Election reflections

[slideshow]The storefronts and billboards throughout Baku are still covered in election posters, but a brief conversation with the stores' owner reveals the cynicism of the recent elections here. In most cases, the owner did not support or oppose the candidate, did not know who put up the poster inside his shop and didn't remove it because, in the words of one woman, "Why would I do a stupid thing like that?" Lately I've written about the Azerbaijani elections (here and here) and all the press adds up to the same thing: everyone knows the election will not be fair and everyone assumes nothing will be change that.

One son of an opposition leader told me, "What are we supposed to do? Tell our supporters to run at the police?" It's a good question. What is to be done? How does a protest movement fight against a powerful, internationally accepted regime that gives its police a good salary, provides its ambitious citizens with jobs in the state apparatus and doesn't bother with mass suppression; a steady stream of brutal examples is enough to silence most people.

I don't have any answer to that. I don't even know if resisting is a good idea. Most apolitical people in Azerbaijan (and throughout the world I'm guessing) prefer the evil they know to the evil they don't. Who knows how much worse an unstable path to democracy could be? I'm not picking sides here, but this is the opinion of many intelligent people who are more worried about their children than their civil rights. Does that make it moral or ethical? That's a personal decision to me.

For what it's worth, here's my understanding of the President Ilham Aliyev's claim to power. But first, I should note that I am writing this from a T'bilisi, because I was unable to renew my visa, which expired in late October. My application to return to Azerbaijan will not be considered until at least the 12th of November - two weeks to get looked at. Even tourists could not enter the country from the Georgian consulate until after the elections. That's a sovereign right, but also an embarrassment.

Still, the next time the government waves off suggestions that visa changes are not politically motivated, be skeptical.

So what is Ilham Aliyev's grip on power? I don't believe it's based exclusively on repression and political maneuvering. I think there is a large amount of people who condone his rule. They see prosperity in the country and they see that only those connected with the center reap the benefits. There is work available in Baku, but prices are very high on everything except the bare essentials (mass transit, tea, and bread). So weighing everything they see, your average Joe Taghiyev is happy that the country isn't falling apart, but disappointed with where it's heading. I think most people either oppose Ilham or don't really think he's the best for the job, but they see a strong man as necessary for the ultimate goal of recapturing the territory that Azerbaijan lost to Armenia during a long and bitter war throughout the early 1990s.

The official rhetoric is always about Azerbaijan's growth and military power. President Aliyev's entire regime can justify its breach of democratic values, human rights and even moribund quality of life if it can somehow deliver some of the territories back. It's a big risk - if there is a military campaign, and it goes badly, I think it's the end of the regime. That's when the street protests are attended by not only activists, but also taxi drivers, angry IDPs, hot headed young people and just about anyone who feels a national cause in Karabakh, which in Azerbaijan seemed to be nearly everyone I met.

So recapturing land from Armenia is both a requirement and a major risk for Aliyev - not to mention thousands of innocent people through the Caucausus.

It's no surprise the cult of personality - bland, empty, chrome and glass boxes called Heydar Aliyev museums, sun bleached billboards of Heydar, endless busts and portraits - focuses on the father: the remote and effective Heyday Aliyev. His son is shown, but usually with him, in the front of the background, smiling, participating, but less often front and center. It is easier to glorify a dead man. To invest such rhetoric into a living leader, whatever his true capabilities, would not be as effective. It would cement expectation and specify mandates. Even Emperors needed a mandate from heaven to keep their absolute authority. Natural disaster and military fiascos have toppled palace guards for millennia, but color revolutions are something of a recent phenomena.

Yet, we see how sensitive the government is to any personal attacks on the president.

This opinion is just a piece of the puzzle of course, but it is also informed by traveling the regions, where local concerns simmer side by side with large historical wounds. The time when each political spasm produced an reaction has passed.

In Baku I think people care less about the things I am writing about. The city is vibrant in its own way, with more opportunity and a more dynamic public opinion. The rest of the country however has withdrawn into family and subsistence. If they can't share in the wealth of the new nation, they want to feel the dogged pride of overcoming the national defeat. This is the true threat to the regime, in my opinion.

There is a balancing act here: a leader who is suppose to consolidate power to keep the country rolling along into full sovereignty, but he just a remnant of the original leader. There are elections, but they are just a rubber stamp. There are new streets, new fountains, new promenades in front of the regional Heydar Aliyev museums, but they are the least this rich country can do.