Caspian Free?

Ryan Kemp

Aynure Babayeva is from Azerbaijan, a nation defined by the U.S. State Department as a “Republic”. It has three branches of government, but fails to meet many of the criteria put forth by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) for a working democracy. Since 1993 only two men have held the “presidential” seat of Azerbaijan and they are a father and son (Heydar and Ilham Aliyev). International officials have described the human rights of Azerbaijan as “limited and backsliding … especially media freedom, religious freedom, and political participation.”

Azerbaijan has been free of Soviet rule for roughly the same amount of time as other former members of the Soviet Bloc and one would imagine its people had a similar vision of freedom during those years of occupation as its Eastern European peers. Before the Soviets arrived, Azerbaijan had the first true democracy of the Muslim world and instituted women’s suffrage before the United States and most of the of the world. So the predisposition for freedom must surely exist within the heart of these people. So why does its government remain stunted? With these questions in mind I interviewed Aynure.

Aynure seemed pleasant and optimistic when asked about her nation’s current status and disposition. She is clearly pensive in the consideration of Azerbaijan’s history and direction, but at the same time less concerned with the perils of Azerbaijan’s shortcomings than her interviewer expected. She enjoys the added freedom of living in Lithuania, but attributes that new found freedom as much to being away from her family as she does to being under the rule of a less stringent government. She was dismissive at the mention of her government’s violations of OSCE protocol and negative reviews offered by the U.S. State Department. Not dismissive of the assessment made by those organizations, but dismissive in the broaching of those items as discussion points. Such questions received answers like “maybe”, “I don’t know.” and “Yes, I suppose”.

Aynure is obviously an educated and traveled woman. She has seen more of the world than most. With this perspective she is more qualified than most to comment on cultures relative to the one that birthed and bore her. With this degree of experience Aynure maintains that she feels “free in (her) own country”.  She contends with many of the statistics that might paint a different picture of her nation. When I mentioned that her nation was 99% Muslim, she dismissed it saying “They are not all devotedly Muslim and there are many deists.” She used her father as an example.

Social pressures were perhaps the most acknowledged restriction of personal freedom. Aynure spoke openly about “family pressure and fear”, especially with regards to her not coming back to Azerbaijan or perhaps not marrying an Azerbaijani man. She referred to her own generation with optimism for improvements within their own society and was very clear about the difference between city and rural life with a heavy deference for the superiority of the cities and their inhabitants.

Like so many members of the former Soviet Bloc there is very limited ethnic and cultural diversity in Azerbaijan. The country is over 90% Azerbaijani and the largest minority at 2.2% is also Muslim and historically from a neighboring region. When asked if minorities where treated poorly in a nation where they were so very minor, Aynure said “I don’t think so.”  When asked if she felt like women were treated like second class citizens, she paused and responded “not anymore”.

I hope Aynure is right. I hope the U.S. State Department and OSCE have it wrong and there is in fact a complex cultural barrier that prevents westerners from seeing the truth, that there is a complex but just society operating in a different but just manner.

Is Azerbaijan free? Aynure certainly seems to think she is and that her fellow Azerbaijani’s are as well, at least for the most part. I would say she is about 88.7% sure, which is also the percentage of the vote President Ilham Aliyev won re-election by on October 15, 2008.


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