Balancing act

November 04, 2005|By BILL THOMAS

The 15 former Soviet republics, now into their second decade as separate nations, have experienced very different degrees of political freedom and economic success. But it's the three Caucasus nations - Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan - that might offer the best example of the problems, and lately the opportunities, facing countries in what the Russians used to call "the near abroad."

Subdivided by civil wars in the 1990s, Georgia, with help from the United States, has embarked on an ambitious campaign to clean up corruption and overhaul its stagnant economy. Neighboring Armenia, backed by Russia, is just getting over the effects of the Nagorno-Karabakh war during the early 1990s that left it impoverished.

Its opponent in that war, Azerbaijan, an ethnically Muslim nation aligned with Turkey and bordering Iran, would seem to be an unlikely candidate to lead the way toward economic and political reform in the area. Yet the suddenly oil-rich and cautiously democratic Azerbaijan could become a unique case in the brief history of post-Soviet independence. That possibility has as much to do with a regional outbreak of good, or at least better, government as with the prospect of great wealth.

For makers of U.S. foreign policy, Azerbaijan, where voters will select a new parliament Sunday, is a test of free elections and majority rule in a part of the world that's seen little, if any, of either. The problem for Washington is that Azerbaijan is regarded by Russia as part of its sphere of influence; therefore, any movement toward Western-style politics could be interpreted as a direct threat to business as usual, which includes Moscow's ambitions in the lucrative Caspian oil fields. In addition to pioneering firms such as ExxonMobil, Chevron and BP Amoco, Lukoil, a Russian company, is also active there.

In interviews with the Western news media, President Ilham Aliyev has stressed his desire for continued good relations with the United States, a major beneficiary of the new pipeline, and his determination to hold fair and open elections when voters go to the polls Sunday.

His own 2003 election to succeed his late father, Heydar A. Aliyev, was notable for its lack of strong opposition candidates. In Azerbaijan's last parliamentary election four years ago, only five of the 125 lawmakers voted into office were members of opposition parties.

Since then, Mr. Aliyev, an English-speaking former oil company executive, has shown himself to be an astute politician. In an effort to quiet critics abroad and help opposing candidates do better in the vote, he has asked some members of his New Azerbaijan Party not to run.

But opposition groups, ranging from communists to Islamic fundamentalists, are so divided they might not do any better than they did in the last election. With dozens of them attacking one another as well as the government, sporadic demonstrations in Baku, the capital, often have seemed more like a substitute for, rather than a measure of, popular support.

Assuming Mr. Aliyev's party keeps its majority in parliament, which seems almost a foregone conclusion, the real question is how quickly Azerbaijan will move toward further democratic reforms. If, as promised, profits from an estimated 13 billion barrels of oil are used to improve the lives of average citizens (per capita annual income in Azerbaijan is $3,800, compared with $12,700 in the three Baltic countries), voters will probably continue to provide Mr. Aliyev and his party with a ruling mandate.

The Bush administration appears willing to give Mr. Aliyev the same vote of confidence he has gotten from Western oil companies. Along with Turkey and Georgia, Azerbaijan is on a short list of U.S. friends in an unpredictable region. That Mr. Aliyev has kept Azerbaijan distanced from Iran and marginalized local Islamic radicals, so far a nonfactor in the country's politics, is also a significant plus in his relationship with the United States.

Azerbaijan might not be a textbook example of how democracy is supposed to work - Human Rights Watch, for instance, has criticized the pro-government cheerleading in the press, restrictions on freedom of assembly and the arrests and beatings of political activists. But there's no question Russia sees developments there as evidence of U.S. political and economic meddling in a place Moscow considers its back yard.

That perception adds several degrees of difficulty to the East-West balancing act that Mr. Aliyev has to perform. Fair elections are important, but just as important will be what comes next: How Mr. Aliyev will keep Washington on his side, Moscow off his back and oil revenues flowing in all the right directions.

Bill Thomas is co-author of Red Tape: Adventure Capitalism in the New Russia. His e-mail address is

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