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A message from Washington to Baku: David Kramer: No political prisoners, no sanctions..


Amid its ongoing brutal crackdown against independent voices and western institutions the Azerbaijani government has long been urged to improve the country's human rights record to avoid an international pariah status. In a surprise move, president Ilham Aliyev's office announced on Wednesday that it had received an invitation letter from the White House to the Nuclear Security Summit, which will take place in Washington, D.C. later in March. The invite, according to the Azeri sources, was issued on December 3rd, just days before President Aliyev signed a pardon decree granting amnesty to more than 200 people, in which he refused to include a single political prisoner's name.

Officials in Washington didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on the matter. While it remains unclear whether president Aliyev is still welcomed in the U.S. capital, analysts like David Kramer, former president of Freedom House, believe that a good will and positive feellings toward Azerbaijani leadership 'have largely dissolved' among Washington politicians, amid Aliyev's refusal to release political prisoners last month.

'Presidents Obama and Aliyev had a short meeting in Turkey in November, and Aliyev, from what I can see, has not responded in a positive way on any democracy/human rights issues after that meeting,' he said.

In an interview with TURAN's Washington correspondent Kramer, senior director for human rights and democracy at the McCain Institute for International Leadership, spoke about current human rights challenges and government-backed anti-West campaign in Azerbaijan, as well as its impacts on the country’s relations with the West.

Q. President Aliyev took to Twitter on Tuesday (Jan 5) and posted that Azerbaijan 'moves along the path of democracy and development...'  In what direction is Azerbaijan really moving with its current human rights record?

A. It's hard to see that there is a forward progress in Azerbaijan on democracy and human rights. The political prisoners are the main focus of those who're very critical of the situation in Azerbaijan, but there are other issues as well, such as elections -- both last year's for parliament election, and 2013's for president -- have also been criticized by the OSCE and ODIHR.

I, like many others, would love to see Azerbaijan moving in the more positive direction in terms of democratic institutions, respect for the human rights. I'd love to see better relationship between the U.S. and Azerbaijan. And perhaps first and foremost, I really want to see the political prisoners released from jail.  If that happens, I truly believe that the U.S.-Azerbaijani relationship would take off in a positive way.  However the political prisoners is the biggest obstacle right now to better relations between our two countries. Even though there is a lot of work that need to be done on elections and respect for civil society and independent media, by freeing political prisoners Azerbaijan would send a tremendously positive signal to the West, but unfortunately, we haven't seen that happen at all...

Q. Why is the issue of political prisoners taking that long? What is the government trying to gain by keeping them in jail?

A. The president at the end of the year issued the pardon to 210 people, but none of the political prisoners were on that list. That would have been an opportunity to demonstrate a real signal to the West, to the U.S., that president Aiyev decided to move in a more constructive direction. There was expectation and hope -- maybe unrealistically built up --  that there would be such a move. I think, he really did have an opportunity there to do the right thing, but  for whatever reason [he] chose not to.

Q. The official propaganda in Baku suggests that it was Congressman Chris Smith's legislation that changed President Aliyev's mind...

A. I, frankly, don't believe that. I think, that's a after the fact of justification for no release of political prisoners, but, that really was the time to particularly prisoners who are in ill-health. Even Leyla and Arif Yunuses, who had been at least let out of jail, but still have charges hanging over them; they have another investigation also pending, and they haven't been allowed to leave Azerbaijan for proper medical treatment. So even their release, which was welcomed, has not been done in a way that it fully should be...

Q. Some government apologists in Baku are trying to picture Congressman Smith's legislation as 'an anti-Azerbaijani action,' claiming that it is mostly targeting the Azeri people, rather than the ruling elite...

A. When I hear such criticism of Congressman Smith's legislation, I'm reminded of the Magnitsky Act, which was first introduced in 2010 for gross human rights abuses in Russia. And it took until the end of 2012 for the legislation to be passed and for President Obama to sign it.  Russian officials, Ambassador [Sergey Ivanovich] Kislyak argued that it was an anti-Russian bill. And yet, some of the leading figures in Russian civil society, as well as members of the opposition, believed that it was actually very pro-Russian bill, because it was targeted against individuals who were engaging in gross human rights abuses.

As I have read it, that's the same approach Congressman Smith takes toward Azerbaijan, which is to say, it's not against the country, it's not anti-Azerbaijani, but it does focus on individuals in the Azerbaijani government who engage in gross human rights abuses, or who benefit from them in some form of fashion and the legislation denies them ability to travel to the U.S.. The part about assets is only a recommendation, it's not part of the legislation.

