The oil-rich South Caucasian republic of Azerbaijan has sworn in President Ilham Aliyev for a controversial third term, despite accusations that he is ruling over a repressive state intolerant of dissent.
The 51-year-old Aliyev, who took power in 2003 in a disputed election after the death of his father Heydar, vowed on October 19 to "serve the people with dignity" and to "be faithful to national values and traditions of the Azerbaijani people" for at least five more years. Critics say human rights abuses and widespread corruption will not stop unless the West excercises pressure on Aliyev, who won the election on October 9 with 84.55 percent of the vote.
Some international leaders, including President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso, congratulated President Aliyev with on re-election. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), on the other hand, criticised the vote for being "seriously flawed".
Some activists in Azerbaijan want foreign countries to take a more assertive role in criticising the government. "[The] international community should stop helping our regime with legitimacy," said Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative journalist at Radio Free Europe in Baku. "Aliyev wants to be a part of the Western club. Let him reform his regime for getting a membership."
But Gulsel Safarova, the president of Integration of Azerbaijani Youth to Europe, believes that Aliyev's government has been working hard over the past 10 years to make the country and its people prosperous.
Safarova, who refuses to be called a pro-government activist, told Al Jazeera that the elections were democratic and expects only the best from Aliyev's third term in office.
Political analyst and human rights activist Geysar Gurbanov doesn't agree. He thinks said oil and gas production has become a curse for the country. The need for Azerbaijan's resources as a counter-balance to dependence on Russian petroleum imports has led European governments to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses, Gurbanov alleged.
The international community should stop helping our regime with legitimacy.
"In Azerbaijan, the democracy process is particularly difficult, because with a few exceptions, European governments are trying to ensure energy security without thinking of democratic issues," Andreas Gross, a Swiss MP who helped monitor the October 9 vote, said.
Meanwhile, the US limited its reaction to mild criticism. The election "fell short of international standards", the State Department said in a statement while highlighting the "constructive steps" taken by Azerbaijan's government.
Azerbaijan is locked between Russia and the US as part of a new Great Game, Gurbanov said, arguing that Washington doesn't want to alienate President Aliyev by over-stressing human rights issues. If Azerbaijan turns away from the West it could move closer to Russia. This worries officials in Washington.
"The relationship between Azerbaijan and the US is defined by a variety of factors, including Iran’s nuclear programme, [its proximity] with Russia, [the] Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Armenia, [and] access to energy resources in the Caspian Sea," Gurbanov told Al Jazeera.
"In such a complicated situation the US has to carefully balance its relationship with Azerbaijan - neither letting it off leash, nor holding it too tight to instigate any discord."
The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think-tank, says Azerbaijan has accumulated at least $70bn from oil exports, causing its gross domestic product (GDP) to explode twenty-fold since the mid-1990s. With a per-capita GDP of $7,392, Azerbaijan is more than twice as wealthy as its two Caucasian neighbours, Armenia and Georgia. Supporters of the government say that President Aliyev's economic managament and the country's political stability have helped foster this boom.
Government critics say the bulk of its wealth is ending up in the hands of the powerful and well-connected. It is not properly trickling down to the country's nine million people, government critics say.
"Oil money could serve for the benefit of the nation, but it served to enrich Aliyev and his family," said Ismayilova. "Every fourth child in Azerbaijan [suffers from] malnutrition. The country has huge child and mother mortality rates. Healthcare is not available, nor is quality education. Corruption affects all spheres of life."
Journalists are beaten, kidnapped, blackmailed, silenced with bribes. There is not a single TV channel that is out of the ruling family's control.
Transparency International, an anti-corruption watchdog, has consistently rated Azerbaijan as one of the world's more corrupt countries (ranking it 139out of 174 states in 2012), while Human Rights Watch regularly reports attacks on political activists and journalists as part of an effort to silence Aliyev's critics.
Intimidation of critics
Khadija Ismayilova says she knows first-hand what happens when one confronts Azerbaijan's ruling family.
Last year Radio Free Europe's investigative journalist, based in the capital Baku, exposed alleged corruption among Aliyev's family and inner circle. Afterwards, she received stills from a video of her having sex with her boyfriend, along with a message that she should stop publishing exposes or the video would be published online.
"Government agencies took part in planting [a] video camera in my bedroom, living room and bathroom," she claimed. "I refused to shut up and the video was published."
In August, Reporters Without Borders and 10 other non-governmental organisations sent an open letter to Aliyev and Prosecutor General Zakir Garalov, urging them to launch an investigation into the repeated threats made against Ismayilova. They received no response.
Ismayilova said she is not the only one who has been intimidated: "[There are] 142 political prisoners [in Azerbaijan], among them nine journalists. Journalists are beaten, kidnapped, blackmailed, silenced with bribes. There is not a single TV channel that is out of the ruling family's control."
In January 2009 President Aliyev reportedly described Ismayilova as "a long-time opposition activist who considers herself an enemy of the government" and asked the American ambassador to Baku to push for her dismissal from the US-funded Radio Liberty, Amnesty International reported.
The Media Rights Institute (MRI), an Azerbaijani NGO specialising in the freedom of expression and the media, reported that in the first half of 2013 alone, 36 court cases relating to "slander, insult and distribution of private information" were initiated against journalists and media outlets.
Despite the rhetoric from critics, Safarova believes Azerbaijan is moving in the right direction under its re-elected leader. "I believe that [during the] next few years, oil strategy will transform human capital, because it is a major priority of Mr Aliyev," said Safarova.
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