Oil and Human Rights Proving a Complicated Mix in Azerbaijan

"America embraces (Azerbaijani President Heydar) Aliyev like it did Somoza in Nicaragua, Batista in Cuba and the Shah of Iran."

Fellows Fall 1998

By David Case

June 07, 2009

Baku, Azerbaijan - Fall, 1998

"I thought they were going to kill me, "said Elmar Huseinov, tapping a cigarette lighter nervously on a wooden desk.

"At the very least, I expected to be tortured," he said, recalling the afternoon last winter when police seized him at his home. Huseinov was well-versed in what to expect.

Five days earlier, authorities had confiscated the latest issue of Monitor Magazine, a monthly that Huseinov founded in 1996 to expose the abuses of the increasingly harsh regime of President Heydar Aliyev.

Human rights activists like Huseinov say Aliyev is steering oil-rich Azebaijan into a cycle of oppression and inequity reminiscent of oil-producing developing nations like Iran and Nigeria. It is a prospect that most Western oil firms would prefer not to discuss, given the impact of their billions in oil investment on Azerbaijan's tenuous democracy.

The magazine, which had earned the respect of intellectuals and diplomats, included an article entitled "Azerbaijan Prisons Earn a Place in the White Book of Terror."

As Huseinov sat in the police sedan, he pondered the article, which chronicled 10 methods - including electric shock, sodomy with a bottle and oxygen deprivation - that security agents use for exacting confessions and bribes in the cellars of police stations.

The article quote witnesses who alleged that torture was sanctioned by the highest levels of the government and was perpetrated by, among others a presidential counter intelligence office that is located one block from the U.S. Embassy.

"These allegations are highly credible," said Pamela Gomez of Human Rights Watch, who adds that police torture is routine in Azerbaijan. "We found cases of physical abuse so severe that they resulted in the deaths of the detained or in months of hospitalization."

Yet the reports have had little impact on life inside the elegant refurbished stone townhouses across the town square from Monitor's cramped offices. Here, in the ancient Asian quarter, lie the headquarters of a powerful group with close ties to the government: American oil firms.

Executives are reluctant to discuss the political underside of operating in Azerbaijan which, with other Caspian nations, shares an oil strike believed to rival the North Sea in size. Representatives of the leading consortium, which includes Amoco, Penzoil, Unocal and Exxon, declined repeated requests to be interviewed about the torture allegations.

When it comes to human rights, security or other potentially controversial isssues, said an Amoco spokesman in Baku: "We're in the oil business, not politics. So I have no comment."

The U.S. firms, however, have billions at stake in the status quo. They credit Aliyev for creating a stable investment environment and have hired a brigade of Washington's elder statemen to promote Azerbaijan's interests. They also dole out occasional employment opportunities to the elite: The son of Azerbaijani ambassador to Washington Hafiz Pashayev was, until recently, an intern at Mobil.

Jayhum Mollazade, president of the U.S.-Azerbaijan Council, charges that American oil companies, unlike their European counterparts, "kiss up to the government and avoid opposition parties and democracy groups."

Human rights activists like Novella Jafarova, president of the Association for the Protection of Women's Rights, complain that "the oil companies only fund nonprofits that kowtow to Aliyev."

Oil investment cannot avoid being political, said Dr. S. Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central Asia Institute at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.

"By injecting enormous amounts of capital into a country's coffers, it disrupts the mutual dependency between a government and its taxpayers," he said, a situation that can often lead to political chaos.

Human Rights Watch compares Azerbaijan to Indonesia, which was torn by civil strife and required a large economic bail out from the West when the government collapsed last year after decades of authoritarian repression.

In Azerbaijan, the group warns, "violations should signal a special concern for investors in the oil and gas sector, "who are making long term commitments worth billions. Executives "have a responsibility to promote improvement of human rights," they say.

In Baku, human rights activists fear a relapse into a once-common U.S. foreign policy tendency to support "stable" dictatorships over emerging, and sometimes chaotic, democracies.

"America embraces Alivev like it did Somoza in Nicaragua, Batista in Cuba and the Shah of Iran," said Eldar Zeynalov of the Human Rights Center of Azerbaijan. "It would be better to correct Aliyev's respect for human rights, so that you don't lose your investments the way you have in those countries. But the smell of oil kills any interest in this."

Not all oil companies, however, eschew involvement in the political realities of the countries in which they operate. Statoil, the Norwegian state oil company, has broken with long-standing practice by starting a human rights review process in Azerbaijan.

"Grab-and-run tactics won't work," said one top Statoil executive who requested anonymity. "We'll be here for 30, perhaps 100, years, and our presence will have an impact on the society. We don't intend to act as a political body, but we'd like to make sure our involvement...benefits society as a whole" and promotes economic growth in Azerbaijan, he added.

The oil industry has an undeniable influence on local politics, Statoil believes. "The government's interests are aligned with the foreign oil firms," the executive said. "Their primary objective is to make sure the oil flows."

Aliyev's tenure has amply illustrated that axiom.

A former Communist Party secretary and KGB director for the region during the Soviet era, Aliyev seized power in 1993 and gained popularity by clamping down on the lawlessness that had raged since the collapse of the Soviet Union. He negotiated a cease-fire with Armenia in the Nagomo-Karabakh conflict and then dazzled the nation by signing a $7.4 billion oil "contract of the century."

Recently, however, cracks have begun to show in Aliyev's power base. Unemployment is skyrocketing, exceeding 50 percent by some estimates. An enormous gap yawns between the destitute masses and the Mercedes Benz and cell-phone class. And five years later, a permanent peace in Nagorno-Karabakh remains elusive, leaving 10 percent of the population displaced.

Aliyev, who has jailed many political opponents and who won re-election last October in what international monitors called a highly irregular vote, is fast turning Azerbaijan into a police state, critics say.

Baton-wielding police roam Baku, demanding bribes. An indication of their success: Officers are among the few customers at the capital's luxury goods stores.

The government acknowledges that there have been police "irregularities," but officials blame the weakness of the country's fledgling institutions.

"We've only been independent since 1992," said Murtuz Aleskerov, speaker of Azerbaijan's parliament. "We're doing what we can."


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