Foreign Policy Blogs

Caucasus Year in Review, Part II: Azerbaijan

For Azerbaijan’s political and human rights landscape, 2011 was a year of tumult, small triumphs, and anguish. I’ve written a great deal on topics this year such as the arrests and imprisonment of Jabbar Savalan and Bakhtiar Hajiyev, the opposition protests in February through mid-June, and the tragic death of Rafiq Tagi, stabbed to death by assailants who are still at large.

And there was much more, of course. Distilling 2011, then, would be less fruitful than an admittedly impressionistic look at some of the more significant events of the year.

Caucasus Year in Review, Part II: Azerbaijan

Jabbar Savalan (photo: Turkhan Kerimov)

Let’s start with the civil unrest in the early months of 2011, which led to arrests for many and imprisonment of a select few but revealed much about the government’s fears and its strategy. As in Armenia, opponents of the government sought to ignite widespread protest, modeling themselves after the Arab Spring. But unlike the demonstrations in Armenia (where something akin to democratic pluralism is much more in evidence than in Azerbaijan), the rallies were relatively small and the government response was swift and harsh. The “Great People’s Day” of March 11, for example, saw a meager turnout, a quick roundup of protesters by police and a number of arrests. More rallies followed in March and April, with hundreds of arrests and in some cases, criminal charges.

Caucasus Year in Review, Part II: Azerbaijan

Great People's Day protest, Baku (photo: Abbas Atilay)

As in Egypt and elsewhere in the Muslim world, Facebook and Youtube were used as tools for organizing protests, but despite the claims of the participants, Azerbaijan was hardly teetering on the edge of regime change.

Those charged with creating public disorder and similar crimes connected to protests in April include prominent Musavat Party figure Arif Hajili and nine others who were convicted and are now serving time.

The strategy of the government in the past couple of years looks something like what we’ll call “general harassment and targeted prosecution,” where the prosecutor’s office brings charges against Facebook activist X or independent journalist Y or opposition political figure Z. The charges might be drug possession (Savalan) or hooliganism (Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizade) or, let’s say, interfering with election officials. The suspects are detained prior to trial while an “investigation” takes place (e.g. Savalan, Hajiyev, Milli, Hajizade and Khural newspaper editor Avaz Zeynalli).

Then coincidentally, the defense counsel is disbarred – thus sabotaging the defendants’ cases. (Among those disbarred this year while involved in politically sensitive cases were Osman Kazimov, Khalid Bagirov and Elchin Namazov.)

Finally, the defendants are convicted, an outcry from the international community ensues, and eventually the cases reach the Azerbaijani Supreme Court, which inevitably rules in favor of the prosecution.

On 29 November, the Azerbaijani Supreme Court sustained the lower court’s conviction of Savalan. And yesterday (6 December), the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, who was convicted earlier this year on charges of evading military service.

Both men can look forward to serving a substantial portion of their sentences, although there is a chance they and others convicted this year will be released in a “magnanimous” gesture by President Aliyev prior to the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, to be held in Baku in late May.

(Azerbaijan’s Eurovision 2011 victory may well be a godsend to a number of Azerbaijan’s political prisoners – the authorities will find it awkward if the international press goes digging into Azerbaijan’s human rights record during the competition. Best to send people like Savalan and most of the others home at least a month prior to the commencement of Eurovision, although my guess is that there will be one or two still languishing in prison by late May. The government will find it even more awkward if the opposition stages protests just before and during the competition…)

I haven’t touched upon a number of other issues, such as the sensational trial and conviction of Movsum Samadov, the head of the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan, for plotting to overthrow the government. Samadov got a twelve-year sentence in October, and six other Islamic Party members were also convicted.

There were two subtexts here: one was the struggle on the part of some segments of Azeri society against the government-imposed ban on hijabs in public schools. (It was “no accident,” Samadov’s supporters say, that his legal troubles began shortly after he publicly opposed the ban. As explained in an excellent article available at the IWPR web site, Samadov’s wife saw a cause-and-effect relationship at work: “When [the education minister] decided not to admit girls wearing hijab to the schools, my husband spoke up and said he couldn’t do that, that we’re Muslims and you can’t force us to remove our hijab,” she said. “Two days after that, my husband was arrested.”)

The other subtext is Azerbaijan’s dicey relationship with Iran. It didn’t take much of an inferential leap to conclude who would benefit from an Islamist takeover of the government (unlikely as that may be), and Iran’s rhetoric toward Azerbaijan seems to have become more strident in 2011. According to one theory, a conviction of Samadov and his associates should be construed as a message from Baku back to Tehran.

(I’m not theorizing myself on the prosecution of Samadov and his associates. The above is offered only for your consideration and because it is grist for the mill in Azerbaijan.)

I’ve left a lot out, but 2012 will no doubt prove to be an equally eventful year, unfortunately.

Finally, the good people at the Foreign Policy Association have asked us bloggers to name our books of the year. I’m a bit late, since the FPA have nominated several of them here. But I certainly agree that John Gaddis’s book on George Kennan (George F. Kennan: An American Life, Penguin Press 2011) is a remarkable biography.

Parenthetically, I wrote to Kennan when I was an adjunct lecturer teaching US foreign policy at Lake Forest College in 1991. (When I say “wrote,” I mean a “letter.” Not an ethergramme [a single piece of email], but a real letter.) My question concerned his “Long Telegram,” the most famous single diplomatic cable in history, which he wrote as a young diplomat in Moscow in 1946 when the US foreign service was beginning to understand that Soviet foreign policy was signaling a new and confrontational relationship with the west.

The Long Telegram, his missive to State Department headquarters in Washington, was a masterful 8,000 word examination of the Soviet mindset, and was extraordinarily prescient. The telegram resulted in Kennan becoming something of a legend (not to mention a foreign policy Cassandra).

So in my letter, I told Kennan that I wanted to pose “an impertinent question”: while he was composing the Long Telegram during those lonely hours in Moscow, did he happen to notice the ghost of Sir Eyre Crowe hovering over his shoulder?

Kennan wrote back a charming reply in which he confessed that at that stage of his career, he had no idea who Eyre Crowe might have been! I’ll take him at his word (especially since Gaddis emailed a few weeks ago to say that what Kennan told me is perfectly plausible).

Best wishes,

Karl Rahder




Karl Rahder
Karl Rahder

Karl Rahder has written on the South Caucasus for ISN Security Watch and ISN Insights (, news and global affairs sites run by the Swiss government. Karl splits his time between the US and the former USSR - mostly the Caucasus and Ukraine, sometimes teaching international relations at universities (in Chicago, Baku, Tbilisi) or working on stories for ISN and other publications. Karl received his MA from the University of Chicago, and first came to the Caucasus in 2004 while on a CEP Visiting Faculty Fellowship. He's reported from the Caucasus on topics such as attempted coups, sedition trials, freedom of the press, and the frozen Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. For many years, Karl has also served as an on-call election observer for the OSCE, and in 2010, he worked as a long-term observer in Afghanistan for Democracy International.

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