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Wednesday, November 09, 2005

No Coup in Baku

November 9, 2005 Edition > Section: Opinion >

No Coup in Baku


November 9, 2005
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/22755

Somehow, situated in a corner of the jagged Middle Eastern juggernaut, the little state of Azerbaijan has managed to reflect all the region's woes. It is concurrently blessed and cursed with oil, diversity, strategic importance, and way too much history. This nation of 8 million is also a testing lab for what comes next in America's global effort to spread democracy, and given the allegations of fraud during Sunday's parliamentary elections, things are not looking good.

The founding father of modern Azerbaijan, Mohammad Amin Rasulzade, died regretting having ever called his creation by that name. But he was in a hurry as nation states were popping up all around with the rapid collapse of the Tsarist Empire in 1918. Azerbaijan had been under the yoke of Russian imperialism for 130 years, and before that it was Iranian real estate for several centuries. It helped that the Safavid and later Qadjar dynasties lording over Iran were of Azeri ethnic stock. In fact, the cultural and political hub was always Tabriz, now in northwestern Iran, where most of the world's Azeris live. Their ancestors were Oghuz Turks who washed over this area in successive waves - first as shamanic nomads and then as Muslim conquerors - starting in the 11th century. And before the Turks came along, the early Arab conquerors found a nation called the "Azeris." But that only applied to those who lived south of the Aras River. Those beyond it, sandwiched between the upper and lower Caucus Mountain ranges, were called the Arans.

What the Arabs called the land of the Aran, Rasulzade called Azerbaijan. But then the Russians, this time as Soviets, gobbled up the two year-old state as part of Bolshevik expansionism. And this time it wasn't just sentimentalism for exquisitely fatty caviar, there was a far more important reason: oil. Black gold turned the inhospitable eastern Absheron peninsula jutting out to the Caspian Sea into the very heart of Azerbaijan. The Russians kept Rasulzade's namesake for their newest province, with Baku as its capital.

Left behind when the 20th century borders of Azerbaijan were drawn was an island of ethnic Armenians in a place called Nagorno-Karabagh that wanted to reunite with the neighboring Republic of Armenia. This problem has left about 50,000 Azeris and Armenians dead over the last 15 years, and displaced an other 1 million Azeris as the Armenians seized not only their little ethnic bubble but also sizable chunks of Azerbaijan proper.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the new republic of Azerbaijan has had it rough. While it is currently holding its breath for an Orange Revolution ala Ukraine, Azerbaijan had its own dramatic ejection of the native Soviet-era leadership through a bloodless popular uprising back in 1992. But nobody was watching, and nobody was really interested in the democrats who came into power. All eyes were on Bosnia then, while the sound-byte savvy Armenians who were at war with the Azeris had powerful constituencies in Massachusetts, California and Marseilles, and hence, lots of American and international sympathizers and patrons.

During its brief democratic experiment, Baku was teaming with garrulous demagogues angrily recriminating against each other for the war that was going badly in Nagorno-Karabagh. They leveled charges of treason in between stints of outright thievery of anything of value. All sorts of foreign meddling added to the confusing chaos: Turkey believed that Azerbaijan was the stepping stone onto a "Turkish Century" as the gateway towards the Turkic speaking nations of the former USSR. The Russians still saw this area as their backyard, and certainly were not going to allow all that projected oil to flow without a cut. Ditto for Iran, that additionally worried about the separatist tendencies of its own Azeri population that had enjoyed a spell of independence after World War II, courtesy of the Soviets.

Democrats like Isa Gamber and Ali Kerimli didn't have much of a chance to hold things together, especially as a dark force was stepping onto the Baku scene: a man with unsettling blue-green eyes who had been one of a dozen in control of the Soviet Empire, the former Politburo member and native son Heydar Aliyev. Democracy fell apart, unlamented and discredited, and people looked towards the strongman Aliyev to restore some measure of stability to halt the slide into the abyss. And that Aliyev did.

In 1995, a decade-long project was started to tap the oil fields at the bottom of the Caspian and find a way to carry the hydrocarbon gook to world markets. In three years the output will peak at 1 million barrels per day, and this level will be maintained for a couple of decades. Not bad in a time of soaring oil prices. The oil had started flowing, in no small part due to the heavy-handed Aliyev era. But the famously testy Aliyev died two years ago, leaving his untested son, Ilham, to reign after him.

I met those same democrats, Gamber and Kerimli, now leading the opposition block, in Istanbul in June. They were telling anyone who would listen why a democratic Azerbaijan is important to the world, and how much of a catastrophe another five years of the Aliyev family rule would be to Azerbaijan. They are fine gentlemen but mediocre politicians, and were completely out of the league of the elder Aliyev, who set up a convoluted and knotty power structure to protect his autocratic legacy.

Baku gave the world its first oil barons of the 20th century, and is poised to recapture the get rich atmospherics of transient towns. But in 20 years, when the known reserves run out, what is to be left for the people of Azerbaijan? Interestingly, the international oil companies are trying to be on their best behavior in counseling economic diversification, while the local power elite itches to retire to the French Riviera with their wealth.

The much-maligned democrats seem not have done that well on Election Day. But the younger Aliyev was sufficiently spooked by any challengers to turn to fraud. He should not be patted on the back for this, in fact, he should be vocally denounced. Dictatorships should be subjected to the pornography test: the world knows it when it sees it. Claiming that the elections, albeit deeply flawed, were a positive step in the right direction is a way of infantilizing other nations, and their aptitude for democracy. What does America lose by embarrassing Aliyev? What is he going to do with the oil, drink it? Maybe this crop of democrats was too lackluster, but the behavior of tyrants should not go unchallenged lest the indignation factor among young people give way to resignation and cynicism.

Azerbaijan's problems reflect those of the Middle East: factions at war, prime locations for both terrorist and anti-terrorist bases (depends on who is paying), a corrupt elite with access to oil spigots, lots of apologists for tyranny and lots of angry young men. President Bush's rhetoric versus his actions in dealing with Aliyev will be closely watched by other regional tyrants and regional democrats, as well as regional terrorists.

Mr. Kazimi is an Iraqi writer living in Washington, D.C. He can be contacted at nibraska@yahoo.com

November 9, 2005 Edition > Section: Opinion > Printer-Friendly Version