Don't write off Azerbaijan just yet
November 14th, 2013
10:41 AM ET

Don't write off Azerbaijan just yet

By Matthew Bryza, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Matthew Bryza is a former U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan and is now director of the International Center for Defense and Security in Estonia and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Patriciu Eurasia Center. The views expressed are his own.

When a Western ally holds a presidential election that falls short of international standards, should we write it off? Or should we take a sober look at steps we can help the country take to meet our expectations?

That’s the question raised by the recent presidential election in Azerbaijan, an ancient civilization undergoing breakneck modernization just 22 years after its independence from the Soviet Union.

Granted, President Ilham Aliyev faced no real competition for a third term and election observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe were particularly sharp in their criticism of the electoral process. Making matters worse, the Central Election Commission appeared to announce results before voting began when a smartphone app developer allegedly tested its election software with false results.

But this is only part of the story. President Aliyev is genuinely popular. Two years ago, when I served as U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan, independent polls reported Aliyev's approval rating at between 83 percent and 86 percent. These numbers, perhaps unimaginable for a Western political leader, reflect the support he enjoys for delivering what Azerbaijani citizens crave most: stability.

Azerbaijan nearly collapsed in the early 1990s: the country was gripped by poverty and had just suffered a humiliating military defeat by Armenia in Azerbaijan’s region of Nagorno-Karabakh. In 1993, a democratically elected president resigned and voluntarily handed the job to Azerbaijan's Soviet-era leader and the current president’s father, Heydar Aliyev. This transition is viewed in Azerbaijan as a moment of national salvation, even by many oppositionists. Azerbaijanis recognize that the elder Aliyev's bold decisions to defy Moscow and connect Azerbaijan's oil and gas fields to the West were critical to securing the country’s independence and economic growth.

Aliyev has built on that success. GNP has tripled since 2006, while poverty has dropped from 49 percent to just over 6 percent; reformist economic policies have helped catalyze the growth of Azerbaijan’s non-energy sectors. Still, even as the economy grows, many younger Azerbaijanis aren’t satisfied with a monopolistic system they see as limiting opportunity and social justice. Facebook activists and journalists who call for the government's demise are often met with confrontation.

Corruption also persists. Yes, the cliché says, “a fish rots from the head.” But, in reality, rot spreads through the entire fish all at once. While Western analysts have documented elite corruption, they have focused little on how corruption permeates Azerbaijan’s grassroots.  Corruption in the education system is particularly debilitating. Students are compelled to pay for grades; those who can afford it resort to private tutors for real learning. As a result, Azerbaijan suffers shortages of qualified doctors and other professionals, while young Azerbaijanis learn the wrong ethical lessons: I will never forget the high school senior who told me that her parents demanded she obtain the same “right” as her peers to cheat on her graduation examination.

Fortunately, a reformist wind may be blowing. Last spring, the legendarily corrupt minister of education was replaced by a young reformer. Other positive changes are underway as well: The publication of fees for expedited services and the advance of electronic government have eliminated many under-the-table payments. Prominent businesspeople recently told me they’re suffering fewer shakedowns by customs and tax authorities, while two of the largest holding companies are elevating their business practices to prepare for future initial public offerings.

The West has a significant strategic interest in supporting Azerbaijan’s reform efforts.

On security, less than 24 hours after the September 11 attacks, Azerbaijan offered U.S. military aircraft unlimited over-flights, and subsequently emerged as a crucial resupply corridor for one-third of the non-lethal supplies for coalition forces in Afghanistan. Cooperation on counterterrorism has also been exceptional, thwarting attacks to save many American lives, including my own.

Azerbaijan is also an important energy partner, currently supplying nearly 700,000 barrels per day of oil to European and global markets, including 40 percent of Israel's consumption. Within five years, an international consortium will begin delivering natural gas from Azerbaijan to Greece, Albania and Italy, diversifying the European Union’s natural gas supplies away from Russia.

