Les Miserables in Azerbaijan?

Sunday conversation in Saint Germain-en-Laye

The man emerging from the metro in Saint Germain-en-Laye on this cold Sunday afternoon in February is ebullient, unbowed and confident about the future of his country. This is remarkable, for my visitor is the political activist and writer Emin Milli, who had just emerged (again) from prison; the country in question is Azerbaijan.

Our paths first crossed when ESI worked on and then published in March 2011 a report about him, his friend Adnan and other members of Generation Facebook in Baku. The report described the emergence of a new generation of dissidents in Azerbaijan, and the strategy of repression used by the regime.

Emin Milli, a blogger, writer, activist and former political prisoner protesting
against violence against conscripts in the Azerbaijani military in Baku, 12 January 2013

Since Generation Facebook we have been in touch regularly. In January this year we met in Budapest during a seminar discussing the future of election observation missions in Europe. We then spent a day in Rumeli Hisari in Istanbul, discussing how the Council of Europe might help set free political prisoners across Europe. For Emin this is also a personal issue. He had spent 16 months in jail in 2009 and 2010. Our discussion was in the shadow of a forthcoming vote we were both watching carefully.


Emin Milli in Rumeli Hisari, Istanbul, January 2013. A few days later he will again be arrested after peacefully demonstrating against police violence.

A few days later a resolution on political prisoners in Azerbaijan was rejected by a clear majority in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). This was a historic debate – the best attended ever! – which saw remarkable and outrageous statements from European parliamentarians attacking the rapporteur and his work and defending the regime of Ilham Aliyev.

I ask Emin how he felt when he heard about the outcome of this debate on his country. He notes:

“When I heard about the vote against the resolution what came to my mind, strangely, was the fall of the Roman Empire. I thought: it is amazing how one small authoritarian regime can bring the proud tradition of democracy in Europe down in the Council of Europe.”

Three days after this vote Emin was arrested again following peaceful demonstrations. He spent two weeks in jail, together with others who had taken part in the demonstration. Emin tells my young daughters that prison offers a lot of time to read and that it helps to lose weight. Emin also explains that this time in prison he reread Les Miserables, one of the great novels of the 19th century. I tell him that Victor Hugo once lived near Saint Germain-en-Laye in the West of Paris, where we are now. Hugo was a visionary himself. He did, after all, tell the 1849 (!) Peace Congress in Paris:

“A day will come when the only fields of battle will be markets opening up to trade and minds opening up to ideas. A day will come when the bullets and the bombs will be replaced by votes, by the universal suffrage of the peoples, by the venerable arbitration of a great sovereign senate which will be to Europe what this parliament is to England, what this diet is to Germany, what this legislative assembly is to France. A day will come when we will display cannons in museums just as we display instruments of torture today, and are amazed that such things could ever have been possible.”

Compared to this vision, is the idea of the Southern Caucasus one day joined together with the rest of democratic Europe any less realistic? Is it less realistic than imagining in 1983 Poland joining the European project or in 1993 Croatia being a part of it? Hugo spoke those words before the Paris Commune, the two World Wars and the Cold War. He spoke them as an optimist – but given the European Union of today a farsighted rather than foolish one. I am certain that Hugo would have liked the vision and determination of Emin’s generation in Baku. As Hugo put it at the end of Les Miserables:

“… a progress from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsehood to truth, from night to day, from appetite to conscience, from corruption to life; from bestiality to duty, from hell to heaven, from nothingness to God. The starting point: matter, destination: the soul. The hydra at the beginning, the angel at the end.”


The hope for peaceful change

What is the hydra in Azerbaijan today? It is the authoritarian and oligarchic regime of president Ilham Aliyev. Is there an Angel? It must be the hope of a peaceful transition to democracy.

We sit down and Emin begins to explain:

“Before I did not see a chance for a democratic, non-violent and managed transition, as opposed to violent, anarchic and chaotic change. Now I can see a chance for this, even this year.”


