By Harut Sassounian
Publisher, The California Courier
The governments of Turkey and Azerbaijan are represented in Washington by
some of the best public relations firms and lobbyists money can buy.
Nevertheless, their human rights records are so bad that even top-notch
American professionals have a hard time whitewashing their tarnished image.
Rather than taking steps to improve their domestic laws and treating their
citizens a little more kindly and gently, both of these governments have
wasted millions of dollars on high-powered American firms, trying to fool
the world by misrepresenting their misdeeds. Turkey's image has not improved
one bit even though it has engaged several PR and lobbying companies for
more than 20 years. Azerbaijan has likewise shelled out huge sums of money
to these companies, with the same disappointing results.
In recent weeks, several reports have been issued exposing the serious
violations of human rights in Azerbaijan. The Washington Post published on
January 12, 2003, a lengthy article that severely criticized "Azerbaijan's
authoritarian government, led by Pres. Heydar Aliyev." The newspaper decried
the "strong-arm tactics" used by Aliyev -- a "tyrant" and an "old-style
dictator." It said, "many Aliyev relatives hold top government jobs and
dominate private businesses in areas as diverse as private school-building
and caviar." According to human rights groups, there are 300 political
prisoners in the country.
The Washington Post described Azerbaijan as "one of the most corrupt
countries in the world." It also said that the country "has not had a single
fair election ... since Aliyev seized power" in 1993. "Despite billions of
dollars in oil and gas contracts signed by the government with Western firms
... an estimated 1 million-plus Azeris out of a population of 8 million have
left the country seeking work," the Post said.
Even the U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan, Ross Wilson, who usually uses
carefully couched diplomatic language to describe the oil-rich country's
many ills, was quite outspoken during a lecture he gave at the University of
Minnesota on January 13, 2003. He said that the rule of law is weak and
corruption is rampant. Warlords dominate various parts of the country.
Azerbaijan "has never held an election that met international standards for
freedom and fairness," Amb. Wilson said.
Similar critical reports were also issued by the Council of Europe, the U.S.
State Department (somewhat muted), and the Organization for Security and
Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The Human Rights Watch, in its 2003 report,
stated that the government of Azerbaijan continued the "detention of
political prisoners, harassment of independent media, and repression of
social and political movements." The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council
of Europe (PACE) adopted a resolution last September stating that it was
"disturbed and shocked" by the violations of most basic freedoms in
Pres. Aliyev staged a referendum last August which was purportedly supported
by 96% of the voters. The Human Rights Watch said, "the government employed
massive fraud and intimidation and ignored opposition boycotts and
objections from the international community. Government claims of 88% voter
turnout defied both feasibility and the headcounts by independent and
opposition observers, who concluded that less than 30% of the electorate
participated. ...There were many reports of falsified votes and arrests and
intimidation of polling station commission members and opposition observers
who refused to acquiesce in ballot stuffing."
It is regrettable that the U.S. government turns a blind eye to such grave
violations of human rights just because Azerbaijan has some oil. The
Washington Post quoted Eldar Namazov, the director of the Public Forum for
an and a former top aide to Aliyev as saying, "it's the old policy
of the West - okay, he's a tyrant but he's our tyrant." Another Azeri
official, Etibar Mamedov, the leader of the Azerbaijan National
Independence Party warned: "the U.S. should be friends with the people of
Azerbaijan, and not just the president of Azerbaijan. A president who
infringes on the rights of his own people can't be a serious ally for the
The shortsighted officials of the Bush administration would do well to heed
the warnings of Namazov and Mamedov. The days of the old and frail Aliyev
are numbered. Despite all of his frantic efforts, Aliyev may not be able to
have his son, Ilham, succeed him in office. The junior Aliyev has neither
the KGB-training nor the cunning of his father. After the disappearance of
the old fox from the scene, there may be a lengthy and nasty power struggle.
Should the opponents of Aliyev take over, they may re-align Azerbaijan with
Iran and Russia rather than Turkey and the United States.
Instead of winning over the support of the masses, the U.S. government
unwisely keeps on backing unpopular leaders in many parts of the world. When
the tyrants are finally deposed, the people of those countries and their new
leaders remember that the American government sided with their oppressors.
They then shut off the oil pumps and use the very weapons given to them by
the United States to attack Americans!