Thinking strategically about Azerbaijan doesn’t mean sacrificing Western values. Struggling reformers in Iran can look for inspiration to neighboring Azerbaijan, also a Shiite-majority country but one in which a 1,400 year-old Jewish community enjoys strong state support and where women gained the vote a year earlier than their American sisters. The United States and its European allies would be wise not to write off Azerbaijan, and instead pursue the full range of interests – and values – they share with this small, but strategically significant country.

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Topics: Central Asia

soundoff (81 Responses)
  1. Nakata

    Azerbaijan is developing fast towards the world class standards and no country or government is perfect.. main point is that if the government and society of that place are willing to progress which is happening in Azerbaijan.
    Ilham Aliyev's government are doing great in developing the country which leads Azerbaijan to have a great relationships with Western allies as well as regional main roll players like Turkey and countries around Arabian Gulf.

    November 21, 2013 at 11:04 am | Reply
  2. American

    Mr Bryza forgot to mention AZ"s ranking at the bottom of the list in freedom of the press, jailing and torturing opponents and pocketing $billions of AZ"s oil and gas revenues. He also forgot to mention that the AZ Govt. embarrassingly released the results of the recent "elections" 24 hours BEFOrE they were held naming Aliyev as the winner.
    Mr Aliyev is a dangerous (and corrupt) megalomaniac who is arming for war and just the type of tin-pan dictator who could start WW3.
    Mr Bryza, much like the Hawaiian missionaries "came to do good " and him and his wife did very well indeed.
    His Disneyesque descriptions of AZ, (as seem through his investment portfolio), are much like a M.Mouse cartoon-pure fantasy.

    November 21, 2013 at 12:31 pm | Reply
    • Matthew Bryza

      Please re-read the article and you will see that I did indeed mention the premature of the election results. As for torture allegations, please provide your source, as those of course should be investigated.

      December 12, 2013 at 2:40 pm | Reply
  3. American in Baku

    Amazing how these things are viewed as black and white.. One side clearly wrong and the other fully correct. I have been living in Baku for just about 3 months. Certainly not a significant amount of time but probably 3 months longer then anyone reading this article. A few observations I had soon after arriving, unknowing of the deep seeded opinions of people for and against the regime, was that I was so happy to see a country where oil wealth was being dumped into public projects. Of course I have no idea what percentage that may be... perhaps a shallow amount. None the less a lot more then several other countries that are awash in oil/gas.. I walk the Bulovar almost every day. It is perhaps the worlds larges water-front park.. In my 3 months here I can see that the country is quicky moving to wrap the entire city water front in this mega green space. A space that will soon reach the eastern part of the city where most people live in Soviet built squaller..

    This weekend I will go to my 5th free movie festival sponsored by the government. The presidents wife has take it upon herself to do all she can to not only use the countries wealth for park space but also to support brining arts to the people. Again, this may be a pitance compaired to the overal wealth being brought in but I personally witness a big push to provide for the city.. Construction is all around and its great to see what a country can do that is not wrapped in debt... BTW, do you question the integrity of your elected leaders who are leveraging the future by adding $1 trillion in debt per year?

    If you are curious I am here to construct a joint project between the US and Azerbaijan.. The author's text of grassrooted graft is something I witness on a daily basis.. from our gate gaurd selling scrap construction material to the women passing by, to the prime contractor being friends of the deputy minister funding our project.. Its in everything.. top down.. try driving around here and you will know that getting a drivers license is just a matter of having cash..

    November 22, 2013 at 1:31 am | Reply
  4. Khadija Ismayilova

    editor forgot to mention Mr Bryza's job in oil business. This would explain why does he write what he writes

    November 22, 2013 at 6:12 am | Reply
    • Matthew Bryza

      How sad, Ms. Ismayilova, given all you know I have done on behalf of freedom of expressions and journalists - and you personally, that you, with all your moral authority, launch such allegations. Totally disappointing….