Emin arrested again, following peaceful protests against police violence on 26 January 2013

The key for any breakthrough is for new and traditional opposition groups to come together around a common platform, program of change and a common candidate in upcoming presidential elections.

“There are of course the old opposition parties like Musavat and the Popular Front, but they are no longer alone. There are also now intellectuals who defected from the regime and who are popular in Azerbaijan, members of the new Intelligentsia Forum: scientists like Rufiq Aliyev, who is a candidate for a Nobel Prize, or film makers like Rustam Ibrahimbegov, who won an Oscar. They have now broken with Aliyev. There are many Western educated young people who have returned, like Harvard-educated former political prisoner Bakhtiyar Hajiyev. There are other opposition parties with serious programs, such as the Republican Alternative of Ilgar Mammedov or Erkin Gadirli. There are the young activists of the facebook generation.

In the past it was easier for the regime to discredit the opposition, but this would be hard in the face of a common opposition front. This is a very different scene from the one we had before elections in 2010, 2008 or 2005.”

But will there be a joint platform for elections in 2013?

“Different political groups and social forces seem to realize now that coming up with a united political platform for change may be the key game changer in Azerbaijan this year. This would mean having one joint presidential candidate and a joint political platform with a clear agenda for a transition government, which would lead Azerbaijan from a presidential monarchy to a parliamentary republic.“

Emin’s cautious optimism is also based on the new media revolution in Azerbaijan. He sees many concrete signs of the impact of this ongoing revolution:

“Opposition newspaper Azadliq sold 200,000 hard copies during the national independence movement in the late 80s. It went down to selling just 10,000 copies. This year in January 2013 some news put on the website of Azadliq were read by more than 200,000 people. So there is a bigger public sphere, which has expanded enormously.”

“The reason I am optimistic is the monopoly of information once held by the government in Baku is corroding, even beginning to crack. First, you see this on YouTube, as countless of videos capturing violence and abuse of power circulate. The Internet has lowered the barriers to entry

“Furthermore, the rise in satellite TV broadcast from Turkey are spreading these videos. These YouTube clips expose the regime as a criminal gang. They show threats, blackmail, the open selling of parliamentary seats … and how even members of the elite treat each other.”

(For more on new media in Azerbaijan read also this recent article)

“Hundreds of thousands now watch Youtube videos. These include the shocking videos put online by the former rector of Baku university Elshad Abdullayev in conversation with various important members of the regime. Elshad Abdullayev taped many of his conversations over many years; having fled Azerbaijan he is now putting them online. These tapes have exposed just how corrupt and criminal the regime is. People knew this, but these videos made the truth obvious, and create a lot of silently rising anger and outrage: they see members of parliament selling seats for more than a million Euro. Hundreds of thousands also watch them broadcast from Turkey on satellite TV.”

“These clips expose the regime as a criminal gang. They show threats, blackmail, the open selling of parliamentary seats … and how members of the elite treat each other.”

(to see one of these videos with English subtitles go here)

“There is also a growing sense of disenchantment with the regime all over the country. Various social groups shop-keepers, relatives of people serving in the military, local people in different provinces of the country – have started to protest in numbers and ways not seen before within one month. In January 2013 I saw groups I had never imagined would go on the streets to protest. Shopkeepers closed a road and protested against the owner of one of the biggest shopping malls in Azerbaijan who wanted them to pay more rent. Then there were the protests on 12 January against violence against conscripts in the military.”

At the same time there are signs of a potentially dangerous escalation in the regions. Riots in the Ismayilli region in January 2013 showed how quickly things can escalate now. They were, Emin explains,

“a repeat of protests in another region, Guba, last year. There local people were so frustrated with their living conditions that they did not see any other means to communicate their frustration than violence. In Guba in 2012 they burned down the house of the governor, who was then fired by the president. In Ismayili the hotel and part of the governor’s house were again burned down.”

