Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Azerbaijan: Where Geopolitics Perpetually Trumps Democratization

Azerbaijan: Where Geopolitics Perpetually Trumps Democratization

If you take just a little a glimpse at the June 12th Opening Ceremony of the inaugural European Games held in Baku, Azerbaijan, you will see it right away: Azerbaijanis know how to throw a great party; it is simply in their DNA. Not only that, the elegance and depth by which traditional elements of Azerbaijani culture were expressed via contemporary media during the event, are a testimony to a beautiful and grand nation—a nation that lies at the crossroads between East and West and that has taken upon itself the challenge of modernization, and has done this with great success since gaining its independence from Soviet rule in 1991.

In light of the European Games and the growing ties between Azerbaijan and the West, this blog first looks at the factors demonstrating the authoritarian nature of the current Azerbaijani regime. It then tries to identify causes for this political stalemate, highlighting the impact of Azerbaijan’s geostrategic location on domestic political developments.  It then moves on to discuss how Azerbaijan uses its strategic importance to undermine discussions on the state of human rights and democracy at home and within international institutions. Finally, it looks at possible implications for Western democracy promotion efforts in Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan at the crossroads


Unfortunately, although the country has modernized, this did not go hand in hand with democratization. In fact, Freedom House’s latest 2015 Nations in Transit report places Azerbaijan within the category of consolidated authoritarian regimes with an overall democracy score of 6.75 (compared to 6.68 in 2014), a score of 7 being farthest away from democratic progress.

There are a few reasons that explain this regression. A single family has run Azerbaijan continuously almost since independence. Heydar Aliyev, President of Azerbaijan from 1993 to 2003, then passed the torch of authoritarian rule—not the Olympic one—on to his son, Ilham. The younger Aliyev has been in power ever since. While he should not still be in office under the terms of the Azeri constitution, which once limited the presidency to two five-year terms, it was made possible by an amendment in 2009—a popular move among authoritarian leaders seeking to remain in power.

Furthermore, no election ever held in Azerbaijan since the country’s independence has been rated as free and fair by any credible electoral observer. Notably, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) has repeatedly pointed to serious issues both in the pre-electoral environment and the election process itself. Election rigging was especially showcased during the last presidential election in 2013, when the Azerbaijani Central Election Commission accidentally released election results via a smart phone application, declaring Ilham Aliyev winner, even before the voting had begun. Moreover, the country’s human rights and governance records are appalling: the list of political prisoners is awfully long for a country of only about 9 million inhabitants, and corruption permeates most spheres of society.


The ruling elite consistently crushes attempts by civil society to liberalize, if not democratize, Azerbaijan. What are the challenges that have been standing in the way of a popular democratic upheaval in Azerbaijan, especially given the fact that Azerbaijan does possess preconditions for democracy? In fact, the economy is booming, the society is literate, and college education is by far not an exception. The “Land of Fire” (the meaning of the word Azerbaijan) also has growing ties to the West with Azerbaijani students benefiting from exchange programs and studying abroad both in Europe and the United States, and increasing business relations connecting the country to Western partners. Finally, Azerbaijan is a member of the Eastern Partnership of the European Union, as well as NATO’s Partnership for Peace, the OSCE, and the Council of Europe. All of these institutions aim to actively support the advancement of democracy globally.

Three factors may explain the country’s failure or, more precisely, the local elite’s unwillingness to allow democratization in Azerbaijan.

Firstly, while linkages to democratic countries and institutions exist, linkages to authoritarian neighbors are just as extensive; notably to Russia, which may provide inspiration to Azerbaijani rulers.

Secondly, the ongoing conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh nurtures a very strong nationalistic sentiment in Azerbaijan. The governing elite can use this substantial threat to Azerbaijan’s security to cultivate a strong nationalistic bond and present itself as the sole guarantor of its citizens’ safety as well as the only legitimate defender of its territorial integrity. In that respect, the quest for internal stability and resolution of the conflict seemingly overshadows the one for democratic consolidation.

Thirdly, and more importantly for the purpose of this the argument made here, the country benefits from a pivotal geographical position at the crossroads between Central Asia and Europe. This geographical position has given Azerbaijan a growing comparative advantage in negotiations with Western entities as tensions have grown with Russia and the need to secure alternative access to hydrocarbon sources has dramatically increased. This strategic location seems to be hindering democracy: the Aliyev clan captures revenues from oil and gas resources, allowing it to reward those who abide by its rule and punish those who don’t. From the perspective of domestic democracy activists, this geographic location can certainly appear as a curse.


