President İlham Aliyevəs top political advisor accused the United States of "gross interference in country's internal affairs" earlier this month. In December Ramiz Mehdiyev, the President's Chief of Staff accused employees of RFE/RL Baku bureau of "treason" and seeking to please their "patrons abroad". In a recent article published on the Wall Street Journal, David J.Kramer senior director for Human Rights and Democracy at the McCain Institute wrote that "Obama administration should impose consequences" on Baku. Azadliq Radiosu spoke to David J.Kramer about the possibility of sanctions, the current state of U.S.-Azerbaijan relations and the reactions to the on-going crackdown in Azerbaijan in the U.S.
David J.Kramer: “I think the latest developments not only can damage it, they are damaging it [the relationship]. We have seen some statements from important members of congress including Congressmen Keating, Congressmen Engel, and the administration also increased its rhetoric on this and in talking to some people in the administration this week I do get the sense that the level of frustration is rising to the point where they are looking in what options they have and what measures they might be able to take to demonstrate they are very serious about this, that their expressions of concern are not working and that officials in Baku need to understand this kind of behavior is going to come with some cost.
Azadliq Radio: It looks like Azerbaijani authorities are not taking any of the concerns seriously. Some of their recent criticism has been very open like Ali Hasanov was saying in his interview. How much of this Azerbaijan testing the U.S.?
If it is a matter of testing the U.S. to see how far they can go I think they are playing a very dangerous game. Because I think at a certain point whether it is the administration or congress, patience with Azerbaijan is going to wear very thin here. And in particular the congress as it becomes more aware of what is happening in Azerbaijan will look to take some steps that will express its displeasure in very tangible, concrete ways.
If it is simply that they think they can get away with it, that it isn’t matter of testing but that they think they can get away that too I think is going to prove to be a mistake. It has been true up to this point – they have been able to get away with this kind of behavior particularly since the October 2013 elections that was widely criticized and condemned. And since then when we have seen the crackdown but the crackdown has gotten particularly bad in the past month or so but with Mehdiyev’s attack against the United States, against RFERL and against Khadija Ismayilova in particular, and then the reaction to Dan Baer, the US ambassador to the OSCE – his criticism of the raid on RFERL by various Azerbaijani officials. I think they are making a mistake. If they think that US just sit back and take this, there already have been a number of American organizations and international organization that have been forced to leave the country and so I think it’s a matter of time before the congress if not the administration decides enough is enough.
Q: So we should be expecting some actions?
Well, should we be expecting actions? I hope so. You have to keep in mind that the Magnitsky Legislation which applied to Russia for the murder of Sergey Magnitsky took over two years from the time it was pushed in congress, until it was passed by congress and then signed by the president. I think it would take a fair bit of time before we see any of the reactions to what is happening in Azerbaijan translate into real policy change and possible consequences. But the first step is to educate people, to make them aware of what has been happening and unfortunately the actions of the Azerbaijani government have been giving those who support a stronger position, plenty of ammunition to push on this issue.
Q: Can we say that the priority – pushing Azerbaijan on the agenda was elevated especially in the light of recent arrests and the shutdown of the RFE/RL office?
I would say that it was a stupid thing to do for the government of Azerbaijan to raid a US funded entity and to go after its employees, to interrogate them, to hack into their e-mails, to detain them even for brief periods although in the case with Khadija she has been detained since December 5th. This is either unbelievable boldness on the government’s part or just sheer stupidity. It may also reflect that there are some in the Azerbaijani government possibly including the president’s chief of staff who just strongly dislike the United States and would rather get into bed with Russia. So we can’t rule out that possibility that there are some splits in the government or that they think they can play a game like Lukashenka has done rather skillfully playing Russia and the West off of each other.
My view is that we should not fall for those kinds of tricks and that we should focus on what’s happening inside of Azerbaijan -- not ignore the relationship with Russia and where Russia is these days but the situation in Azerbaijan has reached such a point where we can’t remain silent and simply issue statements of concern.
Q: This sort of blackmail is widely used in Azerbaijan?
Q: There is also a lot of opinions that Azerbaijan will completely turn away from the West all together because of sanctions?
I think we can’t get too wrapped up into worrying about taking a tough position that might drive Azerbaijan to Russia’s hands. There is already plenty of speculation that the relationship between certain government officials and Russian officials is very close and so it may not require very much of them to get closer to Russia
But secondly if we get so worried that what we might do might drive Azerbaijan to Russia hands then we tie our hands and are unable to develop an effective policy.
We can’t simply sit back and watch what’s happening in Azerbaijan and do nothing about it. If we say its not acceptable then we have to put meaning into that word and we have to do something about it. And let’s be clear that the trigger in my recommendations for sanctions is in response to actions by the government of Azerbaijan. I am not doing it simply because I want to. I don’t want to. I am doing it because the behavior of the government of Azerbaijan has reached such a point where its treatment of its own people is appalling and it is defying and challenging the United States. And I think we have an obligation to respond because if we don’t this behavior will only get worse. And so it is in response to this behavior, its not initiating or being preemptive but in response to the behavior so that the behavior stops.
And if the government stops arresting and harassing civil society figures, opposition leaders, and journalists, if it stops raiding US-funded agencies, then we don’t need to move forward with sanctions. But if it is going to continue down this path then I think we don’t have much choice.
Q: Do you think reactions so far were adequate?
Let me be clear, as both a former state department official in the Bush administration, we were I think not strong enough in pushing back on the behavior of first Haydar Aliyev, and then Ilham Aliyev. I travelled there twice in 2008 when I was the assistant secretary of human rights, democracy and labor, met both times with president Aliyev to raise concerns including about the cutting off of foreign broadcasts, as well as the treatment of American and international NGOs and then when I was at Freedom House after I left the State Department, Azerbaijan consistently has fallen into the not free category in both the Freedom of the World rankings and Press Freedom rankings. And so you are absolutely right that these aren’t just new developments that we haven’t seen before but I would say they have gotten worse and that the pace of them has picked up considerably. And it just reached a point where our policy of engagement, of focusing and emphasizing on energy, and economic interests, security and counter terrorism is not proving to work when it comes to democracy and human rights. And so we need to raise the profile of democracy and human rights issues that are in US interest and should be in the interest long term of Azerbaijan even if they are not in the interest of the current government and recognize that our policy over the past years has not worked in promoting those interests and we need a different approach to let the officials in Baku know that democracy and human rights matter to the united states as much as the economic, energy, security and counter terrorism interests.
Q: Do you think that 2015 will be a year of changes?
I hope so. There are two things I plan to focus on. One is raising this more in the US congress so that both the House and the Senate become more aware on what’s happening. It was no coincidence I would say that the raid on RFE/RL occurred on December 26 when many in the West were on holiday. The hope was people won’t be focusing on it but secondly as I mention in the article in the Wall Street Journal Azerbaijan is hosting the first Euro Olympics in June and I think in light of its treatment of its own people and treatment of American and international organizations and those who work for them we should be calling for political leaders to boycott like we saw in Sochi in February of last year, where most Western political figures stayed away from the Sochi Olympics, and I think the same thing should happen for these Euro Olympics, which Baku secured in 2012; President Aliyev issued a statement stressing how important they were to Azerbaijan. Well if they are so important to him then we should be using them and the attendance of western leaders as a point of leverage. And say, if you want people to show up during your moment of glory then you need to stop treating the people the way you are.