Baku in the USSR? Azerbaijan Could Be Set to Abandon West and Head East

The arrest of an Azeri journalist last week is a warning to Israel that its strategic alliance with the oil-rich state may be on shaky ground.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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President Ilham Aliyev (left), with Hassan Rohani, Vladmir Putin, Kazakhstan's President Nazarbayev and Turkmenistan's President Berdimuhamedov, September 2014.
President Ilham Aliyev (left), with Hassan Rohani, Vladmir Putin, Kazakhstan's President Nazarbayev and Turkmenistan's President Berdimuhamedov, September 2014.Credit: Reuters
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Azerbaijan isn’t a friendly country for journalists who ask too many questions. Dozens have been arrested in recent years, and 20 are currently in prison. Others have been forced underground or into exile. Last year, when I visited investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova at her Radio Azadliq workplace in Baku, I was surprised to see how openly the journalist – the biggest thorn in the side of the regime – operates. “We are part of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which is funded by the U.S. State Department,” one of her colleagues explained. “It gives Khadija a level of immunity that other journalists don’t enjoy.”

Supporters of Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev hold their national flags and a portrait of Aliyev during an election rally in Sumgait,near the capital, Baku.Credit: Reuters

Ismayilova spoke with anger of how the authorities had hounded her following a series of investigations revealing how the family of President Ilham Aliyev had amassed massive wealth through the embezzlement of Azerbaijan’s oil and natural gas sales.

She was particularly bitter at what she saw as the way Western governments ignored the human rights situation in her country. “Aliyev’s police planted hidden cameras in my apartment and filmed me having sex with my boyfriend. When I didn’t give into their threats, they posted the video online. We may be a secular society, but this is still a conservative Muslim country. You can imagine what that did to my family,” she said.

Ismayilova was arrested last week. She is to be charged with pressuring her ex-boyfriend and driving him to suicide, and is facing a seven-year prison term. However, no one is under any illusion that she is being prosecuted for anything other than her journalism and politics.

In addition to her investigations, in recent years she has become the main contact between civil society organizations in Azerbaijan and human rights groups abroad supporting the pro-democracy movement. It seems that Ismayilova’s U.S. immunity has run out.

Aliyev is not content with Azerbaijan’s commercial ties with a West eager for oil and gas – he wants respectability, too. That’s why he’s spent millions on lobbying and public relations, including sponsorship of Spanish soccer side Atletico Madrid (last season’s Champions League finalist). Western leaders are happy to trade with him, but less keen to be seen with him in public.

Three months ago, President Barack Obama criticized Azerbaijan’s human rights record in a public speech. Aliyev seems to feel that, after years courting the West and even entertaining the idea that Azerbaijan could join the European Union, it’s time to turn back toward Russia (his father, the previous president, was secretary general of the Azerbaijani Communist Party until the Soviet Union disintegrated and the country achieved independence).

Ismayilova’s arrest is seen by many in Baku as a breaking point in Aliyev’s attempts to align Azerbaijan with the West. In an interview he gave two weeks ago to a Russian news channel, he accused the West of having encouraged the emergence of the Islamic State with its “policies in the Middle East over the last decade.”

His words echoed the Kremlin’s position that the United States and European Union are responsible for the rise of ISIS (also known as ISIL) by supporting the rebels fighting the Bashar Assad regime in Syria.

Until very recently, Azerbaijan saw President Vladimir Putin’s Russia as a hostile force trying to undermine its pro-Western policy and supporting neighboring Armenia in the conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. Now, Aliyev is praising Moscow and saying that “Azerbaijan and Russia are two neighboring friendly countries which are developing together and are ready to face world challenges.”

Energy field

One country that should be concerned by Azerbaijan’s seeming disenchantment with the West is Israel, which has built a strategic alliance in recent years with Aliyev’s regime, few details of which have been published.

According to foreign reports, Israel has conducted intelligence operations against Iran from neighboring Azerbaijan, and sold it weapons systems, including drones and radar. Israel doesn’t disclose details of its arms deals with Azerbaijan, or if the military and electronic equipment it supplies is used only for defense purposes against Iran and Armenian separatists or is used to suppress the regime’s internal opposition as well.

Another strategic dimension to the Israel-Azerbaijan relationship is in energy. Most of the oil used in Israel is purchased from Azerbaijan, pumped to the Turkish port of Ceyhan, and from there in tankers across the eastern Mediterranean.

The Azerbaijanis have close ties to Turkey and are interested in building a new pipeline, along with the two countries. However, this project has yet to materialize due to the prolonged diplomatic crisis between Jerusalem and Ankara.

Azerbaijan had a long period of tension with its Iranian neighbor, despite the fact that millions of Azeris live in Iran (even Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, is half-Azeri).

There is an intense rivalry between the Islamic Republic and the former Soviet Republic, and competition for oil markets. In recent years, both countries have accused each other of aggression.

Azerbaijan claimed that Iranian cells were planning to carry out terror attacks against Israeli targets in its territory. And last August, Iran claimed to have shot down an Israeli drone launched in Azerbaijan (though the footage the Iranians showed was old and filmed in Lebanon).

A low point in the relationship was in 2012, when Azerbaijan hosted the Eurovision Song Contest in Baku and Iran accused it of holding an “immoral” and “unIslamic” event, even recalling its ambassador for a few months. (Ironically, Azerbaijan had won the 2011 event with a song called “Running Scared.”)

Recently though, there’s been a thaw between the two countries. Iranian President Hassan Rohani visited Baku last month, and has now met Aliyev four times this year. The assumption in Jerusalem is that the rivalry between the two countries isn’t over and the Azerbaijanis will still prefer the strategic alliance with Israel.

Ismayilova, a staunch atheist, believes – like many Azerbaijanis – that Iran is financing and supporting Islamists in her country. In her interview with Haaretz last year, she warned the West and Israel from relying on the Aliyev regime to maintain a secular Azerbaijan and block the Islamists. “Don’t think you’re more clever than the Iranians. In the end, we will also have Iran here and everyone will lose.”

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