While politicians elsewhere were singing carols and carving turkeys, President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan stayed on the job throughout the season of love.
Concerned calls from America, foreign aid windfalls, inspection visits to mega-projects, crackdowns on his critics....
Ten turbulent days in the life of the de facto President-for-Life of Absurdistan.
...one day at a time...
Sunday, December 21, 2014
President Aliyev got a call from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who was ringing to share his "concerns" about oil-rich Azerbaijan's ever-increasing crackdown on civil society. When the conversation became public knowledge eight days later, it set off a lively Q&A at the State Department's daily press briefing.
"Are the calls you're having with Azerbaijani officials, are they of concern or are you actually making efforts to tell them to stop doing this and coercing people?"
"I think you can be assured that when the Secretary of State takes this under consideration and raises it with one of his foreign colleagues, including the president of a country, that he makes his view known."
What were Kerry's "concerns"?
President Aliyev had spent much of the year harassing, persecuting and locking up journalists, pro-democracy activists, and human rights advocates.
Over the past 12 months, many of the people featured in the video above, including its star Khadija Ismayilova, have been put behind bars.
The State Department spokesperson's refusal to comment on her case raised some eyebrows in the room. One anonymous source whispered that:
"The embassy didn't like her critiques of U.S. policy."
Were diplomats still upset about the infamous interview in which she had mercilessly grilled then ambassador Richard Morningstar about America's stance on human rights violations in the country?
Monday, December 22, 2014
Azerbaijan is a proud and independent nation with a long history.
Since its independence, thanks to the firm guidance and thought-out reforms of the late president Heydar Aliyev and his son, the current president Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan has achieved many great things, like erecting the world's tallest flagpole.
Shortly after, the proud and independent nation of Tajikistan erected an even taller flagpole.
Azerbaijan also excels at sports, AzerNews reports.
Chairman of the National Olympic Committee Ilham Aliyev has awarded sportsmen and specialists in accordance with results of 2014... "In international competitions, world and European championships we have won 805 medals, including 275 gold. Compared to last year, the number of medals has increased again." The number of medals is the main indicator of the development of sport, he added.
Olympic Chairman Aliyev then looked ahead to 2015.
"It is no coincidence that the first European Games will be held in Baku.. These Games are a historic event because, as you know, such games are to be held in Europe for the first time and this responsibility falls on us... These games also demonstrate the strength of our country...We have a strong economy and the political processes are going in a positive direction."
Tuesday, December 23, 2014
The Asian Development Bank (ADB) announced that it had allocated 752 million dollars to Azerbaijan for "economic diversification and private sector development". According to its man in Baku, Olli Naojono:
"The new strategy attaches great importance to regional cooperation, governance, environmental sustainability, climate change and effective implementation of projects."
ADB did not explain how good governance could work without an independent media, or how an economy built on hydrocarbon exports could possibly be environmentally sustainable, let alone why public money was being lavished on financing projects in a petro-dictatorship that claims to hold over 50 billion dollars in foreign currency reserves.
But ADB did upload a video onto YouTube to let locals know how much it loves being part of the success story that is Azerbaijan.
(Note: This video was not paid for by Aliyev. It was paid for by taxpayers abroad.)
The development bank's 2015 annual meeting will be held in Baku. According to ADB's president, Takehiko Nakao:
"[It] will showcase Azerbaijan's appeal to investors and other governments... After seeing firsthand the extensive preparations, I am confident it will be a highly successful event."
Given Aliyev's penchant for blowing billions on prestige projects and high profile events, he is probably right.
Wednesday, December 24 2014
Christmas Eve! Now that ADB had pledged to take care of economic diversification and basic rural infrastructure on his behalf, and fish farms across the country were booming thanks to American economic aid, President Aliyev was free to redouble his focus on spending petrodollars on representational urban infrastructure.
He called for First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, Chairwoman of the Organizing Committee of the European Games.
The First Couple went to admire a model of the White City.
