Less than six months after President Bush's inaugural address, the tension between his commitment to democracy and longstanding U.S. security and economic commitments grows steadily more acute, especially in the Muslim world. There is the problem of whether to endorse Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's half-baked presidential election; there is the dilemma of Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov, who massacred hundreds of protesters in one town but continues to host a U.S. military base in another.
Next up: Azerbaijan, an oil-rich former Soviet republic on the Caspian Sea that hosts big U.S. oil companies, a new strategic pipeline for their products, a refueling stop for U.S. military planes -- and a government teetering between consolidating a corrupt autocracy and embracing democratic reforms.
Lodged between Russia and Iran, Turkey and Central Asia, Azerbaijan resembles Ukraine a year ago, as it performed a similar wobble -- one that ended in a fraudulent election, followed by a democratic revolution. Like former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma, Azeri President Ilham Aliyev -- who was elected amid some blatant ballot-box stuffing two years ago -- has promised to hold free and fair parliamentary elections this November. As it did last year, the Bush administration is trying to push the president to keep his word, without pushing so hard that he ends up in the arms of dictator-friendly Russia or China, or reverses his cooperation with the Pentagon and American oil companies.
Azerbaijan's well-developed political opposition and civil society meanwhile is deliberately modeling itself on the democracy movements of Ukraine and neighboring Georgia. It has built a coalition, chosen a protest color (orange), and united around a demand that the elections be free and fair. If they are not, the opposition will call Azeris to the streets. Already, thousands joined two anti-government demonstrations in the capital, Baku, last month.
"We have learned many important lessons from our Georgian colleagues and our Ukrainian colleagues," says Isa Gambar, one of the opposition leaders, who spoke to me by phone last week. "We are studying very closely their method for coming to power peacefully, and trying to follow their example."
The Azeri opposition is not as united or popular as that of Ukraine or Georgia. But the challengers are far better organized and competent than those in many other Muslim countries. Gambar, who once served as an interim president, says the opposition supports free-market capitalism and the integration of Azerbaijan into NATO and the European Union.
Aliyev, for his part, is the 43-year-old son of a former Soviet politburo member who ruled Azerbaijan for a decade before installing him in office. The rigged election that gave him a mandate was followed by the beating and mass arrest of protesters. Still, the secular and Western-educated president regularly charms his American and European visitors. Sipping whiskey and speaking fluent English, he tells them he is genuinely committed to making his country a democratic Western ally.
Given the U.S. oil and security interests, Bush administration policymakers would love to believe him. But should they? Skeptics, including some who have been listening to the young Aliyev's pitch for several years without noting any significant change in Azerbaijan, say the administration risks creating another Egypt: a government that delivers economic and security cooperation and mouths words about democracy while practicing de facto dictatorship. As massive oil revenues begin to flow into Baku, U.S. acceptance of another rigged election this year could cement Aliyev into just another president-for-life.
Administration officials say they understand the risk and have made a fair Azeri election a top policy priority. "We are using every bit of leverage we can muster," one official told me. That includes deferring, for the moment, a prize Aliyev very much wants: a pre-election visit to Washington for a White House meeting with Bush. The Azeris have been told a date won't be set until it becomes clear whether the president will follow through on his promises, including a 13-point plan for the elections he recently unveiled.
So far the signs are mixed. After suppressing one opposition rally in May, the government allowed the two last month. It has opened a dialogue with opposition leaders, and there is talk that Aliyev will agree to debate his opponents on national television. But Gambar says the opposition still isn't allowed to rally or organize outside the capital and has no access to state media. Electoral commissions at the national and provincial level are still dominated by the government apparatchiks who falsified the 2003 vote.
At best, Azerbaijan could deliver a breakthrough for the Bush administration: a historic free election that would end up strengthening its ally Aliyev. At worst Bush will have to choose this November between another oil-rich autocrat and pro-democracy demonstrators who have taken his inaugural address to heart. Either way, a strategic Muslim country that hasn't gotten much attention in Washington since 2001 will soon be in the spotlight.