On November 1, Azerbaijan’s ruling New Azerbaijan Party won 70 of a 125 seats in that country’s parliament in an election largely boycotted by the main opposition party.
The U.S. State Department’s OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) was quick to criticize the election on the grounds that as it was unable to field the required number of observers it wasn’t able to see what was going happening on the ground. Many non-American see the U.S. position that unless our governmental observers can see everything that goes on in another country its procedures must be suspect as bordering on the arrogant.
It is easy enough for those of us in the West to expect other countries facing very different problems to live up to our standards. There are bad actors out there, of course, but we sometimes forget that others are doing their best under circumstances that we don’t have to overcome. Sometimes we might consider cutting our friends a little slack when they are from all available evidence improving as their democracies mature. All too often, when we don’t like what’s going on we start talking not about working with our friends toward meaningful reform but about “regime change.”
In some, but certainly not all cases such talk is legitimate, but such talk while cloaked in the rhetoric of morality is usually about something else. Henry Kissinger was fond of quoting Britain’s Lord Palmerston who once famously observed that nation don’t have permanent friends and allies, but only permanent interests.
Perhaps we should also remember Edmund Burke’s observation that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds,” but ask ourselves whether such criticism from a State Department that is wont to apply very different moral standards to the activities of the U.S. government than to the actions of others is foolish. After all, the same State Department that has been so critical of Azerbaijan applauded the selection of Saudi Arabia to lead the U.N. Human Rights Council. That’s Saudi Arabia — one of the most repressive regimes in the world, whose levels of intolerance are codified to the extent that the only religion allowed is Islam. All else can be punishable by death.
This is the same State Department that called Israel’s accidental bombing of a UNRWA school during the defensive Gaza war “disgraceful” prior to any investigation having taken place and despite the fact that terrorists were firing from the school. And then just a couple of months ago, when U.S. forces destroyed a Doctors Without Borders hospital killing over 20 people, refused to use the same language, instead pleading for time to conduct investigations.
And this is also the same State Department that has been silent about the lack of elections in the Palestinian territories, where the term of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas expired in 2009 and which criticizes Azerbaijan’s lack of press freedom while standing silent while a Palestinian, Anas Ismail, is sentenced to six months in jail by the Palestinian Authority for ‘liking’ a Facebook page critical of the Palestinian president.
The State Department may sometimes think of itself as a moral judge on world affairs, but clearly it isn’t. This is not to deny that Azerbaijan and nations in a similar position don’t face challenges in regard to press freedom and human rights, but their actions need to be viewed in the context of their geopolitical position.
Azerbaijan, for example, recently emerged from a totalitarianism few of us in the West can even begin to understand. When Azerbaijan first gained independence, many there didn’t know how the country would survive. They were fully dependent on Russia. They weren’t able to afford grain, had no foreign reserves — and had, in fact, nothing of their own. One can only marvel at the progress made since then.
Can things improve in Azerbaijan — of course they can. It’s far from a perfect country, but we need to recognize that countries differ based on history, culture and their surrounding geopolitical environment. It is unrealistic to expect the same level of progress from each of them. The Arab Spring was hailed as a new era for freedom and democracy, but instead of turning the Arab world into one of opportunity and hope, it has left it in anarchy and despair, because many of the nations throwing off one group of despots had not developed the infrastructure to prevent another from taking over.
Azerbaijan is developing that infrastructure and a strong enough civil society to make those who follow what’s going on their hopeful. While ethnic tensions have always been high in the region, Azerbaijan remains an extremely tolerant country toward different ethnicities and religions. Jews, for example, are more secure in Muslim Azerbaijan today than in most European countries. The same cannot be said of other nations that somehow escape State Department condemnation.
Instead of solely focusing on how far nations like Azerbaijan have to go, it might be prudent to consider how far they’ve come.
• Justin Amler is an Australia-based writer and commentator on international issues who specializes on the Middle East, Eurasia and the former Soviet Union.