In Azerbaijan, voices for democracy strive to be heard

Many Americans may know my country, Azerbaijan, for its oil wealth or for its conflict with Armenia over the territory of Nagorno Karabakh. A March 5 article in The Post portrayed a nation whose ruling family appears to own $75 million worth of luxury villas in Dubai. Few of us in Azerbaijan were surprised by a report that President Ilham Aliyev's family apparently invests assets abroad. What else should be expected from a leader who inherited power from his father through fraudulent elections?

Aliyev's brutal crackdown on the opposition and independent media began with his election in October 2003. Thousands of Azeris protesting the transfer of power -- more succession than an election -- were arrested and beaten. As opposition supporters languished in jail, then-deputy U.S. Secretary of State Richard Armitage phoned Aliyev to congratulate him on his "landslide" victory. Democratic voices of protest were stifled by the blows of police batons. Western powers were eager to work with a new leader they viewed as young and progressive.

Nearly two years later, on the eve of the 2005 parliamentary elections, Azeri democrats inspired by the support Western nations had given to the Rose and Orange democratic revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine decided to again challenge Aliyev's authoritarian regime. Events unfortunately played out along now-familiar lines: The government falsified election results; opposition protests were crushed; yet Washington praised the work of Azerbaijan's Constitutional Court, which had just approved false election results.

Aliyev apparently interpreted the international community's silence as carte blanche to turn a country with long-standing democratic traditions into a fiefdom. The government evicted major opposition parties from their centrally located headquarters. Independent media also felt the wrath. One outspoken editor of an opposition magazine was fatally shot in March 2005; several others received harsh prison sentences on trumped-up charges.

There was a time when Azerbaijan's future looked promising. In the 1980s, Azerbaijan was at the forefront of the democratic movements that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1992, we held our first democratic elections. Abulfaz Elchibey, leader of the Popular Front, won 59 percent of the vote. Elchibey viewed himself as a political heir to the founders of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic in 1918. Azerbaijan was the first nation in the Muslim world to establish a parliamentary democracy that granted universal suffrage, preceding many Western countries.

But these days, the only vote that counts is that of Ilham Aliyev. After "winning" his second presidential term last year, in an election with no viable opposition alternative, Aliyev and his rubber-stamp parliament conspired to change the constitution, through a referendum, to lift term limits on the presidency.

The next parliamentary elections are to be held in November. The democratic opposition is once again preparing to challenge the regime. While there are no indications that the government's behavior will differ from that of years past, we have decided to participate in the election process because we recognize that this is our chance to fight for our ideals.

Our platform is simple: We intend to establish a functional democracy in our country. Azerbaijan has a resourceful populace, and we can and must decrease our nation's dependence on oil. We must break the economic monopolies controlled by corrupt officials. Our goal is to establish a free, market-based economy. We want Azerbaijan to integrate into the Euro-Atlantic community of nations, ending its status as a satellite of autocratic Russia.

As we continue our struggle for freedom, it is vital that the United States pursue appropriate action with regard to the largest nation in the South Caucasus. Bilateral relations have long been based on cooperation on energy, security and democratic development. Sadly, many Azeris see U.S. policy as driven by energy interests and the global war against terrorism. To us, it seems that democracy gets short shrift. We hope the Obama administration will make clear to Azerbaijan's leader that democratic reforms and human rights are a priority in U.S.-Azeri relations.

American policymakers should have learned from countries in the Middle East and other areas that authoritarian, corrupt regimes do not make reliable allies. Nor is their "stability" based on the consent of the governed. The democratic opposition in Azerbaijan does not seek intervention or financial assistance from the United States. What we need is the moral support of an America that stands by its own values.

Ali Karimli, chairman of the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan and co-founder of Azadlig (Freedom) Political Bloc of Opposition Parties.