You can tell a lot about a country from its airport.
When I arrived last week at Heydar Aliyev International Airport—named, like practically everything else in Azerbaijan, for the strongman who died two years ago, leaving the state in his son’s hands—I had to pay a $20 bribe, in addition to the standard $40 fee, to get an entry visa. When I left on Monday, I had to walk a mile, luggage in hand, from the highway to the departure terminal, past rows of heavily armed soldiers and police officers who had closed off the airport road to all cars, including my taxi. A leading opposition leader was due to return from exile in the United States, and the authorities were intent on arresting him without letting any pesky pro-democracy protesters interfere.
These experiences conveyed better than any number of human rights reports that Azerbaijan is one of the more corrupt and repressive places on Earth. But, thanks to its sizable oil reserves, it is also a place of considerable strategic and economic importance.
The capital, Baku, was one of the original petroleum boomtowns in the 19th century. You can still see gaudy mansions built by Rothschilds, Nobels and other tycoons of that era—as well as the trees they imported to prettify an arid desert landscape.
The oil industry was allowed to run down during the Soviet era. Not far from Baku is a hellish wasteland of antique derricks, rusted pumping stations and ugly oil slicks. But after the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1991, newly independent Azerbaijan signed “the deal of the century” with a consortium of Western oil companies and got a massive injection of fresh investment money.
Today there is enough oil wealth in Baku to support gleaming hotels, high-end restaurants and posh boutiques selling $600 shirts—incongruous sights amid a typical post-Soviet tableau of crumbling apartment blocks, decrepit Lada sedans and frumpy babushkas.
Azerbaijan’s oil revenues—and its importance—continue to grow with the opening this year of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline that will carry 1 million barrels a day from the Caspian Sea to Turkey’s Mediterranean coast. The 1,100-mile route, designed with U.S. guidance, avoids unstable Russia to the north and hostile Iran to the south, offering the West an important source of non-OPEC energy.
Not only is Azerbaijan happy to sell us oil, it’s also willing to cooperate in the war against Islamist terrorists. Though most Azerbaijanis are Shiite Muslims, they are firmly secular; you see more veils in London than in Baku. The government has sent 150 soldiers to Iraq and may be willing to grant the U.S. access to some of its military bases.
All of this creates a major dilemma for President Bush. He has repeatedly pledged to “stand with dissidents and exiles against oppressive regimes.” But the oppressive regime in Azerbaijan is willing to do favors for the United States. How hard is the U.S. willing to fight for its ideals?
The answer should come soon. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for Nov. 6, and they promise to be anything but free and fair. The government is passing out multiple voting cards to its supporters, and it is refusing to use indelible ink to prevent fraud. In the run-up to the vote, truncheon-wielding cops have been cracking heads among peaceful demonstrators. And, although returning opposition leader Rasul Guliyev never made it to Baku on Monday (he was detained in Ukraine), hundreds of his supporters were rounded up by authorities determined to avoid a repeat of the peaceful revolutions that have swept post-Soviet Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan.
The U.S. reaction to this thuggery has been muted, to put it kindly. Two years ago, when Ilham Aliyev was anointed president in a rigged election following his father’s demise, the State Department appeared to offer congratulations rather than criticism. Nowadays, U.S. Ambassador Reno L. Harnish III speaks highly of Aliyev’s supposed moderation and is not protesting too loudly this “reformer’s” rampant rights abuses. The ambassador tried—unsuccessfully—to block a group of Western think tanks from holding a conference last weekend in Baku that featured leading opposition figures. He told organizers he didn’t want to stir things up before the election.
Yet stirring things up is precisely what Bush has been doing with his pro-democracy rhetoric. If the president is serious about his “guiding ideal of liberty for all,” he can’t afford to make an exception for Azerbaijan.