      December 12, 2013 at 2:44 pm | Reply
    • Elkhan Ulusoy

      Whenever I see unfair and unjust evaluation of Azerbaijani government, I see you take a stand. God bless you! Stay strong against these monsters!

      May 20, 2014 at 10:32 am | Reply
  5. jane


    November 22, 2013 at 7:36 am | Reply
  6. Joe Mellon

    Yes, Azerbaijan does share many values with the US.
    'American' put it pretty well: tame press, jailing and torturing opponents and pocketing $billions of oil and gas revenues. Duff "elections" bought by billionaires, dangerous (and corrupt) megalomaniacs who are arming for war and just the type of country liable to start WW3.

    November 22, 2013 at 7:39 am | Reply
  7. I know u

    Hey Matthew,

    Looks like you forgot to mention how much you are making from Alyev and his mafia gang in the oil business!

    Shame on you!

    November 25, 2013 at 1:14 pm | Reply
    • Matthew Bryza

      Shame on you for making ridiculous and false allegations.

      December 12, 2013 at 2:42 pm | Reply
  8. Jason Miks

    Mr. Bryza is not an objective commentator on Azerbaijan. He is the poster child for the revolving door in Washington, where government employees use their influence to seek employment or contracts from their counterparts in business or even foreign governments. Mr. Bryza knows firsthand how despotic the Azeri regime is yet he writes this garbage praising Aliyev. It is utterly disgraceful how low some people can sink once they sell out.

    November 28, 2013 at 6:35 am | Reply
  9. Hagop Sarkissian

    Apparently Mr Bryza enjoing the petrodollars and his taste buds craving for the caspian caviar.

    December 1, 2013 at 1:45 pm | Reply
  10. Hagop Sarkissian

    Shame on CNN to allow this crook to post articles.

    December 1, 2013 at 1:47 pm | Reply
  11. Landau

    Well, Mr. Bryza wrote an interesting article. One may agree or disagree with his words, but must admit that he knows Azerbaijan much better than most of the people who left comments here. I agree that there are problems in internal policy of Azerbaijan. Problems with education, corruption, medicine and etc. But they can be solved. Along with this it should be noted that Azerbaijan is one of the safest and most tolerant countries in the world. The country is trying to get better. I understand that everything is seen from the side in black. But with all the responsibility I can assure you that Ilham Aliyev is not a dictator. Each country has a specific system. Western system, eastern system. There are people who want to see Azerbaijan as a European country with European values​​, while others want to see it Islamic, based on Sharia, the third – the communist, the fourth – the monarchy. There is a wish to Azerbaijan was part of Russia or Iran, etc. And this applies to residents of Azerbaijan itself. And what to say about the citizens of other states?

    The bottom line is that Azerbaijan is now facing a turning process . The society is directed to European values ​​, while has an Eastern mentality. One thing is clear : Azerbaijan should decide their own destiny without any outside influence .

    It is obvious that Mr. Bryza primarily thinks about U.S. interests . Since he is aware that Azerbaijan is of interest for its state. And he describes the situation, as he sees it .

    Unfortunately, I've met here comments , which affected his personal life . I mean to be married to kurdish woman (not turkish if I'm not mistaken ) from Turkey is somehow a sin ? What kind of Nazism ?

    Would also like to note that the international community , frankly, do not care about the Azerbaijanis and their fate , which is not equal to its interests. Everyone thinks only of his own advantage .

    As proof I can show neighboring Armenia. During it,s more than 20 years of independence from USSR, the country has occupied the territory of another state, does not implement the requirements of UNSC resolutions , has territorial claims to most of the neighbors, carried out ethnic cleansing and massacres against civilians, shot protesters in the presidential election , sounded from the international tribune on the presidential level raving about genetic incompatibility between the nations . And nothing.