There is a possibility of such protests spreading:

“People protested and burned the house of governor in Guba, then he was fired. People in Ismayilli burned hotel and house of the governor, then he was fired too. What sort of message does this send to people in other regions? The only way the government respects the people is when houses burn? This is no way to govern the country. Firing a couple of governors will not solve the problem of feudal style governance in the regions either. People want to be heard.”

“These protests are out of control of the opposition, which is not even allowed to go to the regions.”

The Aliyev regime is clearly nervous about all this:

“For the first time in a very long period the regime moved troops into regions of Azerbaijan. The pictures of the stand-off reminded people of the days when in 1990 Soviet troops entered Baku. Now again hundreds of people were detained, arrested, tortured. And in spite of this very violent reaction of the state it did not stop any of the following protest actions.”

The president has also appeared unnerved:

“The first reaction was that the governor will stay, that these were just some local hooligans. Then a couple of weeks later Ilham Aliyev goes on television and threatens governors and ministers that their sons will be put in jail if they misbehave, that if they curse or insult people they will be jailed and their fathers will be fired.”

At the same time the regime is clamping down hard in light of the upcoming presidential elections in October 2013:

“For the first time in recent Azerbaijani history a presidential candidate was put in jail during an election year! This is a different level of nervousness than before. Ilgar Mammedov from the Republican Alternative opposition party is a presidential candidate. He went to Ismayilli and was jailed, accused of inciting events. This is absurd: he went there after everything was over. Isa Gambar, another presidential candidate, was prevented by a mob and police from entering Lankaran in the South of the country. Ali Kerimli, another potential presidential candidate and opposition leader does not have a passport for seven years now, and he also does not have an office.”

“The government has tried to close more political space. It started clamping down on the opposition. This explains this rise of unorganized, sometimes violent, unpredictable revolts. If these developments are ignored by the international community we might end up with situations similar to those in the Arab world.”

Emin sees an opening for a different kind of opposition under conditions of general dissatisfaction, leading to a gradual transition:

“This is the moment for opposition groups and leaders to come together in a united front, to direct frustration and outrage of the population in a responsible way. The opposition must unite and organize the transition to a parliamentary republic. The problem in 2003 was that the opposition was split. It was not united, not on the street, and not politically. Until now it has never united.”

“A united opposition sharing resources, sharing energy, with a message of unity, thus giving real hope to people could be a historic moment in our country. This means presidential elections this year in October might be very interesting. There are symptoms of real change in the air. It all depends now on how internal and external actors behave in this situation.”

Of course, much can go wrong and even more would have to go right for any of these optimistic scenarios to come about.  There still is no united opposition. There is always the potential for further repression. So far there have never been free and fair elections in Azerbaijan, so it is unrealistic to expect 2013 to be different. There are likely to be further arrests. Standing up for democracy and human rights in Baku is a high risk strategy still, and any rewards are highly uncertain.

All of this makes it even more important what messages outside institutions are prepared to send. So I ask Emin: how does he see the role of external actors? Will they care? Will democratic Europe, will European institutions, do what they can to support a peaceful evolution, based on respect for human rights in Azerbaijan?

“The situation in Azerbaijan may change rapidly. The international community must sternly warn the government that any violent suppression of peaceful democratic change will not be accepted. The challenge is to prevent another Egypt, another Libya. The challenge is to have a peaceful transition like in Central Europe in 1989. We need a scenario in Azerbaijan like the one in Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s.”

As I see Emin off, next to the former royal castle of Saint Germain-en-Laye, I think again of Victor Hugo, and his universal concern for the rights of the oppressed. As Hugo put it in a letter to a publisher of Les Miserables:

“It addresses England as well as Spain, Italy as well as France, Germany as well as Ireland, the republics that harbour slaves as well as empires that have serfs. Social problems go beyond frontiers. Humankind’s wounds, those huge sores that litter the world, do not stop at the blue and red lines drawn on maps”.

This remains as true today as it was in the 19th century.

