On the 26 th of February the Center for National and International Studies held its next conference in the series of round tables dedicated to the 96th anniversary of the first Azerbaijan Democratic Republic ( 1918-1920). The conference “The West’s Energy Interests and Democracy Promotion : Will The Foreign Policy Dilemma Ever Be Solved?” was a continuation of the topic, discussed at the first conference and devoted to the politics in the energy rich states. On a very short notice, the CNIS was denied the venue previously agreed with the ISR Plaza hotel, so the conference took place in the office of the Helsinki Assembly Azerbaijan chapter.
The director of CNIS Leila Alieva in her introduction described the subject of the conference. The EU and the USA have been among leading actors in the South Caucasus and the Caspian since the end of the cold war. The expectations in the region were high- they were seen as primary promoters of democracy and supporters of reforms during the transition. Yet, there is a perception among local actors, that for both Europe and the USA the energy agenda in regards of the oil rich states, such as Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and to a certain degree- Russia is higher on foreign policy priorities list, than democracy promotion. Is this the real trend, or simply a perception? If the former, how can the West resolve this dilemma? Are democrats of oil rich littoral states in power to influence these priorities or should they give up their expectations, become “realists” and wait for the depletion of the energy resources in their countries? Or, should they act taking into account this reality? Or, as the third option, the awareness that value based approach is in the best strategic interests of the West is already emerging? These questions were the subject of analysis of the two panels devoted to the foreign policy dilemma of the USA and EU in Caspian littoral states with participation of local and foreign experts.
The first panel focused on the West’s foreign policy in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. The prominent human rights defender, the chair of Kazakhstan International Bureau of Human Rights and Rule of Law Yevgeni Zhovtis stressed that there were 4 enemies of democracy – oil, gas, fight with terrorism and geopolitics. He developed the idea, that threat of radicalism, the fight of which is prioritized by the West in Central Asia, is not coming so much from the East, but rather from the Northern Caucasus of Russia, and focused on domestic factors of democracy building. Such consequence of economic transition as semi legal property acquired during the transition is underestimated by the students of Central Asia. The current systems are of protective-conservative nature and will be increasingly weakening with time. As Maydan in Ukraine proved such systems eventually collapse. In fact, The EU integration was more an excuse, and people are simply tired of corruption and of deficit of social justice. The new generation has formed – a generation with dignity- which revolted against the current conditions.
An analyst and journalist Shahin Abbasov spoke about EU policy dilemmas in Azerbaijan. He noted, that the West also did not have enough leverages of pressure on Azerbaijan.
There are both subjective and objective reasons to it. There are cases of direct buying off support of the external actors ( like the groups of European deputies during the last elections in 2013), or conformism, or influence of energy resources. In recent years power has launched an active lobbying in Europe, using the “caviar diplomacy.” Supporting cultural projects, sports events , such as the European Olympic Games , Baku creates a favorable image of the successful model of the secular regime in a Muslim country. Besides , Baku economically supports the EU recruits from among the former socialist bloc, which also have a voice in the EU. But there are also objective reasons, such as increasing role of Azerbaijan for the EU because of alternative gas supplies and signed projects of TAP and TANAP. However, the 10 prosperous years are approaching to its end, and with the decline of oil production and liberalization of the regime in Iran the geopolitical importance of Azerbaijan for the West will be decreasing.
CNIS researcher Ceyhun Veliyev focused on US policy in Azerbaijan. He divided the independence period of bilateral relations in three stages. Prior to 2001 the US democracy assistance to Azerbaijan was very limited due to the Freedom Support Act amendment 907, which prohibited any US aid to Azerbaijan government because of the Karabagh conflict. After the 2001 terrorist attack the importance of Azerbaijan grew for the USA, and the amendment 907 was lifted, so the US funds started to operate in Azerbaijan, but the real attention to democracy in the country from the USA did not grow.
While supporting the color revolutions of 2003-2004 in Georgia and Ukraine , the United States took a contemplative stance on wholesale falsification of the presidential elections in 2003 in Azerbaijan.
Since 2004, according to the ratings of Freedom House, the situation in Azerbaijan in the area of democracy has become steadily worse . However, after 2008, when it was decided to phase-out the operation in Afghanistan, Azerbaijan’s role in global security began to diminish. Since that time, the United States gradually intensify criticism of the human rights situation in Azerbaijan , increasing attention to this topic.
Situation in Russia was characterized by the analyst and human rights activist Arkadiy Dubnov, who stressed that by now the word “ democracy’ almost became a derogative word among public. This disillusionment in democracy was a result of the “shock therapy” during early 90s, when millions of people were not ready to it. This effect was strengthened by a very modest aid to Russia of the West during transition. However, this factor should be exaggerated, as the domestic factors were more important role. They were the following: controversial nature of reforms; political culture; total disrespect for the private property; religious fundamentalism. While before there was “ an imitational democracy”, today “ democracy” in Russia is considered a bad tone. And the community interests are prevailing over democratic values in the country.
The presentations caused intense and lively discussions. There were expressed the ideas, that the current elites in some oil rich regimes started to get secured through depersonalization of institutions, while the Western elites intervention in democracy promotion will be increasing as is driven by the self preservation instinct. By the end the moderator Leila Alieva asked the panelists’ opinion on what is the positive asset or potential of the region’s states which would help to counteract the structural effects of the oil based economy on democracy building. Among the positive factors the panelists named Western educated youth (Ceyhun Veliyev), inevitable acceleration of the global, regional and national processes, which causes intra-elite dynamics ( Yevgenii Jhovtis), cyclic development in Russia and past of constitutional monarchy ( Arkadiy Dubnov).