- The Washington Times - Monday, December 21, 2009

I am distressed by S. Rob Sobhani’s Op-Ed (“New chance on the old Silk Road,” Opinion, Dec. 14). The country that Mr. Sobhani holds up as a role model for the Middle East - Azerbaijan - falls so short of the ideal of democracy that it is highly unlikely that any political authority in the United States would take his suggestions seriously.

The fact of the matter is that Azerbaijan remains one of the most corrupt countries in the world - ranked by Transparency International as more corrupt than almost all Muslim states - including Libya, Syria and Pakistan.

Free-market capitalism and control of economy by government can co-exist, albeit at each other’s expense. The Azerbaijani economy is under strict control of oligarchs who are, in almost all cases, immediate family members of government officials. Even “Pashabank,” which is mentioned favorably in Mr. Sobhani’s piece, is controlled by the Azeri president’s close relatives. Although it may be possible for large and well-connected companies to navigate Azerbaijan’s authoritarian political economy, it is highly unlikely that small- and medium-sized American companies will succeed.

In addition, Azerbaijan is not an American friend. If it were one, it would not have banned a radio station that is funded by the U.S. Congress from broadcasting its programs through public airwaves. Until last year, the Azeri branch of Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe was the most important source of free and fair reporting in the country. Until two decades ago, the radio had also served U.S. national interests by keeping the dream of liberty afloat in the former Soviet Union.

America’s friends do not kill or jail journalists. Mr. Sobhani’s article does not mention that the Azeri government continues to keep editors of two major newspapers in jail. Recently, Adnan Hajizade - a U.S.-educated blogger - joined the list of political prisoners following a court case that international organizations considered to be fabricated.

All of this qualifies Azerbaijan as an epitome of a highly dangerous neo-authoritarianism that tries to look respectable in international eyes by spending millions of dollars on lobbying activities in order to counter honest public reporting.

I hope that President Obama not only will refrain from inviting Ilham Aliyev, the president of Azerbaijan, to the White House but also that he will instruct the State Department to pressure him to respect human rights. America should lend its support - as it has done in many cases - to those who struggle for individual freedoms, not to those who enrich their families at the expense of their fellow citizens’ liberties.


London School of Economics

London, England

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