The U.S. nonprofit organization IREX (International Research and Exchange Board) has worked in post-Soviet Azerbaijan for 16 years supporting academic exchanges and independent media development. But these days life isn't easy for international media advocates in Azerbaijan: the country is tightening the screws against local and foreign civil society groups and the space for freedom of expression is shrinking.
IREX first felt the changing political winds in Azerbaijan this summer when it became the subject of a progovernment newspaper article accusing it of attempting to organize a revolution in the country.
IREX says it has since been targeted by the Azeri media and security officials: its bank accounts were frozen in July, and its Baku office was raided in September as part of a criminal case against local and foreign NGOs.
On October 8, IREX’s Washington office announced the suspension of operations in Azerbaijan, where it has worked since 1998.
The decision to close "wasn’t easy" for IREX, albeit it “didn’t come as a surprise,” says Leon Morse, IREX deputy director and managing editor of the Media Sustainability Index.
"Wherever we work on independent media projects, the governments see us as a threat," he tells RadioAzadliq.
Azerbaijan is not the only country where IREX has been forced to shut down its offices in the past few years. Belarus and Uzbekistan have taken similar steps.
The reason behind the trend, Morse says, is that some governments "don’t want to give room" for independent media support projects that foster objective coverage about domestic politics and other issues.
"When you have an authoritarian-minded government or even a government that is very keenly bent on changing the rules of freedom of speech to their favor so that they can stay in power, promoting media that cover all sides equally and fairly is a threat to lots of these governments," Morse says. "So, I think, they do see it as it as threatening."
VIDEO: Interview with Leon Morse, IREX deputy director
IREX has a long history of administering academic exchanges and independent media development programs around the world. It was created under an initiative in 1958 when U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev signed an agreement on scholarly exchanges. Its precursor organization was formalized in 1968 to administer exchanges with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
After the USSR’s collapse in 1991, IREX began to support the development of quality journalism and independent media outlets in the newly independent countries, including Azerbaijan.
To this day, many post-Soviet countries -- Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Moldova, and Ukraine -- host IREX offices.
WESTERN NGOS SAY THEY ARE FORCED TO LEAVE
Morse says the Azerbaijan government’s pressure against IREX has been puzzling: officials initially told the organization that it was the subject of a criminal investigation for tax evasion.
However, Morse says, IREX is exempt from taxes in Azerbaijan on the basis of bilateral agreements because all of its operations were financed by the U.S. aid agency, USAID.
Morse said IREX later found out it was the subject of "another criminal investigation," although officials haven't told what it is about.
IREX is only the latest of several cases in Azerbaijan in which Western NGOs say they were pressured to leave.
In July, the National Democratic Institute (NDI), a U.S.-based nonprofit that promotes democratic development, closed its office in Baku, where it has been operating since1995. Other organizations following suit include Transparency International, the Open Society Foundation, and, most recently, the U.S. Peace Corps, a volunteer program run by the United States government intended to spread American goodwill and soft power around the world.
Azerbaijan's crackdown on NGOs has injected new tension into the already difficult relationship between Baku and Washington. U.S. President Barack Obama, during a speech in New York on September 23, highlighted Azerbaijan as a place where "laws make it incredibly difficult for NGOs even to operate."
Azerbaijani officials refused to comment for this article. When asked about IREX, a former Azerbaijan diplomat said he has "no comment on such an organization," using the mocking name of "Spy-REX."
Ramiz Mehdiyev, chief of staff to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, issued a 60-page statement last week, complaining about U.S. nongovernmental organizations and accusing Washington of "plotting to overthrow" Aliyev.
Richard Kauzlarich, the U.S. envoy to Baku in 1994-97, says U.S. programs like IREX and the NDI are being targeted in countries like Azerbaijan because they have made progress in most of the areas that they have been operating in.
"Therefore it is no surprise that the illiberal regimes now see these organizations as a threat," Kauzlarich told RadioAzadliq.
