This year’s Eurovision media circus came and went without shedding much light on the enigma of this year’s host nation, Azerbaijan. Media reports spoke of human rights abuses and activists from across Europe called for a boycott, while the show itself was brimming full of images of cosmopolitan skylines and children smiling in national dress.
Curious to find out more, I spoke to Emin Milli, an Azerbaijani dissident who, during a 17 months stay behind bars, was deemed a ‘prisoner of conscience’ by Amnesty International – a person held on the grounds of their political or religious beliefs.
A dissident may not seem the most neutral perspective on a country, but make no mistake, whilst he speaks candidly and critically about his government, Milli is also proud of Azerbaijan’s history and is optimistic about its future:
‘I believe in Azerbaijan’s future.’ He tells me over Skype,
‘We have a strong democratic tradition. In 1918, we became the first democratic country in the Muslim world, and women were given the right to vote in 1919. Years before many western countries.’
At the same time, and in spite of the possible consequences, he is frank about the behavior of the Azerbaijani government, which has led some critics to label the former-Soviet nation, ‘Absurdistan’.
‘In Azerbaijan, there was a monument to [former Egyptian president] Mubarak, and the Azerbaijani authorities sent police to protect the statue of him from protesters, even after the real Mubarak was in prison. Can you imagine? Eventually they took it down and replaced it with a monument to the Egyptian people.’
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan has been run in an almost dynastic manner. First by former KGB General Heydar Aliyev, who ruled during Soviet times, who was then succeeded by his son Ilham Aliyev upon his death in 2003. Posters have appeared around the country featuring Aliyev senior, current president Illham Aliyev and his young son standing in a row, with the caption ‘The past, present and future of an independent Azerbaijan.’ A law passed in 2009 effectively abolishing presidential term limits may make this a reality.
The details of Milli’s own arrest are characteristic of this theatre of the absurd:
‘Prior to our arrest, both Adnan and I were doing lots of things. When I was in jail I read about the Flying Universities which were set up by the Polish opposition movements in the 1970s. This is essentially what I was doing, I was organizing lectures, discussing things that you couldn’t talk about in universities. In Habermasian terms, creating a ‘new public sphere’. The video was the last straw, but it was one of a thousand cases where we pointed out absurd levels of corruption.’
The video to which he refers, is one in which he and Adnan Hacizadeh quite literally made an ass out of Azeri government officials. They filmed a mock press conference in which a donkey in a suit boasts about how wonderful Azerbaijan is for donkeys, how lush and green the pastures are. The video was made after official information emerged from the State Statistics Committee that the government had paid £84,000 from state funds for two donkeys from Germany.
A few weeks later, Milli and Hacizadeh were attacked by unknown men whilst dining in a restaurant. When they went to report the incident to the police, the pair were arrested charged with hooliganism and spent 17 months behind bars.
‘I couldn’t believe it was happening to me. At the end of the day I realized it was set up. Two guys come out of nowhere and beat you up, then police arrest you, not them.’
The trial itself was also fraught with irregularities,
‘It was bogus. We asked for CCTV footage from the area in which we were attacked, but all of sudden, these tapes were refused.’
Milli believes he was used as an example by the state in what he calls ‘networked authoritarianism’,
‘They wanted to scare the whole generation. To send the message that if you challenge us and take this path, you will end up in prison, so they targeted the most active, to scare the rest…. Azerbaijan is not a big country, you only have to jail a few people to create enough fear in society. There are journalists and political activists that have served two or three jail terms already.’
Journalists and political activists are not in an enviable position in Azerbaijan. In a recent speech, Ali Hasanov, head of the socio-political department of the presidential administration, called for public scorn to be heaped upon journalists and activists who speak against the regime:
‘These opposition activists, journalists and media outlets should not feel brave enough to go out into the city. They should feel ashamed. Public hatred should be demonstrated to them.’
Yet in the same speech, Mr Hasanov asks ‘Is there any other country where the opposition is as free as Azerbaijan?’. At present there are thought to be up to 70 political prisoners still behind bars in Azeri prisons, there are no members of the opposition in the parliament and the index on censorship ranks Azerbaijan 140th out of 167 countries for civil liberties. In the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, Azerbaijan is placed 162nd out of 179 countries.
Mr Hasanov’s speech also criticized international Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) for ‘telling us, how we should be’ and for ‘assuming that we should bend before them’. This kind of argument is not uncommon in authoritarian regimes; however Milli is quick to dispel it:
‘I see no contradiction between Azerbaijani people fighting for human rights, and international organisations. This is a topic which is manipulated by the government, because they are scared. They have seen big dictators like Mubarak end up in prison, and they see their own future in that.’
