Thursday, October 16, 2008

Democracy's Latest Dilemma: Azerbaijan

Western observers have criticized the recent elections in Azerbaijan. There was some speculation that this would not be done, for fear that any unfriendliness towards Ilham Aliyev, the president and son of Azerbaijan's previous 30-year autocrat, would push the strategically located former Soviet nation towards Russia.

As Reuters reports:
"Victory for Aliyev was never in doubt. The government says he is genuinely popular, and points to an oil-fueled economic boom that appears to have trickled some way down to the rural poor."

Should we be reassured by the fact that he is a benevolent autocrat? According to the government, no less.

While Western powers are most concerned that oil and gas flow unimpeded from Baku in Azerbaijan to Poti in Georgia, the Russians are interested in setting up toll-booth regimes that answer to the Kremlin, and the Iranians want to see the largely Shiite state turn its back on both camps. There is little indication that the 8.3 million Azeris are ready to jump in any direction. The main political problem on their radar screens is still what is has been for hundreds of years: a smoldering neighborhood turf war with Kurds and Armenians. Russian or Persian influences wash over them in Imperial tides, but from the ground-eye perspective, they simply serve to put one ethnic group at an advantage over another. Now Western powers are publicly debating how nice to be to the reigning dynasty, and the debate seems to center on how far we can reconcile their lack of Democracy with our desire for it on their behalf.

France and Britain may say what they will, but the major European powers have no interest in or track record of spreading Democracy. They may portray it as a sophisticated respect for cultural identity, or a worldy-wise recognition that most of the world will always be the province of wolves and hyenas, but the fact remains that even within their spheres of former Imperial influence, they do business with whoever is standing behind the counter. The fact they themselves have Democracies of different stripes helps them in matters of Public Relations and carefully chosen moments of moral outrage, but there is, one smells, a distinct sense of cultural or even racial superiority in their failure to forward their vaules.

There are many competing voices shouting for the ear of American Foreign policy. Kissingerian realists will do business with anyone and overtly or covertly consider anything. Ardent nationalists take a harder line and divide world up into potential enemies and friends of various degrees of servility. The left, as is so often the case in America, is splintered across a spectrum of radicality from the belief that we must use our power only for humanitarian purposes, to the Chomskyan extremities of radical disengagement, which would amount to an American collapse along the lines of the one experienced by the former Soviet Union.

Since the bruising fall of Neo-Conservatism, the idea that we must spread democracy is one viewed with suspicion by all camps, and yet no one has a strong argument against it that they are willing to put before the public in any persuasive way. The radical disengagement party views making democractic reform a priority in foreign policy as a smoke screen for pursuing our interests, but this misses the point: should we view democratic reform as in our interest?

The Azerbaijan Democratic Republic was the first secular democratic state in the Muslim world. Created after the collapse of the Russian Empire, it lasted only until the Soviets invaded. It seated members of all minorities, including Russians, Germans, and Jews, and gave equal rights to women. We will never know if it could have been a beacon of modernity for the region because its riches proved to be a curse: the Soviets needed the oil more than the Russian Empire had before it. With the collapse of the Soviet Union little changed: one Aliyev passed power to another. While being ferociously ethnocentric, both have been careful to be as neutral as prudence allows in international affairs. Does its history make it a good candidate for democratic reform? Is it worth losing it to Russia to find out?

Taking the long view, in the absence of democracy -- broadly construed -- it seems that there are only varieties of nationalism, or worse, bed-rock racism. If the world is to be divided up like a Risk board with fractal borders between ethnic groups, the future of the human race is bleak, if indeed there is to be a far future. Where that leaves our relationship with Azerbaijan, predicated as it is on energy needs and competition with Russia, is unclear. But with energy concerns at the center of the geopolitical struggle, the sincerity of Azeri democracy may be a moot point.

(Thank you to the Azerbaijan geocities website for the map)