As Azerbaijan democracy struggles, Iran makes its weight felt

AP Worldstream; Apr 30, 2006

EDITOR'S NOTE _ Associated Press Correspondent Kathy Gannon is
exploring Iran's relationships with its neighbors in an uneasy and
often volatile region. This report examines the view from oil-rich
Azerbaijan, where political Islam is challenging secular democracy.

ASTARA, Azerbaijan (AP) _ After the Soviet Union collapsed and
Azerbaijan went free, the oil-rich country was caught in a tug-of-war
for influence between the secular, democratic West and Islamic Iran.
Iran sent in preachers, built mosques and gave scholarships to the
poor. But Azerbaijan turned West.

Nowadays, however, the early rumblings of political Islam are being
heard in the world's biggest Shiite Muslim republic outside Iran,
aroused by frustration with rampant corruption, intractable poverty,
and a sense that for the sake of oil, the Western democracies have
chosen to ignore the taint of corruption in its elections.

There are many signs that neighboring Iran is capitalizing on the
discontent with a "we-told-you-so" message and winning some support
in its confrontation with the West over its nuclear program.

Ilham Aliyev, who took over as president from his dying father
in 2003 in an election challenged by claims of widespread fraud,
visited the White House last week, underscoring his friendship with
the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush. But many in
Azerbaijan are wondering how long his overwhelmingly Muslim nation
of 9 million people will stay in the U.S. orbit.

"Azerbaijan will not become an Islamic country overnight, but
the beginnings are here," said Arif Yunusov, author of "Islam in
Azerbaijan" and chairman of the Institute of Peace and Democracy,
an independent think tank in the capital, Baku.

"People today in Azerbaijan don't believe America. People believe
that the West does not want democracy in our country, it just wants
our oil."

Whether an Islamic surge is coming is open to question. Azerbaijan
also has a strong Western-oriented camp, yearning for Europe's model
of good governance and civil rights.

In the cosmopolitan capital, the overwhelming affinity is with Europe,
though attendance at mosque prayers is growing steadily, and human
rights workers say they were surprised at how many young Azeris joined
the demonstrations that swept the Muslim world over the publication
of Danish cartoons featuring the Prophet Muhammad.

In the more conservative southern regions that border Iran, the return
to Islamic roots is more noticeable.

Azerbaijan is a "very complex country," says Fariz Ismailzade,
a political science professor in Baku. "We have modern girls, but
still there is a rise in Islamic fundamentalism. It is slow but it
is happening."

Secular opposition politician Eldar Namazov, says Azerbaijans are
"the most European of people in the Islamic world, even more than
Turkey. Yet I think you can say today that we see some Islamic
renaissance and the ground is ready for an Islamic revival here in
Azerbaijan....

"Our society wants political change, but year after year people are
disappointed with democracy."

More than a decade after signing a multibillion dollar oil deal with
a U.S.- and British-dominated consortium, most of the country remains
miserably underdeveloped. Nearly half of the population earns less
than US$1,000 (A800) a year. Unemployment hovers around 20 percent.

Azerbaijan anticipates oil revenues of US$160 billion (A129 billion) by
2025, and a US$4 billion (A3.2 billion), 1,750-kilometer (1,093-mile)
pipeline is pumping Caspian Sea oil from Baku through Georgia to
the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. Yet outside Baku, gas
supplies are erratic and the country runs on dilapidated Soviet-era
infrastructure.

All this, say critics, adds up to a new opening for Iran, the Shiite
giant to the south.

"Iran has always been active in Azerbaijan, but before they weren't
getting the results they wanted," researcher Yunusov said. That's
changing, however. "Now people think that Iran's words make sense,
that the claims by Iran against the war in Iraq and against America
are not so bad, that the West just wants our resources."

Iran is reported to be financing Azerbaijan's opposition Islamic
Party. Among Azerbaijan refugees from the 1990s war with Armenia
over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, Iran is the biggest provider
of humanitarian aid, and it gains points from a perception among
refugees that Azerbaijan was betrayed from all sides during the war
and that the West has forgotten the refugees.

Iranian television and radio, broadcasting in the Azeri language,
are the leading sources of information in this border town of Astara
and elsewhere in southern Azerbaijan. Azeri-language talk shows
based in the nearby Iranian city of Tabriz are clogged with callers
from Azerbaijan.

