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.

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Iran State media demonizing free press: this is how they do it

Oppressive regimes in the Middle-East often use State Media to vilify and demonize independent sources of news. For a non-Arabic or non-Persian speaking public, it may be difficult to understand just how vicious these attacks can become.

In the case of Iran, broadcasters like my own Radio Zamaneh are the frequent subject of violent criticism by state-controlled media.  Of late, the Persian service of the BBC is being targeted, possibly for airing a documentary on Supreme Leader Khamenei a while ago.

I thought it would be interesting for a non-Persian speaking audience to provide an ad verbatim translation of one such attack against the BBC, which was aired on September 27th, 2011, on one of the major TV news channels. I won’t comment on it too much; just read it for yourself. Note that the Baha’i, mentioned in the news broadcast, is a faith forbidden in Iran, whose adherents are severely persecuted by the authorities.

Iranian TV comments on detention of people accused of cooperating with BBC

[News presenter] The detention in Tehran of a number of people connected to the government-linked television in England, the BBC, appears to be one of those cases that, the more the opposite side denies something, the more confident everyone becomes that there was in fact something going on.

Since the detention last week of a number of people linked to the BBC, the
official television in England has become pretty agitated, and some people
inside the country have also become very active revealing their hidden
agenda.

Only a few days ago, the intelligence minister [Heydar Moslehi] revealed the true nature of the BBC network which is working as a media cover for
England’s intelligence organization, carrying out intelligence activities
inside Iran.

[Actuality of a female BBC Persian newsreader] The BBC Persian says that it is an independent network and does not have any colleagues working for it inside Iran.

[Actuality of a male BBC Persian newsreader] The BBC Persian does not have anyone cooperating with it inside Iran, and basically it [BBC Persian] does not cooperate with anyone in that country.

[Actuality of an interview with a male BBC employee] Basically, we do not
have anyone cooperating with us inside Iran.

[News presenter] Those three people repeated that phrase in a single night
and in a single BBC newscast. The BBC repeated the same phrase several times on previous days. Why the official network of England is insisting so much that it does not have anyone cooperating with it inside Iran? It seems that the BBC’s repeated denials are somewhat amateurish and hasty, and instead of helping to prove its claim, it is helping its audience to come to the conclusion that the real story is something else. But, what is the real
story?

A few days ago, the intelligence minister said that the BBC network was
indeed a media cover for intelligence activities and the network is in fact
a Baha’i network.

[Actuality of a BBC Persian programme in which the presenter says] Today we have come to the port city of Haifa, in the north of Israel. Let us visit
this place, the international centre for the Baha’is in order to know the
Baha’is better and to see what they do here in Israel. A few streets away, I
went to visit Albert Lincoln, the secretary-general of the Baha’i community.

[News presenter] What is noteworthy here is the serious efforts of certain
people and currents who support the people who were linked to this Baha’i
network which pretends to be a media source but it is in fact an
intelligence network. House of Cinema which itself believes to be a trade,
issued a statement immediately after the detention of the people who were
linked with the BBC and said that the detentions were the result of a big
misunderstanding. This pretend trade even issued a second statement
supporting those who were detained and expressed regret about their
detention. In order to justify those people’s cooperation with the Baha’i
BBC network, the House of Cinema claimed that they cooperated [with the BBC] in order to earn a living. The interesting thing here is that the head of
the BBC Persian, despite previous denials that those people were linked with the BBC, has expressed his regret [about their detention].

[Actuality of the head of the BBC Persian] I really regret the detention of
those who are accused of cooperating with the BBC.

[News presenter] It seems that the circle of people linked with the Baha’i
BBC network, who are carrying out intelligence activities under the guise of media activity, has extensive and complicated dimensions. The majority of those people have been identified and we should wait to be informed about the dimensions of the case in future days.

[Video shows a BBC logo, as well as a logo saying “Baha’i Broadcasting
Corporation”]

Source: Vision of the Islamic Republic of Iran Network 2, Tehran, in Persian, 1700 gmt 27 Sep 11  – translation provided by BBC Monitoring

Democracy: 10 simple rules for successful transition from authoritarian to democratic rule

As we are deposing dictators (or aspiring to do so) all across the Middle-East, the Caucasus and Central Asia, the day after the party can make one feel a bit hung-over, and even despairing when looking at the daunting task ahead. Don’t worry, it has been done many times before you. In Africa, in Latin-America, and in Europe. Lessons have been learned. And trust me: transforming societies doesn’t have to be rocket science.

The benefits of democracy and the rule of law are not as universally accepted and self-explanatory anymore as twenty to thirty years ago. But the bad reputation these concepts have gained in recent years often stem from them having been implemented incompletely. In addition to that, the idea that a democracy governed by the rule of law is somehow at odds with, say, religion or culture, is utterly false. In the long run, truly democratic countries with a fair legal and judicial system, open society and open economy stand a much better chance of becoming stable, secure, prosperous nations with something to gain for everyone, than any other system.

