Azerbaijan and Iran share borders, culture and literature, but they also share a history of oil policy and its consequences. Like Iran, Azerbaijan’s economy is primarily based on Caspian oil, and Azerbaijan is experiencing the same political, economic and social consequences of autocracy that caused revolution in Iran in 1979, which should alert the Western world.
The oil boom of Iran in 1970s, similar to Azerbaijan, produced huge gaps between social classes, the capital and regions, and the rich and poor. The families of both the Shah in Iran and President Ilham Aliyev in Azerbaijan became the main beneficiaries of the oil income. The Shah spent billions of dollars on construction of extremely expensive and pompous palaces, festivals, and ultra-sophisticated weapons while the country still had many starving citizens. Similarly, Aliyev’s regime spends oil money on grandiose construction projects like hotels, sport centers, and new airports which are too expensive for most people and an extravagant national holiday celebrating Aliyev’s birthday called “Flower Day,” where each year since 2000, the government spends 13-15 million dollars to buy flowers from Denmark, Finland and France.
In pre-revolutionary Iran, 96 percent of the villagers were left without electricity and like in pre-revolutionary Iran, villages in Azerbaijan still experience electricity problems; there is no constant electricity supply outside of cities and electricity is provided hourly. In both regimes, thousands of poor and unskilled male migrants moved to big cities for work, the foundation of mass protest and revolution. With the resentment brewing from all the extravagance seen by starving people, Azerbaijan, like Iran in the 1970s, only grows more unstable.
Although the West’s relationship with Azerbaijan began by prioritizing democracy and freedom, soon energy and security strategy issues became most prioritized. The regime, backed for its energy resources and strategic location has been able to ignore the democracy issues and turn to a hybrid system into an authoritarian one. Western countries do not sufficiently uphold human freedoms here; people here believe that Western powers keep silent and maintain good relationship with Ilham Aliyev to guard their business and oil interests in the country and thus, support the autocratic decisions of the government.
Iran also had a good relationship with the West, and even the CIA did not predict the sudden shift as it did not see the collective effects of increasing autocracy and human rights violations. In Iran, the revolution created a strong anti-West regime and the same will happen in Azerbaijan if steps are not taken.
Western countries must focus on how oil revenues make government more autocratic and must not compromise their interest of democracy to the interest of energy. Azerbaijan should be urged to undertake necessary transparent social and economic reforms and be supported in building strong internal structures that are not vulnerable to the interests of outside forces. The Azerbaijani government must be forced to be transparent and make oil accounts accessible to the public for scrutiny to prevent the revenues being transformed into bank accounts. The West, especially the United States, should treat Azerbaijan like authoritarian regimes in Belarus and other Middle East countries until they see real reforms.
Even Western actors interested in business, energy, and strategy must keep in mind that with increasing autocracy there is no stability. The stability which seems to exist in the country today is based on suppression of voices of media and political rivals; it is not the secure structure of a function democracy. Such a democracy will be hard to establish without foreign powers putting pressure on the government.
Shahla Sultanova is a freelance journalist from Azerbaijan working with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.