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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Monarchical Aspirations Merit Censure

A few weeks ago, when the ailing president of Azerbaijan arranged to have power transferred to his son, a U.S. State Department spokesman was asked for comment. You might think that a pro-democracy administration would have some choice words for an authoritarian regime preparing to become the first hereditary fiefdom among post-Soviet republics. But the spokesman called the handoff "fully consistent with the Azerbaijani constitution" and had nothing more to say.

Maybe anyone working for President George W. Bush feels awkward discussing matters of father-son succession. Or maybe, as opposition politicians in the region are wont to suspect, the oil-industry veterans in the Bush administration don't want to offend their old pals at the helm of oil-rich Azerbaijan, who have been so welcoming of Western investment. Either way, the administration is mistaken not to speak out more firmly for democratic norms. It has a chance to rectify its mistake this week, when the princeling Ilham Aliyev pops into town to visit with U.S. officials.

Presidential elections are set for Oct. 15, and at the moment both Aliyevs are on the ballot. The presumption, strengthened when the elder Aliyev designated his son as prime minister a few weeks ago, is that one or the other Aliyev, depending on the elder's health, will drop off the ballot, and that one or the other will win.

This has very little to do with consistency with the constitution, as anyone could tell simply by reading the State Department's own 2002 human rights report on Azerbaijan. The elder Aliyev was most recently re-elected in a 1998 contest "marred by numerous, serious irregularities." More recent elections to parliament "featured similar irregularities." And it's not just crooked elections: "The government's human rights record remained poor. The government continued to restrict citizens' ability to change their government peacefully. Police tortured and beat persons in custody and used excessive force to extract confessions. Arbitrary arrest and detention continued to be a problem. ... The government continued to hold a number of political prisoners. ... The government continued to restrict freedom of speech and of the press." And so on.

Has anything changed? Already the election commission, which is dominated by Aliyev cronies, has refused to register credible opposition candidates. Police are breaking up opposition party meetings, detaining some people, beating up others. The media remain under government control. All of this may be consistent with Azerbaijan's constitution, but that's not really the point. If the younger Aliyev can win a fair election, the United States ought to wish him well. But it ought to make clear also that it has no interest in abetting the establishment of yet another corrupt, hereditary monarchy in a Muslim nation where the proceeds of oil wealth seem never to trickle down.

This comment appeared as an editorial in The Washington Post.