Azerbaijan in the Spotlight

Less than six months after U.S. President George W. Bush's inaugural address, the tension between his commitment to democracy and longstanding U.S. security and economic commitments grows steadily more acute, especially in the Muslim world. There is the problem of whether to endorse Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's half-baked presidential election. There is the dilemma of Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov, who massacred hundreds of protesters in one town but continues to host a U.S. military base in another. Next up: Azerbaijan, which hosts big U.S. oil companies, a new strategic pipeline for their products, a refueling stop for U.S. military planes -- and a government teetering between consolidating a corrupt autocracy and embracing democratic reforms.

Azerbaijan resembles Ukraine a year ago, as it performed a similar wobble -- one that ended in a fraudulent election, followed by a democratic revolution. Like former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma, Azeri President Ilham Aliyev has promised to hold free and fair parliamentary elections this November. The Bush administration is trying to push the president to keep his word, without pushing so hard that he ends up in the arms of Russia or China or reverses his cooperation with the Pentagon and U.S. oil companies.

Azerbaijan's well-developed political opposition meanwhile is deliberately modeling itself on the democracy movements of Ukraine and neighboring Georgia. It has built a coalition, chosen a protest color (orange), and united around a demand that the elections be free and fair. If they are not, the opposition will call Azeris to the streets. Already, thousands joined two anti-government demonstrations in Baku last month.

"We have learned many important lessons from our Georgian colleagues and our Ukrainian colleagues," says Isa Gambar, one of the opposition leaders, who spoke to me by telephone last week. "We are studying very closely their method for coming to power peacefully, and trying to follow their example." The Azeri opposition is not as united or popular as that of Ukraine or Georgia. But the challengers are far better organized and competent than those in many other Muslim countries. Gambar, who once served as an interim president, says the opposition supports free-market capitalism and the integration of Azerbaijan into NATO and the European Union. Yet the secular and Western-educated Aliyev regularly charms his American and European visitors. Speaking fluent English, he tells them he is genuinely committed to making his country a democratic Western ally.

Given the U.S. oil and security interests, Bush administration policymakers would love to believe him. But should they? Skeptics, including some who have been listening to the young Aliyev's pitch for several years without noting any significant change in Azerbaijan, say the administration risks creating another Egypt: a government that delivers economic and security cooperation and mouths words about democracy while practicing de facto dictatorship. As massive oil revenues begin to flow into Baku, U.S. acceptance of another rigged election this year could cement Aliyev as another president-for-life.

Administration officials say they have made a fair Azeri election a top policy priority. "We are using every bit of leverage we can muster," one official told me. That includes deferring, for the moment, a prize Aliyev very much wants: a pre-election visit to Washington for a White House meeting with Bush. The Azeris have been told a date won't be set until it becomes clear whether the president will follow through on his promises, including a 13-point plan for the elections he recently unveiled.

So far the signs are mixed. After suppressing one opposition rally in May, the government allowed the two last month. It has opened a dialogue with opposition leaders, and there is talk that Aliyev will agree to debate his opponents on national television. But Gambar says the opposition still isn't allowed to rally or organize outside the capital and has no access to state media. Electoral commissions at the national and provincial level are still dominated by the government apparatchiks who falsified the 2003 vote.

At best, Azerbaijan could deliver a breakthrough for the Bush administration: a historic free election that would end up strengthening its ally Aliyev. At worst, Bush will have to choose this November between another oil-rich autocrat and pro-democracy demonstrators who have taken his inaugural address to heart. Either way, a strategic Muslim country that hasn't gotten much attention in Washington since 2001 will soon be in the spotlight.

Jackson Diehl is a columnist for the Washington Post, where this comment first appeared.