I think that the bill is a reflection of the level of frustration that many people are developing here in Washington, as well as in Europe, and even in Azerbaijan that the government just refuses to do the right thing: releasing political prisoners. So, I don't view the legislation as anti-Azerbaijani at all.

I regret that it's reached this point that there is the need for such legislation. But I think, it does reflect the level of frustration that we've tried other things. President Obama and President Aliyev had a short meeting in Turkey in November, and President Aliyev, from what I can see, has not responded in a positive way on any democracy/human rights issues after that meeting. Therefore, I think, it's a missed opportunity that is now being reflected in legislation.

Q. The Aliyev government is trying to present itself as an independent power in the region, albeit some analysts see the country borrowing heavily from the Russian playbook, for instance, of response to western sanctions. Is the Azerbaijani leadership truly independent?

A. It's interesting that they claim they're pursuing independent policy. I mean, they're not Switzerland, which has a luxury of being located where it is, and which doesn't face Iran, or Russia on other side of its borders. Azerbaijan is in the difficult location, there is nothing that could be changed about that. And if it wants to shutout the West -- which it essentially is doing -- that means, Putin will have a much wider filled plan, as well as the Iranian leadership might have a larger filled plan.

To me, as an outsider, It would seem to be a mistake to close off the western option when you have neighbors like Russia, Iran surrounding you. It would serve Azerbaijan's interest for President Aliyev to do what he can to demonstrate good will on his part, by releasing the political prisoners. If he does that, I think, the West would demonstrate much greater interest and willingness in developing stronger ties with Azerbaijan.

Q. Regarding sanctions, you compared Smith's legislation with the Magnitsky Act. There is also a Global Magnitsky law, which just passed the Senate. Is it something that the Azeri officials should be worried about?

A. You're absolutely right raising Global Magnitsky, because it means there are now two different legislative pieces out there that could be applied to Azerbaijan. The Smith legislation, of course, specifically focused on Azerbaijan -- not the country, but on the Azerbaijani officials. The Global Magnistky is much broader, it doesn't specify any actions by Azerbaijani officials, but members of the Congress, or the Administration could certainly interpret it as it should be applied in the case of human rights abuses in Azerbaijan. 

On top of that, I hope that President Aliyev and others in the government are mindful that should one of these political prisoners tragically dye in jail, then I think that increases the likelihood of sanctions, exponentially. That would essentially become Azerbaijan's Magnistky case. I hope it doesn't happen because I don't want sanctions against anyone in Azerbaijan, but I don't know what else to do to try to persuade president Aliyev and other leading officials in Baku that this is the worse crackdown we've seen in Azerbaijan, it's totally unnecessary and it's counterproductive; it increases the likelihood of instability in that country, and by denying people freedom that they deserve it leaves us with only a few choices and options but to look at sanctions after having tried quiet diplomacy, laud diplomacy -- none of those have worked and situation has only gotten worse rather than better...

Q. What is your impression about the general mood in Washington D.C. about Azerbaijan, specially after the latest pardon decree: is the Azeri government losing more friends here, whether it's on the Hill or at Foggy Bottom?

A. The fact that Congressman Chris Smith put forward the legislation is the most obvious indication that they're losing support. So far Smith's name is the only one on the legislation, but if something bad happens in Azerbaijan around one of these political prisoners, I think, you'll see many Congress members sign onto this legislation. Again, I hope that doesn't happen, but having talked to staff on the Hill and other people, I would say that the good will and positive fillings toward Azerbaijani President Aliyev have largely dissolved, and that the efforts of the [Azerbaijani] Embassy here, of lobbyists and others, have really been futile.

The problem is that the situation in Azerbaijan has become really ugly. And when you're trying to sell an ugly situation it just doesn't work: people don't buy it, and they start to wonder what they've been told in the past. They look at the situation, in particularly, when you've a situation with RFE/RL, a U.S.-funded institution which was shut down in Baku, and you have a reporter [Khadija Imsayilova] whom many people in Washington know, so, for all these reasons people have taken on a very negative view of what is happening in Azerbaijan. Going after RRFE/RL, i think, was perhaps the game changer...

Q. While the Congress is yet to vote for the Smith legislation, which as you mentioned, might take some time, what is the possibility of some human rights abusers in Azerbaijani to be subject to the Global Magnistky Act, which has already passes the Senate?

