Belarus and Azerbaijan

Use a long spoon

Apr 27th 2006
>From The Economist print edition


A tale of two presidents, and of American short-sightedness

TWO rigged elections, with political arrests before the vote and protesters
battered afterwards; behind them, two moustachioed, post-Soviet rulers. The
balder one, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, was reviled by the United States before
and after last month's pointless presidential poll in Belarus. The
other-Ilham Aliev of Azerbaijan, whose allies swept the board in an absurd
parliamentary vote last year-this week fulfils his longstanding ambition to
meet George Bush in America. Mr Bush's hospitality is a mistake, for two
reasons.

The first is moral. Mr Aliev inherited his presidency from his father in
2003; the Alievs have run Azerbaijan for almost all its post-Soviet
existence, as Mr Lukashenka has Belarus. Under Aliev junior, human rights
have been extolled in theory but abused in practice, probably as much as in
Belarus. And Azerbaijan is a world champion of corruption. Still, the use of
double standards in foreign policy is not exactly a surprise: even
governments committed to spreading democracy must compromise and hold their
noses occasionally. The important question may not be whether Mr Aliev's
visit is morally defensible, but whether it is politically sensible. It is
not.


Here is the case for overlooking in Mr Aliev what is excoriated in Mr
Lukashenka. Belarus is a poor, landlocked Slavic nation; Azerbaijan is a
Muslim petro-state on the shores of the Caspian Sea. Oil and gas are
starting to flow via twin pipelines from its offshore deposits to the
Mediterranean. Its southern neighbour is Iran: Donald Rumsfeld, America's
defence secretary, has been a mysteriously frequent visitor, and rumours
swirl about just how helpful Mr Aliev is being with America's military
operations. Azerbaijan's northern neighbour is Russia: Mr Aliev is part of
the West's competition with the Kremlin for influence in the former Soviet
Union.

In this competition the Americans can sometimes afford to be principled. For
example, they denounced Islam Karimov, the brutal president of Uzbekistan,
after his troops massacred protesters last year, even though it cost them an
airbase. But oil and geography supposedly make Azerbaijan too important to
risk alienating its president. In any case-and unlike in Ukraine in 2004-the
opposition is too weak and fractious to offer a real alternative. When they
meet, it is said, Mr Bush will try to nudge his guest along the path to
democracy.

Unfortunately, Mr Aliev has already proved adept at simulating liberal
instincts, rationalising abuses and promising improvements: Azerbaijan, he
will doubtless plead in Washington, DC, is a country in transition. But, in
deed, Mr Aliev has been intolerant of opposition and too tolerant of
corruption and inequality. The oil billions about to flood into Azerbaijan
will reinforce his already formidable position. And in his part of the
world, where the top man is thought responsible for more or less everything,
a handshake from Mr Bush will look like a cast-iron imprimatur, no matter
what lesser American officials may say. State-run television in Azerbaijan
is unlikely to dwell on any criticisms Mr Bush offers in private.

This public validation will be bad for Azerbaijan, but ultimately for
America too. Something else that Mr Aliev has in common with Mr Lukashenka
is that neither can rule for ever. If Mr Aliev can be pressured into change,
Azerbaijan has the potential to become a well-off, democratic Muslim state.
If he is not, America may one day be faced with an oil-rich Muslim country
in a volatile region that is disillusioned with democracy and the West, and
susceptible to other ideas.