Carnegie hosted Shahin Abbasov, a Baku based journalist, Leila Alieva, founder of the Center for National and International Studies in Baku, Tabib Huseynov, a political analyst from Baku, and Elnur Soltanov of the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy in Baku for a discussion of the situation in Azerbaijan twenty years after independence. The Honorable Richard D. Kauzlarich, former U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan, moderated.

Media and Freedom of Speech

Abbasov discussed the development of media processes and freedom of speech in Azerbaijan since independence.

  • The Golden Age (1991-1993): During the rule of Presidents Mutallibov and Elchibey, there were favorable conditions for the flourishing of independent media, said Abbasov.

  • The Early Rule of Heydar Aliev (1993-1998): After Heydar Aliev came to power, violence and repression was used to silence both the media and civil society. However, Abbasov added, the market economy meant there was space for advertising and some room for media development.

  • Since 1998: The authorities brought the advertising market under control and created financial obstacles to deprive free media sources of economic means, Abbasov said. The oil boom helped the government monopolize the economy and begin to invest heavily into controlled media. Now, 100 percent of broadcasting media and 90 percent of the newspaper segment is directly or indirectly controlled by the government or representatives of the ruling elite, said Abbasov. 

Patterns of development

  • Successes: Since independence Azerbaijan had “successfully consolidated its independence” and oriented itself towards the West by gaining a valuable role in the energy security of Europe and the United States, Alieva said, arguing that the country had “reshaped Eurasia” and “outgrew its national significance.”

  • Effects of a Resource Curse: However, there is a growing disconnect between the population and state as the country suffers from an increasing “resource curse,” with more than two thirds of the state budget coming from oil and gas revenues and a much smaller portion from taxes. The result, she argued, is that “we do not have a functioning market economy” and the ruling elite has a monopoly on both politics and economics.

  • Periods of Oil Boom: Alieva contrasted the current oil boom with that of the late 19th century, arguing that the previous boom had been positive for Azerbaijan while this one had hurt the country as the government had concentrated the oil industry in state hands, undermined an independent judiciary, and flouted property rights.

  • Struggle Between Elite and Civil Society: In modern-day Azerbaijan, she argued, “political patronage is the glue of the system” and “corruption is the compensating mechanism for lack of legitimacy.

  • Civil Society: There is an unequal struggle between a system of well-funded political patronage and a weak and under-funded civil society. Although the “rent-seeking mentality” has spread throughout society and there was no recognizable income-earning middle class in Azerbaijan, Alieva said “there is always resistance” and politically active civil society is finding new ways of expressing itself through new technologies and with the limited support of Western donors.

Lessons Learned 

Huseynov shared lessons which the Azerbaijani public and elites have drawn from the upheavals of the past 20 years:

  • Failed State (1991-1995): The conflict over Nagorny Karabakh and the economic collapse made Azerbaijan a failed state. From that era, Azerbaijanis learned the importance of having a strong leader and a strong central power. They saw that domestic political instability was associated with territorial losses and the importance of using a civic identity, rather than an ethno-nationalist identity, as a basis for state-building.

  • Stabilization of the Autocratic System Period (1995-2005): During this period, President Heydar Aliev began to cultivate a personality cult and an “image of political indispensability” to enable him to exercise political control. He got rid of potential challengers and built up strong patronage networks.

  • Consolidation of the Statist Model (since 2005): Since 2005, GDP rose threefold and the budget increased by twenty times as a result of the oil boom. The Azerbaijani government exercised increasing control over society with the only effective opposition now being within the elite, said Huseynov.

  • Today’s Challenges: Huseynov identified four challenges facing modern-day Azerbaijan: choosing between a European model of development or that of a Middle-Eastern-type autocracy, with the risk of facing a “non-traditional” Islamist opposition; diversifying the economy, before oil reserves are depleted in around 2024; preserving a balanced foreign policy, which does not merely react to events; and finding a way to resolve the conflict over Nagorny Karabakh peacefully.

Prioritizing Competing and Indispensable Goals 

  • Pursuing Incompatible Goals Simultaneously: The Elchibey government tried to pursue the consolidation of Azerbaijani sovereignty and resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict simultaneously, Soltanov explained. Ultimately, however, these goals were incompatible and the government was unsuccessful.

  • Lesson Learned: The succeeding Heydar Aliev government created more stability in the country by prioritizing Azerbaijani sovereignty and only later turning its attention to the Nagorny Karabakh conflict, said Soltanov.