TOL: A WALKING, TALKING DEMOCRAT

Transitions Online, Czech Republic
May 2 2006

Washington has again shown the inconsistency of its advocacy of
democracy. And again Azerbaijan's ruler is the beneficiary.

George Bush's visit to Georgia in May 2005 had its own deeply troubling
moments. As he was giving a speech, a man lobbed a grenade in his
direction. It fell far short, and did not explode, allowing the
U.S. president to continue obliviously. Otherwise, though, it was,
politically, an almost cloudless visit. He was in a friendly, welcoming
country now free of the deadweight of the typical post-communist system
consisting - as Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said in 1992,
speaking of Russia - of a "repugnant, historically unprecedented
hybrid" of "the old nomenklatura, the sharks of finance, false
democrats, and the KGB." Bush's speechwriter duly provided him with
soaring phrasing and rippling cadences to fit the occasion.

Cut to Washington, April 2006, and a rendezvous with a Caucasian
president who represents the deadening politics that the Georgians
rid themselves of. "Across the Caucasus, in Central Asia and the
broader Middle East, we see the same desire for liberty burning
in the hearts of young people. They are demanding their freedom -
and they will have it," Bush had said in Tbilisi. But here was a
president, Ilham Aliev, who had prevented them having it. Indeed,
here was a leader who, as ordinary British viewers were able to see
in a BBC documentary aired in April and as ordinary U.S. and other
viewers will see later, showed none of the compunction the former
leaders of Ukraine and Georgia had when faced with demonstrators.

Instead, his police forces had waded into a peaceful crowd in brutal
fashion. The reason for the protests was clear from the documentary:
when police officers can be seen within polling stations, as they
were during last November's parliamentary election, it is hard to
conclude that the polls were free and fair. Rightly, international
election monitors stated emphatically that they were not.

Bush said in Tbilisi, "we are living in historic times when freedom
is advancing from the Black Sea to the Caspian to the Persian Gulf
and beyond." But, less than six months after that seriously flawed
election in Azerbaijan, here he was welcoming a man who had halted
that advance dead in its tracks and whose overly compliant judiciary
had, just days before, begun trying three youth activists accused of
plotting to violently overthrow the government.

Is this how "the leader of the free world" should behave? It certainly
creates the wrong impression - of a man who leaps on Georgia's
democratic bandwagon, but then hitches a lift on Azerbaijan's oil
train, deferring the problematic political issue by saying "democracy
is the wave of the future."

Put another way, Bush can talk the democratic talk, but does not walk
the walk. Again, as after Aliev's victory in the 2003 presidential
election, Washington was mute and motionless after an example of
Azerbaijan's warped democracy.

There are, of course, plenty of good reasons for Azerbaijan and the
United States to be engaged in high-level diplomatic contact at the
moment. Azeris make up a very sizable minority in Iran (estimates
range from 16 million to 30 million) and Azerbaijan therefore needs
to know what plans the United States has to resolve the crisis over
Iran's nuclear program. The possibility of military strikes or an
Iranian-led oil war also makes the issue of energy supplies very
pressing. The dispute between Ukraine and Russia in January had already
increased Azerbaijan's importance as an alternative energy source,
and it has increased since: Russian energy companies want to expand
(Gazprom's deputy CEO Aleksandr Medvedev last week said, "it is hard
to find a company [in Europe] we are not interested in"), there are
indications that the Greeks and Turks may link up with Russia rather
than a British- and Norwegian-led consortium supplying Azeri gas for
a new pipeline, and - from Putin to Transneft, Russia's oil-pipeline
monopoly - Russian economic leaders have recently hinted that more oil
and gas may flow east than west. And also somewhere on the agenda is
the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh. Talks seemed to have reached the end
of another dead end in February, but then, in early April, the Azeri
foreign minister declared that an undisclosed U.S.

proposal was "very promising."

But should this warrant a meeting in the White House? Countries have
foreign ministers to deal with the nitty-gritty and to navigate the
turbulent waters of international relations and presidents for the
formalities and the honors. And that is what Bush conferred on Aliev -
an undeserved honor.

FORKED TONGUES

It is not hard to see in all this a justification for the refrain
of Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, that the West is
hypocritical. After all, a comparison with the Belarusian elections
suggests little fundamental difference, yet Belarusian President
Alyaksandr Lukashenka cannot travel to the United States while
Azerbaijan's President Aliev receives handshakes and warm words in
Washington. Strategists may feel Azerbaijan warrants gentler treatment
than Belarus, and tacticians can argue that Belarus needs more of the
stick and Azerbaijan more of the carrot. However, this will do little
to convince friends who believe symbolism is an important part of
"democracy promotion."