‘In fact, it reminds me of the situation In Egypt, before the revolution. It is hypocritical for them to criticize the west: the greatest support this government gets is from the west. The British establishment is supporting this regime. In 2003, there were more people protesting falsification of elections in Azerbaijan than in Georgia at the time of the Rose Revolution. The only difference was that there was a violent crackdown in Azerbaijan which received silent support from the west, yet there was support for democratic forces in Georgia.’
‘Of course, there are many factors involved as to why there was a revolution in Georgia and not in Azerbaijan. But the west did not support Azerbaijani opposition, call for a peaceful solution or condemn the violent crackdown. They supported continuity and stability because of big oil contracts and upcoming gas contracts.’
In recent years, 11 British politicians have gone on ‘fact-finding’ missions to Azerbaijan, paid for by lobbying groups sympathetic to the regime. In 2009, during Milli’s high-profile imprisonment, Tony Blair travelled to Azerbaijan and gave a speech at the opening of a fossil-fuel power plant owned by Azeri oligarch, Nizami Piriyev. He was reportedly paid over £100,000 for the speech, which lasted 20 minutes, and then dined with the Azerbaijan president. Unsurprisingly, he skirted the issue of human rights.
However, Milli warns that Western support for the status quo will eventually prove counter-productive:
‘There are rising movements of fundamentalism in Azerbaijan. People are losing hope that democratic reforms will ever happen and believe that we should go the way of Iran. The western establishment is supporting this [Azeri] regime and this is a big mistake. If there is no pressure to open up, become democratic and reform, then I think some abrupt changes are inevitable. And these abrupt changes won’t be under the control of any rational force. I think it’s in the interest of those who care not only about human rights, but also security and energy issues to put pressure of Azerbaijani government to reform.’
However, in spite of the risks associated with political activism, and having already served a lengthy jail term, Milli has not been dissuaded:
‘It made me more determined. I realized what I was doing did matter. It scared the state. When a state arrests you for something, it is because you are doing something dangerous.’
When I spoke with Milli, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has just called him a hero at a Freedom Now event in London. Milli appeared almost unsettled by this, and remains adamant that he is not a hero. Reflecting on the incident in his blog, Milli writes:
‘My answer is no. I am not a hero. I do not want to die or to go to jail again and ask everyone to go with me as Martin Luther King did or Gandhi did. I am just a person who wants basic things for my country, for the whole humanity if possible. I do not have any ideological leaning or political ambitions. I am a naive dreamer and often I realize that all I can do is just dream loudly.’
Milli tells me that for him, heroism is something closer to martyrdom.
‘I came up with a new word for it when I was in prison. A ‘smartyr’ – a smart martyr, someone who wants to do something good in life for humanity, but does not want to die as a hero or martyr.’
When we get on to the topic of freedom, Milli speaks with an eloquence that perhaps only those who have felt the weight of their own freedom can. On his blog, he describes queuing for hours at a time just to buy bread following the collapse of the Soviet Union, but remembers the ‘spirit of freedom of those years.’
‘Today I am living in a country where I can buy my bread, but do I have my freedoms? Or did we trade our freedoms just for bread?’
I ask him about this contentious issue, which is often used by authoritarian regimes or those in transition as an excuse to muzzle civil society. Is it possible to have both freedoms and bread in a state which is rebuilding itself, as Azerbaijan was after the collapse of the Soviet Union?
‘They are both important, [freedom and bread]. It’s like asking someone to choose between bread and water. You need food, but you cannot live on that alone. You need freedom; it’s what distinguishes us from other things on this earth. Freedom helps us to materialize great innovations, to dream, to create. It’s all part of human life. You cannot take one from another. This discussion appears a lot in academia, but I think it is an unproductive discourse.’
‘Maybe democracies develop slower, but then there is much more guarantee in the end for development and more rights.’
In spite of the challenges facing Emin, his fellow activists and countrymen, he is optimistic about Azerbaijan’s future:
‘We were at the Avant-garde at the start of the 20th century. I hope that within my lifetime we will get back to this.’
‘I think we have enough potential for this, there are a lot of bright young people from Azerbaijan around the world. The only thing we need is to create a democratic country so that these people will stay in Azerbaijan. I believe the more the international media give voices to Azerbaijan, we can contribute to the development of humanity .’