The writer is executive director of Meydan TV.
Having been jailed twice for criticizing the government of Azerbaijan, one of the world’s most repressive countries, I have taken up residence in Germany, but the government of Azerbaijan continues its efforts to silence and intimidate me. As I was having coffee in Berlin recently, I learned that 23 of my relatives in Azerbaijan had disowned me in an open letter they signed and sent to President Ilham Aliyev. Accusing me of betraying Azerbaijan, they expressed their full support for Aliyev and his “domestic and foreign policy.”
The next day, I learned that my cousin Polad Abdullayev had been arrested, and the police forced my relatives to sign the letter pledging their loyalty to Aliyev.
All this happened a month after I received a death threat from Aliyev sent via his sports minister, Azad Rahimov.
Why is the government of Azerbaijan targeting me and my family?
Because I’m an activist who founded Meydan TV, a Berlin-based independent media outlet reporting the truth about Azerbaijan.
But mine is just one case. There are about 100 political prisoners languishing in Azerbaijani jails.
International media often tout Aliyev’s alleged popular support, and indeed Aliyev has methodically used Azerbaijan’s petro-wealth to burnish his image abroad. In December, Aliyev tweeted that “Azerbaijan is known worldwide as a successful model” of “thought-out reforms.” That claim, however, is belied by the rabid crackdown the government has unleashed on oppositionists, writers and dissidents.
Opposition journalists are in jail, where they’re often subjected to beatings. Elections are rigged. In an astounding display of voter falsification, the results of the 2013 presidential elections revealing Aliyev’s “victory” were mistakenly released one day before the vote.
Why would the government of such a remarkably “successful” model use its repressive apparatus to intimidate journalists, and even take their relatives hostage?
Aliyev’s support base is much more tenuous than he likes to portray it. Dwindling oil resources are putting extra pressure on his mafia-style government. His power is propped up by a very few wealthy and highly organized criminal groups that work in concert with the state. The oil money allows this small group to monopolize the media. Even small online media outlets are viewed as a threat to the authoritarian infrastructure.
For more than a decade, high oil prices shielded Aliyev’s power from dissent and created favorable structural conditions to maintain the status quo. Aliyev would not allow economic freedoms out of fear that dispersing wealth could eventually lead to political competition.
The Azeri government was always considered an important strategic partner of the United States in the Caucasus. Locked between increasingly belligerent Russia and isolated Iran, Azerbaijan appears as a lesser evil for Western states. However, with Putin-style anti-Western rhetoric on the rise, Azerbaijan is drifting toward its big neighbor to the north.
After more than a decade of hollow talk about diversifying the economy, the state budget still relies on hydrocarbons for 70 percent of its revenue and 95 percent of exports. The falling oil prices are shaking the foundations of Aliyev’s petro-state, with the reserves of the State Oil Fund, which contributes billions to the state budget, rapidly decreasing. The national currency suffered a drastic devaluation of about 33 percent, with experts and citizens expecting yet another devaluation this year.
The recent wave of repression betrays Aliyev’s increasing lack of confidence in his political future when the foundations of his economic power are gradually eroding. The Azerbaijani government has destroyed its civil society in a calculated effort to preempt the possibility of a gradual transition. Liberal groups capable of competing for power have been destroyed.
Despite the crackdown, some dissidents want to keep working, and their role is all the more important in restoring civil society and its capacities. Even small independent media can play an important transformational role, galvanizing civil society and helping reclaim the public space. Robust independent media are necessary for any nation to pave the way for a stable and peaceful transformation in times of crisis.
By dismembering and attacking independent media, Aliyev is destroying the future of the country and its long-term stability. Support for independent media in Azerbaijan and the post-Soviet space at large should therefore become one of the international community’s key priorities to address the rising tide of authoritarianism in the region.