Bigger than the principality of Monaco, with enough space to house the entire population of Monaco, and with a "Fountain Square [that] will be twice the size of the current Fountain Square", this mega-project is guaranteed to buy the banana-importing republic the global respect it craves.
And if it doesn't?
Then the multi-billion-dollar 2015 European Games certainly will.
President Aliyev hopes that during the 2015 European Games, thousands of foreigners will come from all around the world and see all his favorite mega-projects in Baku with their own eyes.
Then, finally, the world will stop laughing
about Azerbaijan and its ruling family!
I announce we spend $1.9billion on cutting edge warship for Caspian sea fleet pic.twitter.com/mT1G7lKnAD
— Ilham Aliyevnot (@IlhamAliyevAZ) December 16, 2014
But the regime's critics could spoil the pomegranate-and-gazelle themed party by talking to the foreign guests about police beatings, show trials and torture in prisons. That's why Aliyev decided to lock them all away well in advance.
Thursday, December 25, 2014
Christmas Day! The Head of the Political and Public Affairs Department at Aliyev's presidential administration, Ali Hasanov, gave a festive speech at the award ceremony for the winners of a journalism competition sponsored by the Fund of State Support for the Development of Mass Media under the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan.
"No one can say any journalist has ever been prosecuted by the state or its structures. But unfortunately, today we have some NGOs and different international organizations trying to vilify Azerbaijan's free media atmosphere whose foundations were laid by national leader Heydar Aliyev... The Azerbaijani government doesn't imagine its domestic life without free media."
Hasanov added that Azerbaijan was the only country in the world where the state provided housing to journalists. His words are only preserved in written form, so it is unclear whether he was trying to sound threatening or not.
Friday, December 26, 2014
Aliyev sent his prosecutors and armed police to shut down the offices of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Khadija's former employers and one of the last platforms for critical opinions left inside the country.
Shortly after the bust, President Ilham Aliyev attended the opening of Baku's brand new Heydar Mosque, named after his late father.
It's the biggest mosque in the South Caucasus, AzerNews reports.
It covers 12,000 square meters and has four 95-meter-high minarets.
The president gave a rousing speech:
"All the freedoms -- freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of conscience - are guaranteed in Azerbaijan. All religious freedoms are fully provided in Azerbaijan."
It was a truly historic speech. No world leader before Iham Aliyev has ever opened a place of worship without once mentioning God. He did mention his late father nine times, though.
Saturday, December 27, 2014
Aliyev's prosecutor ordered dozens of journalists to turn themselves in for questioning in an apparent effort to bringing some DIY spirit into the national-level extraordinary renditioning process.
Half a world away, the State Department said that it was "concerned", and called on Azerbaijan to conduct a "transparent" investigation in line with Baku's "international commitment to protecting media freedom."
Human rights activists were not impressed.
Around the same time, Daniel Baer, the U.S. Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), decided to break ranks by sending out remarkably undiplomatic tweets.
Meanwhile, the man who had denounced journalist Khadija Ismayilova for supposedly "inciting him to commit suicide" (the ostensible reason for her arrest) publicly withdrew his claim, noting at the same time that he expected to be imminently arrested. The accuser's recantation meant that the original justification for detaining Khadija had evaporated.
She remained locked up anyway.
Across town, the First Couple inspected the gigantic Baku Olympic Stadium.
— Azerbaijan Football (@azfutbolu) December 26, 2014
Baku's bid to host the 2016 Olympics failed.
Baku's bid to host the 2020 Olympics failed.
Baku's bid to host the 2024 Olympics will be launched later this year.
Anyway: The stadium is already as good as finished.
It's very modern. It will definitely place Baku dead centre on the global sporting map.
Sunday, December 28, 2014
What did President Aliyev do on Sunday?
- He didn't give any rousing speeches.
- He didn't inspect any mega-projects.
- He didn't open any new buildings.
- He didn't order any additional arrests.
What on earth could he have been doing all day?
Monday, December 29, 2014
Western politicians returned to their desks, and many were not amused when they heard about Aliyev's Christmas media bust. Even the Americans were starting to make some disapproving noises.
