Ireli, Azerbaijan’s eager tool of oppression

Now. Do I like abusing little defenseless kids? No, I don’t. Well, yes. I do. If it’s an Ireli kid. If you ever wanted to do a movie featuring an operetta regime and their clueless club of cheerleaders, just look at the dictatorship running the country of Azerbaijan and the youth organization supporting it. It’s called Ireli Public Union.

A grieving mother at a protest rally in Baku - by Ilkin Zeferli

A grieving mother at a protest rally in Baku – by Ilkin Zeferli

Let’s set the stage. Azerbaijan is a small, ex-Soviet country in the South Caucasus, tucked between Russia to the North and Iran to the South. Its geographical situation alone provides Azerbaijan with the continued interest of everyone from Moscow to Peking, from Brussels to Washington DC, from Jerusalem to Ankara and Tehran. The Caspian Sea to its East gives Baku oil and gas riches; to its West, Armenia provides Azerbaijan with a reason for conflict and war.

Dictatorships come in differents sizes, shapes and structures. The one ruling in Baku is built on the legacy of president Heydar Aliyev, a former KGB-general who overthrew the democratically elected government of president Elcibey in the early 1990’s and founded family-run authoritarian rule. Heydar projected strength, security and a sense of national unity to an uncertain people in shaky, post-Soviet times and amidst a war with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabagh, a war that Azerbaijan was losing badly. Until this day, Armenia occupies a large swath of Azerbaijani territory, while the dispute over the status of Nagorno-Karabagh remains unresolved. Ethnic tensions and the occasional violence between Armenians and Azerbaijani’s are nothing new. But the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, still very much on, has been providing an added excuse for both governments to instill a profound hate of the other in the minds of their peoples. The NK-conflict also provides a convenient subterfuge to keep an iron grip on the affairs of state. After all: there is a war going on.

While the old Aliyev was able to make his people believe he gave them security, unity, nation-building and patriotic pride, his son Ilham, who took over when his father died, lacks any kind of national vision or agenda. His reign has seen a government, that at its very beginning might still have been, partially at least, about building Azerbaijan, fall into being solely about stuffing the pockets of a kleptocratic alliance of families and special interests that controls all energy resources and vital parts of the economy. With devastating results to the quality of government, to the state of Azerbaijan’s public institutions and services, and to any sense of individual freedom and quality of life. On the Economist’s latest EIU Democracy Index, Azerbaijan is defined as an authoritarian regime, ranking 140 out of 167, with a score of 3.15 out of 10. The Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders puts Azerbaijan at 156 out of 179 countries.Transparency International has a yearly Global Corruption Index: Azerbaijan is way down below at 139 out of 174.

Pick any yardstick you like. Despite its outwardly modern image, its well-designed new buildings (for which old architectural heritage had to be destroyed) or its flashy CNN commercials, Azerbaijan’s prosperity is a flimsy facade. By any international measure, the Aliyev-regime has turned Azerbaijan into one of the world’s most oppressive, corrupt, dysfunctional, unfree, undemocratic, economically failed societies. In an environment that was controlling and totalitarian from the very beginning, your only way of social and economic advancement is siding with the powers that be. Those who refuse to trade off their political rights for some measure of social standing and a shot at making a quick buck through favoritism, well: they get marginalized, persecuted, or killed. And the problems are getting worse, not better.

So. This is Azerbaijan. A country with a great history, natural beauty, freedom-minded people, fabled hospitality, the birth place of some of the world’s greatest literature and works of art. But with a government that uses oil and gas wealth not to build schools, health care, public infrastructure, housing, but to enrich the elite. And to buy the attention of the international community, bring international events to Baku, win favors from the powerful, the privilege to sit at the high tables of Davos, DC, Brussels. Having robbed the country and its people blind, what the regime craves now is the recognition of the international community. Western leaders in particular.

To be fair: those same Western leaders have an ambivalent track record when it comes to dealing with Azerbaijan. On one hand, many democratic countries invest handsomely in the development of democracy, human rights, rule of law, and economic progress of the Azerbaijani people as a whole. On the other, Azerbaijan is an important pawn in the regional game of power and access to energy, and no government in Europe or North-America is willing to alienate Azerbaijan and drive it into the hands of, say, Russia or China. The Azerbaijani regime knows this all too well, and plays its cards cautiously, balancing one foreign interest against the other. The best, long-term, stable, trustworthy and friendly partnerships are built with democratic governments and truly open societies. But unfortunately, this truth is lost on your average decision maker in the democratic West.

Back to abusing little kids. When I was living in Baku myself, working on democracy, good governance and political issues, Ireli was nothing but an empty shell. A token pro-Aliyev youth movement that didn’t do much of any consequence, besides trying to get funds from the European Union to throw away on international exchanges for the sons and daughters of the corrupt elite. Ireli was to sit tight and shut up until the moment of need would arrive, when the regime wanted a countervailing force against some protest movement, that at that point still was to materialize with any importance.

