How Quickly Bush Forgot

By Jackson Diehl
Monday, December 11, 2006

Some people suppose that President Bush's freedom agenda was buried last Wednesday by the report of the Iraq Study Group. In fact, history will show that the administration largely smothered its own baby, even before Iraq's descent into civil war propelled the resurrection of James Baker and other "realist" friends of Middle Eastern dictators.

Evidence of that conclusion could be found in Washington on the same day Baker delivered his report, as administration officials, members of Congress and business executives gathered for a glittering dinner in honor of Mehriban Aliyeva, the visiting first lady of Azerbaijan.

Aliyeva's husband, Ilham, rules a Muslim country wedged between Russia and Iran that is on the cusp of becoming a major exporter of oil and gas, with strategic pipelines that offer Europe an alternative to Russian suppliers. It also is at a tipping point politically. Aliyev, who inherited power from his father -- a satrap of the Soviet Union -- has teetered between installing his own dictatorship and promising to liberalize the political system along Western lines.

For a year after Bush's soaring second inaugural speech, in which he pledged "to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation," the president seemed to be trying to act on his words in Azerbaijan. Through a letter and State Department envoys, he urged Aliyev to hold free and fair parliamentary elections and promised in return to "elevate our countries' relations to a new strategic level." Unfortunately, Aliyev called Bush's bluff. He staged a vote in October 2005 that even the sympathetic State Department said was marked by "major irregularities and fraud." Days before the election he arrested hundreds of political opponents or would-be rivals, including one of his most pro-Western ministers, Farhad Aliyev.

Last April Bush received President Aliyev at the White House anyway, praising his cooperation with Western energy interests but saying nothing, at least in public, about the rigged elections or political prisoners. U.S. officials argued at the time that it was necessary to ease American pressure on Aliyev because of the risk that he would be driven into the arms of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin has been aggressively courting the autocrats of Central Asia while trying to build a de facto Russian monopoly of the region's energy resources.

Aliyev drew a predictable conclusion: that he could be both a dictator and an American ally as long as he delivered energy and security cooperation. So Azerbaijan is pumping oil to Europe, and has promised gas this winter to pro-Western Georgia. It is allowing the U.S. military to use its airspace, and it reportedly hosts CIA monitoring operations of Iran. Meanwhile, Aliyev's government is systematically attacking the country's pro-democracy forces, while favoring Russia's Azerbaijani allies. The losers are the very "democratic reformers" to whom Bush said: "When you stand for your liberty we will stand with you."

Farhad Aliyev (no relation to the president) is one of them. In visits to Washington as minister for economic development, he was outspoken about the need for Azerbaijan to embrace Western democracy and ally itself with the United States. At home, he had famously declared that "Russia is Azerbaijan's past, the West is its future."

He's now been in prison for nearly 14 months, denied visits from his family or even from doctors seeking to treat his known health problems. Variously accused of coup plotting, corruption and the murder of an opposition journalist -- in each case without evidence -- he has never been tried or even formally charged. Inquiries on his behalf by the State Department (which recognized his "commitment to reform") and several members of Congress were ignored or spurned by the government. Meanwhile, his energy-related business interests and those of his brother Rafiq, who was also imprisoned, have been confiscated and sold to "pro-Russian business enterprises favored by the Azerbaijan authorities," according to a study of the case by Washington lawyer Charles R. Both.

On Nov. 24 Aliyev's administration closed down the country's only independent radio and television station, ANS. The network was charged with "unauthorized broadcasts of several foreign radio programs" -- i.e., the Voice of America, Radio Liberty, and the BBC. Two Russian television networks controlled by Putin's government continue their broadcasts into the country unhindered. U.S. officials who protested the shutdown were told, improbably, that it was the result of excessive zeal by licensing authorities.

Despite this provocation, the Bush administration offered its full cooperation for the visit of Aliyev's wife, a member of parliament who is building her own political career. The trip has received saturation coverage by Azerbaijan's remaining, state-controlled media, which portray it as proof of the close ties between Aliyev and Bush. And no wonder: The day after that gala dinner, Mehriban Aliyeva was received at the White House by First Lady Laura Bush. Did the subject of political prisoners such as Farhad Aliyev come up? Sadly, less than two years after the freedom agenda was born, the very idea of such principled pressure from the Bush White House has become ludicrous.

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