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Shown Trial: Emin Milli and the Future of Azerbaijan

Shown Trial
Fortnight Journal
November 26, 2010

What happens to the Vaclav Havels of the world when their velvet becomes bloody?

Azerbaijan, after its 2005 push for openness and reform in government, found itself somewhere among Budapest in 1956, Prague in 1968 and Poland in 1981. A human tragedy began; replete with obligatory (in the post-Soviet world) sideshows, show trials, political arrests and imprisonments of intellectuals—followed by their occasional, conditional release.

When I met Emin Milli, one such Azeri prisoner of conscience, he was on leave from prison in Azerbaijan this summer for one week to attend his father’s funeral and mourn his passing. He sat with his wife, Leyla, and mother, Natella, in a cousin’s home, surrounded by friends and family in the village of Boyuk Oyrad, in his native Neftcala region of Azerbaijan. Leyla would later remark to Radio Free Europe how unfortunate it was that “someone had to die, so that we may talk.”

Among such circles of dissent, history has provided for the emergence of several archetypes. Some dissenters are reluctant creatures and leaders like Havel; the category to which Milli might best be prescribed. Others brag about their commitment to a people they may some day come to treat with condescension. And some find exile in the West more passable, retreating to New York, London, or Paris, where they smoke cigarettes in a leisurely fashion before sputtering about change in a native land increasingly irrelevant to their own lives.

Many nations do not have such people. Certainly, comfortable nations have no need for such people; the moral ownership of society is already handed over to the state, a religious organization or some other worthy entity. It is part of the poverty of the so-called free and developed world to expect and obey instruction.

Milli’s great crime against the state was one of satire. He and his colleagues made a video ridiculing a governmental decision—only rumored in a land absent free media—to purchase a donkey from the German government for forty-two thousand U.S. dollars.

In the video that garnered them the title “donkey bloggers” in the international press, one man disguised as a donkey delivered a press conference. As he takes questions, the donkey reveals biographical details about himself that are strikingly similar to those of sitting President Ilham Aliyev. In much of the Middle East, Azerbaijan evidently included, calling someone a “donkey” is a grave insult; a harsher form, perhaps, of calling someone a bastard.

The great line that likely doomed Milli and his fellow “donkey blogger,” Adnan Hajizade, to prison was this:

“Conditions in Azerbaijan are perfect for a donkey like me.”

That same week—on a peculiarly ironic choice of calendar days, July 4—the American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paid a visit to Baku, the Azeri capital, to reaffirm bilateral ties. Her motorcade passed not far from the downtown apartment I was renting, providing me with a memory of home on Independence Day. Secretary Clinton met with young opinion leaders after meeting with President Ilham Aliyev, who is notably the son of Heydar Aliyev, considered the de facto father of the independent, post-Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan in both official and unofficial rhetoric. It is his face that adorns most public billboards across the country.

Azerbaijan may be post-communist, but it is not post-Soviet. Its internal security apparatus is still known to locals as the KGB. The presidential office of Ilham Aliyev is still called the “apparatus.” There are perhaps as many, if not more portraits of Ilham’s father, Heydar, around Azerbaijan as once stood of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Part of the country’s oil money has gone to building squares in the name of Heydar Aliyev in every significant and worthy municipality. It has also gone directly to the bank accounts of the leadership and their friends and family, who build villas, buy luxurious brands and fancy themselves monarchs of a European sort.

The oil money is also in the hands of a small group of Azeri oligarchs who happen to be ministers in the government, and whose favor must be curried if one is to make one’s way in the world. Finally, much of the money has gone to BP, who wedged out the competition on the regionally significant transnational Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline. Documenting this pipeline was the ostensible reason for my presence in the region in the first place, as a Young Explorers Grant recipient from the National Geographic Society, following its precise route.

To her credit, Secretary of State Clinton did meet with the young leaders of this generation—many of Milli’s friends included—who must now contemplate a question that only they can answer: Will their generation too be “lost”? Reviews of Clinton’s appearance by the young leaders, many already transformed by the events of five years ago, were tempered by the realities they knew too well: the curse of hydrocarbon resources on the efficiency and political will of the state and the condition of having your nation be at the mercy of foreign interests. People in fact know when they are being heard, as opposed to being merely listened to. Clinton did not meet with any opposition leaders; only the young, intellectual elite.

The alternate version of this diplomatic junket to “reaffirm bilateral ties” would relay a different story. The Americans desired to maintain the use of Azeri air space for flights and supply routes into Afghanistan, and at any cost, at least according to an article in Foreign Policy, “Bad Blood in Baku,” by American professor and Azerbaijan observer Thomas Goltz. Over drinks one night along the Caspian boardwalk Bulvar in downtown Baku, Goltz admitted that the story had been delivered to him by a U.S. diplomat on his last trip to the region earlier in the summer. He wondered aloud just how much of a willing messenger he had been made.

