Why the West Preferred to Whisper

by Philip Stephens

BAKU–Azerbaijan is one of those places about which most people know little and few care about. Earlier this month–the regime in Baku rigged the country’s parliamentary elections. The US and European governmen’s protested. Not too loudly. The cause of democracy in the southern Caucasus runs a poor third place to short-term calculation and oil.

Last week Tony Blair–the British prime minister–gave his annual foreign policy speech in London. Thirty years ago–Blair said–a political leader who argued that the best way to advance national interest was to promote democracy and justice worldwide would have been dismissed as an idealist. Today–such a leader is a realist. The problem–he said–lay not in the ambition to spread liberty–but in a failure to follow through the logic of global interdependence.

This makes the international reaction to the elections in Azerbaijan doubly depressing. Democracy is not a quick fix. Overturning obnoxious regimes may not lead automatically to western-style pluralism–witness Iraq. Nurturing civil society–entrenching the rule of law and the rest require time and application.

So those who set the advance of democracy as a central goal are always vulnerable to the charge of hypocrisy. Sometimes it will be better to nudge despots in the right direction rather than depose them. When that happens–the self-styled foreign policy realists will always be the first to cry foul.

That said–in Azerbaijan the west could have made a difference. Instead–it has chosen the easy option of–if not quite keeping quiet–speaking in a whisper.

By accidents of geology and geography–Azerbaijan has strategic significance. The country is at the heart of the Caspian oil and gas boom. A 1600 km pipeline–built and operated by the British-based BP–will soon be pumping a million barrels a day to the Mediterranean. It is one of many former Soviet republics sitting along an arc of instability stretching from the Black Sea to China. Most face the choice between democracy and authoritarianism–some between secularism and militant Islam. It is clear where the west’s interests lie.

There was never a prospect that the latest elections would oust President Ilham Aliyev–who was elected president after another rigged vote two years ago. Aliyev–though–had promised the semblance of a fair poll–in form–if not in substance. Fluent in English–Aliyev is a plausible politician. When I met him in September he said he was forging a western-style democracy to take Azerbaijan into the European-Atlantic community.

"Clever bullshit" is how one western diplomat in Baku describes this patter. In the months before the poll–opposition parties were harassed and rallies banned. Electoral oversight commissions were filled with apparatchiks. On polling day–ballot boxes were stuffed and votes for opposition parties "lost." Aliyev’s supporters duly announced that they had won 90% of the seats. The international response? The US state department said it was deeply disturbed. The European Union complained in terms feeble even by its own low standards. The excuse of western governmen’s is the conduct of the elections did mark some advance on the 2003 presidential poll.

Azerbaijan–though–should not be a hard case. The west could have demanded that the regime allow much greater opposition representation in parliament as a first step. That would have been a perfectly reasonable price for the visit to the White House so coveted by Aliyev.

Instead–just as it did for so many years in its relationships with all those oil-rich states in the Middle East–it has allowed the illusion of stability to trump strategic ambition. Azerbaijan–meanwhile–is left to its own devices and–quite possibly–to the eventual advance of militant Islam.

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