Viktor Hugo, writer, author of Les Miserables and visionary who wrote the Opening Address
to the August 1849 Peace Congress in Paris
calling for a European federation.

Stagnation in Bosnia and Herzegovina – why the ball is in Bosnia's court

How to get Bosnia to move forward instead of stagnating further remains a puzzling question.

A few days ago Ed Joseph and Bruce Hitchner published an article with suggestions. It appeared here.

Last week I also had the pleasure of discussing the state of the Western Balkans in general and of Bosnia in particular at an international conference in Ditchley new Oxford. I was struck there how strong the international consensus had become that 1. Bosnia no longer poses any serious security threat, and that 2. the time of thinking about the next big internationally-led reform push is over, the ball really is in the Bosnians’ court. The third consensus was about the importance of the EU accession  perspective: not as a panacea, but as an offer Bosnian leaders and society are free to reject, one which remains on the table, and which offers – should there ever be a genuine will in Bosnia – the best way out of its current stagnation.

Ed and Bruce, both of whom know Bosnia well, and for whom I have the highest respect, have a very different perspective from the other side of the Atlantic.  I discussed the article with Ed, and we agreed I would put a few comments online to explain my concern.

I leave aside for now issues of history (what actually happened in Bosnia before 2006, how the Bonn powers were used, and what they achieved), all of which I discussed in my book Can Intervention Work. (www.caninterventionwork.org) – and in previous posts here (https://www.esiweb.org/rumeliobserver/2010/11/17/reflections-on-interventions-and-the-eu-short-guide-to-a-big-debate/). Let me just focus on the analysis of the current state of Bosnia, and the policy implications that flow from it.

I see a few problems with the argument in the article:

– concepts:

My concerns start with the title and subtitle: “How to Finally End the War in Bosnia Without a renewed push for Constitutional Reform, Bosnia will remain dangerously adrift – its politics a continuation of war by corrupt means.”

All the buzzwords are included: “war” (twice), danger, adrift, corrupt. But this is deeply misleading.

The real war in Bosnia ended in 1995. It killed almost 100,000 people. Local violence continued for another few years. Since 2001, however, Bosnia has been as peaceful as Croatia or Slovenia. If nobody shoots, nobody gets shot, and nobody prepares to shoot, then the better concept to describe the situation is “peace”. Peace with problems, political tensions, economic difficulties: all true, but this is no war. If such distinctions are lost, it is hard to make policy or debate it.

– the nature of the crisis:

What exactly are the symptoms of the Bosnian crisis described in this article? Here precision is needed. The article describes the crisis through metaphors: the country is “a stagnant pool of special interests that continue to cleave along ethnic lines.” “cleave”? There are different ethnic groups in Bosnia. There was a war between 1992-1995. Is the fact that these identities “along ethnic lines” continue to exist the problem? Otherwise what exactly is wrong with what exact interests, special or otherwise? “stagnant” indeed: a weak economy, low living standards (though higher than in Moldova or Georgia), little structural change (like in many of its Balkan neighbours): but this is not a unique problem of Bosnia.

Nor is the fact that Bosnia’s “overall democratic benchmarks are slipping”. This is the evidence the article offers of what is happening in Bosnia: “Parents can move freely about the country, but educate their children in segregated schools. The economy remains in parlous condition, and faces new challenges and barriers when Croatia joins the EU later this year.  Islamist influence among Bosniaks, traditionally exaggerated by Croats and Serbs, is, in fact, a concern.”

“Segregation” is another strong concept: Alabama in the 1950s, South Africa in the 1980s. It involved state coercion. In Bosnia today in some parts of the country some parents chose to put their children in schools according to the main language of instruction – especially Croatian, as the schools most often discussed in the media (one Croatian and one Bosnian language school in the same building or nearby) are in Croat-Bosniac mixed areas. One can deplore this, but it is no different from different language schools in South Tyrol or different confessional schools in North Ireland. It is not a human rights violation.