A. These things are hard to predict. The House has not yet voted on Global Magnitsky Act, and the House and Senate versions of it are different. The Senate version is softer than the House version: The Senate version says 'should,' House version says 'shall' in terms of posing sanctions against gross human rights abusers. But it means that there are supporters both in the House and Senate, by both parties, and I think, most people were surprised that the Senate version passed through the Senate last year and so we shouldn't be surprised that the House passes its version this year. And then House and Senate will have to sit down and compromise on the language...  Same thing is with Smith bill. I didn't know it was coming, it came as a surprise to the lots of people. Now it's out there, and you may see members who decide to sign onto it because they are quite discouraged by the situation inside Azerbaijan.

It would be a mistake for officials in Baku to think that time is on their side. It's not on their side either for the legislative process here, or for the health of number of political prisoners. So the sooner they let these people out of jail, and lift the charges and allow those who needed necessary medical attention, the better for everybody. And then there will not be any worry about whether Smith's legislation passes; he will pull it. There will not be any concern about Global Magnitsky being applied to Azerbaijan, it will not be necessary... All they have to do is to release the political prisoners, and then the narrative will change, people like me will not be calling for sanctions, and I think, people will be much more interested in developing better relations...

Q. Since the Aliyev government refused to release political prisoners last month, would that be correct to say that it has left less supporters in Washington now than before?

A. The reality is that in Washington, there is a smaller community who follow what's happening in Azerbaijan and for a while, most of that community were supporters of Azerbaijani government. Today though lots of those supporters have turned against the [Aliyev] government because of the situation with political prisoners, the critical reports on the elections -- these things started to add up. I do think that for those who follow Azerbaijan the mood had soured significantly. And that community is now starting to think 'how can we try to bring about positive difference in the country,' and that's why people are talking about the sanctions...

Q. How would you highlight the challenges that Azerbaijan might face in the U.S. in the election year, especially given its current image??

A. The challenges will be similar for those like me, and others, who highlight importance of the human rights situation. I recognize Azerbaijan as important when it comes to energy and security. My argument is that Azerbaijan becomes a less reliable and less steady partner on energy and security issues as it cracks down internally. And I think there is a growing realization here that the human rights situation has deteriorated so badly in Azerbaijan; it can no longer be ignored and it might even overtake the significance and importance of the energy/security issues.

It would be so much better for everybody to be able to cooperate with Azerbaijan on energy, to be able to work together on counter-terrorism, regional security, on Caspian security and to work together on developing democratic institutions, and not have to talk endlessly about political prisoners. But unfortunately, president Aliyev is making that impossible.

As for the election in the U.S., depending on the candidate of the nominees, I think there will be a tougher line toward Azerbaijan. Some of the candidates are clearing sticking more importance of the human rights issues than the current administration. So I don't think it will get easier for president Aliyev and his administration with the new administration here.

Q. Some independent analysts in Baku are worried that Azerbaijan might lose Washington's support when it comes to its national security concerns, given the ongoing anti-U.S. campaign in the region. What is the good, the bad, and the ugly of ant-U.S. propaganda for the government like Azerbaijan and Russia?

A. We could develop much stronger, closer ties with Azerbaijan --not to pull it away from Russia, it's geographically impossible, -- but Azerbaijan could open up many more opportunities for itself by having closer stronger ties with Europe and with the U.S.

If you look at Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova with the deepened comprehensive free trade agreements with the EU, and visa agreements moving forward with some of those countries, it would be great to see Azerbaijan sign similar agreements with the EU. There is frankly, more in terms of economics, trade and energy that Europe can do with Azerbaijan that the U.S. can do. And we can certainly work together on counter-terrorism, regional security where Azerbaijan could be a very important player. So, I hope that would become the case for Azerbaijan while maintaining its good ties with Russia.

Q. Is that door still open today for Azerbaijan, even despite the ongoing anti-U.S. campaign in the country?

A. When we see that a high level official, such as President's chief of staff, issues his ridiculous anti-western scripts, it raises doubts about whether Azerbaijan is serious about better relations with the West. And when those articles, speeches --  whether they come out from Mehdiyev or other people -- are not repudiated, it suggests that the President supports them in these views. So that doesn't help the cause.

It's anyways bad enough for Azerbaijani with the political prisoners. And they're not helping themselves by launching their anti-western campaigns. Frankly, that makes them look the same as the Russian, or the Iranians...

Alakbar Raufoglu

Washington, D.C.



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Congressman Smith urges OSCE, US leadership to raise media freedom with President Aliyev

Amid Crackdown, Washington is Reluctant to Invite Ilham Aliyev to Final Nuclear Summit

U.S. analysts, activists urge for sanctions against Baku amid increasing rights violations

Pardon actually does affect political prisoners

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