Without any claim to infallibility, my years in international democracy, governance and media development have taught me these 10 simple rules for successful transition from authoritarian to democratic rule.

1. Take your time. Have all major political forces sign off on a technical government of non-political, authoritative experts that run the country for 3-4 years without parliamentary or other interference.

2. Clean up all legislation to ensure open, transparent, fair, non-discriminatory, inclusive, governmental, economic, social and legal processes. Incorporate human rights treaties and agreements.

3. Reform the bureaucracy, military, police and judiciary. Clear out obviously criminal and/or corrupt and inefficient officials from the very top on downwards. But leave everyone else in place, regardless of affiliation. They know how to run things.

4. Reform and retrain the judiciary and correctional system to restore trust in court independence.

5. Introduce unbiased and true education in all schools and in public campaigns about the country’s history, past faults and achievements, and integrate universal human rights and concepts of equality, non-violence and non-discrimination.

6. Reform the economy. Eradicate monopolies and oligarchies. Undo the close ties between government branches, officials and business enterprises, economic sectors. Create level playing field, access to economic activities for previously disenfranchised, non-connected individuals and groups.

7. Facilitate independent, pluralist media. Boost professional journalism colleges and trainings. Always remain responsive and accountable to journalists, even if they ask uneasy questions.

8. Facilitate a wide variety of civil society organizations. But fund only consortia of diverse, state-independent, non-ideological NGO’s.

9. Design an electoral system that ensures access to and participation in decision-making for all social groups, classes. Make sure that minorities, also those formerly in power, win something and feel they remain part of the process. Enforce a clean, free and fair voting process and result, pre- and post-election, even in the smallest and remotest of areas.

10. Invest in political party building. Facilitate effective campaigns that connect all parties and their ideas to the public. Train high quality future politicians that understand democracy is about trust, compromise, open communication and transparent decisions, sharing benefits between majorities and minorities, and long term gains for your constituency rather than short term ones.

Now, and only now: vote.

Democracy or Human Rights: an unexpected and uneasy choice

Thinking of recent events in Tunis and Cairo, I can’t help thinking of one of my journalism students in Baghdad: Thiba. She, like others I know in Beirut, Istanbul, Casablanca, and Amman, is a modern, secular young woman. Thiba is a Muslim who considers her faith, and how she chooses to exercise it, a matter of personal choice. But she lives in the capital of Iraq. A place that, in many respects, has turned into a theocracy in a way that would make the mollahs in Tehran reminisce of the good old days. There are little personal choices left for Thiba. She does not belong to the rich, happy few that has the means to escape: so for her, conformity, peer pressure, and social conservatism masquerading as true religion dictate public life now. This was quite different under Saddam.

In the West, we often have a somewhat monolithic view of the Near East. We tend to think of it as one large traditional, pious society where everyone is content to follow the rule of Islam – or rather the reactionary, male-centered version that governmental and religious authorities choose to enforce. We tend to overlook the very real cultural war that is going on all through the region, between religious and cultural traditionalists on one hand, and liberal, secular, free-thinking individuals on the other. In some places this cultural war is palpable. In others, it is a silent war that seems all but lost to the modernists.

When it comes to the issue of democracy versus human rights, liberals and minorities in the Near East – whether Muslim or Christian, men or women – often face a hard choice. Under authoritarian rule, their social rights and privileges are to some degree respected. Although many dictators in the Near East came to adopt religious fervor as an integral part of their governing ideology in recent decades – along with nationalism and anti-Zionism – the secular Muslim elite and ethnic minorities feel protected from Islamist zealots, and Christians feel shielded from persecution by the other People of the Book. If you would ask a modern, progressive inhabitant of Cairo – someone that might have a world outlook surprisingly similar to yours in London or Amsterdam – whether he prefers democracy over Mubarak, you might be in for a very uneasy answer. It isn’t that he particularly likes Mubarak. But it’s still better than the potential alternative.

Many secularists in the Middle East have made a bargain: they have essentially given up on their political rights – including their right to vote in free and fair elections, a transparent government and an independent judiciary – in order to safeguard their social rights. On a rational level, they do see that true democracy would bring them both political and social freedom; but they find it hard to see that this stage of true democracy would ever be reached, once a newly installed fledgling democracy has opened the floodgates to the Islamists. This is the dilemma that many in Tunesia  – and other countries across the globe  – now face, and it partly explains the current stand-off in Tunis between those that want a smooth transition and those that fight for radical, swift, democratic change.

When it comes to our foreign policies, we in the West often make the wrong choices. We either support a nasty dictator, or we support those that claim to bring true democracy to their country, but often strand – willingly, or unwillingly – in some imperfect version of it that only brings more corruption and new forms of oppression. We should start to support the lone individuals that truly share with us modern values about freedom, equality, human rights.