Not too long ago, that moment came. First, a new kind of dissident youth networks gained ground and started to stage activities mocking the government, its corruption, and the deplorable state of society and public services. Their actions got some attention. Then, the old, persecuted and marginalized political parties joined forces. Again, yes, but this time they included groups and independents from civic life. Most recently, social unrest hit some of the smaller towns outside Baku. Rural people got fed up with the stealing and arbitrary use of power by local governors, and took to the streets. Then, a young soldier, a conscript, was murdered by his senior officers. Finally, an Azerbaijani author, Akram Aylisli, was courageous enough to write a story set against the conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabagh. In his book, he self-searchingly questioned his own nation’s attitudes towards their neighbours. A daring, much needed thing to do. But an explosive act too, endangering his life.

So. Something stirred in the waters. People got jailed, family members harassed and threatened, but this was in itself nothing new. Protests erupted, and this time, people could cite social causes for their dissatisfaction, not primarily political ones. This time, it was about justice and fairness.

Ireli sprang into action to defend their overlord, president Ilham Aliyev. On Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere, they started playing down the extent of the malcontent. The size of the protests. And attacking dissidents. Suddenly, to me at least, the group that I got to know as a bunch of lethargic and spoiled little rich kids turned out to be not so lethargic anymore. In the past few years, it turned out, Ireli had been built up to play the attack dog for the regime quite aggressively.

What do I find so infuriating about the likes of Ireli? I guess the anger goes back to notions about complicity to tyranny set forth so meticulously by Hannah Arendt. In times of oppression, it is those that roll with the system that actively perpetuate it. It’s the opportunism, the jockeying for a good position in life, in business, in government, the perspective of a personal reward, that makes people opt for a place in the system of repression. They’re not forced to. They choose consciously. They are not mistaken or misguided. It is not that they believe its for the good of the country. They know very well it is only for the good of their own pockets. And for this, they willingly turn themselves into a tool to repress, criminalize and attack the voice of dissent. Every time an Ireli kid claims he loves his country: somewhere, a little truth fairy dies.

This human failure is of all times, of everywhere, I know that. Still. If we resign to it and remain silent, we also become perpetrators.

A Despot removed, a Regime changed?

With President Ben Ali gone and the so-called Jasmin Revolution well under way in Tunesia, an interesting if somewhat baffling kind of wishful thinking seems to be taking hold of large sections of the media in both the Middle-East and elsewhere. The line of reasoning goes something like this: Tunesia will take a turn for the better, and here’s to hoping that Algeria, Jordan, Egypt and other countries will too. Some even muse that the ripple of change will spread from Tunesia not only through the Arab world, but to the rest of Africa, the Caucasus and Central Asia too.

Many believe that political change happens when the masses join forces and oust the brutal dictator that rules them. This view is somewhat romantic. More times than not, the ripple of change starts at the top, not the bottom. A dictatorship is never a one-man show. It’s a pyramid of many other powerful actors and factions. A despot is ousted by people that were once high up in the ranks of the regime themselves, or still are, and that inspire trust in the other members of the regime and the military. Albeit that simultaneous popular revolt can be helpful. The old King has outrun his usefulness and has become a liability for the other members of the ruling class. They want another King, and the powers that be hope that the new guy won’t change the state of affairs too much.

In the Middle East, in Central Asia, and in the Caucasus, that state of affairs is marked by a few recurring elements: the political elite and the state are one and the same. And the men that are in charge of the country, are also in charge of its main money makers: its companies and natural resources. The bureaucrats, the military leaders and their families and dependents profit from their combined hold on political and economic power.

As long as bread and oil are cheap, and taxes are not actually expected to be paid (because after all: the regime does not need taxes to enrich themselves) most people are content to accept their overlord’s political oppression, curbing of human rights, corruption and bad state of public services. As long as they are left alone when they keep their head down. It’s as it has always been and as it will always be, they’ll say. Added to that, true political opponents of the regime – of the kind that never was in power to begin with – typically do not inspire much confidence amongst the middle class and the masses. They are not often viewed as a credible alternative to the one that’s in charge right now.

For the most part, the countries that are in turmoil now do not have any form of democratic tradition, nor any reliance on the rule of law. One result is that, once the despot is ousted, public trust that someone who comes out of nowhere – a revolt leader for instance, or parties that have forever been in opposition without governing experience – could actually run the country is very low. Instead, the people would tend to rely more on some (former) number Two or Three from the regime. Because they would trust him to run the country smoothly, with support rather than active resistance from the bureaucracy and military, and because it’s better to have the devil you know, than the one you don’t know.

So, more likely than not, Tunesia and other countries will continue to be ruled by just another off-shoot of a corrupt and incompetent elite. And if he manages to soothe the public with price reductions and a symbolic measure or two, nothing will be heard from the uprising again.

Is this the only option? Of course not. It is possible that a former regime loyalist takes the reigns, but that he is a truly reformed man, who believes that only true political and economic reform will serve his and his country’s people’s long term interest.

Look for the signs. Who stays, and who goes from the Halls of Power in the upcoming weeks? Will oppressive laws be abolished quickly? Will the state loosen it’s grip on the economy and the country’s resources? What happens to the privileges of the elite? Is the unrest a case of the masses, or are the middle and higher classes involved too? It’s developments like these that would separate the reformer from the poseur. Until then, free and democratic countries and their leaders should be very careful about who they support in the political struggle that is unfolding. We don’t know who our friends are yet.