Dark days for freedom in Turkey and Azerbaijan
HDN | 4/20/2011 12:00:00 AM | ELDAR MAMEDOV
It is not the nationalist or religious utopias, but true commitment to human rights and secular democracy that will make Turkey and Azerbaijan successful nations.
In his book on the Turkic world, “Sons of the Conquerors,” Hugh Pope, an American expert on Turkey, provides an optimistic picture of countries that are friendly to the West, pragmatic in their approach to Islam and offer a secular alternative for the Muslim world caught between pressures for change and fundamentalism. These days, the two countries of the Turkic world with particularly close historical links to each other and to the West are Turkey and Azerbaijan. But they are in the news for the wrong reasons, such as the growing intolerance of dissent, attacks on the freedom of expression and the jailing of anti-government activists and journalists.
To be sure, crucial differences exist between the two countries. Turkey’s record on the freedom of expression is, on the whole, vastly superior to that of Azerbaijan. Turkey regularly holds competitive elections. It is still possible to criticize the government, which dozens of newspapers and TV stations diligently do. Bookshops are full of books highly critical of the government. Some of these books disgustingly so, a particularly obnoxious example is Ergün Poyraz’s latest book, “Takunyalı Führer” (Reactionary Fuhrer), whose cover shows Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as Hitler.
However, the trend is a different story. The ruling religiously conservative Justice and Development Party, or AKP’s, growing intolerance of dissent is a cause of major concern. Erdoğan has sued scores of journalists and cartoonists for “offensive language and emotional damages.” Freedom of expression suffered a further severe blow when well-known investigative journalists Nedim Şener and Ahmet Şık were arrested in the ever expanding scope of the investigation into Ergenekon, an alleged coup-plotting ultra-nationalist network.
After the arrest of the journalists, the police raided daily Radikal and some publishing houses in search of Şık’s book, “İmamın Ordusu” (The Imam’s Army), which investigates the influence of the Fethullah Gülen Islamic community on Turkish security forces.
The prosecutors in the Ergenekon case not only keep dozens of suspects in pre-trial detention; they also pretend to police thoughts by arresting people for "creating the psychological environment for a coup," which apparently includes publishing books critical of the Ergenekon investigation and the Gülen movement. With these arrests, as the Turkish Journalists’ Association said, the number of journalists in prison has reached above 60, more than 2,000 journalists are being prosecuted, and investigations have been launched against 4,000 journalists. This, together with the numerous (and un-investigated) death threats against journalists, makes it extremely difficult to work in this profession.
There are not nearly that many journalists in prison or under prosecution in Azerbaijan, but this is only because the media, except a few small opposition newspapers, are under the strict control of the government. Those who overstep the boundaries set by the authorities, for example, by exposing high-level corruption, face violence or worse. The murder of the investigative journalist Elmar Huseynov in 2005 remains unsolved. Another journalist, Eynulla Fatullayev, is serving an eight-year jail sentence despite the binding ruling of the European Court on Human Rights that Azerbaijan has to immediately release him.
According to the United States Department of State annual report on human rights, the number of cases of physical and psychological pressure on journalists in 2010 doubled in comparison with the previous year and reached above 100. On March 11-12 and on April 2, 2011, thousands of Azerbaijanis, both the new generation of Facebook-inspired activists and members of the long dormant traditional secular nationalist opposition, gathered in downtown Baku to demand respect for their civil liberties and to call for an end of the abuse of power. The authorities refused to listen to their grievances, unleashing instead the worst repression since the presidential elections of 2003. Prior and during the protest 174 people were detained. Young activists Bakhtiyar Hajiyev and Jabbar Savalanli were arrested and are being held in pre-trial detention for their calls for peaceful protests against the government. The journalists from the opposition newspaper Azadlyq (Freedom) Ramin Deko and Seymour Haziyev were abducted and beaten, apparently for their reporting on the protests of April 2.
These are dark days for the Turkish and Azerbaijani liberals. But this is no reason to despair. Some hope might come from Europe. The European Union in particular has strong leverage over Turkey and Azerbaijan. Turkey is negotiating, albeit at a snail’s pace, its accession to the European Union, while Azerbaijan wants an association agreement with the EU.
It is only natural that the bar is set higher for Turkey, since it is aspiring to become a member of the EU. The EU has been very critical of the attacks on the freedom of expression in Turkey, as testified by the European Commission’s and European Parliament’s latest reports on Turkey. But an association agreement with the EU also entails a strong commitment to upholding human rights and fundamental freedoms. It is in the EU’s power to make it clear to the Azerbaijani government. All it takes is political will and some consistency on behalf of the EU member states and institutions. It is not only about principles and values but also about an enlightened self-interest, as the events in North Africa have amply demonstrated. The policy of unconditionally privileging stability over democracy in the end brings neither.
Ultimately it is up to the Turkish and Azerbaijani societies to reverse the assaults on freedom in their countries. They could derive more force from working closer together. Azerbaijani democrats could benefit a lot from their Turkish counterparts’ advocacy skills and links to Europe. Azerbaijanis have also acquired a wealth of experience in Internet activism, particularly through the skilful and creative use of social media (about this, see the excellent report of the European Stability Initiative Generation Facebook in Baku available at www.esiweb.org).
Up until now, it is mainly nationalist and religious groups from both countries who have been interested in bonding. But their agenda is ill suited, if not harmful, for the promotion of democratic change. It is time that Turkish and Azerbaijani liberals discover each other. In the end, it is not the outdated nationalist or religious utopias, but true commitment to human rights, civil liberties and secular democracy that will make Turkey and Azerbaijan successful nations in the 21st century, and prove Hugh Pope’s optimistic assessment right.
* Eldar Mamedov is an international-relations analyst based in Brussels.