An Open Letter to the "Jewish Voice from Germany" Newspaper
In his article "Azerbaijan - a Strategic Partner for Germany's Energy Transition" (JVG, January 2013, p. 14) Mr. Siegfried Guterman informs his readers that "since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Azerbaijan has been implementing political structures modeled on Western democracies. It is a presidential democracy with a plurality of parties who are also represented in the national parliament <...> To be sure, Azerbaijan is no "Westminster Democracy", and this is not just in relation to freedom of the press. Nevertheless, the UK and Germany should not be used as yardsticks when examining the political infrastructure here today, instead, one should compare it to other former Soviet republics like Russia, Georgia etc ... "
Let us indeed compare. The Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index 2012 classifies Azerbaijan as an authoritarian regime and ranks its level of democracy #139 among 167 countries of the world. According to the same Index, Russia which is also an authoritarian regime ranks #122; Georgia is a hybrid regime and ranks #93. Among the 15 former Soviet republics, Azerbaijan's level of democracy is 6th from bottom (with Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan below it). As for freedom of the press, the Reporters Without Borders 2013 World Press Freedom Index ranks Azerbaijan #156 among 179 countries of the world: 5th from bottom among the former Soviet republics (with only Belarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan below it). In the same Index, Russia is ranked #148, Georgia - #100.
Since 1993, Azerbaijan was ruled by the ex-KGB general and Politburo member Heydar Aliyev. Having lived in the former Soviet Union, I can testify that at the time of Gorbachev's "perestroika" Aliyev was regarded as one of the most odious, reactionary figures in the Soviet political establishment. Aliyev ruled Azerbaijan with an iron fist until his death in 2003 and was then replaced by his son Ilham who is still the country's leader. In short, Azerbaijan is a Syria-like Eastern tyranny, and its "first opera to be built in a Muslim country" and "the commendable status of women", praised by Mr. Guterman, do not change this fact.
True, Azerbaijan's authorities are not anti-Semitic, and Jews live well there. However, this does not make that country "tolerant", as claimed by Mr. Guterman. Those who lived in the former Soviet Union in late 1980s - early 1990s remember with horror the bloody pogrom of Armenians in Baku in January 1990 when dozens of people were being killed during a whole week, the entire Armenian population of the city (dozens of thousands of people) fled and were deported, and the authorities did not interfere. As for the "tolerance" of today's Azerbaijan, it can be perfectly illustrated by 2 examples. In 2004, during a NATO-sponsored course of studies in Budapest, the Azerbaijani lieutenant Ramil Safarov killed the Armenian lieutenant Gurgen Margaryan with an axe in his sleep and attempted to kill another Armenian student Hayk Makuchyan. Having served in a Hungarian prison for several years, in 2012 Mr. Safarov was extradited to Azerbaijan where he was greeted as a hero, pardoned by President Aliyev, promoted to the rank of major and provided with a flat.
The other example is more recent. At the end of last year, the Azeri prose-writer Akram Aylisli published his novel "The Stone Dreams" whose characters openly condemn the anti-Armenian reprisals in Azerbaijan. In response, President Aliyev deprived Mr. Aylisli of his People's Writer degree and Presidential pension; Parliament members called to check Mr. Aylisli's genetic code (since Mr. Aylisli was a native of a village in which both Azeris and Armenians used to live), deprive him of his Azeri citizenship and ban his works in Azerbaijan; Mr. Aylisli's family members were fired from their jobs; groups of young people, including members of the country's ruling party "Yeni Azerbaijan", burned Mr. Aylisli's photographs and shouted: "Akram, get out of the country!" in front of his house; residents of the writer's native village demonstrated on its central square shouting: "Death to Akram!", "Traitor!", "Akram is Armenian!" - and then burned Mr. Aylisli's books. So much for a "tolerant presidential democracy" ... It's worth comparing Azerbaijan's political system also to that of Armenia whose "victim", on Mr. Guterman' opinion, Azerbaijan is. The above-mentioned Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index 2012 classifies Armenia as a hybrid regime and ranks its democracy level #114: 25 above Azerbaijan. The Reporters Without Borders 2013 Press Freedom Index ranks Armenia #74: 82 above Azerbaijan.
It is at best strange to read in a Jewish newspaper statements about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict which are virtually identical to typical cliches of the anti-Israel propaganda: "illegal occupation despite the UN Secutiry Council resolutions", "displaced refugees are still waiting for a solution" - without mentioning the history of the conflict and the fact that there were refugees on both sides (omissions also very typical of the anti-Israel propaganda). Let me therefore give a brief outline of the history of Nagorno-Karabakh and the conflict around it.
Nagorno-Karabakh has always, for thousands of years, been an Armenian land, and Armenians have always been an overwhelming majority of its population. In 1921, when the Bolsheviks conquered the Caucasus, they made Nagorno-Karabakh part of Azerbaijan, because they wanted to please Turkey with which they had a good relationship. During all the decades of the Soviet Union's existence, the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh wanted their country to be part of Armenia; during all those years, the Azeri authorities were depriving the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians of their national cultural rights (the Armenian children in Nagorno-Karabakh could not learn their language at schools, there was no Armenian television there) and pursuing an active policy of the Azerbajanization in the region. A few years after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power and began his policy of liberalization, in February 1988, the authorities of Nagorno-Karabakh announced their decision to fulfill the desire of the overwhelming majority of the region's population and to unify their region with Armenia. In response to that, a pogrom against Armenians was committed in the Azeri city of Sumgait: for 3 days Armenian civilians were being killed without any interference by the police.
In December 1988, a horrible earthquake happened in Armenia, it ruined entire towns and killed dozens of thousands of people. The whole world rushed to help Armenia: people from different countries either came or sent humanitarian aid. Freight trains came from Azerbaijan, too: they contained crutches and coffin nails. It was at that time, in late 1980s and not "after the collapse of the Soviet Union", as Mr. Guterman claims, that the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia started. As someone who lived in the former Soviet Union at that time, I can witness that progressive-minded people in the country, including Andrey Sakharov, supported Armenians in that conflict: it was clear that justice was on the Armenian side. But of course, none of us could imagine then that a few decades later a Jewish newspaper in Germany would talk about "the importance of Azerbaijan for Germany's future" ...
Alas, Western democracies too often tend to sell their conscience for gas and oil - and as we all know, Israel for many years has been the first victim of this disgraceful policy. However, it is shameful that support for such policy comes from the pages of a Jewish newspaper, that its author and staff member calls for partnership with and energy dependency on one of the worst tyrannies in the world and supports its unjust cause against the far more progressive and civilized (albeit not perfect) Armenia.