Europe's Map Is Redrawn As Azerbaijan Goes East

04/27/2015 02:51 pm ET | Updated Jun 26, 2015

Earlier this month, the map of Europe was redrawn yet again.

This time, the cartographer-in-chief was neither Putin (Ukraine) nor NATO (Kosovo), but the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev. For years, geographers had wondered where to place his little country on the shores of the Caspian Sea. Was it still in Europe? Or was it already in Central Asia?


The question was always primarily political, not geographical. Was oil-rich Azerbaijan 'transitioning' towards democracy, like its neighbor Georgia, to eventually become part of the European family? Or was it turning into a family-run fiefdom like the Stans further east?

For years, President Aliyev had skilfully straddled this divide, running his country like a Mafia don internally while keeping up enough of a democratic facade externally to be able to claim that a transition to more democracy, freedom and human rights was just around the corner.

Earlier this month, everything changed: Aliyev stopped pretending and crossed the line.

Initially, it seemed like nothing dramatic was going to happen when the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) decided to downgrade Azerbaijan from "compliant" to "candidate" status due to a prolonged crackdown on civil society groups and critical journalists.

Essentially, EITI seems to have concluded that a notoriously corrupt country could not lock away corruption-busting journos and simultaneously claim to be a model for transparency in oil and gas revenue management.

The EITI downgrade removed Azerbaijan's most prominent - as well as one of the last - transitionalist fig leafs, but it hardly came as a surprise.

According to the well-rehearsed transitionalist script, every major leap backwards must soon after be followed by a small but well-publicized step forwards in order to keep critics at bay and demonstrate "positive momentum" along the shining one-way road towards democracy.

When human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev (no relation to the president) appeared in front of court only days after the EITI downgrade, it seemed a golden opportunity for the Azerbaijani regime to publicly set free a political prisoner, earn a little pat on the head from the West, and clear the stage for the next wave of arrests.

That's the way the script had unfolded many times, most recently in December 2014.

But what happened this month was completely different.

Maybe it's because the billion dollars or so in foreign aid that Azerbaijan currently receives are peanuts for a president whose country's hydrocarbon-fulled sovereign wealth fund is expected to reach 55 billion dollars in value this year.

Maybe it's because the president believes he can buy the civilized world's respect anyway through a series of Triumph-of-the-Will style sporting events such as the 2015 European Games.

Whatever the reasons, one thing is clear: Azerbaijan has stopped playing the transitionalist game and drawn the line.

As a result, a quarter of a century after the collapse of the Soviet empire, Europe's easternmost border - politically, socially and culturally - has finally been clearly defined: it's the line dividing Georgia in the west from Azerbaijan in the east.

Goodbye, Azerbajian. It would be dishonest to say that we Europeans will miss you; few people over here will even notice that you've left. But it's sad to see you leaving the family nonetheless.