After inheriting the half-a-century-old reins of power in 2003 from his deceased father, Heydar Aliyev, Azerbaijani dictator Ilham Aliyev has tried to position his country as a reliable producer of energy and counter-terrorism partner for the West. At the same time he has pursued rapid militarization, anti-Armenianism, and the consolidation of a strongman regime.
The United States government annually waives Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act which would deny direct aid to the Azerbaijani government. But the West in general has overlooked the anti-democratic and jingoist nature of Azerbaijan in the post 9-11 world for two reasons – geography and energy. Located in the Caucasus region, Azerbaijan borders both Russia and Iran – two countries with which the West, particularly the United States, has traditionally had tense and even hostile relations. For years rumors have swirled that Azerbaijan made its territory available to the U.S. Intelligence Community so that it could launch some of its operations against Iran and Russia from there. Moreover, Azerbaijan provided an alternate transit route to ship supplies to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan through the Northern Distribution Network (NDN). Such rumors are not necessarily baseless given Azerbaijan’s earlier history of hosting Al Qaeda training camps within its territory before 9-11 and the use of Afghan and Chechen Mujahedeen against the Republic of Artsakh during the Karabakh War. The very same terrorists that the Aliyev senior regime helped to train were among the radicals the U.S.-led coalition has been fighting against since 2001.
Sitting on a modest supply of natural gas and oil, Azerbaijan played up the 1990s-era hype surrounding the purported massive amounts of hydrocarbons in the Caspian Sea basin – an exaggerated quantity later undermined by subsequent exploration tests. With Western backing, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline was built by a BP-led consortium and put into operation in 2006. In 2010-11 Azerbaijan hit peak oil and since then has pumped out decreasing volumes of oil, a fact that has publicly frustrated Aliyev junior.
The American-led shale revolution has not helped Baku’s predicament. Coupled with declining oil production, 2014 saw the end of the ISAF’s mission in Afghanistan and a mild rapprochement with Iran - all of which further depreciated the geopolitical value of Azerbaijan. 2014 also saw the worst crackdown on democracy, civil society, and human rights activists since Aliyev came to power. The clampdown culminated with the raid and closure of the American-financed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) offices in Baku and the arrest of the most prominent Azerbaijani investigative reporter, Khadija Ismayilova. Today, there are close to 100 political prisoners in Azerbaijan and thousands more fear a similar fate for expressing their oppositionist views. Ethnic indigenous minorities, such as Lezgin, Avar, and Talysh people are also repressed. The Republic of Artsakh helps broadcast a cultural and linguistic Talysh radio channel from Shushi and is a role model for minority rights to self-determination.
No one should be surprised by these developments. Since 2011, the regime has feared being toppled by an Arab Spring-style movement. Western calls for more transparency and rule of law in Azerbaijan have only added to the paranoia of the regime elite who subscribe to the myth that the CIA masterminded the Arab Spring protests. In order to distract ordinary Azerbaijanis from government misrule and rally them around the flag of fabricated nationalism, Azerbaijan has decided to raise tensions along the heavily militarized border with the Artsakh Republic (Nagorno Karabakh Republic). Although representatives of Azerbaijan, Artsakh and Armenia signed a ceasefire agreement in 1994, civilians and soldiers have continued to die in clashes over the years.
Most recently on November 12th Azerbaijani armed forces shot down an Artsakh air force helicopter during a flight exercise – the most aggressive act since the ceasefire that resulted in 3 Armenian deaths. More deaths have been reported on both sides since the beginning of this year. A border skirmish that may lead to a full-scale war is a losing proposition for all sides and stakeholders, including the West. Artsakh and Armenia have hinted that the BTC pipeline, which lies just 9 miles from Artsakh’s borders at its closest point, is a target. Azerbaijani officials have signaled that Armenia’s Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant is a military target. There exists the distinct possibility of nuclear fallout engulfing the Caucasus, Middle East, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe.
It is in the interests of the West to use their influence and leverage with the Aliyev regime to make peace, free all political prisoners, and hold free and fair elections. Failure to comply ought to result in sanctions such as asset freezes, travel bans, and the suspension of Western-financed projects in Azerbaijan. Just as RFE/RL served as a beacon of hope and as a remedy against atomization for millions of Soviet and Eastern Bloc citizens during the Cold War, it also provided an alternative for everyday Azerbaijanis from regime propaganda. Baku’s closure of the RFE/RL must not go unanswered. A two-bit dictatorship cannot overcome Western resolve, just as surely as the Soviet Union could not and did not.
"The Hill," January 13, 2015