October 3, 2005

MUSH, YOU AZERIS:

Mushy Fruit Has a Meaning For Azerbaijani Democracy (Philip Kennicott, October 3, 2005, Washington Post)

As Azerbaijan prepares for a Nov. 6 parliamentary election, a test of the country's progress toward democracy, a new road is at the top of the wish list for residents of Gunahir. Without one, the villagers' fruit and vegetables will continue to turn to mush on the way to market, and Gunahir, 140 miles from the capital, Baku, will get none of the projected billions of dollars of economic development funds from a new pipeline projected to begin pumping Caspian Sea oil into world markets this month.

On the morning of Sept. 17, as women did laundry in streams that roar out of mountain gullies and baked bread in tandoor ovens, about two dozen men gathered in the center of Gunahir to meet Elshad Ibrahimov, one of 16 candidates hoping to represent the village's district.

Big, balding and physically vigorous, Ibrahimov, 36, tried to shake the men out of the cynicism and passivity that are endemic among voters here. He insisted they vote, even though their votes had been stolen in the past. And he promised that despite being a member of the ruling party, he would work harder than Hadi Rajabli, the parliament member he seeks to replace.

Ibrahimov's meeting with the voters offered a glimpse of a pioneering effort to establish a democratic process in this rugged and rural land. He is fighting the local establishment in a country that is ruled by an authoritarian president. He is also urging villagers to take power into their own hands within the remains of the old Soviet party system, long grafted onto a clan hierarchy.


The Mushy Fruit Revolution?


MORE:
When the thug is our thug (Max Boot, October 19, 2005, LA Times)

Not only is Azerbaijan happy to sell us oil, it's also willing to cooperate in the war against Islamist terrorists. Though most Azerbaijanis are Shiite Muslims, they are firmly secular; you see more veils in London than in Baku. The government has sent 150 soldiers to Iraq and may be willing to grant the U.S. access to some of its military bases.

All of this creates a major dilemma for President Bush. He has repeatedly pledged to "stand with dissidents and exiles against oppressive regimes." But the oppressive regime in Azerbaijan is willing to do favors for the United States. How hard is the U.S. willing to fight for its ideals?

The answer should come soon. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for Nov. 6, and they promise to be anything but free and fair. The government is passing out multiple voting cards to its supporters, and it is refusing to use indelible ink to prevent fraud. In the run-up to the vote, truncheon-wielding cops have been cracking heads among peaceful demonstrators. And, although returning opposition leader Rasul Guliyev never made it to Baku on Monday (he was detained in Ukraine), hundreds of his supporters were rounded up by authorities determined to avoid a repeat of the peaceful revolutions that have swept post-Soviet Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan.

The U.S. reaction to this thuggery has been muted, to put it kindly. Two years ago, when Ilham Aliyev was anointed president in a rigged election following his father's demise, the State Department appeared to offer congratulations rather than criticism. Nowadays, U.S. Ambassador Reno L. Harnish III speaks highly of Aliyev's supposed moderation and is not protesting too loudly this "reformer's" rampant rights abuses. The ambassador tried — unsuccessfully — to block a group of Western think tanks from holding a conference last weekend in Baku that featured leading opposition figures. He told organizers he didn't want to stir things up before the election.

Yet stirring things up is precisely what Bush has been doing with his pro-democracy rhetoric. If the president is serious about his "guiding ideal of liberty for all," he can't afford to make an exception for Azerbaijan.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 3, 2005 8:12 AM
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