And it will of course be grist to the mill for critics who, at their
most forgiving, argue that when national values clash with national
interests, interests win.

Russia, the key faux democracy in the region, has its own traditional
narratives of U.S. and Western policy, and those were heard again
last week. President Vladimir Putin himself once more accused the
West of double standards and hypocrisy when he met German Chancellor
Angela Merkel in the Siberian city of Tomsk. The issue, in this case,
was energy, but the underlying story was the same: the West fears a
strong Russia and its sermons are merely self-serving. As Putin put
it in Tomsk: "All sorts of excuses are being used to limit us to the
north, to the south, and to the west. ... What about globalization
and freedom of economic relations then?"

The Kremlin's general line on NATO, the West, and democracy during
the week found an echo from a source possibly of surprise to some -
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. In a Moskovskiye novosti interview conducted
by correspondence, the best-known chronicler of the gulag portrayed
another - military, rather than economic - form of encirclement
("Though it is clear that present-day Russia poses no threat to it
whatsoever, NATO is methodically and persistently expanding its
military apparatus in the east of Europe and is implementing an
encirclement of Russia from the south"), and saw "open material and
ideological support for 'color revolutions' " as further evidence
that the West is "preparing to completely encircle Russia and deprive
it of its sovereignty." He praised Putin's foreign policy (which is
generally being carried out "sensibly and with an increasing degree
of foresight"), and was critical enough of democracy in the West
("present-day Western democracy is in a serious state of crisis"
and Russia should not "thoughtlessly imitate" these democracies)
and positive enough about Putin's efforts "to salvage the state from
failure" to suggest he is not too unhappy at Putin's domestic policy.

COMPETING NARRATIVES

It is easy to highlight the hypocrisy of Putin's argument - and its
self-serving nature was all the more obvious in a week when Western
broadsheets gave substantial coverage to the controversy over the hopes
of the gas monopoly Gazprom of buying a key British distributor,
Centrica. It is also right to take issue with Solzhenitsyn's
perceptions and arguments.

Right, but it is also necessary to understand that these views have
real power: Putin and Solzhenitsyn are effectively updating old Russian
narratives. Fittingly, Putin's shows more of the Cold War legacy, the
politician's calculations, and the hard interest of a great power's
leader. Solzhenitsyn's goes back beyond, to the older distinctions
between civilizations that parted ways in the East-West Schism of the
11th century. That underlying quasi-mystical perception of Orthodox
Russia emerged explicitly in the interview when Solzhenitsyn portrayed
Russia as a defense against the "downfall of Christian civilization."

In practice, it may perhaps not be possible to accommodate
Western-style democracy in such narratives. But to win some room in
a few Russian hearts and minds, competing messages and views need to
be coherent, which - on a simplified, day-to-day level - means some
consistency is needed. The fundamental mistake that Bush demonstrated
by inviting Aliev to Washington was to not realize that the United
States' own grand, national narrative - as the land of the free and
leader of the free world - needs better maintenance.

Bush perhaps has relatively little need to provide Americans with a
consistent foreign policy. Convinced of the virtues of democracy and
with a generally positive view of themselves and of their country,
average Americans may not notice or object to inconsistencies that
undermine others' perception of the United States as a force for
good. But the average Russian and many Azeris need convincing about
the virtues of democracy, and mix real-life admiration for many things
American with an inherited and nurtured anti-Americanism. For them,
inconsistencies are not just inconsistencies: they tell the real
story of a superpower merely interested in pursuing its own interests,
whether through hard or soft power. To them, the "march of liberty"
sounds coercive, a frog-march to "liberty."

So, inconsistent messages matter. Partly so because they undermine
successes, such as the Orange Revolution. That revolution was, in
broad strokes, the result of a fractured political system in which
authoritarians could not consolidate power and monopolize money,
enabling a new group of politicians - more democratic, less wealthy -
to establish a power base and to tap into discontent, particularly
among the post-communist generation. Civil society, surviving with
difficulty thanks in part to Western money, mobilized to do what
it could, which was primarily to convince ordinary Ukrainians that
change was needed and possible and needed their involvement. But
people understand overarching, broader-brush stories more easily
than that type of analysis - and it was symptomatic that the story
that many in Western Europe believe is that Western powers had enough
power within Ukraine to manufacture a revolution.

The message of that and other experiences is that a consistent message
and policy is needed. Words need to match actions. In the world of
realpolitik, matching the two is, of course, difficult. In previous
editorials, we have outlined some of the options. But Bush's failure
in Washington was more basic. He was at least consistent - he neither
walked the walk nor talked the talk - but that is hardly the message
or the action that either the Azeri opposition or American public
diplomacy needs. "Leading the free world" is not a mere walk-on role.

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress