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David Kramer: "Azerbaijan needs United States more than we need Azerbaijan"


Since early 2010s, groups and countries that Azerbaijani government sees as friends have changed dramatically with official state propaganda promoting a negative attitude about the West and a positive attitude about Russia.

‘That approach is wrong,’ says David Kramer, senior director for human rights and democracy at the McCain Institute for International Leadership and former president of Freedom House. ‘Beyond Azerbaijan’s own history and experience with Russia if they haven’t learned anything from Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, then they’re in big trouble,’ Kramer says.

In an interview with TURAN’s Washington D.C. correspondent, former assistant Secretary of State, who last month led the US delegation at the OSCE Human Dimension Interim Meeting, also spoke about current human rights concerns in Azerbaijan and their impacts on the country’s relations with the West.

Q: As we’re meeting at a dramatic time for wider Caucasus region with the news from Russia’s severe attacks in its neighborhood,to escalation of ceasefire violations in South Caucasus, Presidents of Georgia and Armenia appeared in Washington last week to discuss their countries’ security concerns. Azerbaijan’s Aliyev wasn’t among them, and interestingly, Baku officials were silence about it, unlike previous years…

What is happening between Azerbaijan and the West and what do these all mean when it comes to the security challenges that the country is facing in its region?

A: Several things are happening: One is that the government in Baku looks at events in Ukraine –starting from November 2013 to February 2014 – and, I think, it got scared by what happened there. So the Aliyev government decided to crack down on its own people to make sure that similar kind of scenario didn’t unfold inside Azerbaijan. As the world’s attention focused on Ukraine crisis, Russian invasion, as well as more recently it shifted to Iran nuclear negotiations and lately to the situation in Syria, there wasn’t really much news on what’s happening inside Azerbaijan.

But still, while I was in Warsaw for two weeks for the OSCE Human Dimension meeting, I noticed that the Washington Post ran another editorial on the situation in Azerbaijan. The Post, probably, at least its editorial page, stands out for its focus and attention on what is happening in Azerbaijan, and I give great credit to the editors there for doing so.

I think, the government in Baku feels that they can get away with this kind of behavior, that they can engage in crackdown on civil society, arresting journalists and activists, and they are not paying any price. I think President Aliyev and others have moved on from a feeling of resentment that they are not treated as part of the Euro-Atlantic community, they’ve gotten over the snugs, but they don’t see any incentive to change their behavior.

So, I don’t think that President Aliyev really cared that he was not here while his two neighbor leaders were here. But he has to be very worried about what’s happening in his region: tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan have not gone away, they are still there, as you mentioned some of the incidents that have ledto deaths in fact, on both sides.

I would argue that Azerbaijan still needs the U.S.;it needs Europe and the West. Of course, it has to maintain its relations with Moscow because it’s a neighbor, but crackdown continues, deteriorating situation inside Azerbaijan continues, unless until the West starts imposing some costs and penalties. That’s why I favor the position of targeted sanctions to act as deterrence for the crackdown there.

Q. The Aliyev government, like othersin the region, has always easily counted on receiving enormous credit when it stops doing something harmful, as many in the West supported the idea that the fact that Azeri officials have stopped doing this or that is much more important than that they did it in the first place... What is different now?

A: If you take the situation in Belarus, where in 2008 Lukashenko released all of political prisoners, Europe, in particular, got all excited and launched an engagement process there until December 2010 with the Belarus elections, and when there was an ugly crackdown against other presidential candidates, civil society activists, human rights defenders, the sanctions re-imposed against Belarus.

The difference in Azerbaijan is that there are no sanctions against anyone in the Azerbaijani government for any human rights abuses. What is particularly challenging is that the situation in Azerbaijan is much worse than it is in Belarus these days. Belarus, as you know, been called a last dictatorship in Europe. I think that title could easily be applied to President Aliyev given the situation in Baku.

So what we’re seeing different now is that the crackdown has gone much worse, and a few people are left outside -- inside the country, but outside of prison -- who are allowed to criticize and speak negatively about what the government is doing. So, it’s a much wider crackdown: the sentences are being dished out much more severely that they have been in the past; and they seem to continue to going after even western organizations, RFE/RL reporters, who have contributed to the radio, so there doesn’t seem to be much hesitancy in the government’s part to go after anyone they deem to be a threat. So there is much more combust,boiling dangerous environment in Azerbaijan that it has been because it will produce a very result that nobody wants to see – it will drive opposition forces to resort to different measures because the tactics that they’ve tried to use up to this point are being rejected by the government.

The other point I would just make is lots of this depends on the West. Is the West is going to take a firm position and decide that ‘enough is enough’ and the West needs to pose a policy that would impose consequences for what’s happening inside the country?  So far I don’t see that the West is going to do that. 

That said, the mood on Capital Hill, and let’s bee clear: there aren’t a lot of members of U.S. Senate and House of Representatives who pay attention to Azerbaijan to be perfectly candid. But those who do; do seem to be changing their attitude that is becoming more critical and more concerned about what’s happening and we’ve seen in the past few months, letters coming from Congress to President Aliyev, to the Obama Administration expressing serious concern.

This, kind of, reminds me of 2010 on Magnitsky legislation on Russia.

The Magnitsky legislation was introduced in a draft from in the Congress in the spring of 2010, and it wasn’t until the end of 2012 for the legislation to pass. So it took 2.5 years for it to come to fruition.

I see maybe at the point of 2010, the equivalent of it in Russia for Azerbaijan. The first challenge is to make people aware of what’s happening and, I think, as people become more aware of the nasty crackdown inside Azerbaijan, there may be more interest in trying to do what we can’t prevent from getting even worse…

Q. Should the elite in Baku, who particularly are considered to be in inner circle of the government -- with their wealth and children in the West – be worried about the sanction discussions? So far,they seem to be dismissive regarding such actionsaying that ‘Russia could live with sanctions, so can we…’

A. Any country or government that is target of sanctions is always going to be dismissive and say that ‘this isn’t going to have any impact.’However, there wasvery clear evidence in 2008 that the sanctions against the Lukashenko regime led to the release of the political prisoners. Alexander Kozulin, who was the last political prisoner released in 2008 told me personally that he believed this was the case.

It started with both U.S. and EU sanctions in 2006. The U.S. ramped up sanctions even more in November 2007 and starting in January 2008, [Belarus] started to release of political prisoners.

It took for a few months for Kozulin to get released, but still, the sanctions got the political prisoners to get released.

So we have to be clear: the sanctions are not intended to turn Belarus or Russia or Azerbaijan into a democracy – sanctions aren’t the tools to do that. Sanctions are designed to try to stop crackdown and at least win the release of political prisoners, because if you can’t get political prisoners out of jail, then you can forget trying to establish the foundations for democracy.

The sanctions that I’ve advocated -- and others have -- for Azerbaijan would be targeted in fashion, which is say that they would start with judges and prosecutors and others involved in the investigations of cases involving political prisoners, and then as necessary work the way up to higher levels in the government. I do think that the people in Azerbaijan would be concerned about this.

The key to sanctions is to make it clear that they will increase if the situation does not improve, if political prisoners are not released. So sanctions are as much psychological as they are punitive. The target of sanctions has to be convinced that he or she is going to be hit with more sanctions if he/she doesn’t change their behavior.

Q. While there are not sanctions against Azerbaijani government yet, and given that we don’t know why exactly president Aliyev, unlike his counterparts, wasn’t here last week inthe discussions over the region’s instability concerns, do you think IlhamAliyev, even unofficially,is not currently welcomed in the

A. Yes, I think. Certainly, President Obama has not shown any interest in having a photograph with President Aliyev. Now, to be clear, unless this happened on the margins of the UN GA or elsewhere in Washington, I don’t think that the Presidents of Georgia or Armenia had a meeting with President Obama either. I don’t know if they had meetings with vise-President Biden -- this happened while I was away.

But I think someone like President Aliyev would only want to come to Washington if he was greeted in the Oval office by President Obama. And even though the Obama Administration has no interest in sanctioning the government in Baku, I didn’t realize that they don’t want an Oval office visit…

Q. Some local analysts worried that Washington’s hands remain short in terms of helping Azerbaijan should things worsen in the region given recent escalations of ceasefire violations…

A. Frankly, Azerbaijan needs United States more than we need Azerbaijan. It needs to balance its relationships with Iran and with Russia. There were three U.S. official visits to Bakurecently. One is involved in energy issues, another who is involved in Trans-Caspian issues, and then an official from Pentagon -- she has since announced that she is resigning from her position, I don’t think it’s related to her visit to Baku, but she was there to talk about strategic partnership with Azerbaijan and if she is leaving, I don’t know who else in the Pentagon is going to spend and effort to talk about strategic partnership with a country that on human rights, is clearly going to the wrong direction.

So, yes, I think Azerbaijani officials should be concerned that the U.S. is very preoccupied with other issues, not paying lots of attention to what is happening in Azerbaijan. They might thinkthat they can get away with their crackdown, but if members of Congress started focusing, the Congress can become forced to push on sanctions for a tougher line on Azerbaijan.

