Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld’s recent drop-in to Azerbaijan was a sign of the country’s strategic significance to the U.S. It also offered a nice counterpoint to the recent happenings in Georgia, where a leader accused of rigging his reelection was ousted with U.S. assent. Azerbaijan, too, recently had elections, which its leader, Ilham Aliyev, is suspected of having rigged. No walking papers for him, though; rather, a high-level visit.
The U.S. has maintained unwavering support of the new president, and critics argue that the United States has an obvious interest in maintaining security in the country: the region has crucial oil reserves and the Aliyevs are friends to the U.S. oil industry. Some are now openly wondering why the U.S., if it’s concerned to bring democracy to the world, is so friendly with Aliyev.
Rumsfeld’s meeting with the president on Wednesday was focused on dealing with concerns that the Caspian area is a “terrorist route”—and promoting the role of the region in the global anti-terrorism campaign. Rumsfeld signaled clear support for the regime, saying, “We do value the strategic relationship between our two countries”.
Indeed, the relationship between the U.S. and Azerbaijan has been growing closer as of late. Azerbaijan was the only Muslim nation to send troops to Iraq, and the country is crucial to U.S. interests, with its big oil-pipeline project and its ability to offer fly-over rights and refueling for U.S. aircraft bound for the Middle East and Afghanistan. The talks between Rumsfeld and Azeri leaders were to focus on the growing military cooperation between the two countries. Both have an interest in containing Russia’s influence in the region.
But the Oct. 15 elections in Azerbaijan have called into question the lawfulness of the country’s democracy. Thousands of people protested the election of Ilham Aliyev and 107 activists were arrested and kept in detention for their dissent. Reports have emerged of beatings in detention.
Election observers revealed that the Azerbaijan vote did not meet OSCE standards in “several important respects.” Meanwhile, The State Department has voiced disappointment, adding that reported violations “cast doubt on the credibility of the results.” That was pretty much the extent of U.S. comment, though.
congressional hearings on the matter, which were scheduled to take place this term, were “postponed” until next year.
Some critics are claiming that Azerbaijan’s leader is not only illegitimate, but a tyrant. This from Slate:
“Before the Bush administration congratulates itself on doing the right thing in Georgia, it should be reminded that it is doing all the wrong things elsewhere in the region. In an effort to have allies in the war on terror, Washington has jumped into bed with a number of very unsavory dictators, some nearly as tyrannical as Saddam Hussein. These unholy alliances contradict the Bush administration’s claims that it wants to spread democracy to dry up the breeding grounds for angry terrorists. In fact, the Faustian pacts are likely to cause more anger among suffering Central Asians who increasingly embrace virulent anti-Americanism and radical Islam.
In October, Heydar Aliyev, the ailing 80-year-old ruler of Georgia’s neighbor and U.S. ally Azerbaijan, rigged the presidential elections to pass on his crown to his playboy son Ilham. The new baby dictator’s forces brutally put down popular protests against the establishment of the first hereditary dynasty in the former Soviet Union. They arrested hundreds of opposition members and killed at least two people.”
All of this is no big deal, apparently, compared with the United States’ interest in oil.
The Caspian Sea region has 3 percent of the proven global oil reserves and 4 percent of natural gas reserves, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. While it doesn’t sound like much, new, marginal oil supplies can have a disproportionate effect on oil prices. They can also reduce the pricing power of OPEC. Also, pipelines through Azerbaijan will be a critical conduit to the West for oil produced in the Caspian area.
President Ilham Aliyev was previously vice-president of SOCAR (state oil company of Azerbaijan). His father, the previous president, was made an “honorary Texan” when he visited George W. Bush in 1996 for bringing U.S. oil concerns into Azerbaijan. The Aliyevs, needless to say, have made a lot of money out of oil, while their country is impoverished:
“… Heidar Aliyev has run the country as his family’s personal fiefdom. Elections have been characterised by rampant corruption and election rigging. While the abundance of oil has enriched a corrupt layer around the family, the mass of the population live in extreme poverty.”
The events in Azerbaijan contrast with the recent “velvet revolution” in neighboring Georgia. Georgia also suffered a tainted election, but the subsequent protests were supported by the U.S. and ended in forcing the reigning president to resign. While in Georgia, the U.S. called removing the president a good move for democracy, in Azerbaijan, there has been less of an emphasis on rule by the people.
US Rep. Tom Lantos of California,the ranking Democratic member of the House International Relations Committee, wrote a stinging rebuke of Bush’s Azerbaijan policy:
“President Bush has declared that the time is ripe for a new strategy to foster democracy in the Middle East. If it ends up looking anything like what the US has done lately in the Caucasus, we might as well not even try. Caspian oil reserves – an alternative that could reduce US dependence on OPEC – seem to count for more than human rights and democracy in US policy toward the region.
The Georgian situation practically replicates what happened with the Armenian presidential elections earlier this year and the elections in Azerbaijan last month. In both cases, widespread fraud elicited only a mild rebuke from the US.
While it’s true that the US has to work with the Aliyevs, Kocharians, and Shevardnadzes of this world to continue protecting its interests, at the very least the State Department should openly hold these leaders’ feet to the fire on democracy. More important, though, would be a ringing rebuke from the secretary of State himself, or even Bush.”