On his week off from prison, Milli complained about a few things: the Asiatic-style communal toilets that greet him now in prison, the crowded cell filled with criminals and the widespread illiteracy he had never before witnessed firsthand. But he mostly complained about his newfound responsibility: the frustration of having one’s case receive international media attention while so many others go ignored. How does one handle the attention that good and controversial satire courts, while adjusting to becoming the public face of injustice in your country?

These jailed bear a comforting naïveté about the large numbers of supporters around them, suggesting their protection. This presumption shelters them from cynicism and forfeiture, even though most were in fact inmates well before entering prison: Conscience can be an inescapable burden.

“These are my friends,” he said, gesturing to the small circle of close confidants around him. “They are each very different and different from each other; they don’t necessarily understand each other, but I understand all of them,” Emin joked. While his friends talk of his spiritual and physical toughening in prison, Emin still belays a warm smile and the gentle spirit of a young man.

As an organizer and NGO worker in his former life, many in Baku refer to Emin as the “chief networker.” Milli amassed large groups of people who doubted and wished to criticize The System. They organized parties, open-air universities, forums and political actions. Milli was one of the most eloquent among them.

They wanted a change, the political will to make it happen, and, critically, the absolution of the public pressures that keep people in line through fear and its accompanying, even more powerful weapon: the fear of fear.

Emin’s wife’s father was fired due to political circumstance after Emin appeared at a rally. Then her husband went to jail. These are some of the more common instruments of control.

For a moment in time, starting in 2005, Emin Milli helped create a clearing. For members of the Bakuvian intellectual, professional and social elite, there was a moment in which kids could be kids, young adults could be young adults, and adults could envision a life free from the accelerated maturation process they underwent as a result of daily life under a broken system. It would not effect another generation, many hoped. There was no roadmap for catastrophe, but it ensued as the demonstrations picked up force.

Milan Kundera wrote that kitsch is the natural aesthetic of all politicians. As with many aspects of life in the former Soviet sphere, some politicians are more equal. This is slight distortion of the oft-cited quote from George Orwell’s Animal Farm that nearly perfectly encapsulates the disparity of living conditions and freedoms across the former Eastern bloc, after the workers’ revolution from above was imposed. In Azerbaijan, kitsch reaches the stratosphere, as former Soviet meets petro-state.

In such places, the leaders live lives of intellectual and moral poverty, understanding and communicating only in the language and aesthetic of kitsch. And the young who choose to live a life that rewards intelligence, instead of its inverse counterpart, vote the only way they can in modern Azerbaijan: With their feet, by leaving the country. This is also true of the children of ministers, who serve as the society’s oligarchs; in effect, robber barons who failed to build up their country beyond an occasional Potemkin five-star hotel on a remote, desert-like plain in the mountains, bereft a staff due to the absence of paved roads for them to arrive to work on, and absent guests for the same reason. The children of the oligarchs are kept abroad for their personal safety in the event of dramatic upheaval. Best estimates of the longevity of the current regime would be pegged to oil revenues and the moment of their inevitable decline.

Officially under this system, Emin Milli is a hooligan who picked a fight with two athletes in a Lebanese restaurant while out with friends in central Baku. Even the officials responsible have allegedly acknowledged the set-up of this arrest in private. This is according to one of Milli’s friends, a blood relative of one of his accusers. Milli himself professes empathy for the choices the officials tasked with prosecuting him were faced with as terrible, regrettable options are not theirs alone in Azeri society, but in fact a reality for every Azeri.

The restaurant has since been rebranded as Marsells Pub and Restaurant, as if a name change scrubs away personal accountability on a higher, moral level. Emin’s friends now point to it as they pass; regarding it with the same disgust they have for official reports of that night.

It was these same friends who months later sent me a simple but ecstatic e-mail, “Emin Milli – free from prison!!!” which I opened in transit at the Zurich airport on November 19. I was traveling to Hungary to cover the aftermath of a different post-Soviet tragedy; an industrial accident that caused crimson alumina sludge to flood several villages. My last phone call leaving New York had been to discuss the anticipation of his release, as his partner in satire, Hajizade, had been set free two days prior.

It is hard to describe the feeling, even from the periphery, of what it is like when an injustice comes to an end. It is among the most profoundly bittersweet of emotions. How do you show gratitude to a system that has impugned and imprisoned? The system has not changed, but rather the individual—who, in the words of the late American folk singer Phil Ochs, has had the experience of “being only as free as the padlock prison door.” The struggle with the self begins anew. The effort is to not be hardened by a system that has worked overtime to transform the soul into not just an enemy of the state, but also an enemy of the self. How to translate and communicate this experience to a larger society, and to people who have found strength in Milli’s courage, is something he will grapple with again in weeks, months and years to come.

Milli and his friends said they want something more basic than the dramatic upheaval they saw end in bloodshed five years ago: dignity. They content themselves with simpler pleasures, smiling about the BP employee who recently held up a sign at a rally that said “Fuck Oil” and was sentenced to 10 days in jail for the transgression. Yet history, brutal and bloody as it is, suggests that the riches will go next only to he who most desires them. This is the paradigmatic reality of the resource curse.

“My wife says I cannot change. Yet I am for change?” Emin asked aloud last summer in Neftcala.