In an increasingly polarized world, the small Caspian Sea nation of Azerbaijan is a tantalizing study in contradictions.
It’s a staunch American ally sandwiched between the U.S. nemeses of Iran and Russia, providing a critical transit for U.S. troops and supplies in and out of Afghanistan. Yet most Americans probably can’t spell the country’s name on first chance or pinpoint its location on a map.
It’s also a Shiite Muslim country that rejects the theocracy of Tehran in favor of a secular government while expanding its already friendly relationship with Israel.
It’s also a former Soviet republic that has cast off the shackles of its once socialist economy to experience significant growth around its booming oil industry.
All that makes Wednesday’s election in Azerbaijan of keen interest to U.S. diplomatic, intelligence and military circles even though there’s little suspense: President Ilham Aliyev is widely expected to win his third five-year term.
“It is the only country that borders both Russia and Iran. Therefore, it becomes a pivotal state when it comes to issues such as containment of Iran, as well as access for Americans, not only into the Caucasus, but also into Central Asia,” said Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official who is now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
“If Azerbaijan weren’t resource-rich and if it didn’t have the geopolitical position it has, I don’t imagine that so many Americans would be increasingly interested in the former Soviet republic.”
The U.S.-Azerbaijani relationship is based on cooperation in several areas, including regional security and energy. Azerbaijan has supplied troops to work with U.S. forces in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Since 1988, Azerbaijan has been mired in a conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, a primarily Armenian-populated landlocked region in Azerbaijan that is held by ethnic Armenian forces and unilaterally declared itself an independent republic in 1991.
“There is a sense that if Azerbaijan changes its orientation, American influence will be checkmated in the region,” Mr. Rubin said. “Political stability in Azerbaijan is to the benefit of America’s strategic interests.”
Crackdown on the opposition
Those interests have left the Obama administration to wrestle with concerns about what critics say is Azerbaijan’s authoritarian rule. A monthslong crackdown on political opposition and a clampdown on freedoms of expression and assembly has concerned some human rights groups.
The National Assembly has passed measures that increase prison sentences and fines for public-order offenses. In June, Mr. Aliyev signed legislation that criminalizes defamatory views posted on the Internet and allows prison sentences of up to three years.
The Azerbaijani government is engaged in a “deliberate, abusive strategy to limit dissent,” Human Rights Watch said in a report in September.