We had big dreams when the Soviet Union disintegrated and the Turkic republics won independence. We were to become the leader of a “Turkish world from the Adriatic Sea to the Great Wall of China.” We were to revive the Turkish and Muslim identity of our brothers which the Cold War had torn away, and teach them free-market economics and democracy. We were to be a model for them, just as we are currently supposed to be for a Middle East in the throes of the Arab Spring.
Yet, 22 years have passed and no democracy has come about. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are still ruled by the same dictators. Turkmenistan has a new one. Kyrgyzstan alone is struggling to move forward on the path toward democracy. Oil-rich Azerbaijan — the Turkic republic with the closest historical, cultural and economic ties to Turkey — would have been expected to make the greatest progress. But that has not been the case. Ilham Aliyev, who took over the reins of dictatorship from his father, has recently stepped up efforts to suppress all forms of opposition. Turkey is blowing the whistle for human rights in Syria, but keeps mum on Azerbaijan.
Exasperated with income disparities and government corruption, the Azeri people have become a virtual powder keg waiting to explode.
In late January, people took to the streets in the town of Ismayilli after the son of the social-security minister, driving a luxury sports car, hit a taxi driver and then insulted local women. The crowd torched a hotel allegedly owned by the minister and urged the governor to resign. The government blamed the unrest on “foreign elements” and used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the demonstrators. About 100 people, including some journalists, were detained. Among them was Khadija Ismailova, the investigative journalist whom the state has tried to bully through every possible method. Ismailova, who has since been released, answered my questions about what is going on in Azerbaijan. Here are her comments:
“The country is gripped by deep unrest. People in all regions are fed up with corruption and unemployment. Small incidents risk sparking big unrest, just as happened in Ismayilli. The real reason is that people no longer remain spectators to the corruption of those in power.
"So the people have to be intimidated. The idea is to throw several people in prison so the others shut up. It is an ill-advised policy. People who previously stayed home are now joining the struggle. The movement began in 2009 after prominent bloggers Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizade were jailed. The ranks of the opposition have swollen. They now include writers, filmmakers and Western-educated youth who would have previously kept silent.”
Why is the world so indifferent?
“Azerbaijan may be a very small spot on the map of the world’s simmering regions, but the world must pay attention now before it is too late. In a country where courts function on a made-to-order basis and schools and hospitals work on bribes, people inevitably radicalize and drift toward religious fundamentalism. People are turning to faith in search of the justice they fail to find at the courts. A radical, religious and extremist society will sooner or later emerge here. We are not there yet at present. The struggle for democracy is going on, led by liberals — those people have to be supported.
“There is still corruption, the thing that we call ‘caviar diplomacy.’ Money and gifts were brought into play at the Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe. The council’s report on political prisoners [in Azerbaijan] was voted down. More than 100 members voted against the report, lending support to a regime that throws people in prison for their political convictions. Those members now bear the responsibility for each person thrown in jail! Turkish parliamentarians from both the ruling party and the opposition are among them. They, too, sided not with the Azeri people, but with the regime which is exploiting the people.”
So has Turkey failed to be a good example of democracy for Azerbaijan?
“The current state of affairs in Turkey does not look good at all — the same Turkey that was supposed to show us the way to democracy. The situation of political prisoners [in Turkey] and the imprisonment of scores of journalists is very saddening. It is an issue the Azeri government is very fond of. They would always say, “You keep criticizing us. But scores of writers are in jail in Turkey. Why don’t you speak about them?”