"Everything we want to find out we find out from Iranian radio," said
Mammadov Mazjtajab, a former reporter with Radio Liberty in Astara.
Broadcast propaganda has increased, much of it directed at the United
States, he said.

Mazjtajab said propaganda has increased noticeably during the nuclear
standoff.

Tehran has threatened to strike back at any country that cooperates
with an attack on its nuclear facilities. The Azerbaijan government
has pledged its territory won't be used for military action against
Iran, but people living along the border are nervous, pointing to a
U.S.-built radar facility just outside Astara and the upgrading of the
airport at Nakhchewan, also on the border with Iran, to accommodate
NATO jets. Both projects are U.S.- financed.

Iran's perceived attractions come out in an encounter at the border
with Jamilya Shafyeov, an Azeri woman wearing three sweaters against
the cold and bemoaning her inability to find work. "I think things
are so much better over there," she said, gesturing through a small
gray colored steel gate that opened onto Iran. "What do we have here?
Nothing. No jobs. If I had a passport I would go there."

Nail Farziyev, a retailer in Astara, drew cheers from fellow
shopkeepers when he declared: "We can't turn our back on Iran and we
won't turn our back on them."

"Why is it that America thinks it can impose its will on everyone?"
he asked. "Why can't Iran have peaceful nuclear energy? I want to
know why."

In Baku, nearly 240 kilometers (150 miles) to the north, Yunusov's
think tank is sampling opinion nationally and discovering similar
sentiments.

In a survey he did three years ago, he said, "I asked about Iraq and
Afghanistan and then everyone supported the United States and everyone
agreed that (Osama) bin Laden was behind the Sept. 11 attacks."

But in a new survey he is conducting with the University of Minnesota's
Department of Political Science, he asked about bin Laden and 9/11 and
"it is all changed now. Some even say maybe the United States planned
the attacks themselves in order to go after Muslim countries to get
their oil."

In Nadaran, about 65 kilometers (l40 miles) from the starting point
of a pipeline regarded as an engineering marvel, Hajji Vagif Gasimov
hunkered down in a municipal office with bitterly cold wind whistling
through broken windowpanes. "Our situation is getting worse from day
to day," he said.

"My father was an oil worker, my grandfather was an oil worker. We
are surrounded by gas pipelines and we have no gas. We think that
this is America's fault because they want all our resources."

In the 1990s, he said, "my dream was to have a democracy like the
United States. Now we don't say we are against democracy; we are
against America's democracy now."

No one thinks an Islamic takeover is imminent. The Turkish Foreign
Ministry says it welcomes good relations between Azerbaijan and Iran.
Azerbaijan is one-twentieth the size of Iran, but some Turkish experts
think that given the large ethnic Azeri population in Iran, Baku may
have more influence over its neighbor than vice versa.

"There are plenty of reports that Iran has helped encourage greater
religious devotion," said Bulent Aliriza, a Turkish analyst with the
Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The
failure of the secular opposition to the Aliev regime ... has allowed
the development of a religiously inclined opposition. But I think
for the moment it is manageable. The question is what will happen if
there is a confrontation between Iran and the West. This will make
life very difficult for Azerbaijan."

Rafik Aliyev, a government official charged with managing religious
harmony in the country, said the corruption claims were exaggerated
and he saw no big protest vote for Islamic parties.

He saw Iran's influence as both natural and worrying _ an open border,
propaganda broadcasts, Azeri students being educated in Iran; "Of
course all these things can increase religious sentiments and we have
been thinking about these issues and taking some measures."

These, he said, include a countrywide refurbishment of
infrastructure that has increased electrical supply to the south,
and the establishment of Islamic teaching institutions to propagate
a moderate brand of Islam.

Namazov, the secular politician who was a powerful aide to Azerbaijan's
late President Aliyev, said the Islamic Party made gains in his Baku
constituency in the disputed November parliamentary election, while
secular opposition parties won only a handful of seats.

He says that when he met with European and American ambassadors
afterward he told them: "It is true there is no danger today of there
being an Islamic government here, but in five years, if we still have
this system of total corruption, unemployment and severe human rights
violations, then Islamic representatives will be elected."

___

AP Correspondent Louis Meixler in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to
this report.