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Use a long spoon

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    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

    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

    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

    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

    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.