    I fully understand Mr. Bryza and want to note that Azerbaijan is also primarily thinking of it,s own interests.

    Best regards!

    December 1, 2013 at 6:08 pm | Reply
  12. Concerned

    My, my, such a back and forth. So many personal insults…so many distorted facts…so many transparent agendas. I would call it funny, even entertaining, were it not for the fact that Ambassador Bryza wrote on such an important topic…an important topic to the U.S., Azerbaijan and the West, in general.
    In the interests of transparency, I know Ambassador Bryza. I have also visited Azerbaijan several times and even met President Ilham Aliyev. I also served for many years at a prominent advocacy organization where I worked with Armenians and folks of all stripes from all over the world-and on many varying issues, including democratization.
    Here are the hard facts:
    -Bryza is eminently qualified to write and speak on these issues. He is renowned for his clarity, knowledge and forthright and impartial judgments on the region.
    -Azerbaijan is immeasurably important to the energy security and diversity of Europe and the West.
    -Azerbaijan is an emerging democracy and a mere 22 years old. They are working on their democracy issues as evidenced by their new Smartphone app geared to disseminate election results-a function that the Washington Post so sloppily and inaccurately reported on.
    -Ilham Aliyev is a strong, well spoken, strategically thinking leader. He is admired and believed in by a huge portion of Azerbaijan’s populace.
    Here is a bit of well-informed opinion:
    -Give Azerbaijan a chance. They are having growing pains in terms of democracy just like every other before them.
    -In terms of President Ilham Aliyev, folks, live with it. Any of the politicians I know should be half as lucky.
    -For my Armenian friends…It may be wise to spend a little more time on extricating Armenia from Russian hands, as it would be much more advantageous to have Armenia as an independent state rather than a vassal of Russia; developing Armenia’s economy, educational and political systems…instead of attacking Azerbaijan-ad nausea. It is getting a little old, folks.

    December 2, 2013 at 12:07 pm | Reply
  13. Anders

    The only problem with Azerbaijan is that the goverment have done little in the process of peace, security and education. They just pump money in something that they have clearly no idea, for instance education, medicine or military training, with big expectations.

    For example, the doctors have all the equipment but they lack knowledge and training. So the interpretation of e.g. X-ray of lungs suspected of pulmonary embolism, is then wrong which could lead the patient to death.

    Another example is the military budget. The goverment pumps money in to it, but in reality there is little to see it happen in case of equipment, training and education.

    This goverment clearly wants to avoid mass protests by controlling the media and using brutal force. The elite thinks this way: "As long as it pays well, we have no problems with this goverment".

    Another issue is the frozen conflict of Nagorno-Karabakh. Civilians living near the frontline suffer the most.
    An important point is that both sides (West and Russia) want to keep this conflict as it is now. Both of them benefit, and Alievs and Sargisyans and their elite make the most profit of it.
    So a few soldiers died on the frontline is for them an everyday life. Simply the goverment doesn`t care who, how many or where people died.

    As long as Russia has its grip on the Caucasus and as long as the West will continue to fight Russia on all frontlines, there will be no peace in this region of eastern Europe.

    August 2, 2014 at 6:06 pm | Reply
  14. Avram Cohen

    Azerbaijan is a shiithole of human rights abuse cases, this article is baised towards this backwards Muslim country, I stand with Armenia, a Christian country, in that most of it’s territories have been taken or stolen, Azerbaijan wasn’t even a country 100 years ago, most of it’s land is past Armenian lands! And now Israel sells billions of dollars of weapons to a Muslim country, the Azeri’s and one hopes they don’t attack Armenia like they always threaten to do.. because a second genocide on Christian Armenians will be on the hands of Israel.. Christians in the west will wake up to the Zionist agenda, that goes out of it’s way every year to block the Armenian Genocide resolutions, the Israeli government is screwed up in it’s priorities!

    November 2, 2014 at 2:28 pm | Reply
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