Azerbaijan needs bipartisan support

Ten years ago this month, a young American civilian working for democracy in Azerbaijan was brutally murdered in the former Soviet republic’s capital. The stabbing of John Alvis raised little public attention. A decade later, his death remains a crime deemed unsolved by the FBI.

John Alvis, a 36-year-old from Texas, was the representative of the International Republican Institute in Baku. He worked closely with me, in my capacity as representative of the National Democratic Institute, to bring about democratic political reform of the autocratic government of Heydar Aliyev, a former member of the Soviet Politburo. Our close cooperation showed that Republicans and Democrats can work together toward a worthy common cause.

John’s murder also tragically underlined the risks civilians take in defending and promoting democracy in countries whose dictators move quickly to discourage and, if necessary, end any such efforts.

Azerbaijan has registered no political progress in the past 10 years. John’s murder came less than four weeks after a suspect election in 2000. Another terrible election took place on Nov. 7 of this year, as Ilham Aliyev, the current president, consolidated the power of his late father. Until that most recent electoral fraud, a small – and harmless – number of opposition parties had been allowed representation in parliament. Now the Azeri legislature will not have even a single member of any opposition party.

Some Western policymakers argue that political liberalization in Azerbaijan is beside the point. More critical than democracy, they say, is a reliable partner for transit routes to Afghanistan and access to Azerbaijan’s oil and gas wealth. The Aliyev family depends on this long-held view and rewards its Western partners by saying plainly that Azerbaijan does not care what the United States and Europe think about its democracy and human rights record.

But Azerbaijan does care. The Aliyevs know better than anyone that there will be popular uprisings in Baku if they choose to build a closer relationship with Moscow. Still, three U.S. administrations have been gullible enough to believe the story that American influence and potential leverage in Azerbaijan are limited. And many Azeris are well on their way to giving up hope that the United States will use its considerable influence to ensure that civil society is not wholly crushed.

In fact, instead of waiting for political pressure on the Aliyev regime from the West, more and more Azeris, about 90 percent of whom are Shiite Muslim, are looking toward religion and to Iran, which borders Azerbaijan to the south, as a potential remedy.

This is not the way that things have to be – and far from the outcome that appeared likely given the political situation 10 years ago. In late 2000, as Americans were recounting ballots in Florida, John and I were looking forward to a progressive Azerbaijan that would help to pull Iran toward modern political reform. The Azeri political scene was still diverse then, and most Azeris were still optimistic that formal independence from Moscow would mean closer ties to the West. That, in turn, was expected to help influence the millions of ethnic Azeris in Iran press for greater openness in their own country. We did not predict what unfortunately transpired – an Islamist Iran influencing Azerbaijan, in addition to its other neighbors.

The good news today is that there is clear evidence of American influence in Azerbaijan. When the State Department declared that last month’s elections did not meet international standards, Aliyev’s office immediately began asking Westerners what the United States meant. Unable to understand the obvious message of the statement, Aliyev concluded that Washington was making a request in code and promptly released two young democracy bloggers who had been jailed for more than a year.

Instead of rewarding Azerbaijan’s corrupt leadership for releasing activists who should never have been imprisoned and letting authorities off the hook for again undermining Azeris’ confidence in the United States and its democratic allies, the United States needs to push Azerbaijan hard, now, to do more to protect independent civil society and to get on the path toward honest political representation.

John and I cooperated with democratic Azeris who were demoralized after the fraudulent 2000 elections but who were committed, nonetheless, to continue a struggle to move their country forward. For his efforts, John was murdered in his home in Baku. At a time when many in Washington are speaking about the need to bridge the partisan divide, perhaps Democrats and Republicans can consider specific strategies for working together to support democracy in the parts of the world where courageous people continue to risk their lives to defend it.

Peter Van Praagh, a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

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