The raid on RFE/RL office last December was both ill-advised and counter-productive vis-à-vis relationship with the U.S. That is, I think, what got some members of Congress, who hadn’t been paying close attention, to focus on what was happening in Azerbaijan. And of course, Khadija Ismayilova’s case, the Yunuses case and others are now coming in to the attention for some members who weren’t paying attention realizing that the situation there has really gotten ugly and the U.S. probably needs to take tougher position.

So I think that’s where we’re headed...

Q. For years, President Aliyev, like Russia’s Putin, has benefited from the perception among the population that ‘he would do the right thing if he knew what was happening in the country but that the ‘boyars’around him are bad and that they are preventing him from learning the truth.’ And recently Aliyev himself called on people to keep speaking out about their problems. What does this tell you about a leader whom you’ve been observing for many years and even met with in person?

A. Not since 2008…  At the end of the day, he is responsible. He is the President of the country and was elected/granted in an election that was widely criticized in October 2013. But his Chief of staff in December of last year issued a 60-page manifesto/attack against the West and the U.S. That’s his Chief of staff who worked for President Aliyev’s father.

President Aliyev either needs to assert himself, if he thinks things are going to wrong direction, or he is responsible for it. If he was so concerned about the directions that we’re heading in he would have sopped it already…

He knows the U.S. well, he knows the West well, he speaks perfect in English, reads in English, so, he can follow what’s happening in terms of the coverage and reaction in the West to developments inside of his country. Either he is unable to rein in some of the forces around him, or he chooses not to do so, because he actually agrees and supports what they say.

Q. Some analysts compare today’s Azerbaijan with the one in early 20s century, which, according to historians, was in fact, open towestern values. But, as President Aliyev recently put it, Azerbaijan today has less interest in implementing European values.

Why have they suddenly decided to return to the 20th century -- even at some point 19th century -- when the entire rest of the world is living in the 21st?”

A. In certain respects Azerbaijan, obviously, is much better that it was two decades ago. Economically it has done better – that’s largely due to the price of oil – and stability that tap into energy resources. But in terms of the human rights and political situation, it’s much worse…

I do think the explanation for latest crackdown really originates in Ukraine. With the Maidan revolutionary movement, decision by Yanukovich to flee – there was no coup, but he fled the country – got scared Aliyev and other officials in Baku, as it did Putin.

Putin decided to respond [to it] by invading Ukraine, Aliyev decided to respond by cracking down on opponents and critics, including journalists. But what we’re seeing is really unprecedented in Azerbaijan since the breakup of the Soviet Union.

The scale and scope of the crackdown is much worse that we’ve seen before. I’m very worried about where it’s going. Because he is driving away independent voices, civil society, journalism, and so, some people think that opposition of Aliyev can only come in extreme forms. That’s not good for anybody.

Q. The official propaganda machine in Azerbaijan suggests that Putin is a guy willing to stand up for Azerbaijan and might even return some of its territories back. They recognize perhaps very poorly that there is a direct cause and effect connection between the policies of Russia and the region’s current situation. What do Azerbaijani people need to know about Putin?

A. Beyond Azerbaijan’s own history and experience with Putin, if they haven’t learned anything from Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, then they’re in big trouble. I think all of Putin’s neighbors are very nervous about what is happening in Ukraine. And Putin also realizes that Russia has a long-standing relationship with Armenia. It is very dependent on Russia on security, and there is Russian base in Armenia. So Putin also can’t turn on Armenia and solve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in Azerbaijan’s favor because then he would run the risk of loosing Armenia.

Armenia is one of the countries that has agreed to go and sign [an agreement] to join the Eurasian Economic Union under tremendous Russian pressure, like Ukraine at first intended to sign an agreement with the EU. So Putin, I think, tries to balance the interest Russia has with Armenia and Azerbaijan; he would love to be able to control both and it will be up to Azerbaijan whether it closes the door to the West itself. The West doesn’t seek to close the door to Azerbaijan; the question is whether Aliyev is going to the door to the West, in which case he’s left dealing with Russia and Iran on his own. And given the nuclear deal with Iran and number of ethnic Azerbaijanis living in Iran, how this plays out is hard to vision.

So Azerbaijan lives in a tough neighborhood; it can’t change its geography, it has to co-exist with Russia and Iran. But it is a choice on whether it wants or not to have good relations with the West. And is seems that Aliyev is making decision and a choice not to have good relations with the West.



Washington, D.C.



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