Azerbaijan Leader, Under Fire, Hopes U.S. Visit Improves Image

Azerbaijan Leader, Under Fire, Hopes U.S. Visit Improves Image

The New York Times
April 23, 2006 Sunday
Late Edition – Final

Next week, after years of waiting for an unequivocal nod of
Western approval, President Ilham H. Aliyev of Azerbaijan will
fly to Washington to be received at the White House, a visit his
administration hopes will lift his stature.

Being a guest of President Bush has been billed in Mr. Aliyev’s circle
as a chance for the 44-year-old president — dogged by allegations of
corruption, election rigging and repression of opposition figures —
to gain more international legitimacy.

“We have long waited for this visit,” said Ali Gasanov, a senior
presidential adviser. “Now it has been scheduled, and we hope that
we will be able to discuss global issues.”

For President Bush, who has made democracy promotion a prominent
theme of his foreign policy, Mr. Aliyev’s visit could prove tricky.

Mr. Aliyev’s invitation arrived during a period of increasing
diplomatic difficulties between the United States and both Russia
and Iran, countries that border Azerbaijan.

But while Azerbaijan’s strategic location could hardly be better and
its relations with the United States have mostly been warm, no leader
in the region more fully embodies the conflicting American objectives
in the former Soviet Union than its president.

Mr. Aliyev is a secular Muslim politician who is steering oil and gas
to Western markets and who has given political and military support to
the Iraq war. But his administration has never held a clean election
and has used riot police to crush antigovernment demonstrations.

The invitation, made last week, has raised eyebrows in the former
Soviet world, where Mr. Bush’s calls for democratization have increased
tensions between opposition movements and the entrenched autocrats.

Opposition leaders have long said the United States’ desires to
diversify Western energy sources and to encourage democratic growth
have collided in Azerbaijan. By inviting Mr. Aliyev to the White
House, they say, Mr. Bush has made a choice: oil and location now
trump other concerns.

Ali Kerimli, leader of the Popular Front of Azerbaijan, noted that
when Mr. Aliyev was elected in 2003 in a vote deemed neither free nor
fair, the White House withheld an invitation, awaiting improvement
by Azerbaijan in promoting civil society and recognizing human rights.

“It is difficult for Azerbaijan’s democratic forces to understand
what changed,” said Mr. Kerimli, who was beaten by the police as were
several thousand demonstrators during a crackdown on a protest over
fraudulent parliamentary elections last fall. The demonstration had
been peaceful until the police rushed in with clubs.

“I think the White House must explain what has happened when three
years ago Aliyev was not wanted for a reception in the White House, and
now he falsifies another election and is received,” Mr. Kerimli said.

American officials insist nothing has changed, and say Mr. Aliyev
has been invited for what they call a “working visit,” during which
he will be urged to liberalize his government and its economy, which
is tightly controlled by state officials and clans.

“If we are going to elevate our relationship with Azerbaijan to
something that is qualitatively different, then there has to be
progress on democratic and market reforms,” a senior State Department
official said. “I am sure we will talk in these clear and blunt terms.”

The United States’ relationship with Azerbaijan rests on three
principal issues: access to energy resources, international security
cooperation, and democratic and economic change.

On the first two issues, the United States has made clear it is
satisfied. Mr. Aliyev has supported new pipelines to pump Caspian
hydrocarbons away from Russia and Iran to Western customers, and
provided troops to United States-led military operations in Afghanistan
and Iraq.

Azerbaijan also grants overflight rights to the American military and
is cooperating with a Pentagon-sponsored modernization of a former
Soviet airfield that could be used by American military planes.

Mr. Aliyev often welcomes foreign delegations to Baku, the capital,
describing in smooth English his efforts to push his nation toward
Western models of democracy and free markets.

But Azerbaijan has remained undemocratic. No election under Mr.
Aliyev or his late father, Heydar Aliyev, has been judged free or
fair by the main international observers. Instead, fraud and abuse
of state resources for chosen candidates have been widespread.

Ilham Aliyev’s government maintains a distinctly Soviet-era state
television network and has elevated Heydar Aliyev to the status of
a minor personality cult figure.

Moreover, Azerbaijan’s government is often described as one of
the world’s most corrupt. A criminal case now in federal court in
New York against three international speculators describes enormous
shakedowns and bribes in the late 1990’s at Socar, Azerbaijan’s state
oil company. Mr. Aliyev was a Socar vice president at the time.

Last year the Azerbaijani government showed signs of paranoia,
arresting several people shortly before the parliamentary election
and accusing them of plotting an armed coup.

Public evidence for the charges has been scarce, and a lawyer for two
of the men held in solitary confinement for months since — Farhad
Aliyev, the former minister of economics, and his brother Rafiq —
has urged Congress to raise issues of their treatment when Mr. Aliyev
comes to Washington. (The president is not related to the accused men.)

American officials say that Azerbaijan has been liberalizing slowly,
and evolving into a more responsible state. But given Mr. Aliyev’s
uneven record and the allegations against him, his visit has raised
fresh questions about the degree to which American standards are

“Russian public opinion, when it looks at the United States policy in
Azerbaijan, cannot ignore the fact that the United States has a desire
not in favor of democracy but in favor of profits and geopolitical
domination,” said Sergei Markov, director of the Institute for
Political Studies here and a Kremlin adviser.

Mr. Markov and others have noted that the West has penalized Belarus
for police crackdowns after tainted elections last month.

“This is one of the reasons that Russian public opinion is very
suspicious of United States policies in the former Soviet political
sphere, and its propaganda about democracy,” Mr. Markov said.

“Ilham Aliyev will be in the White House not because he promotes
democracy,” Mr. Markov said. “He will be in the White House because
he controls oil.”

In Armenia, Mr. Aliyev’s invitation has also generated interest.

Armenia fought Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, a wedge of territory
within Azerbaijan’s boundaries that each country claims. The conflict
has been frozen for several years, but Mr. Aliyev’s recent statements
have often been bellicose.

“The visit at this time should not be viewed as appreciation of their
democratic or other policies,” Vartan Oskanian, Armenia’s foreign
minister, said via e-mail.

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