Friday, November 09, 2007

Azerbaijan [Europe.view online colum]

Over a barrel
Nov 8th 2007

The oily politics of silence

TIME was when a word from Washington, DC made wheels turn on the other side of the world. Not any more, as shown by the case of Enayat Fatullayev, a jailed Azeri journalist.

The authorities in Baku have just tried and sentenced him to a further eight-and-a-half years for terrorism, incitement to ethnic hatred and tax evasion; Mr Fatullayev, one of Azerbaijan’s best-known journalists, was already serving a two-and-a-half year sentence for defamation, stemming from an internet posting he says he didn’t write.

His swashbuckling style of journalism had made him plenty of enemies, but what seems really to have annoyed the authorities was his investigation into the still unsolved murder in 2005 of his former editor, Elmar Huseynov.

The case has been taken up by all the main international press watchdogs. Jo Glanville of the London-based Index on Censorship says his prosecution is “transparently political”. She and others want America to intervene.

And indeed it has. America’s top diplomat dealing with the region, Dan Fried, raised Mr Fatullayev’s case during a visit to Azerbaijan earlier this month.

America can say all the right things. The point is that Azerbaijan does not take them seriously. Just like the Kazakh authorities across the Caspian Sea, the leaders of Azerbaijan have the West pinioned.

One rope is energy security: the only hope for independent gas supplies for Europe from central Asia and the Caspian is the Nabucco pipeline through the Caucasus. A row with Azerbaijan would harm the already flimsy chances of that, leaving Europe even more dependent on Russian gas exports, with all the attendant political risks.

Secondly, Azerbaijan is a dependable western listening post and operations base in a region where America is dismally short of such things. When America objected to Uzbekistan’s grossly disproportionate attack on demonstrators in Andijan in May 2005, the dictatorship of Islam Karimov moved sharply closer to the Kremlin and closed an important American air base. Not much gain for the West there.

If America wanted to, it could pick fights over human rights with every Western ally from the Balkans to the Indian Ocean. It is hard to argue that such a policy improves anybody’s chances of promotion or re-election.

In the short term, these manoeuvrings can be justified. Gains in realpolitik and hard cash are tangible; betraying principles bears little immediate cost. If the main aim is to counter Russian imperialism, then tolerating the imprisonment of a few journalists in Azerbaijan (between seven and 11, in fact) may be the price paid.

In the long term, it makes it all the harder to differentiate the West’s supposedly law-governed multilateralism, based on respect for political freedom and individual rights, from the “sovereign democracy” promoted by the Kremlin.

This approach stresses non-intervention and moral equivalence. But the decline in credibility compounds itself: the weaker and more selective the West’s protests seem to be, the less seriously anybody takes them.

Moreover, when dictators do fall, the people who replace them tend to remember who their backers were. The opponents of the Azeri regime may look pretty marginal now; one day, perhaps, they won’t be.

The best hope for Mr Fatullayev is not official Western protests but the desire for international respectability. For all the Azeri leadership’s billions, that is something that they cannot buy. International rankings for good government and judicial integrity give the country a dismally low standing. The only way to improve that is better government—a trend not in evidence in Azerbaijan.

The shamefully onesided and heavy-handed treatment of Mr Fatullayev will simply underline outside perceptions that Azerbaijan is a corrupt petro-state run solely for the benefit of its proprietors.

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