A Decade-Old Murder; A Call for Bipartisan Support
Peter Van Praagh, former director of the National Democratic Institute here in Azerbaijan, wrote an op-ed about two weeks ago in the Washington Post which tied together the Azerbaijani presidential apparatus, actions of pro-democracy activists, and the mistreatment, and even murder, of significant journalists and activists:
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.
With the events of the last two years involving journalists critical of the regime and ubiquitous government influence on mainstream media here, it’s not a surprising claim. Freedom House, Transparency International, and the OSCE and US State Department don’t exactly shower the Azerbaijani government with praise in terms of journalistic freedom and democratic progress, either.
I’ve met and talked with some of the representatives of the National Democratic Institute here in Azerbaijan. The current director, Alex (who was preceded by Peter, apparently), is extremely knowledgeable and a pleasure to talk with. The Azerbaijanis involved with the Institute are some of the most engaged and thoughtful Azeris I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. Around Azerbaijan, they help do trainings in regions outside of Baku to encourage local community members to take on and expand community development projects. They have had trainings here in Lənkəran at least twice since I’ve been here.
I think the op-ed is an important wake-up call for people who don’t understand the situation of journalists and pro-democracy activists here in Azerbaijan. The IRI, the organization John Alvis worked for, is no longer here doing the work of sharing the best parts of democracy with undemocratic states. Talking with Alex, he said that having both the IRI and NDI working together made for a much stronger program in the countries they work in, showing how competitive political parties can coexist and fight for good governance. In countries like Azerbaijan, having one strong political party is the order of the day, and it can lead to poor governance without a viable check on power in place.
Just one part where I disagree with Peter (and remember, I’m just an amateur here who’s not involved in political activity) is where he talks about America’s influence in Azerbaijan. He may know better than I do, but I’m not so sure that Azerbaijani officials were receiving any coded messages to release the imprisoned bloggers:
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, I recall pretty significant meetings between the US and Azerbaijani presidents that included the fate of the bloggers and the US’s desire to see them released. Even the leaked cables from Baku mention that request coming rather clearly from an Undersecretary of State. Though Peter makes excellent points about the need for continued US pressure, the Azeri government was working on its own timetable for the bloggers.