It's a sunny Sunday afternoon in early spring, and fashionably dressed Baku
residents are strolling along the city's Caspian Sea coast. Others are sipping tea in the outdoor
cafés that line the pedestrian esplanade downtown, amid 19th-century sandstone buildings
whose exquisite facades -- European in structure, Asian in style -- evoke the storied
past of this small, oil-rich land, coveted and conquered for centuries by Russian czars and Persian
But when I arrive at the headquarters of the Azerbaijan Democratic Party,
one of the country's leading opposition groups, I find Natiq Jabiyev and other senior party brass
at work, oblivious to the fine weekend weather. They shake my hand firmly and give me a tour of their
office -- a modest space, sparsely furnished, with worn Asian rugs covering parquet floors.
Last autumn, during Azerbaijan's presidential campaign, enthusiastic campaign workers packed
these rooms. But they are long gone. Left behind are the pictures on the walls -- pictures that
suggest obstacles inconceivable for politicians in the West.
In the meeting hall is a floor-to-ceiling painting depicting Rasul
Guliyev in front of a billowing flag. Guliyev, a former speaker of the Azerbaijani Parliament,
is the party's chairman and would-be presidential candidate, and it's in this room that he rallies
his supporters -- by phone from New York, where he lives. He hasn't actually been to Baku for
nearly a decade. The powerful regime that has ruled Azerbaijan for 10 years accuses him of embezzling
millions from state coffers. The party says the charges are false, pointing out that the regime
failed in its attempts to convince Western officials to extradite him. Yet if Guliyev did return
to Azerbaijan, he'd almost certainly be imprisoned. The country's courts, like most of Azerbaijan's
institutions, take their orders from the regime.
In another room is a photo gallery of some 70 smartly dressed party supporters.
"These are people who've been beaten, detained, or tortured," Jabiyev explains. "We put a gold
star on the photos for each incident." Jabiyev -- soft-spoken, thoughtful, and wearing a
pinstriped suit -- hardly fits the profile of a repeat offender. On his photo I count
Next, we head for the office of party Secretary General Sardar Jalaloglu,
who leads the party while Guliyev is in exile. On the wall is a black-and-white poster of his face
with the words "Free Sardar Jalaloglu." Since a few days after the election last October 15, Jalaloglu
has been spending his time with other opposition politicians: in prison.
The party officials are eager to talk to an American journalist, and
they do so for the next seven hours. They want their colleagues released. They also want the world
to know about the October election, in which Azerbaijan's strongman, Heydar Aliyev, passed the
reins to his son Ilham, in what some have called the former Soviet Union's first dynastic
suc- cession. In the months preceding the election, the international community had touted the
vote as a crucial test for Azerbaijan, particularly important as the country -- a key ally
in the war on terrorism and a major emerging oil producer -- becomes more closely involved
with the West.
The former Soviet republics surrounding the Caspian Sea sit on oil reserves
totaling as much as 200 billion barrels, or $4 trillion worth (Saudi Arabia, by comparison, has
roughly 250 billion barrels). Azerbaijan is the bottleneck through which the United States has
insisted the region's oil must flow, skirting shorter, riskier routes crossing Russia or Iran.
BP, the largest investor in Azerbaijan, is building a 1,000-mile pipeline from Azerbaijan's Caspian
coast to the Turkish port of Ceyhan; at the time of the October election, hundreds of millions of
dollars in public financing for the project -- from the World Bank and the U.S. government's
Export-Import Bank and Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) -- were awaiting
The election was an opportunity for the Aliyev regime, whose previous
polls had been marred by cheating, to show the world that it could behave like a mature democracy.
The balloting was also an early test for the "forward strategy of freedom" that President Bush was
then rolling out for the Muslim world. "Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating
the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe," Bush declared last fall, "because
in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty."
Yet in the Azerbaijan election, stability ultimately trumped
liberty. International monitors condemned the election as a sham, replete with voter intimidation,
violence, ballot box stuffing, and brutal repression. U.S. officials had promised that vote cheaters
would be punished. But the administration -- and particularly Deputy Secretary of State
Richard Armitage, who before taking his post in the Bush administration served as a consultant
for U.S. companies doing business in Azerbaijan -- has continued to support its friends in
Baku, embracing the regime even as it stole the election and jailed and tortured its critics.
