Stealing news from Azerbaijan.

A watermelon revolution? Azerbaijan and democracy (The Economist, 2005)

Just six years ago The Economist tried to predict what would happen in Azerbaijan in the coming years, after the November 2005 parliamentary elections. Note the hopeful and fairly uncritical tone of the article. I doubt any respected newspaper or journal would write such an article today (apart from the Financial Times, apparently.) “By the time Azerbaijan’s share of Caspian oil runs out in about 20 years, the 40% of the population living in poverty will have been lifted out of it. And Mr Aliev may, in time, replace the old-school cronies he inherited from his father with modernisers.” Let’s ignore that. But even the “gloomier version” of the future outlined in the penultimate paragraph does not reflect reality – just how much the situation in Azerbaijan has deteriorated in the last six years. The full article:

The Economist
4 June 2005

Might Azerbaijan be next in line for a democratic revolution?

Not likely, says Azerbaijan’s president.

As his capital, Baku, swelters, Ilham Aliev should be sweating. He
inherited the presidency from his father, Heidar, after a
flawed election in 2003. Parliamentary elections are due in
November. Azerbaijan is as corrupt as almost anywhere on the
planet. The parallels with pre-revolutionary Georgia, Ukraine and
Kirgizstan are painfully clear. So is Mr Aliev nervous? “No”, he
says firmly.

Why not? Because, he declares, his regime is more popular than those of
other ex-Soviet countries, and because the opposition is discredited by
violence in 2003, and by its association with the government before his
father, a Soviet-era boss, returned in 1993. “I am a new generation,”
Mr Aliev says, glossing over his dynastic succession. His country
also has energy. A new pipeline will pump oil from the Caspian Sea to
Turkey via Georgia. This may explain why the West has tolerated the
Aliev clan’s excesses. (Rumours of possible American military bases
in Azerbaijan are denied by Mr Aliev.)

“We do not have human-rights abuse in our country,” says the president,
cracking his knuckles. But Elmar Mammadyarov, the foreign minister
admits that the police were over-zealous when violently breaking
up a street demonstration on May 21st. International watchdogs have
documented a string of dreadful police and judicial abuses. The big
difference in Ukraine, says Isa Gambar, who claims to have beaten
Mr Aliev in the 2003 election, was that its leaders were persuaded
not to use force. Ali Kerimli, another opposition leader, says that,
for Azerbaijan’s sake, the West must now be stern with Uzbekistan
over its massacres last month.

The oil also makes it easier to grease palms and secure
loyalties. Baku’s bureaucrats are said to receive two salaries:
paltry official ones, and cash supplements. For ordinary folk, oil
revenues seem to offer the chance of a share in the narrow prosperity
evident in Baku’s designer shops and Mercedes-crowded streets. Yet
the lesson of Ukraine and Kirgizstan is that revolutions can strike
even apparently stable regimes.

If Mr Aliev stays on, there are two prognoses for Azerbaijan’s future,
resting on contrasting assessments of his personality. The optimistic
version is that he means what he says about creating a middle class,
tackling corruption and using oil revenues to diversify the economy,
much of which collapsed with the Soviet Union. By the time Azerbaijan’s
share of Caspian oil runs out in about 20 years, the 40% of the
population living in poverty will have been lifted out of it. And Mr
Aliev may, in time, replace the old-school cronies he inherited from
his father with modernisers.

The gloomier version is that, for all his talk of media impartiality
and against corruption, Mr Aliev has kept on the old elite because
he agrees with them. The oil money will be wasted, and the country’s
gaping inequality will widen. Radical Islam may encroach from Dagestan
to the north or Iran to the south. Or oil may finance the reconquest
of Nagorno-Karabakh, a bit of Azerbaijan seized by Armenia in the
1990s. “Every patience has limits,” says Mr Aliev. Bellicose talk puts
pressure on Armenia. One day, the threats may even be fulfilled. They
certainly appeal to angry Azeris: Karabakh comes up in conversation
almost as often as Heidar Aliev’s image appears on plinths and in

A small test of direction will be an opposition rally this weekend. A
bigger one will come with the November election, for which Mr Gambar,
Mr Kerimli and others are trying to unite. If he could overcome the
usual post-Soviet neurosis about elections, there would probably be
little cost for Mr Aliev in allowing the free vote that he says he
wants. Can he?


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