Azerbaijan and Iran in a Soft-Power Struggle?

Eurasianet Commentary

There’s a coffee shop in an out-of-the-way part of Baku where the walls are covered with illustrations from an early 20th century satirical magazine called Molla Nasreddin. The magazine represents a bygone era, when Azerbaijan was a font of new cultural trends in the Muslim world, pioneering such issues as female emancipation, anti-clericalism, anti-colonialism and labor rights

Azerbaijan and Iran in a Soft-Power Struggle?

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Although Azerbaijan was the birthplace of the magazine, arguably the country affected most by its essays and illustrations was Iran. At one time Jalil Mammadqulu-zadeh, the editor of Molla Nasreddin, even moved its editorial offices to Tabriz, a city with a heavily Azeri population in the north of Iran. The ideas propagated by the magazine even contributed to the intellectual foundations of Iran’s Constitutional Revolution of 1905.

Looking at the Molla Nasreddin illustrations hanging at the Ali and Nino coffee shop today, one is tempted to ask whether Azerbaijan can again inspire a democratically oriented transformation in Iran. In theory, it has the potential to do so. The Azerbaijani republic was born on the ashes of the Soviet Union with the promise of a democratic, European future. The fact that most Azerbaijanis are, at least notionally, Shi’a Muslims and speak the same language as nearly a quarter of the Iranian population should have strengthened Azerbaijan´s position as a conduit for democratization.

In reality, rather than serving as an inspiration for the democratization of Iran, Azerbaijan itself is becoming increasingly vulnerable to hardline influences originating in the Islamic Republic. It is true that many Iranians travel to Baku to enjoy the socially liberal atmosphere, where they can do away with the strict Islamic dress code and enjoy an alcoholic drink in a cafe. These are not trivial freedoms for those living under the thumb of an oppressive theocracy. However, Baku´s social liberalism is not matched by political liberalism.

Rather to the contrary, looking at Azerbaijan´s political evolution, many Iranians can see a familiar pattern unfolding in Baku, one that features the curtailment of rights via the promulgation of repressive laws against non-governmental organizations (NGOs), arrests of government opponents and the steady effort to restrict freedom of expression.

Over the past few weeks Azerbaijani authorities have arrested a number of activists from the civic youth movement N!DA, a presidential candidate from the opposition Republican Alternative Party, Ilgar Mammadov, and a charismatic Shi’a cleric, Taleh Bagir-zadeh. The scope and intensity of the latest crackdown suggest a fresh drive by officials to stamp out dissent during the run-up to presidential elections in fall 2013.

Iran, too, is scheduled to hold a presidential election in a few months. But Iranians do not look to Azerbaijan as an example of free and fair elections. Instead, it is Azerbaijanis who realize that –even in its current severely curtailed form, especially after the disputed elections of 2009 and the violent crackdown that ensued — the Iranian system offers a greater degree of pluralism than the Azerbaijani way.

Every presidential election in Iran since 1997, when a reformist cleric Mohammad Khatami won, has produced surprising outcomes. This cannot be said about Azerbaijan, where the winner is known well in advance. The fact that even elections in the Islamic Republic are seen as more lively these days than in Azerbaijan is an indictment of the state of Azerbaijani politics.

Current conditions in Azerbaijan invite Iranian meddling. And the repressive policies of President Ilham Aliyev’s administration in Baku are making the Iranians’ task of extending their influence easier. The more Azerbaijani authorities crack down on local independent media, the more people tune in the Islamic Republic-affiliated Azeri language channel Sahar TV. Cleverly, Sahar doesn’t just focus on religious issues, such as the demolition of mosques and bans on the use of hijab in schools, but also highlights more common concerns, such as corruption, political arrests and deficient social services. For many ordinary Azerbaijanis, especially outside Baku, Sahar’s coverage strikes a sympathetic chord.

In the southern regions of Azerbaijan in particular, where poverty and unemployment are still rampant, many people travel to Iran for foodstuffs and medicines, often despite petty corruption and humiliation from Azerbaijani customs officials.

The March 31 arrest of Bagir-zadeh, the young Shi’a cleric who denounced President Aliyev’s administration in a recent sermon, may be a pivotal moment. The arrest sparked unrest in the militantly Shi’a village of Nardaran, north of Baku and Azerbaijani authorities have tried to use the protest as proof of a pro-Iranian Islamist threat, not least to bolster Western support for Aliyev’s administration. However, many secular intellectuals in Azerbaijan, most of them worlds apart from the Islamists in terms of their values and lifestyles, have expressed support for Bagir-zadeh. The Iranian-incitement hypothesis thus hasn’t been able to gain traction. If authorities continue along this path, the Islamist-tinged opposition to the rule of the President Aliyev may well become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It is in the interests of both Azerbaijanis and the country´s Western partners to avoid such a scenario. Baku should be pressured into making immediate policy adjustments, easing up on its efforts to stifle all forms of dissent. A political system in Azerbaijan that embraced, not shunned individual freedoms could also have a powerful demonstrative effect on Iranians, and be of help to those in Iran who are struggling for democratization.

Editor’s note:

Eldar Mamedov is a political adviser to the Socialists & Democrats Group in the European Parliament, who writes in his personal capacity.