Moderate Muslim Ally Azerbaijan Needs Constructive Critics

Asim Nazim Mollazade Member of Parliament, Republic of Azerbaijan
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Imagine a country that emerged from totalitarianism with an imperfect government. It is allied with the West. And it is striving to join the worldwide community of free-market democracies.

How can the United States best promote the cause of human rights? By engaging with this country as a partner? Or ostracizing it as a pariah?

That’s a familiar question for the U.S. and its allies. As the leader of an opposition party in the Parliament of Azerbaijan, a country in the Caucasus that has been the target of internationally orchestrated attacks, I bring a special perspective to this problem.

Before Azerbaijan emerged from the ashes of the former Soviet Union in 1991, I was active in the struggle for independence against Communist rule.

In 2005, I was elected chairman of a new opposition group, the Party of Democratic Reforms (PDR). We support protecting basic freedoms and a pluralistic society. Focusing on the middle class, entrepreneurs and educated professionals, the PDR wants Azerbaijan to move faster toward a free-market economy.

We have called for reducing the role of government in the private sector, reforming monopolies and state-owned enterprises. While Azerbaijan’s reserves of oil and natural gas are among our greatest assets, the PDR supports diversifying our economy away from its overwhelming domination by the energy sector.

Our party believes that, instead of seeking an illusory financial stability, the government’s monetary policy should be to make credit more accessible for entrepreneurs seeking to start and build businesses. We have also criticized government policies from education to healthcare, supporting individual rights against state control.

Azerbaijan is not perfect – no country is. As an opposition party, we don’t fear criticizing the government.  But criticism of Azerbaijan, at home or abroad, should be informed by an understanding of the underlying realities of our country. Strategically situated and offering vast energy resources, with a tradition of religious tolerance, Azerbaijan should be criticized constructively, not dismissively.

Our critics should remember that we endured seven decades of Soviet rule, persevere in a tough neighborhood and suffer from the occupation of 20 percent of our territory.

Our position at the crossroads of Central Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East makes Azerbaijan a hub of trade and transportation. But we are also the only nation in the world to border both Iran and Russia.

Another neighbor, Armenia, invaded our country during the 1990s and occupied the Nagorno-Karabakh region and adjoining areas amounting to one fifth of our internationally recognized territory. For Azerbaijanis, the worst human rights violation is the displacement of about 1 million of our people as a result of the Armenian occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Human rights advocates should also appreciate Azerbaijan’s tradition of tolerance. For centuries, Muslims, Christians, and Jews have lived together in harmony in our country. In fact, Azerbaijan maintains bilateral strategic and economic relations with Israel and also hosted a visit by the late Pope John Paul II in 2002.

As a predominantly Muslim society with a secular government, Azerbaijan offers a model for the Muslim world. Our critics should recognize that religious liberty is a basic human right that is under siege in many other countries but remains secure in Azerbaijan.

Our tradition of tolerance extends to social and cultural questions. Azerbaijani women won the right to vote in 1918, shortly before women in the United States. Our legal system guarantees equal rights to women and men, and women are making gains in government, education and business.

These facts should inform Western observers when they evaluate our political system. Only 24 years removed from Soviet domination, Azerbaijan’s political system is a work in progress. We have the building blocks of democracy, including an educated populous with a literacy rate of 99.5 percent; equal rights for women; tolerance of religious minorities; and a lively media, with some 5,000 print, broadcast and online outlets, as well as Internet access for 65 percent of our people.

These characteristics of our society help to explain why we are oriented toward the West. Indeed, Azerbaijan and the United States have a strong partnership, working together against international terrorism, narcotics trafficking and nuclear proliferation. With 7 billion barrels of oil reserves and 2.5 trillion cubic meters of natural gas reserves, Azerbaijan helps provide the energy supplies of American allies in Europe and Israel.

Now that world powers, from the United States to China, are proposing a new Silk Road connecting East Asia to Europe through Central Asia and the Caucasus, Azerbaijan will be a central point for trade, transporting energy resources, and cultural and intellectual exchange. Azerbaijan is investing in pipelines, terminals, railroads and highways to make possible these exchanges of goods, services and ideas.

Azerbaijan is striving to connect itself with the free-market democracies of the West. And ultimately, we will build such a society at home.

Dr. Asim Mollazade is the leader of an opposition party, the Party of Democratic Reforms, in the Parliament of Azerbaijan.