If the former Soviet countries have one thing in common, it is their dislike for the moniker ‘former Soviet’. Yet in many ways their internal politics is still shaped by their Soviet legacy—a theme prominent in this book on Azerbaijan's political development since 1991 by a long-time observer of and one of the foremost experts on the country, Audrey L. Altstadt. For the most part, this is a story of how little the country has moved forward. The author provides ample evidence—for those who are still unconvinced—that the country's poor democracy and human rights record is the result of the government's systematic crackdown over the past two decades, and not the mistakes of a newly independent state. On the one hand, Altstadt reminds readers that much of this is due to the ‘hard wiring’ put in place during the Soviet era and not yet overcome. While generational change has taken place at the very top, the president's closest advisers are of his father's generation and have remained in their posts for the best part of two decades. It is their conception of politics and political experience that has shaped the country's crackdown on dissent. This is compounded by the fact that the populace remains ‘for the most part, as politically naïve as they were under the communist rule’ (p. 177). Azerbaijan has still not had a chance to have free public debate on the substance of democracy, the source of sovereignty and the role of religion. The lack of progress on resolving the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh is just one of the consequences of this. On the other hand, Altstadt argues, Azerbaijan's political future is not predetermined by its Soviet past or its geopolitics. While clearly sympathetic to the Popular Front and its veterans—whom she calls the country's ‘best and brightest’ (p. 49)—she also emphasizes how the human factor has contributed to the current weakness of Azerbaijani opposition: namely their lack of political acumen, infighting and failure to focus on issues instead of personalities. The selection of Rustam Ibragimbekov, a Russia-based film director, as the opposition candidate for the presidential elections in 2013 is symptomatic of both the closed nature of Azerbaijan's political arena and the shortcomings of the opposition. The book would benefit from a stronger focus on the economy and its link to political development. The author concedes that economic conditions are more important for regime survival than political freedom. Still, she mostly looks at the economy through the lens of hydrocarbons-related corruption and the regime's failure to share the profits from energy exports with the wider population through social policies. The wider picture of lost entrepreneurship potential and frustrated human capital is not taken into account. The story of how far the country has moved from its Soviet past concerns mostly its elite. Drawing on the work of several investigative journalists and echoing the research done on central Asia by Alexander Cooley and John Heathershaw in Dictators without borders: power and money in central Asia (London and New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017; reviewed in International Affairs 93: 5, September 2017), Altstadt describes an elite increasingly more adept at using international financial networks to conceal their ill-gotten wealth. As the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, the Maltese journalist who led a Panama Papers investigation linked to Azerbaijan, reminds us, these networks have an impact on EU and US politics. Finally, Altstadt's book also offers a detailed analysis of the Azerbaijani regime's use of lobbying and criticizes the EU and US officials' ‘willing blinders’ (p. 240) vis-à-vis Azerbaijan's worsening democratic, governance and human rights record. The book persuasively argues that such an approach does not help the Azerbaijani people or their government, and neither will it serve the EU and the US in the long term. By closing down all space for opposition, the regime risks pushing the discontent to violence—which the government may not be able to handle on its own, and inviting external assistance could threaten the country's independence. In addition, by letting the regime's crackdown pass without consequences, the EU and the US are depriving themselves of soft power not only in Azerbaijan, but also in the wider region. This is sound advice; it remains to be seen if it will be heeded. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Royal Institute of International Affairs. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
International Affairs – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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