Azerbaijan is a key country in the East-West energy corridor and could become a major contributor to the network of pipelines comprising the proposed EU’s Southern Gas Corridor. In fact, Azerbaijan has been instrumental in developing the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP). The construction of this 1,150 mile long project began in March of this year. This pipeline is scheduled to be connected to the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) as early as 2018. At that point it will start bringing gas to Europe. According to recent reports:

“TANAP will carry some 16 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas during its first phase, 10 bcm of which will go to Europe and 6 bcm to western Turkey. Plans call for TANAP to eventually carry some 31 bcm of gas [by 2026], which will require other countries to supply gas to the pipeline.”

“Requiring Other countries to supply gas to the pipeline” means that Azerbaijan will not only become a provider, but also more importantly it will become a future hub for energy transit from Central Asia to Europe (and maybe even Iraqi Kurdistan and Iran at some point), all the while circumventing the Russian Federation’s territory. It therefore plays a crucial role for European energy security.

Azerbaijan is also essential to the EU’s overall strategy towards Central Asia to which it is the gateway. In Central Asia, the EU faces both, enhanced Russian, and Chinese competition. If the EU is to remain Central Asia’s most important trading partner it will have to revisit its strategy in order to keep this position. Securing access to the Caspian Sea via Azerbaijan is instrumental in that respect. Baku has also proven to be a strategic partner to the U.S. by providing troops, overflight rights, and civilian reconstruction efforts to NATO’s mission in Afghanistan.


It seems that by becoming a major strategic partner for the West, the Aliyev regime has enabled itself to set the rules of the game with at least three major international institutions: the OSCE, the EU, and the Council of Europe.

  1. When in discontent with the OSCE’s media freedom representative, Djuna Mijatovic, who said that “practically all independent media representatives and media NGOs in Azerbaijan have been purposefully persecuted under various, often unfounded and disturbing charges,” the Azerbaijani government plainly ordered the OSCE to close its Baku office. This radical move came only a week before the start of the European Games. Unfortunately, given the legal framework upon which the OSCE is built, the Organization seems to have little leverage on Azerbaijan in such a situation.
  1. Similarly, the European Union does not seem to have much leverage on Azerbaijan when it comes to human rights and democratization, but for other reasons. In fact, as argued above, the EU’s narrative towards Azerbaijan appears to be tied to geostrategic interests. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the EU delegation to Azerbaijan doesn’t even hint to human rights issues and challenges to democratization when presenting the EU-funded support program in Azerbaijan. In addition, Azerbaijan is not necessarily keen on signing an Association Agreement with the EU that would starkly include human rights and democracy aspects, but would rather prefer a more tailor-made “strategic partnership and modernization pact” with the EU.
  1. The most striking illustration is provided by a forthcoming article in the Journal of Democracy entitled “Europe and Azerbaijan: The End of Shame” where Gerald Knaus, President and founding Chairman of The European Stability Initiative, points to Azerbaijan’s “successes” within the Council of Europe:

By capturing the Council of Europe, the Azerbaijani government managed to neutralize the core strategy of the international human-rights movement: ‘naming and shaming.’ [Azerbaijan] captured key concepts, and through its allies in the Council introduced its own ‘newspeak’ to the corridors of Strasbourg. Political prisoners and dissidents became “hooligans”; what is in fact a consolidating, unrepentant autocracy was now a ‘young democracy’; Azerbaijan’s stolen elections became ‘free and fair’ and ‘competently organised.’ With most prominent human-rights defenders in jail, Azerbaijan, as chair of the Council of Europe in 2014, hosted international conferences on ‘human rights education’ and ‘tolerance.’ (…) While torture returned to jails in Azerbaijan, an Azerbaijani became the president of the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture.

Can European and U.S. governments silently watch these developments unfold?


Most certainly, authoritarian consolidation affects European and American democracy promotion efforts towards Azerbaijan. To the very least, Western governments have to consider whether or not democracy assistance constitutes a component of their foreign policy towards this country and, more generally, whether democracy assistance is an important tool to enhance Western nations’ security.

