Yesterday via e-mail I gave an interview to Voice of America (VOA) Azeri language service journalist Emil Quilyev. The full interview in Azerbaijani can be found on the Voice of America website. Below is the unedited original, without translation which also appears on the website of Radio Azadliq, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Azerbaijani language service.
VOA: There have been some recent developments in Khadija Ismayil’s case. Nothing major. However, according to her lawyer Fariz Namazli, the accusation of disseminating state secrets have been lifted. What do you make of these trial proceedings?
Amanda Rivkin: I do not know enough about Azerbaijani trial law to comment on the particulars. My guess is that the state has come under tremendous pressure from international organizations over this case and slight developments can be used by the government, primarily for external purposes, to show Khadija is being given something resembling “fair treatment” under the law. Of course I believe this case is entirely political and based on her investigations into the president’s family’s businesses in Azerbaijan and their various offshore accounts and multinationals like Swedish telecom provider TeliaSonera, so any such claims would be merely a façade. The fact is the original charge of incitement to suicide based on an ex-boyfriend who was compromised by the state security agency who has since recanted his statements very publicly suggests this case is a house of cards.
VOA: Are you staisfied with the level of official pressure that is being exerted on the government of Azerbaijan in order to obtain Khadija’s release.
AR: I am absolutely not satisfied with the level of official pressure being exerted on the government of Azerbaijan in order to obtain Khadija’s release because she remains in jail, while still publishing investigations, which is so fierce and inspiring I am simply in awe of her courage. While I have personally been in contact with very senior officials in the US government directly about Khadija’s case and I know the issue has been raised at the highest level, it has not happened so publicly. This is very disappointing. I also believe the pressure by outside groups can be counter-effective, as we have seen with Malala Yousafzai, and make the individual concerned, in this case, Khadija, seem like a tool of outside governments and forces and used against her in terms of domestic opinion, although I know those within Azerbaijan who are aware of her case, like Khadija, are well aware that they live in a monarchic kleptocracy and support her efforts greatly. The fact is Khadija remains behind bars says that there has not been enough effective pressure placed on the government of Azerbaijan. I should also add that the money paid to opposition activists and activities is so small as to be symbolic when compared to the money given to SOCAR, to facilitate NATO using Azerbaijan as a transit nation for the war in Afghanistan for years, among other things. Basically US officials and other Western countries are checking boxes so they can save face when it comes to handling criticism they face from their own populations with regard to providing aid and resources to undemocratic states.
VOA: Many of Khadija’s friends in the iournalist community have joined in solidarity to support their imprisoned colleague and also put the corruption in Azerbaijan onto spotlight. Would you like to say anything about these efforts?
AR: See previous comments. While I am very supportive of the sentiment, I think no one has been more effective in embarrassing the government of Azerbaijan in this effort than Kite Runner author Khaled Hosseini. He has earned my utmost respect for his outspokenness on her case. He was truly the first to come forward forcefully and publicly beyond the community of those, such as myself and other colleagues, who worked with her and follow events in Azerbaijan closely. Hosseini’s work is respected in Azerbaijan and she was his Azerbaijani translator.
VOA: How much damage do you believe the arrest of Khadija has caused to the reputation of President Ilham Aliyev and his government?
AR: My belief and understanding through talking with high level diplomats in the region is that Putin and the government of Russia have successfully planted a seed of belief in Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s head that the US seeks to overthrow him in the wake of events in Ukraine, which have spooked many leaders in the post-Soviet space. I believe strongly that this is incorrect as Ilham Aliyev has worked for years on behalf of Western interests, especially with providing oil and naturally gas to US allies in the region such as Turkey, Israel in particular, and of course Western Europe. Additionally, Russia is probably deeply concerned about the possibility of an Iranian nuclear accord which could open the way for a partial lifting of sanctions and greater US investments in that country, particularly its energy sector. Halliburton, which is registered in the UAE, has already been in Iran for at least the last 10 years or so (I am not certain exactly how long) and I met a few Iranians working for Halliburton at bars popular with oil workers in Baku when I last lived there three years ago in 2012. Let’s be clear, Khadija’s case is a small part of a much bigger puzzle and geopolitical game, as is Ilham Aliyev. If anything, he has elevated her stature internationally and she may be more widely known than he is abroad at this point.
Ilham Aliyev was and remains the consensus choice who has maintained his position by being one of the few things Russia and America could agree on. It was Ilham’s father, the former president of Azerbaijan, Heydar Aliyev who said, “Washington is the new Moscow.” There seems to be very little desire within Azerbaijan and among the Azerbaijani people for anything dramatic to occur politically within their country and without that domestic support for something resembling regime change, I strongly believe the US would be crazy and outright foolish to try. To this end, my conversations with people involved in the promotion of democratic values in Azerbaijan were working for much smaller things, accountability of low level officials, dialogue with the outside world, and youth activism, including with the pro-government group Ireli. Any damage caused to Ilham Aliyev and his government is therefore largely the result of a self-inflicted, self-fulfilling prophecy. The US government is well aware, especially in light of events in Libya, Syria and Iraq that this is not the moment to topple a secular, relatively stable Islamic country’s head of state. Azerbaijan is not Ukraine. To do so would be bonkers and likely pave the way for either an Islamic government or one that tilts full-scale toward Russia and her interests, if it isn’t installed directly by Russia.
VOA: Do you believe that Khadija’s arrest signals the beginning of a new era in Azerbaijani politics? To what extent is Khadija’s arrest is intertwined with the strategic choice of the Ilham Aliyev government both in terms of domestic and foreign policy?
AR: Please see my previous answer for a long explanation to this end. But yes, in short, Khadija’s continued detention signals a decisive shift towards Moscow, whereas previously Ilham Aliyev and his father were engaged in far more of a balancing act between the great powers, something I may say they handled with great skill and agility.