While the tone of this lament about electoral fraud in Azerbaijan by Philip Stephens in Friday's Financial Times of London may surprise some by its vehemence, it serves just as well as preparation for the future "major military intervention" in Azerbaijan that Justin Raimondo predicted on May 27, 2005, as did Stephens's earlier Oct. 28, 2005, pre-election piece on Azerbaijan....

Comment & analysis

By Philip Stephens

Financial Times (UK)
November 18, 2005

http://news.ft.com/cms/s/4e603d9a-57d7-11da-8866-00000e25118c.html (subscribers only)

Azerbaijan is one of those places about which most people know little and a few care a lot. Earlier this month, the regime in Baku rigged the country's parliamentary elections. The U.S. and European governments protested. Not too loudly. The cause of democracy in the southern Caucasus runs a poor third place to short-term calculation and oil.

I visited the former Soviet republic in late September. It was evident then that the election outcome would be fixed in favor of supporters of President Ilham Aliyev. The U.S. and European Union were demanding the poll be free and fair. But it was obvious, not least to Mr Aliyev, that the West was bluffing. The cost of ignoring Washington and Brussels would be minimal.

The trip came back to me this week when I listened to Tony Blair, the prime minister, give his annual foreign policy speech in the City of London. Thirty years ago, Mr. Blair said, a political leader who argued that the best way to advance national interest was to promote democracy and justice worldwide would have been dismissed as an idealist. Today, such a leader is a realist. The problem, he continued, lay not in the ambition to spread liberty, but in a failure to follow through the inexorable logic of global interdependence.

This world view explains Mr. Blair's closeness to President George W. Bush. Reading the speeches delivered by Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. secretary of state, during her latest Middle East trip, it occurred to me that, save for the lavish praise heaped on Israel's Ariel Sharon, they could have been written in 10 Downing Street. Earlier this year, Ms. Rice pronounced as a strategic failure several decades of previous U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Propping up despots, she concluded, had not brought long-term stability.

All this makes the international reaction to the elections in Azerbaijan doubly depressing. Democracy is not a quick fix. Overturning obnoxious regimes may not lead automatically to western-style pluralism -- witness Iraq. Those who believe in original sin will doubt that democracy is the natural state of man. Nurturing civil society, entrenching the rule of law, and the rest require time and application. By Ms. Rice's own admission, the U.S. only guaranteed universal access to the ballot box a little over 40 years ago.

So those who set the advance of democracy as a central goal -- neo-conservatives, Wilsonians, liberal interventionists, call them what you will -- are always vulnerable to the charge of hypocrisy. Sometimes it will be better to nudge despots in the right direction rather than depose them. When that happens, the self-styled foreign policy realists will always be the first to cry foul.

That said, Azerbaijan is a place where the West could have made a difference. Instead, it has chosen the easy option of, if not quite keeping quiet, speaking in a whisper.

By accidents of geology and geography, Azerbaijan has strategic significance. The country is at the heart of the Caspian oil and gas boom. A 1,000-mile pipeline, built and operated by the British-based BP, will soon be pumping a million barrels a day to the Mediterranean. It is one of many former Soviet republics sitting along an arc of instability stretching from the Black Sea to China. Most face the choice between democracy and authoritarianism, some between secularism and militant Islam. It is clear where the West's interests lie.

In the short term, though, Azerbaijan also provides the U.S. with a vital air corridor to Afghanistan and Iraq. It shares one of its borders with Iran, another with Russia. Donald Rumsfeld, the U.S. defense secretary and a frequent visitor to the capital, Baku, is prominent among the few who care a lot about Azerbaijan. The Pentagon is refurbishing an old Soviet air base and has a radar station near the Iranian border.

There was never a prospect that the latest elections would oust Mr. Aliyev, who was elected president after another rigged vote two years ago. Mr. Aliyev, though, had promised the semblance of a fair poll -- the form, if not the substance.

He inherited his office from his late father. Heydar Aliyev, who made his name as a member of the Soviet Politburo, is much revered for steering the country out of the chaos that followed independence. Well-spoken, well-manicured and fluent in English, Ilham is a plausible politician. When I met him in September he insisted he was forging a Western-style democracy fit to take Azerbaijan into the Euro-Atlantic community.

Clever bullshit is how one western diplomat in Baku describes this patter. In the months before the poll, the opposition parties were harassed and rallies banned. Reformist-minded ministers were arrested. Electoral oversight commissions were filled with apparatchiks. On polling day, ballot boxes were stuffed and votes for opposition parties "lost."

Mr. Aliyev's supporters duly announced they had won 90 per cent of the seats, leaving the opposition with just a handful. Election monitors for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Council of Europe catalogued the irregularities, declaring the poll had fallen short of international standards.

The international response? The U.S. state department said it was deeply disturbed. The EU, of which Britain currently holds the presidency, complained in terms feeble even by its own low standards. Mr. Aliyev sacked a few regional governors in feigned annoyance at what he called isolated irregularities. In other words, it was back to business as usual.

The excuse of Western governments is that the conduct of the elections did mark some advance on the 2003 presidential poll. Better, apparently, a modest improvement than the upheaval of a Ukrainian or Georgian-style revolution.

Azerbaijan, though, should not be a hard case. The West, of course, could not have insisted on an instant transition to full democracy. The clan system is too deeply entrenched, the country's civil society too fragile for such a leap. But it could have demanded that the regime allow much greater opposition representation in parliament as a first step. That would have been a perfectly reasonable price for the visit to the White House so coveted by Mr. Aliyev.

Instead, just as it did for so many years in its relationships with all those oil-rich states in the Middle East, it has allowed the illusion of stability to trump strategic ambition. Mr. Rumsfeld has won over Ms. Rice, Britain's oil interests over Mr. Blair. Azerbaijan, meanwhile, is left to its own devices and, quite possibly, to the eventual advance of militant Islam.