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.
While Armenia, once a powerful lobby in Washington, has embraced Russia, Azerbaijan has leaned toward the West.
"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.
The crackdown is aimed at silencing government critics and often uses "trumped up" charges, including hooliganism, weapons and drugs possession, said Giorgi Gogia, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.
"The government has had a poor human rights record for a while, but for the past year and a half, we have seen a change for the worse," Mr. Gogia said. "The government is tightening the screws. Little by little, the islands of freedom are disappearing."
Azerbaijani officials brush off the criticisms, pointing to their strong support of American interests in the region and their friendly relations with Israel.
The Obama administration is monitoring developments in Azerbaijan, straddling a careful line of embracing an ally in a critical region while prodding it behind closed doors and in public to enhance freedoms.
On July 16, Thomas Melia, deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, testified before the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, at a hearing titled "Troubled Partner: Growing Authoritarianism in Azerbaijan."
The "political environment for human rights and fundamental freedoms more broadly has worsened since at least last November, when the [national assembly] passed amendments significantly increasing fines on participants and organizers of unauthorized protests," Mr. Melia told the panel.
In September, the Aliyev government barred a delegation led by Mr. Melia from traveling to Azerbaijan to observe preparations for the presidential election.
"We will continue to urge respect for fundamental freedoms and the rule of law, including due process before, during and after the presidential contest," a U.S. official said, speaking only on the condition of anonymity.
The official said the administration has called on Azerbaijan to ensure "a free, fair, and transparent electoral process that reflects the will of the people."
'We are not perfect'
Azerbaijan's leadership bristles at suggestions it is unfriendly to freedom.
At the Helsinki Commission hearing in July, for instance, the Azerbaijani ambassador to the United States took strong exception to his president being labeled authoritarian.
"I respectfully reject the wrongful claim about going to authoritarianism in Azerbaijan," Ambassador Elin Suleymanov said. "We do not accept that. What is going on in Azerbaijan is a truly independent nation with a vibrant political system and a free-market economy."
He conceded that there is room for improvement: "Just like every nation on Earth, we are not perfect."
Azerbaijan won independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991. In 1993, Mr. Aliyev's father, Heydar Aliyev, was elected president. A decade later, in October 2003, the younger Mr. Aliyev was elected to succeed his ailing father.
He inherited a nation on the cusp of major oil revenues and plagued by corruption. In the ensuing years, the economy improved, and with it, the standard of living.
"Hopes were quite high when Mr. Aliyev came to power," Mr. Gogia said. "Here was an energetic, young leader who could modernize the country. But these hopes wound down quite soon after he came to power."
The pro-democracy Arab Spring protests that have embroiled parts of the Middle East and North Africa and toppled dictators since 2010 appear to have spooked the Aliyev government, especially as it related to social media.
The Azerbaijani government has imprisoned youth activists with large numbers of followers on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. More than half a dozen activists from NIDA, a youth opposition movement active on social media and critical of the government, have been arrested.
The opposition claims it has been hamstrung by such tactics, especially in a country where broadcast media are still controlled by the government.
Stability versus democracy
Besides Mr. Aliyev, 51, there are nine registered presidential candidates. The opposition's main candidate, Jamil Hasanli, is a historian who represents the National Council of Democratic Forces, a coalition of opposition parties and groups.
Oscar-winning screenwriter Rustam Ibragimbekov was the National Council's original candidate, but election officials rejected his candidacy on the grounds that he is a dual citizen of Azerbaijan and Russia.
Another presidential aspirant, Ilgar Mammadov, was arrested in February on charges of instigating civil unrest and has been awaiting trial in prison.
Its human rights record aside, Azerbaijan has plenty of advocates inside the United States, including former Rep. Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican who wrote in a Washington Times op-ed last month that America must be patient with its Caspian ally.
"I know that Azerbaijan is not perfect. The Azerbaijani government is often criticized over its human rights record," Mr. Burton wrote. "However, considering that Azerbaijan — like other former Soviet republics — has scant experience with democracy, its human rights record is better than most. In fact, Azerbaijan's religious tolerance, inclusiveness and protection of women's rights should be recognized."
Mr. Burton is chairman of the board of the Azerbaijan America Alliance, which promotes Azerbaijan's interests in the U.S.
Mr. Burton also stressed Azerbaijan's increasing ties with Israel. Azerbaijan's bilateral trade with Israel reached $4 billion last year and about 40 percent of Israel's oil imports come from Azerbaijan, he noted. And when Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov visited Israel in May, Israeli President Shimon Peres described the trip as historic.
Mr. Mammadyarov was also the only Muslim foreign minister to address the 2013 American Jewish Committee Global Forum in Washington.
Others see an evolution of a Soviet republic seeking stability and economic prosperity first before freedom can be achieved.
"I am not one who would say that Aliyev is a democrat. He is not," said Mr. Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute, who visited Azerbaijan in June. "While the negative side of Aliyev has been the lack of full democratization, the positive side has been the development of the economy.
"One of the reasons why I am willing to cut Aliyev some slack is because I don't believe a stable democracy is possible in Azerbaijan without a larger middle class and it seems Aliyev's plan is to build up that middle class first," Mr. Rubin explained. "So while I believe in reforms, I also believe that we need to time those reforms properly; otherwise, we throw the baby out with the bathwater."
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