Let me add here that this does not mean that separate schooling as one finds it in parts of Bosnia is a good thing: having studied in many different countries myself, and having seen my own children educated in a Turkish public school in Istanbul, a state school in Cambridge, Massachussetts, and now a public French (though very international school) in Paris I strongly believe in the value of diversity in education; I also do not think that schools are the primary shaper of identities of pupils, and that the influence of the official curriculum is usually exaggerated. Of course the key for a good education is education for tolerance and mutual respect, as well as quality. Of course Bosnia would be a much better place if the primary focus of policy makers (and parents) would be on quality, not ethnicity.  But this is a matter of persuading parents, and voters, not imposing solutions, as long as there are choices.

(As for the situation in South Tyrol read this article: “With regard to linguistic rights there is hardly any area of public and to a considerable extent also private life that is not covered by a complex network of norms, guarantees and remedies. The educational system in South Tyrol is based on separation and the principle of mother tongue instruction.”)

As for “Islamism” (not defined in the article: one assumes violent?) in Bosnia … this has indeed often been exaggerated, as the authors noted, and it is certainy “a concern”: but what exactly is the policy issue, the trend, the problem?

The problem with sloppy language in the Bosnian context – “war”, “segregation”, “special interests cleaving”, “Islamism as a concern” – is that it makes it hard to understand the nature of various challenges. Then the solution is one silver bullet – change the constitution; impose better laws; replace leader X with Y. But all of this has been tried out, and with predictably disappointing results.

The article points out that in the Bosnian context the attraction of possible EU accession is no silver bullet solving the country’s problems either. This is of course true, but not surprising: it has been thus in very many countries.

The “seriousness” of the EU commitment among most of today’s Bosnian leaders resembles that of leaders in Bulgaria in the early 1990s, or in Serbia under Kostunica, or in Slovakia before 1998: it is rhetorical, generally not serious at all, with little sense of what it would take for Bosnia to actually implement the common law of the EU. There are individual exceptions, but compared to the political elite elsewhere the basic illiteracy among Bosnian politicians about the EU is remarkable.

The first reward of making EU accession a national strategic objective is that it provides a direction for national reforms: not to one big reform, but to thousands of specific sectoral reforms, that take years to negotiate with national interests and then implement. This requires leaders who want to see their countries thus transformed: their laws, their institutions, their policies, not just as means for a possible accession in 10 or more years but as ends in themselves. Yes, Croatia’s accession will cause problems for Bosnian’s trying to export milk or other agricultural products, but no, this is not the “fault of Dayton”, as even highly decentralised systems like Belgium are capable of implementing EU food safety and phytosanitary standards. This is the fault of a political process where leaders, civil society and even many internationals much rather discuss identit and constitutional issues rather than specific concrete reforms that might have a major economic impact. So perhaps it really needs a crisis with new hard borders to reform the Bosnian food safety system now? The sense of physical exclusion also pushed much needed (and delayed) reforms needed for visa liberalistion in 2010.

In fact, too few leaders in Bosnia actually appear to want this wholesale transformation of their country and society; too few leaders across all political parties, interests and ethnic groups. This is a problem no constitutional reform can solve. It can only be solved by changes in the thinking of those leaders – or by changes of those leaders at elections. The alternative is not war, but stagnation.

All of the above is more or less consensus today in Brussels and among EU leaders. It was also the consensus at a recent conference in Ditchley on the Balkans. The ball really is in the court of Bosnian leaders, and unfortunately, if they refuse to play, this is where it will remain.

Does this mean things are hopeless? No.

Bosnians have surprised outsiders and themselves before (for just one encouraging recent story look at this ESI portrait of a Bosnian prime minister). So have Bulgarians after 1997 (more on that turning point here) So have Slovaks, Montenegrin, Croats. But it does mean that the key change must be a change in the debate in Bosnia itself … (while having a more focused and specific debate, ethat does not produce excuses for inaction, among outside observers, might also help).