At the Azerbaijan Democratic Party headquarters, my hosts wanted me
to watch news footage of the election -- especially the events that night outside the downtown
headquarters of the Musavat Party, the leading opposition group. Rather than a typical election-night
scene, the images resemble medieval warfare.
In most democracies, party supporters gather at their headquarters
after an election. "But here this was looked upon as, at best, suspicious and, at worst, as some attempt
to start a coup d'etat," says a European diplomat. The rally morphed into a protest, growing tense
as Musavat supporters learned how rampant the election fraud had been. After midnight, the video
shows police in riot gear storming the peaceful crowd, breaking through a cordon of European
election observers bravely attempting to keep the peace. To a soundtrack of panicked screaming,
the police chase unarmed women and men down the street, knocking them down and battering them with
truncheons. In one scene, police clobber dozens of downed Musavat sup- porters at the front door
of the party headquarters. Their shirts stained crimson, their bodies curled in fetal position,
the protesters beg for mercy.
Even before the election, 2003 had been an odd year for Azerbaijan. In
April, President Heydar Aliyev, then 80, collapsed while delivering a speech, and by mid-July
he had disappeared from public view. This was a monumental development: Aliyev essentially was
the government. A former KGB general ruthless enough to have been regularly promoted under Stalin,
he rescued Azerbaijan from mayhem in 1993, seizing control of a failed government that was losing
the five-year war with the Armenians over the province of Nagorno-Karabakh. Within a year he had
negotiated a cease-fire. He installed friends and family members in positions of power
and marginalized or imprisoned his rivals. Throughout his 10-year rule, Aliyev's subjects were
constantly reminded of his omnipotence through billboards featuring his image, bearing
slogans such as "Heydar is the nation, the nation is Heydar."
Early on, Aliyev began negotiating with oil companies interested in
exploiting the country's estimated reserves of 7 to 13 billion barrels. In 1994 he signed the $7.4
billion "contract of the century" with 10 companies, including BP, Unocal, and Pennzoil. He showed
he meant business by having Parliament ratify the contract as national law, since the post-communist
republic lacked an adequate commercial code. Contracts with other oil companies, including ExxonMobil
and Chevron, followed. To date, Western oil companies have poured nearly $4 billion into the Maine-size
country -- an amount equivalent to two-thirds of Azerbaijan's 2002 gross domestic product.
At least $10 billion more is expected in the next few years, and by 2008 the country is scheduled to
triple its output to 1 million barrels per day (ranking it just below Libya).
To improve his position in the United States, Aliyev also adopted a West-friendly
patina -- appearing to tolerate opposition parties, for example, while simul- taneously
undermining them. At first, his efforts to curry favor in Washington were hamstrung by the powerful
Armenian lobby, but it didn't take long for Aliyev to learn the Beltway game. Amoco helped him score
his first meeting with President Clinton, and oil companies pushed for a resumption of U.S. aid
to his government (which Congress had cut off during the war with Armenia). A pantheon of U.S. policymakers-turned-consultants
also chipped in on behalf of the regime -- men such as Brent Scowcroft, James Baker, and Zbigniew
Brzezinski, as well as then-Halliburton CEO Dick Cheney and Armitage, whose clients at the time
included several Western companies looking to profit from the oil rush.
The war on terrorism helped the Aliyevs gain even better standing in
Washington. Azerbaijan has granted overflight rights to U.S. warplanes en route to Central Asian
bases, and it is one of the few Muslim nations to support the Iraq invasion. In return, the administration
has resumed military aid to Azerbaijan.
Even Aliyev's critics laud his strategic triumphs. His economic record,
however, has been more controversial. The non-oil economy shrank dramatically through the late
1990s, and half the population lives on less than $26 per month. Pervasive official extortion preys
on the forgotten rural poor, among them nearly a million refugees from the Karabakh war, some of
whom have spent the past decade living in railroad cars or holes in the ground. The watchdog group
Transparency International calls Azerbaijan one of the world's most crooked countries; the Aliyev
government is implicated in a major bribery scandal. It is this corruption and desperation that
fuels support for opposition parties such as Musavat.