- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 5, 2005

Fifteen years ago Soviet troops entered Baku, capital of Azerbaijan, to put down the nascent movement for freedom and independence under the guise of “combating Islamic fundamentalism.” On that bloody January 1990 afternoon, all hopes for this nation of 8 million seemed to have died.

Today, the people of Azerbaijan will go the polls to elect representatives to Parliament, making the transition from Soviet-style authoritarianism to democratic pluralism. President Ilham Aliev shares President Bush’s belief that independence, stability and prosperity depend on successful democratic reform. Mr. Aliev’s insistence on free and fair parliamentary elections is based on the premise that democratic pluralism in Azerbaijan will ensure a peaceful avenue for dissent, eliminating violent alternatives.

Unfortunately, leading opposition members have urged “jihad” against the government, raising the specter of an Islamic regime similar to Azerbaijan’s southern neighbor, Iran.

Mr. Aliev would like to avoid a radical transition since the last few years’ unprecedented economic growth in Azerbaijan undoubtedly would be jeopardized by political instability.

Not surprisingly, most Azerbaijanis put a premium on stability and gradual reform. According to a recent survey by the International Republican Institute sponsored by USAID, an overwhelming majority of the population wants economic and social development to be the priorities of their government.

While the United States views today’s election as the litmus test for Azerbaijan’s commitment to democracy, this strategic partnership should be viewed beyond promoting democracy because of other shared goals and values.

Following the tragedy of September 11, 2001, President Bush said, “You are either with us or against us.” Azerbaijan’s response was unwavering: “We are with you.” Hours after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Azerbaijan’s late President Heydar Aliev invited the U.S. ambassador to his office to not only express his condolences but to offer his country’s full support. Today, Azerbaijan stands side-by-side with America in the global war on terrorism. Its troops serve valorously in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo.

The uninterrupted exploration, development and transportation of Caspian Sea oil and gas reserves to international markets is a goal shared by the governments in both Baku and Washington. May 25, the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan pipeline was inaugurated, connecting the land-locked Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean Sea. This geostrategic pipeline will allow the Caspian Sea states to export their oil and gas to worldwide markets, enhancing global energy security at a time of Persian Gulf volatility.

Religious tolerance also unites the two counties. The 43-year-old Ilham Aliev sees no conflict between Azerbaijan’s Shi’ite Muslim identity and a secular government. He notes, “Islam is our faith and is firmly rooted in our hearts and in our deeds but not on the streets and in our politics.”

Since September 11, 2001, America has asked its friends to stand up and be counted. We might consider doing the same for one of our strongest friends and allies in the broader Middle East. Washington has an obligation to uphold this legacy of friendship and cooperation with Azerbaijan by immediately taking the following initiatives:

(1) Invite Azerbaijan’s president to Washington to thank him for his country’s staunch support of the war on terror and for its shared ideals of religious and democratic pluralism.

(2) Permanent congressional removal of Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act that treats Azerbaijan as an enemy worse than North Korea, which has been in effect since 1991. (After September 11, Mr. Bush has had to waive Section 907 each year for Azerbaijan to be treated as America’s friend and receive any direct U.S. aid). This will allow even deeper bilateral cooperation, especially on the menace of global terrorism.

(3) Make resolving the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict an American diplomatic priority. The U.S. should use its good will to bring Armenia to the negotiating table for a final settlement. Resumed conflict can negatively affect the flow of oil to the United States from the Caspian Sea region.

In her recent speech at Princeton University, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said: “The ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union initiated a new moment of transformation.” One country that has seized this moment and is transforming itself into a country with shared values is America’s best friend in the former Soviet Union — Azerbaijan.

S. Rob Sobhani is president of Caspian Energy Consulting and a member of the Committee on the Present Danger.

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