On April 26, 2006, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace hosted a meeting entitled “Geopolitics and Human Rights in Azerbaijan,” with Hajimurad Sadaddinov, Director of the Azerbaijan Foundation for Development of Democracy and Protection of Human Rights. Carnegie Senior Associate Martha Olcott chaired the session. Sadaddinov’s remarks are summarized below.

The security situation is difficult for Azerbaijan because of the country’s three less-than-friendly neighbors: Turkmenistan, Iran, and Armenia. Russian policy in the South Caucasus threatens regional stability. Azerbaijan also has a long border with Iran, which could cause problems should the confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program escalate.

Armenia occupies 20 percent of Azerbaijan (a region called Nagorno-Karabakh) and part of the occupied area borders Iran. A great deal of trade happens in this area, with no international controls. During the past few years Iran has violated Azerbaijan’s airspace and waters, perhaps to lay a foundation for claims on Azerbaijan’s oil resources. Ali Larijani, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, has said that if there is an air strike against Iran, then Iran will retaliate by destroying the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline and other Caspian oil projects. In Nagorno-Karabakh there are paramilitary groups within striking distance of BTC. I urge the U.S. to consider its interests in Azerbaijan before attacking Iran.

I welcome the visit of President Ilham Aliyev to the U.S. The Azerbaijan-U.S. relationship is good and the U.S. is increasing its influence in the Caspian region. The two countries cooperate on energy and security, but relations could be improved in the areas of democracy and human rights.

Last fall’s parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan were non-democratic. I have the moral authority to say this because I ran in them. According to a USAID-funded exit poll I gathered twice as many votes as the declared winner. A former U.S. ambassador even mentioned this on television. Similar abuses occurred in other districts.

There are also problems in Azerbaijan with torture, political prisoners, and the lack of an independent judiciary. Azerbaijan has the potential to become a regional leader, but these human rights problems get in the way. My organization works to free political prisoners. The Council of Europe, of which Azerbaijan is a member, has done a lot too. As a result the number of political prisoners has fallen from hundreds to 50 or 60. The 2003 presidential election led to new political detentions, however. The state is currently prosecuting a youth group and a group of former high officials, including former Economy Minister Farhad Aliyev, for political reasons.

The government protects freedom of speech better than it did a few years ago, but there are still problems with electronic media. For example, the government closed an affiliate of independent television company INS prior to the parliamentary election.

I raise these issues not to smear Azerbaijan, but because I want to improve the situation.

Q: How much must the U.S. concede to Aliyev for geopolitical reasons? Realists argue he has other options, like turning toward Russia. How would you answer this realist argument?

Sadaddinov: Russian influence in Azerbaijan is growing. Russia has been helpful solving problems in Azerbaijan and many Azeris in Russia send remittances home. But I’m concerned about the Russian attitude toward democracy. Russian observers declared the recent parliamentary elections free and fair even before they took place. Azerbaijan has created good conditions for American energy companies and supported the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it’s not good to follow blindly. U.S. relations with Azerbaijan must follow international, for example OSCE, standards. The U.S. must support Azerbaijan on Nagorno-Karabakh, because Azerbaijan stands alone against Armenia, which receives backing from Russia and Iran. Curiously there are many Iranian cars in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Q: This White House visit is a reward for Aliyev, but also a chance to put new pressure on him. If President Bush asked you how to make the case to Aliyev for OSCE norms, what would you say?
Sadaddinov: First he must raise the issue and indicate that better U.S.-Azerbaijan relations depend on respect for human rights and the rule of law. Since the parliamentary elections the people of Azerbaijan have a different view of the U.S. and the EU. People are losing hope and growing frustrated with the lack of enforcement of human rights standards. This creates a vacuum that will be filled by other actors, including religious extremists.

Q: Some say Aliyev wants a U.S. base in Azerbaijan, which would be a blow to Iran. Could a base be an opportunity for more attention to human rights, or would it be a negative development?
Sadaddinov: If it weren’t for the tensions with Iran, U.S. military presence in Azerbaijan could be beneficial. But given those tensions and the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, U.S. presence could create more instability. Remember Larijani’s threat against BTC. The surrounding countries are interested in destabilizing Azerbaijan, so we must proceed cautiously. Russia tried to block BTC for a long time and might benefit if a stray missile hit the pipeline during a conflict.

Q: Is Aliyev bluffing? Does he have any real options other than the U.S.?
Sadaddinov: I don’t believe he has viable alternatives.

Q: Do you see Aliyev’s White House visit as the U.S. setting democratic concerns aside? Are you concerned he will get a blank check?
Sadaddinov: I support his visit. He has been seeking an invitation for three years, during which time he has meet three times with Putin and also with Iran. Not meeting Aliyev earlier was a mistake for the U.S. Lower level U.S.-Azerbaijan contacts should also intensify if we are to improve the human rights situation.