The laser sharp focus on a negative narrative of human rights violations and criticism of Azerbaijan’s progressive and secular leader at the expense of telling the story of a successful, yet imperfect country, does not do justice to this proud nation.
I first visited Azerbaijan (as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University) in November 1990 when the world had focused its attention on Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait. Much has changed during these past 27 years and I have been fortunate to have witnessed first-hand the progress of this strategically important country with a rich culture located between a resurgent Russia and aggressive Iran.
The metrics for good governance in Azerbaijan since its hard fought independence in 1991 are there for some in the media to report on but for some reason are rarely mentioned. For example, since its independence from the Soviet Union (and the total collapse of the health care delivery system) life expectancy has gone from 64 to 71.
When I first visited Azerbaijan, its GDP stood at a mere $8.7 billion. It peaked to $75.2 billion in 2014 and now stands at $37.8 billion. The story of Azerbaijan’s stable economic growth is what accounts for the improvement in the lives of ordinary Azeris.
According to the World Bank, poverty rates have fallen from 49.6 percent to 6 percent today. And as poverty rates have dropped, more and more Azeris have seen their purchasing power increase, thus allowing them to transition to the middle class. President Aliyev has made it very clear that his goal is to expand his country’s middle class.
Without political and economic stability, Azerbaijan would not have been able to improve the lives of its citizens. Indeed, any Azeri with whom I have spoken to has put a premium on stability (which explains why President Aliyev won with over 80 percent of the vote in a transparent election on April 11).
They want to see their country that is a target of both Russian and Iranian meddling remain stable and independent. Both former President Heydar Aliyev and his son Ilham Aliyev have delivered on this desire of the Azerbaijan populace.
Sadly, some in the media have not covered two aspects of U.S.-Azerbaijan relations that are critical to global security; namely, the global war on terror and energy security. According to the U.S. government, in 2016 Azerbaijan maintained its strong counterterrorism cooperation with the United States and actively opposed terrorist organizations seeking to move people, money and material through the Caucasus region.
On the energy security front, Azerbaijan has been a reliable partner of the West. In fact, Washington and Baku share the same goal of uninterrupted exploration, development and transportation of oil and gas from the Caspian Basin to consumers in the West. This is in sharp contrast to the Russian president who has not hesitated to use energy as a political weapon to subdue countries not subservient to Moscow.
While some in the left-leaning media are correct to point out the individual cases of journalists and bloggers who have been the target of the Azeri government, they make almost no mention of religious tolerance in Azerbaijan.
The human right to practice one’s faith freely and without government interference is a main feature of Azerbaijan’s culture. Just south of the Azerbaijan’s border in Iran, Bahais are harassed, persecuted and murdered by the Iranian regime. This is not the case in Azerbaijan.
In my conversations with Ramazan Asgharli, he has made it very clear that the human right of Bahais to practice their faith is fully respected. This is to be lauded by the American media not ignored.
The same members of the American media who condemn Azerbaijan are also strong advocates of tackling the challenges of global warming. It may come as a surprise to many of their readers but climate change is something Azerbaijan is also addressing.
Mehriban Aliyeva, the vice president of Azerbaijan feels that while scientists try to figure out a way to sequester CO2 emissions, a global campaign to plant trees can be an excellent way to capture carbon emissions. According to Yale University’s Thomas Crowther, “Trees are among the most prominent and critical organisms on earth and they store huge amounts of carbon.”
Azerbaijan is not a perfect place. A mere 26 years after it gained its hard-fought independence from Moscow it faces challenges such as corruption and isolated episodes of human rights violations especially against journalists critical of the regime.
But to focus laser sharp on these isolated cases at the expense of the progress this proud nation has achieved since its independence does not do justice to the people of Azerbaijan nor to the American public who deserve a fair perspective on a steadfast American ally.
President Aliyev should be congratulated for his re-election and deserves America’s praise for delivering economic growth, political stability and religious tolerance to the people of his country.
• S. Rob Sobhani is CEO of Caspian Group Holdings.
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