In recent years the Caucasian republic of Azerbaijan, independent since 1991, has experienced rapid economic change. With oil and gas revenues skyrocketing, its capital Baku is in the grips of a feverish construction boom. For educated young Azerbaijanis the recent boom created many opportunities. Born in a communist empire that has since ceased to exist, having come of age during a tumultuous transition, they are now able to take advantage of new possibilities to study abroad and to reap the rewards – jobs at international organisations, multinational companies or Azerbaijani institutions – after returning home.
Instead of closing their eyes to the inequities of Azerbaijan's new gilded age they started to worry about the democratic gap between their country and the Western world. As Emin Mili, a young Azerbaijani activist, put it in a presentation at Columbia University in 2009, while corruption was permeating all spheres of public life Azerbaijan was facing the consolidation of an authoritarian regime: "The regime expands and strengthens its repressive apparatus to intimidate opposition forces and to prevent the formation of independent social groups."
So far European governments, the US and international organisations – particularly the Council of Europe, Europe's oldest intergovernmental club of democracies – have failed to address the increasing repression in Azerbaijan, which had joined the Council of Europe one decade ago.
Observing the events in Egypt, Tunisia, and the Middle East as a whole suggests that the hold on power of the Azerbaijani elite might also not be as firm as they like to believe. Beneath the glossy exterior that they have created lives a generation that has learned to expect more from its leaders than handouts at the expense of rights and stability at the expense of democracy. It is a generation that has not given up on the promise of Azerbaijan turning, one day in the near future, into a genuine European democracy. In their endeavours they deserve support, particularly from organisations such as the Council of Europe, whose whole raison d'etre is to preserve democratic standards among its members. In the end it would also be in the interest of Azerbaijan's rulers to respect the rules to which they have themselves committed their country.
The country the Aliyevs built