The United States should be condemning Ilham Aliyev’s corrupt regime rather than condoning it.
In the past few weeks, first in Russia and then in Egypt, leaders have used so-called elections to provide a patina of legitimacy for their grip on power. Russian President Vladimir Putin secured yet another term with nearly 77 percent of the vote; Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi did even better, nailing down 97 percent of the vote in Egypt. Neither of them deserved congratulations from Western leaders.
In both cases, the outcome of the election was known well before voters went to the polls, as any serious opponents were prevented from running and the cards were solidly stacked in favor of the incumbents. These were not real elections in any sense of the term.
The same is about to happen in Azerbaijan on April 11, in an election moved up from the original date of Oct. 17. There, too, we already know that President Ilham Aliyev, who has been in power since 2003 after succeeding his father, is guaranteed another term. Azerbaijan’s election is so rigged that key opposition parties refused to take part and instead organized a mass protest on March 31. Among other demands, demonstrators called for the release of the more than 100 political prisoners in the country.
Aliyev’s Azerbaijan tends to be forgotten due to the West’s obsession with Putin’s Russia, but his regime is one of the most corrupt and authoritarian in the region. For years, during both Republican and Democratic administrations in the United States, Aliyev has been able to get away with such abuses. Unlike Putin’s Russia and Aleksandr Lukashenko’s Belarus, against which sanctions have been imposed for human rights abuses, Azerbaijan has escaped similar scrutiny from the United States and Europe. Nascent congressional efforts to pressure him, led by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), have never become law. Azerbaijan has avoided sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act, too, which the Trump administration implemented for the first time last December.
That’s because Baku benefits from being a significant oil producer and part of the northern supply route for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Azerbaijan portrays itself as a moderate Muslim-majority country in a challenging region, bordered by Russia and Iran and engaged in conflict with Armenia regarding the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Given the threats posed by Putin and the United States’ need for secure resupply routes to Afghanistan, some argue, America cannot afford to alienate Azerbaijan by pressing Aliyev on human rights.
But the policy of quiet diplomacy has failed. By giving Aliyev a pass for so many years, the U.S. government has done no favors to the people of Azerbaijan or to U.S. interests in the region. The United States and other Western countries have become enablers of Aliyev’s domestic policies, destroying any hope of democratic evolution
The calling of snap elections for president on April 11 and the suppression of serious opposition to his regime should be the final straw. These moves have revealed the charade practiced for over two decades in Azerbaijan to the detriment of the Azerbaijani people and the country’s image in the world. President Aliyev advanced the date of the presidential elections at a moment when more than 100 political prisoners remained under illegal arrest and detention. One of the opposition politicians, Ilgar Mammadov, who would have opposed Aliyev, remains imprisoned despite international demands for his release. Sham elections with a manufactured slate of “candidates” cannot hide the fact that these elections move Azerbaijan closer to Putin’s model of a kleptocratic autocracy.
Aliyev has also launched a crackdown on freedom of expression, virtually snuffing out what little free speech existed before. Young people go to prison for their Facebook posts. An opposition journalist was kidnapped from neighboring Georgia. Members of Aliyev’s political party in the Azerbaijani parliament are calling for shutting down social media entirely. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America remain closed, and foreign nongovernmental organizations involved in democracy and human rights work have been forced out of the country while domestic NGOs who don’t toe the regime line have been shut down.
For all the rhetoric about economic reform and diversification, Azerbaijan remains a Soviet-style economy dominated by state- or oligarch-owned enterprises responding to presidential orders rather than market forces. Entrepreneurship is punished and not encouraged. Excessive reliance on oil and gas exports and a collapsed banking system ensure that the economy remains unreformed and undiversified.
The Aliyev government has yet to account for over $120 billion in earnings from offshore energy development. Prestige construction projects line the pockets of elites and their families, giving them villas on the Caspian seashore or high-end apartments in London while average Azerbaijanis live in substandard housing with inadequate medical care and poor education for their children. Azerbaijan’s leaders are looking out for themselves, not the country as a whole.
In the run-up to the elections, Aliyev’s government has also been beating the drums of war with Armenia. Large-scale, live-fire maneuvers continue, and the government has even labeled Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, part of Azerbaijan in an effort to rally citizens around the flag, just as Putin did with interventions in Ukraine and Syria.