AMHERST, Mass.—Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Kennan Institute Fellow, and renowned expert on Azerbaijani Turkish studies Audrey Altstadt, in an interview with Azerbaijani news agency Turan, criticized the current political climate in Azerbaijan and its relations with the West. Focusing on the increased persecution of civil society activists and journalists, she noted that the human rights situation in Azerbaijan has worsened slowly through the past few years.
“I think the regime is afraid of something like the Ukrainian Maidan phenomena or something like the Arab Spring — something like the Azerbaijani version of that kind of unrest,” Altstadt said. “And because they’re afraid of that, they’ve taken a whole lot of serious measures. They have attracted especially the younger generation into government service or the kinds of jobs where they are not necessarily doing political work but where they are also not threatening the regime as their jobs really keep them from moving into the opposition. But if someone doesn’t listen to those small signals at the beginning they run into the risk of increasingly threatening harassment of different types: threats against individuals, against family members, to be taken into questioning, charged for a crime discovering that there have been drugs or weapons planted in their yard, or home or their car, then come pre-trial detentions, jail for years,” Altstadt said, adding that the number of those who disagree with the regime is growing and people who decide to get involved in politics under these circumstances are very brave and are taking a huge risk.
Altstadt also speculated that the current regime is afraid of losing the privileges of power. When journalists like Khadija Ismayilova explore corruption in the ruling circles, they are subjected to threats, she pointed out.
Altstadt remembered that in 1991 to 1992, people looked into the future with optimism, thinking that it was very likely to be the beginning of a path toward democratization, toward an open civil society, towards serious economical and other developments. But that has not been the case.
“However, the wide range of suppression of journalists, of public speech, public assemblies of critical voices go far beyond what you could really explain with security interests. You really can see which regimes talk about trying to protect national security as an excuse to suppress their critics. I don’t see how beating prisoners in jail helps Azerbaijan’s national security. I don’t see how increasing by 10 times the fine for public demonstrations contributes to Azerbaijan’s national security; I don’t see how throwing drugs into the pockets of young people contributes to Azerbaijan’s national security; I don’t see how the framing of the children of political activists and setting them up so that they can be arrested and convicted on fake charges – how that contributes to Azerbaijan’s national security,” Altstadt said.
Regarding the Assistant Secretary of the Department of State Victoria Nuland’s statement about launching a new US-Azerbaijan structure of human rights and democracy, Altstadt noted that any dialog is better than no dialog. But the long history of other dialogs, mainly between Azerbaijan and the Council of Europe, the numerous commissions, discussions and reports, including plans of improvement, shows there have been no results.
“Many of us worry seeing how they torture Gunel Hasanli only because she is an oppositionist’s daughter. Such phenomena cannot shape a positive image of Azerbaijan in America. These are the very facts that become the main source for the international criticism,” Altstadt said.
Regarding the millions of dollars that the Azerbaijani government spends in Washington to improve its country’s image, the expert said that such efforts bring about an “interesting effect.”
“The most important thing for the lobbyists is to get money and report,” Altstadt said. “Over the past half a year more and more people have told me that they are annoyed by what they call intrusive advertising. Recently, I was told about a case when a lobbying company employee introduced himself as a scientist in order to get into hearings about human rights violations in Azerbaijan. He was unmasked at the event and those present saw that. When a lobbying firm takes up such measures and meanwhile praises Azerbaijan, these efforts will be useless. I have more than once heard complaints in Congress that they are already fed up with hearing all that. If such propaganda brought some positive effects for Azerbaijan in the past, now it works against Azerbaijan,” Altstadt said, noting that she herself sees this reaction in Washington and hears it from people who are obliged to listen to Azerbaijani-paid lobbyists.