Times have changed since the early 1990s when many of these U.S. NGOs began their work in the former Soviet space, Kauzlarcih said, adding that in the beginning the programs were tolerated because they were seen as manifestations of U.S. interest in the future of the newly independent states.
Now, he said, they are seen as "negative manifestations of U.S. efforts to undermine the existing political regimes in these states."
"We are going to find different mechanisms, perhaps new mechanisms to support democracy, freedom of expression and human rights generally in these countries," Kauzlarich added.
WERE THE PROGRAMS OUTDATED?
Gerald Robbins, senior fellow at the U.S. Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) who specializes in the Caucasus region, says U.S. NGO programs abroad "don’t deserve" to be terminated, but "they do need to be restructured."
"Their intentions are undoubtedly for the betterment of Azerbaijan and other societies, but the intended goals and how they’re managed become convoluted," he says.
Robbins served as program director for Freedom House in Baku during the mid-1990’s, where he managed post-Soviet political and economic programs.
"During my NGO experience, I noticed certain projects turned into money funnels preserving situations that had long outlived their usefulness," he says. "It’s a refrain I periodically hear from other NGO veterans, ranging from Africa to Afghanistan."
Robbins says that because a particular project has worked well in, for instance, Belarus doesn’t mean it can be readily transferred to Azerbaijan and get the same results.
"Nuance is an important matter for an effective program. It’s often overlooked in many operations to their own detriment," he says.
Robert Orttung, assistant director of the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, says the crackdowns against U.S. NGOs challenges American democracy promotion.
"Our efforts for democracy promotion do not work in the former Soviet Union because we see the total collapse of democratic government except in places like Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova," he says, adding that the latter are "a result of domestic demands for democracy."
The best thing the United States could do to strengthen democracy promotion, Orttung says, is "to continue developing its own democracy and that will help to promote the idea of democracy in the world."
"The second thing we can do is try to help democratic forces like those in Ukraine that are fighting for democracy," Orttung adds. "Obviously, we see that the economic future in Ukraine is most difficult right now. So economy is crucial for supporting the future of democracy there."
VIDEO: Interview with Robert Orttung about US democracy promotion
Altay Goyushov, a faculty member at Baku State University (Azerbaijan) and currently a Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, said the main reason why U.S. NGOs are not welcome in places like Azerbaijan is that the rulers of those countries have chosen the wrong direction and are moving away from democracy.
"Authoritarian regimes see civil society, academic freedom, and the middle class as a threat to their absolute power. The attack on international organizations should be evaluated in this context," he says.
IREX’s Morse says it is people on the ground who "suffer more" because of the NGO crackdown.
"It is hurtful too on an individual level," he says.
Kauzlarich said that, as a result of the closure of these NGOs, young people are losing opportunities for education and training outside mechanisms controlled by the authorities and societies as a whole are losing the support that a foreign NGO presence can provide, as well as a voice abroad for the voiceless at home.
Kauzlarich said he is not worried in the long run -- other mechanisms will emerge, including some from domestic sources. However, he said, it will be difficult in the mid-term "for everyone."
IREX’s Morse said his organization is still committed to working in Azerbaijan.
"If we receive funding and we’re legally cleared in Azerbaijan, we will absolutely be back at work there," he said.
The United States, he added, is still committed to supporting individuals around the world who are committed to democratic reforms.
"Sometimes I hear [arguments] that 'look at the U.S. It has been involved in spying scandals with the NSA, keeping individuals in Guantanamo -- that means that the U.S. itself is not in a position of spreading democracy.' I think that is a distracting argument," he says.
"Certainly nobody is perfect," he adds. "But the idea of democracy, the goal of democracy isn't undermined by the mistakes that U.S. has made for itself."
"The U.S. is not the only democracy and any mistakes that U.S. or other individual country makes doesn’t detract from the importance of democracy," he concludes.