One approach, excluding democracy promotion from Western foreign policies, is explored by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in its articleThe Pan-European Order at the Crossroads: Three Principles for a New Beginning.” The authors argue that the OSCE’s third basket—tackling democratization and human rights—should be downsized and emphasis should be put on energy security aspects. The founding principle of such a new pan-European order should be the inviolability of territorial integrity supplemented with non-intervention in political affairs.  This would mean “tolerate all existing regimes in Europe based on the principle of reciprocity” and, furthermore, “would imply that state actors would be prohibited from interfering in the domestic affairs of a country against that country’s will.” Hence, if such a new pan-European order were to emerge within the OSCE region, the U.S. government would not be allowed to support democratization efforts in Azerbaijan, if the government there would not permit it. In other words, the Azerbaijani ruling elite would be the one deciding how U.S. taxpayers’ money would be spent on “democratization” efforts. U.S. taxpayers might not enjoy this perspective. Yet, this is, in fact, already happening on the ground.

The OSCE region

In her articleReforming the Democracy Bureaucracy,” Melinda Haring shows that democracy promotion efforts in countries such as Azerbaijan tend to fail because of bureaucratic miscalculations on the donor country’s side. In fact, when a field-based organization such as USAID comes into play it is “susceptible to strong-arm tactics by repressive regimes,” which is precisely what happened in Azerbaijan. In countries ranked as non-free by Freedom House, Haring argues that a field-based approach tends to be counter-productive because there is only so much an authoritarian regime will let an unfettered organization accomplish. For instance, from 2007 to 2011, USAID spent $5.6 million to enhance the effectiveness of the Azerbaijani parliament—a parliament that has never been freely elected and of which all deputies are members of or proxies to the ruling party. The irony Haring reveals is that, while the “U.S. government found serious fault in the 2010 parliamentary elections [it] then trained the winners. USAID even paid for a new website to make the illegitimate parliament more efficient.”

Haring also claims that USAID’s work with NGOs in Azerbaijan cannot be assertive nor realistic: “USAID’s $3.5 million civil society program in Azerbaijan, implemented by the National Democratic Institute, tried to reach the NGO sector but it was not assertive in the least bit. The program, in part, gave small grants to local NGOs that were intended to empower youth and women, two powerless constituencies in Azerbaijan.” When the authoritarian stalemate is too strong, foreign government agencies working on the ground have to abide to the dictator’s rule if they want to remain in existence. On the contrary, donor organizations without field organizations are less vulnerable to pressures coming from authoritarian governments and can consequently achieve more. In fact, the U.S government has not only been directly active in Azerbaijan through USAID but also indirectly by financing an independent grant-making approach, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Through NED, the U.S. government can support democratization efforts without experiencing pressures from the Azerbaijani government:

The NED has a flexible model that enables it to assist democrats directly in repressive or sensitive political environments where U.S. government support, even if channeled through intermediary institutions, would be diplomatically or politically unfeasible. For example, the NED funds independent print newspapers in Azerbaijan, a country with virtually no independent media and active surveillance of its citizens on the web. USAID would be unlikely to fund such an ‘aggressive’ project. The field-based model, especially the political party institutes, is too cautious in closed societies and too few dollars actually reach the field.

Haring suggests that a system of triage (By triage Haring means that resources should be allocated according to strict criteria of priorities. In fact, democracy promotion should occur in countries where democratization appears to be a feasible outcome), and a division of labor between USAID and NED ought to be implemented in order to render U.S. democracy promotion efforts abroad more efficient; depending on whether the host country is clearly transitioning towards democracy or not.

To conclude, the emphasis on geostrategic interests of Western foreign policies towards Azerbaijan is understandable. Applying the concept of triage to democracy promotion efforts is realistic, especially in times of economic constraints and given the authoritarian stalemates on the ground—i.e., in Azerbaijan. Nonetheless, in the long-run, not turning a blind-eye on nondemocratic developments and encouraging Azerbaijani civil society to develop and raise its voice might be necessary to ensure that Azerbaijan will be a lasting ally of Europe and the U.S. In fact, not despite, but because of geopolitics, achieving democratic consolidation should be a real possibility for Azerbaijanis who seek it.  It should be a goal they know is supported by not only their civil society counterparts in Europe and the U.S. but also by European and U.S. governments. The day may come when a democratic system emerges in Azerbaijan. If and when this happens, Europeans and Americans may not want to reproduce the hypocrisies of the past: supporting a dictator one day and praising his demise the next.