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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Democracy Pipeline Extends to Azerbaijan

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As if there were not already enough public spaces named after the late president of Azerbaijan, Heidar Aliyev, the park opposite the presidential palace in central Baku was renamed in his honor. The highlight of the event was the presentation of a statue, reputedly made in France, of the man himself.

This gesture is only the latest in efforts to raise Aliyev from run-of-the-mill personality cult figure to full-blown deity. As is always the case in this style of personalized autocracy, the country is awash with posters bearing either the malevolently smiling image of the late president, a Soviet Politburo member who had run the country since the late 1960s, or a sample quote bearing testament to his wisdom. For the sake of balance, there are also quotes by the current president, Heidar's son Ilham, although these are exclusively devoted to extolling the virtues of his father. Heidar died in December 2003, just less than two months after stepping down to ensure that Ilham could take over the dynasty in an election widely thought to be unfairly stacked in his favor.

With the winds that are blowing through former Soviet states, however, there are grounds to speculate whether this sustained idolization can survive the country's parliamentary elections scheduled for November.

Youth groups are starting to assemble in Azerbaijan with the goal of landing a final blow to what is perceived as little more than a kleptocracy, even by those who ostensibly benefit from the system. When the protesters come out, provided they are not anticipated by the eagerly brutal police, they will have much to complain about.

While it is common knowledge that Azeri bureaucrats and state workers are intensely adept practitioners in the art of corruption, the scale of it never ceases to shock. Ignorant and inefficient civil servants, vainglorious and thoroughly pointless infrastructure projects, and the indispensability of bribery at all levels of business are only some of the more obvious hallmarks of a deteriorating cycle of state-approved dishonesty. The phenomenon is pervasive to the extent that even hardened supporters of the regime are quick to identify it as the key ailment dragging the country down.

In the mold of those who have gone before them in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine, Azerbaijan's opposition youth organizations are leading the call for national renewal in bland but hopeful terms. Likewise, following in the footsteps of their older counterparts in the Azeri opposition, fissures have already begun to appear within these groups.

Azerbaijan's fractious opposition parties have been as incapacitated by infighting and personality clashes as they have been by state oppression since Aliyev's return as leader of the country in 1993. Already there are two new youth groups of note on the scene, the Orange Movement of Azerbaijan and Yokh! -- or No! -- joining the more established Yeni Fikir, or New Thought, and it is safe to assume that the government will respond appropriately by creating similar pro-establishment organizations. If the opposition's differences about the way change should take place are not resolved, the government will be tempted to sit back and observe the chaos, and possibly crack a few heads while it is at it.

In a broader international perspective, Ilham Aliyev's predicament seems all the more curious. Unlike Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov, Aliyev did not boycott last month's gathering of the largely toothless bloc of former Soviet states known as GUUAM, after its members Georgia, Uzbekistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Moldova. Uzbekistan has since officially rescinded its membership in the regional group on the grounds that it is concentrating too much on political questions.

Azeri state television devoted endless hours of coverage to Ilham's participation in the summit, unwittingly revealing his fatal lack of charisma. The media trumpeted the GUUAM summit as a vital step in the consolidation of democratic values and rule of law. Indeed, democracy is very much the soup du jour in Baku; it is a useful word that serves handily to ward away any suspicions of ethical dubiousness.

Only four days before the summit, representatives from the Council of Europe made one of their regular trips to Baku to collect information on the likelihood of November's elections being fair. The laundry list of misgivings was distressing, but the Azeri government's PR response was economic to the point of curtness. As a demonstration of progress on human rights and democracy, no doubt for the visitors' benefit, Ilham Aliyev pardoned another batch of political prisoners serving sentences in a high-security prison along with murderers and rapists. Of course, this enthusiasm may well wear off once the Council of Europe officials go home and the pressing matter of resoundingly winning an election comes around.

This has also been an interesting time for those members of the opposition not in jail. Isa Gambar, the leader of the Musavat, or Equality, Party, recently returned from a whirlwind tour of Washington and London. Although Gambar, as the most likely figurehead of a reinvigorated opposition, is not as photogenic as either Yushchenko or Saakashvili, he has been honing his line as the rightful alternative leadership that the West could live with.

But Gambar seriously blotted his copybook on the night of the October 2003 presidential election, when his supporters reacted to the landslide win for Ilham Aliyev by taking to the streets in violent protests, and it is debatable whether the West would be keen to lend him its moral support.

In an interesting recent development, however, a group of moderate opposition parties formed a bloc called Yeni Siyaset, or New Politics, in the latest effort to heal the rifts that have bedeviled the opposition over the last decade. The opposition parties could still get their act together in time, but there is also speculation that the government may try to muddy the waters with a false opposition alliance of its own fabrication.

Nevertheless, despite burgeoning political activity among opposition groups, the depressing reality is that little is likely to change without external support. Shortly after Gambar returned from his tour, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld came to call on Ilham Aliyev, apparently to discuss terrorism, the BP-operated Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and border issues. Rumsfeld may or may not have given any concrete assurances about the United States' commitment to political stability in Azerbaijan. What is certain, however, is that oil flowing from the BP-led consortium's fields in the Caspian Sea is the staple diet of the Azeri economy, and it remains unlikely that Washington or London would do anything to see those business interests endangered; even if it meant overlooking certain imaginative interpretations of proper electoral conduct.

There is hardly any more bleak a reflection of the West's partial attitudes toward genuine political freedom than the degree to which democracy has been held ransom to the interests of a handful of multinational oil companies. This is not to say that Western oil interests in Baku are against democratic pluralism in the country, but for the time being, they appear to fear instability more.

Peter Leonard is a freelance writer, formerly based in Moscow, currently touring the Caucasus. He contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.