David J. Kramer is senior director for human rights and democracy at the McCain Institute for International Leadership and a former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. Richard Kauzlarich is an adjunct professor at George Mason University and former U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan and to Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Earlier this year, President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan looked like he was softening his authoritarian grip on his country. In March, he released 14 political prisoners ahead of his visit to Washington for President Obama’s Nuclear Security Summit. Even the harsh anti-American rhetoric from Azerbaijani officials and regime media seemed to subside. While in Washington, Aliyev had sit-downs with Vice President Biden and Secretary of State John F. Kerry.
But since the April summit, Aliyev’s regime has intensified its crackdowns on freedoms. Azerbaijan’s rapid, dangerous deterioration demands more decisive action from the United States, yet the Obama administration has remained largely silent.
The government in Baku has increased its arrests and detentions of another dozen opposition figures, peaceful religious believers and civil society activists. Nearly 100 political prisoners are languishing in the country’s jails. Azerbaijani writer Akram Aylisli was detained at the national airport and prevented from leaving the country. Faig Amirli, financial director of Azadliq newspaper and assistant to the chairman of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, was arrested last month. Other opposition politicians arrested in August include Natiq Jafarli, executive secretary of the REAL movement, and NIDA civic movement activist Elgiz Qahraman.
The situation on the ground may get even worse. On Sept. 26, Aliyev’s regime plans to force a referendum which aims to enhance his powers. The result of the referendum is already known; we can be sure that the government will ensure its approval. That means that Aliyev can extend his term from five to seven years, create new positions of vice president (to which he might name a member of his family) and lower the age for members of parliament — opening the door for his son Heydar to be elected. It would not be a surprise if elections were called early under the new constitution to ratify these authoritarian steps.
Quiet diplomacy, we are told, is the only way to protect American interests in Azerbaijan. Along with its strategic location on the Caspian Sea between Russia and Iran, the country of 8 million is rich in oil and gas resources, and plays a role as a national security ally to the United States. No American interests are served if Azerbaijan’s increasing authoritarianism explodes into a political and social crisis.
Moreover, Azerbaijan is following in the footsteps of Vladimir Putin’s media tactics in Russia by increasingly painting the United States as the enemy. An editorial in the state-approved media outlet, Haqqin, accused the United States of “losing” Azerbaijan, “driving it into a corner” and “neglecting a valuable partnership” with Baku. The editorial warned that Azerbaijan will be left with no option but to establish closer relations with its immediate neighbors, Iran and Russia. Aliyev’s supporters have pointed to the failed Turkey coup and have accused the United States of supporting opposition forces not only to spoil the upcoming referendum — but to plot a coup in Azerbaijan.
Aside from legislation introduced by Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) last December and the cries of activists and human rights groups, Azerbaijan has received a free pass from the Obama administration. Rarely do either the U.S. Embassy in Baku or the State Department in Washington speak out against human rights abuses. Even the 2014 raid on U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and the arrest of one of its journalists, Khadija Ismayilova, triggered a mild response from Washington. Ismayilova was released from prison earlier this year but has been refused permission to travel outside the country. RFE/RL is still barred from operating in Azerbaijan, as are most American nongovernmental organizations.
In the past, we have called for sanctions — asset freezes and visa bans — against Azerbaijani officials involved in and responsible for gross human rights abuses, similar to the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law and Accountability Act for Russia. President Obama doesn’t need new legislation to take such measures; he can do so under existing presidential authorities. Beyond that, we should withhold U.S. support for International Monetary Fund and World Bank assistance should Azerbaijan request it amid its deteriorating economic situation and end Overseas Private Investment Corporation and Export-Import Bank lending to Azerbaijan.
The United States should consider recalling our ambassador for extended consultations over human rights concerns as well as the rising anti-American rhetoric of Azerbaijan officials and government-sanctioned media. We also need to get the Europeans on board with similar measures. These steps should be taken unless and until all the political prisoners are released and the referendum enhancing Aliyev’s powers is voided. Letting Azerbaijan follow through on its threat to form closer ties with Moscow and Tehran without balance from the United States may be a necessary, albeit unpleasant, learning experience for the regime in Baku.
The problem in Azerbaijan is not that Aliyev has too little power; it is that he exercises the power he has in the wrong ways against innocent people. America’s silence as the situation on the ground worsens risks making us accomplices to a looming human rights disaster in Azerbaijan.