Armenia hates him, Iran hates him, and a world in which your only friend is called Vladimir Putin...
...is not a world worth living in. If you survive.
Ilham Aliyev blinked. The thought of being left all alone with his angry neighbours was just too scary.
The president decided to end the year on a positive note and ordered the release of a few political prisoners. After all, he could always lock them up again before the start of the European Games.
And then the president went off to inspect his newest acquisition -- a sparkling new jet liner freshly arrived from America.
Shortly after, half a world away, for the first time since Khadija's arrest, the State Department made a public statement about the ongoing crackdown in Azerbaijan without needing to be prodded first.
A spokesperson opened the daily press briefing with the following words.
"We are alarmed by the Government of Azerbaijan's crackdown on civil society. The Secretary raised our concerns in his December 21st phone call with President Aliyev. Since then, we have seen the closure of RFE/RL's offices, the seizure of its property, and RFE/RL employees forcibly taken from their homes for questioning by local law enforcement on unspecified charges. Contractors and others tangentially connected to RFE/RL are also being interrogated by authorities. These actions, along with the denial of access to legal counsel during these interrogations, is further cause for concern. We call again on Azerbaijani authorities to adhere to their OSCE and other international commitments to uphold human rights and basic freedoms, including freedom of the press.
In this regard, President Aliyev's decision today to pardon 87 individuals, including 10 considered to have been imprisoned for civic activism, is a step in the right direction. We urge Azerbaijan's authorities to build on these pardons by releasing others incarcerated in connection with exercising their fundamental freedoms."
President Aliyev had already moved on. He'd finished unwrapping the new jet liner and was busy opening yet another new building.
Tuesday, December 30, 2014
The prisoners walked out of jail. The group included a couple of youth group activists, a few journalists, and eight people who had been locked up since 2012 for protesting against the ban on wearing head scarves imposed by their modern and secular president.
(Note on State Department figures above: people who protest against head scarf bans apparently do not count as "civic activists".)
Over 90 political prisoners remain in jail, including all of those who were arrested over the course of 2014.
Aliyev might let some of them out during 2015, perhaps before the ADB meeting, or after the European Games. If America has another one of its moments of "concern".
Wednesday, December 31, 2014
Happy New Year!
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's congratulations to the Azerbaijani people on the occasion of the Day of Solidarity of World Azerbaijanis and the New Year:
"Ladies and gentlemen! Dear compatriots!
2014 is being left in the past. 2014 was a successful year for our country...
As you know, in 2012-2013 Azerbaijan was represented in the world's most influential organization, the UN Security Council. We won this right with the support of 155 countries. And this year Azerbaijan chaired the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, making a valuable contribution to the development of democracy and protection of human rights in Europe...
Azerbaijan is a country that successfully goes down the path of democracy, freedom, independence, progress and development. I am sure that all Azerbaijanis of the world are proud that there is a country such as Azerbaijan on the world map...
I heartily congratulate all Azerbaijanis on the Day of Solidarity of Azerbaijanis of the World and the New Year holidays. I wish every Azerbaijani family happiness, prosperity and continued successes."
That night, there was a spectacular fireworks show in Baku.
It's a shame Khadija Ismayilova missed it. She was still in jail.
Meanwhile, President Ilham Aliyev looked to the future with confidence.
He had oil. He had money. He had two friends.
By the time you are reading these lines,
I would probably already be in a police cell
for posting this blog online
if I was unlucky enough to be living in Azerbaijan.
According to the State Department's own human rights report, this could entail being subjected to torture (including threats of rape) to coerce my confession, followed by imprisonment under possibly "life threatening" conditions for a year. Or two. Or ten.
Or however long it took America to get really "concerned".
Disclaimer: This blog was written in a private capacity, and exclusively reflects the author's own personal views. Some day, just for balance, the author may write a similar post about Armenia.
Working title: "Putin's Best Friends Order Congress to Buy Them Ararat"