The thousands of Europeans who descended on Azerbaijan this week for tomorrow’s finals of the Eurovision Song Contest are likely to suffer from one of two common caricatures of the host country.
Those who know Azerbaijan mainly from elegant commercials on CNN will see in the capital, Baku, a city booming on the fruits of oil wealth and graced with a stunning promenade along a turquoise sea. Common men fish from yachts, and angelic beauties stroll through the mysterious old city.
Those who follow international news will expect to see an authoritarian country in which civil society cowers in the shadows, journalists are imprisoned, and the economy is sinking into an oil trap of corruption and inflation rates of more than 7 percent.
Like good jokes, though, caricatures contain both truth and exaggeration, and those surrounding Azerbaijan are no exception.
The country’s record on democracy and human rights is troubling. During my tenure as U.S. ambassador in Baku until January, I spent more time on these issues than on any other. I also saw firsthand the value of the Euro-Atlantic community pulling together on the levers they have, both behind the scenes and prudently in public, to bring about positive change.
Unexpectedly, Eurovision 2012 has provided an extra lever. Azerbaijanis collectively felt a rare rush of pride a year ago, when two of their compatriots won Eurovision 2011, and so gave the country the right to host the next event. They felt that for the first time, European society had metaphorically put its arm around the shoulders of this nation of 9 million in the Caucasus to say: “Maybe there really is a bit of European civilization in you; we’ll come and see for ourselves next year.”
Azerbaijan’s leaders recognized that hosting the pop-music contest, an annual kitsch fest watched on TV by an estimated 125 million people, provided an unprecedented opportunity to showcase Azerbaijan as a modern and sophisticated country that merits genuine partnership with Europe. In its zeal to seize this opportunity, though, the authorities made mistakes. Those included brutishly exercising eminent domain to demolish apartments to make way for a road to the Crystal Hall, the new stadium that was built to stage this year’s pop extravaganza.
But the government at the same time freed two of the country’s highest-profile prisoners: journalist Eynulla Fatullayev and protest organizer Jabbar Savalan. And, just a few weeks ago, with Eurovision looming on the near horizon, Baku’s local authorities permitted a large-scale public protest for the first time in several years. These were steps that the Euro-Atlantic community’s diplomats had long and vigorously sought.
Human-rights activists also understood that Eurovision offered an opportunity to highlight Azerbaijan’s failings. They argue that the gestures the government has made by releasing some political prisoners don’t go far enough. They say all those detained in connection with Arab Spring-inspired protests last year should be released, and that the government should not be rewarded for correcting mistakes it never should have made in the first place.
We need to keep pressing Azerbaijan to do more. But my own experience also suggests there is utility in recognizing progress on human rights when it happens. Failing to do so risks signaling, falsely, that we in the West are insatiable critics with hidden agendas. When that happens, it undermines our credibility and leverage with the people we seek to influence.
The tendency of many Western observers to expect Azerbaijan to fail on human rights reflects an image of the country as too corrupt, too undemocratic and too broken to be taken seriously. But that’s a crude understanding that risks leading the U.S. to forgo opportunities to advance human rights in Azerbaijan, as well as other U.S. strategic interests.
Azerbaijan’s small size shouldn’t obscure its significance. It is the only country that borders both Iran and Russia, and is rich in gas and oil that Europe needs. It has a secular state and a majority-Shiite population, with traditions of religious diversity and tolerance. The government recently built the Jewish Ashkenazi community’s main synagogue in the capital, following its earlier construction of the Roman Catholic community’s primary church.
Azerbaijan has taken these steps despite severe tension with Iran, which seeks to destabilize its secular neighbor: An Iranian legislator and religious organizations in Iran recently accused the Azeri government of planning a gay pride parade during Eurovision, which the Iranians claimed would be an insult to Muslims everywhere. Officials in Tehran fear that Azerbaijan’s success as a prosperous, pro-Western state risks animating Iran’s citizens with similar ambitions.
Azerbaijan nevertheless refuses to be intimidated into softening its alignment with the U.S. and its closest allies. Instead, Azerbaijan has decided to tie its survival as an independent state to its physical connection to the Euro-Atlantic community through oil and gas pipelines. More than one-third of all nonlethal supplies destined for U.S. and coalition military forces in Afghanistan pass through the port of Baku.
Azerbaijan’s record on economic reform has been significantly better than is portrayed in the Western media. The country hasn’t behaved like Nigeria and many other petro-states. Economic reformers have followed prudent fiscal and monetary policies, and established a well-managed sovereign wealth fund modeled on Norway’s. And despite the corruption that permeates Azerbaijan’s society, government reformers invested much of the country’s energy revenue in an anti-poverty program that helped reduce the poverty rate from 49 percent to 9.1 percent from 2003 to 2009 (16 percent, according to the World Bank).
Azerbaijan is not a caricature. It is a young country eager to prove its reliability as a friend of the U.S. and its allies, whether on energy security, transportation to and from Afghanistan, or containing Islamist radicalism. Our challenge is to elicit an equally strong partnership on internal reforms. Azerbaijan’s being allowed to host Eurovision 2012 isn’t proof of Western failure to hold the government to account. It provides us with leverage to elicit further progress on critical changes, and we should use it as well as we can.
(Matthew Bryza is a former U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan, director of the International Centre for Defense Studies in Tallinn, Estonia, and a non-resident senior fellow of the Atlantic Council in Washington. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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