The day after Christmas, armed police in Azerbaijan’s capital raided and ransacked the bureau of congressionally funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). After being detained for several hours, RFE/RL reporters and editors were released, although at least 10 have since been summoned to a prosecutor’s office for questioning. Police are going to the homes of former employees as well, taking people off for interrogation in the night. Authorities in Azerbaijan say the measures are part of an ongoing investigation connected to Azeri laws on foreign funding of nongovernmental organizations.
The government of strongman Ilham Aliyev has been intensifying its campaign against civil society groups and independent media, and against RFE/RL specifically: Investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova has been jailed since Dec. 5. Aliyev knows that RFE/RL’s station, Azadliq, is one of the few independent news outlets left in Azerbaijan. It seems his patience has run out.
Will the United States push back? If we don’t, it’s bad news for Azerbaijan and alarming news for the region.
I met Aliyev in 2009, when I was president of RFE/RL. I had traveled to Baku, the capital city, to urge his government to refrain from harassing our journalists. My conversation with Aliyev — who since 2003 has ruled Azerbaijan like a mafia boss, as one diplomatic cable in the WikiLeaks cache put it — was as predictable as it was surreal. The Azerbaijani president told me he could not fathom why, as a strategic partner of the United States sitting on oil and bordering Russia and Iran, he would hear critical reports about his government on our station. That’s because leaders like Aliyev believe that media exist not to hold power accountable but rather to help the government hold the people accountable. I was accompanied by the U.S. ambassador, who joined me in trying to explain why the United States would seek to balance commercial, security and human rights concerns.
Aliyev wasn’t convinced then. Today, he’s showing brazen contempt for free speech.
The State Department says the United States is “alarmed” about developments in Azerbaijan. It should be. According to spokesman Jeff Rathke, Secretary of State John Kerry spoke by telephone Dec. 21 with Aliyev, voicing concern over Azerbaijan’s crackdown on civil society. The Dec. 26 raid and closure of RFE/RL’s Baku offices is an indication of how seriously Aliyev takes U.S. expressions of concern.
The problem with our feeble reply goes beyond Azerbaijan. Whether at home or abroad, authoritarians generally rely on the United States and its democratic allies to overlook or minimize the so-called smaller things, allowing them to soften the ground for more ambitious adventures.
We failed to engage over the Russian kidnapping of an intelligence officer on Estonian soil in September — just two days after President Obama delivered a speech in the capital, Tallinn. Likewise, we’ve seemed nonplussed by the Russian submarine that turned up in waters close to Stockholm this fall. Nor have we been particularly bothered by the way Russia intimidates tiny Moldova — restricting imports and threatening to cut off natural gas — to discourage the country from veering westward. Examples such as these accumulate. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin mocked Obama in an August tweet, juxtaposing an image of the Russian president holding a cheetah with one of the U.S. leader holding a puppy. “We have different values and allies,” the tweet read.
But no one’s picking a fight over a tweet. Or over a little belligerence here or there. This apparently includes the closing of a small bureau of reporters in Baku.
In a 1982 Atlantic Monthly essay, James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling introduced the “broken windows” theory of policing, arguing that law enforcement and communities had to tend to the small things in a neighborhood — litter, broken windows, the jumping of subway turnstiles — to prevent crime from spreading and more serious crimes from happening.
Something similar applies to foreign policy. It’s not just Ukraine. The neighborhood of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union is starting to look a lot like the crime-ridden New York of the 1970s. This is because the Obama administration and our European allies have woefully neglected the small things.
Not so long ago we had a vision of a Europe “whole and free.” If we want to get this vision back on track, don’t wait for grand strategy. Start with the small things. The United States must insist that the government of Azerbaijan immediately allow RFE/RL to reopen its bureau in Baku and cease its harassment and intimidation of journalists throughout the country.
Jeffrey Gedmin is chairman, global politics and security, at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and co-director of the World Affairs Institute’s Transatlantic Renewal Project.