Talking Donkeys, Ramadan With Barack, and Our "One True Friend"

This morning, Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry whined that its U.S .ambassador was invited to Hilary Clinton's post-Ramadan feast but NOT Barack Obama's. Azerbaijan has been described as America's "one true friend" on the Caspian, a key ally in the thing formerly known as the "war on terror," a major player in the U.S.-backed Baku Ceyhan Tiblisi oil pipeline and BTE gas line, as well as the most important "undecided" in the potential Nabucco pipeline, which is supposed to break Russia's ability to control European gas supplies at whim. Is there trouble in the friendship?  The experiences of a talking donkey suggest that there is.

For the U.S., Azerbaijan--with its Russian, Georgian, Turkish, and Iranian borders--has been too small and too strategic to fail. One member of the country's beleaguered opposition told me that from the Azeri perspective the fall of the Soviet Union just moved the Politburo from Moscow to Washington, which stepped in to provide security guarantees, asking for pipelines and influence in return.  One cost of that friendship was that Azerbaijan wasn't much of a democracy. In its short modern history of the country, the State Department runs out of euphemisms for lousy elections before mentioning that the country's parliament abolished presidential term limits in March of this year.

Despite that, President Aliyev (son of the previous President Aliyev. Ahem.) appears to feel awfully insecure and is now engaging in a crackdown on trivialities. Security forces recently arrested two so-called "donkey bloggers" for posting on Youtube a donkey answering questions at a fake press conference and praising the government for its treatment of donkeys. (Late addition: I have been told they were actually arrested for brawling in a restaurant.) Last month, state security services detained the 43 Azerbaijanis who dared vote by text message for an Armenian singing group in a Eurovision song contest. "When I was called to the MNS, I thought they were arresting me for the strong criticism of President Ilham Aliyev I'd written on Facebook. I had even forgotten that I'd voted for Armenia. When in the MNS they started to interrogate me about this, I almost burst out laughing," said Rovshan Nasirli, who was called to the ministry on August 12. "After they kept me for two hours in an empty room, two men came to me, saying they worked for the main department of the MNS. One had a list in his hand of all the people who voted for the Armenian entry, and their addresses. They said that people like me should be sent to prison. They said, 'Today you vote for an Armenian, tomorrow you will go to blow up the metro for them.'" Crackdowns can appear to reaffirm the power of an angry paranoid state in the short term, but in the long run they breed revolutions.

There are other, less seemingly trivial, issues afoot in Azerbaijan. Recently, the country struck a deal to put some gas in Russia's pipeline. And after years of being the posterchild for the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative by publishing its national oil contracts, it made two deals without revealing the details.

Beyond doling out Ramadan invites, I'm not sure that the U.S. has the attention, the strategic leeway, or the policy tools to ask more of Azerbaijan now. But as the relationships between Europe, the Caucusus, the Middle East, and Russia evolve, the U.S. is going to need more of all three. More importantly, we're going to need a more sophisticated sense of our own role in the world, and a more nuanced sense of just how important those pipelines are to us.

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