijan and Belarus, the attention span of the west didn’t last. In the following five years after 2005, the sanctions were slowly and quietly scuttled despite the fact that the Uzbek government failed to meet most conditions.

Niyazova, who was arrested following the Andijon events, was released at the request of the international partners, but this was one of the few “easy” conditions for the Uzbek government to fulfill, but “the condition of investigating the unlawful use of the deadly force and the punishment of the guilty [parties] for the murder has not yet been [fulfilled] and the Andijon story has now been closed, as if it had never happened,” she adds.

Policy prescriptions for the rolling blackouts

However, the international advocacy train with those beating the drum of international advocacy on Uzbekistan’s Andijon massacre and political disappearances in Belarus, has since barreled down the tracks towards the next more brutal and, therefore, sexier destination.

Similarly, in Azerbaijan, the elections are over. The spotlights are turned off. The media crews, such as they were, have packed and left. The blackout ensues. The country isn’t anticipating any major international attention at least until another major sporting event, such as a Formula 1 race in Baku later this month.

Azerbaijan’s civil society and its problems remain and arguably the lack of the attention and spotlight exacerbate their day-to-day problems and pressures. That said, the human rights defenders and others in civil society have learned to live in between the high profile international sporting and cultural events, riding the wave of the international scrutiny that invariably accompanies such galas lavishly hosted by a regime that desperately seeks international acknowledgment. “The problem is that such events don’t happen every day or every month in the country,” says Rasul Jafarov, a former political prisoner and human rights defender.

“Support of international human rights organisations is crucial in advancing the message. What makes the work effective is institutionalising pressure on the authoritarian regimes”

Jafarov acknowledges that civil society, however, “cannot just wait every time [for] such events to be happening in the country. There should be other mechanisms, which are difficult to establish, [but] it doesn’t mean that nothing should be done.”

Other mechanisms are the ones that keep the Eurasian regimes in check and seek accountability. Niyazova suggests one such mechanism, the United Nations Human Rights Council UPR pre-sessions. These pre-sessions, on the sidelines of which Niyazova was interviewed, are held at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva. Hundreds of human rights activists, advocates and civil society representatives attend from all over the world.

Gerasimova suggests developing institutional capacity of the civil societies, but also the conditions for such institutions’ existence. “You have to develop the civil society in-country, not just one, two or three organisations or 10-15 individual activists or journalists working. You need to invest more in development and involvement of the youth, create an atmosphere for development of the grassroots organisations and groups that could investigate, talk about, report, write,” she says.

Another piece of advice is to have a clear agenda, be effective at public messaging and have unified backing from civil society, Gerasimova says. “General phrases don’t really help in that regard. You have to be specific about the issues that need to be improved.”

This kind of messaging should be done by “well-educated, well-motivated people” who know the peculiarities of how western governments and international organisations operate and make decisions, says Kavaleusky. These are very complex institutions that require effective navigation, he notes, adding: “Support of international human rights organisations is crucial in advancing the message. What makes the work effective is institutionalising pressure on the authoritarian regimes.” 

But who should the messaging be directed at? Authoritarian governments themselves? Mammadbayli is quite skeptical, and says, for example, Azerbaijani government isn’t interested in hearing the policy prescriptions. He points to the fact that just a few minutes prior to the interview, the Azerbaijani ambassador to the mission left the proceedings citing an urgent need to cast a vote in the Azerbaijani presidential elections that were being held that day.

“We all know full well none of these recommendations will be implemented. The ECHR will sit and wait for a coup attempt to happen in Azerbaijan the same way it did in Turkey, and then it will consider the cases in a priority manner. This is just one side of the issue. Those who had attacked the OSCE mission this morning did the same thing the day after the 2013 election,” Mammadbayli says, describing the mayhem created by the Azerbaijani pro-government journalists and observers who shouted down the OSCE election observers during their press conference in Baku. “Nothing changes. The OSCE mission came this time, it will come also seven years from now,” Mammadbayli adds.

Would it be better to seek international community’s attention? But how? Annie Boyajian, Advocacy Manager at Freedom House, says civil societies’ best bet is to connect to whichever audiences they are pitching their problems to. “The individual, human face of an issue is more compelling than talking about an issue in general terms. Issues should also be presented in the most compelling way possible. Activists should explain why the issue impacts the United States, what leverage they think the US has on the particular issue, and how the US should wield that leverage. And, to prevent fatigue as much as possible the issue should be raised regularly in new and fresh ways: interviews, videos, hearings, constituent letters to Members of Congress,” she concludes.


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