Exclusive Interview: Dr. Altay Goyushov

Leksika had the opportunity to sit down with professor of Azeri history, Dr. Altay Goyushov, on 2 April.  Dr. Goyushov's rise as a critic of the Aliyev regime in Azerbaijan has made him both friends and enemies, but his insights in an increasingly repressive regime highlight the issues facing Azerbaijan's opposition as well as underlying weaknesses in Baku's strategy.


Last week, Dr. Altay Goyushov sat down with Leksika at a coffee shop down the street from the Library of Congress in Washington. The middle-aged Goyushov is a fairly quiet figure, fitting for a professor of Azeri history and a researcher of religiosity and political Islam in his home region, the South Caucasus. However, he’s fashioned himself into an open opponent of Azerbaijan’s authoritarian regime under Ilham Aliyev. Dr. Goyushov is currently working with the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington and will soon start a fellowship in Paris at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS).

Professor Goyushov has had something on his mind. Amid the crackdown on free speech in his home country, he is noticing a worrying trend both in the regime’s strategy against the largely disorganized opposition in Baku, but that discord is not unique to Azerbaijan’s liberals. Across the region and in other former Soviet and Warsaw Pact states, even EU members, a dichotomy of overt alliance with the West economically and its institutions is met with lacking belief in the values that come with these institutions. The Azeri regime’s own rhetoric appears motivated by understandable, if convoluted, domestic power plays and geopolitical calculations. But the deeper sociological shift in post-Soviet mindsets is most worrisome for the professor: disillusionment and disappointment with the West.


Regime Above the State, State Above the People

In approaching the political, economic, and social trends in Azerbaijan and the South Caucasus since independence in 1991, one thing is clear: divergences between states have been driven by elite decision makers concentrating wealth and economic power. For Baku, the result is a heavily centralized power structure around the Aliyev family and their confidants that Michael Weiss at Foreign Policy likened to the Corleone crime family. Investigations into the family wealth has led to the arrest of journalists and other oppositions leaders, a prominent political prisoner being Khadija Ismayilova. Ismayilova worked with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Baku; the regime raided the news organization’s Azeri headquarters weeks following Ismayilova’s arrest in December of last year. The number of such political prisoners has increased substantially since 2012, when the regime came under increased scrutiny of Western observers following Baku’s hosting of the Eurovision song contest.

Prior to this, however, Goyushov argues that the state was relatively lenient on internal discourse. Goyushov took part in a civic movement, Free Thought University (AFU), an open university project funded by Western organizations that was closed in 2013. Soon after AFU’s closure, the government implemented a “foreign agent” law similar to Russia’s and with the objective of kicking out international organizations and NGOs. The movement provided an open space for liberal political and social discussions about Azerbaijan’s development, a notion that has increasingly been suppressed by a regime worried that a Color Revolution might threaten its own grip on power, leading to what Goyushov describes as a “three tiered system. The regime is at the top. Followed by the state. And in the same tradition of other former Soviet states, the people are last. Aliyev places the regime’s survival above the state’s survival, an unsustainable strategy in the long-run.”


Doublespeak: Home and Away Audiences

How Aliyev portrays himself abroad, however, is aimed at minimizing international criticism, leading to a “doublespeak” that Goyushov claims closely mirrors the government of Orwell’s 1984. Externally, Azerbaijan portrays itself as a liberal bulwark in the South Caucasus that fits into the West’s security calculus. Azerbaijan is a Shia majority country, but in contrast to the Islamic Republic of Iran it upholds state secularism. Having contributed military forces to both Iraq and Afghanistan, Baku has successfully courted Washington and Brussels on counterterrorism and has opposed Russian regional hegemony.

Azeri courting of Western governments and politicians is well documented, and has been characterized as “caviar diplomacy” by the European Stability Initiative. The regime spends an enormous amount of money on lobbying in the US and Europe, much of it through the Azerbaijan American Alliance and other organizations closely tied to the ruling elite. In addition to organizing and paying for politicians to attend conferences in Baku, Azerbaijan will cover competitors’ travel and lodging costs during the upcoming European Games later this year, which is not standard procedure for the event. The hope is that prominent public figures will then be obliged to portray Azerbaijan and the Aliyev regime in a positive light upon returning home.

Domestically, Goyushov argues that Aliyev portrays Western organizations and Western-aligned opposition movements in Azerbaijan as a “fifth-column” while “such rhetoric is for an internal audience that increasingly is shunning international influence on Azerbaijan.” Goyushov and his counterparts represent the moderate faction that has been driven out of the political field. Prior to 2012 and the Eurovision competition, Goyushov contends that political activists were able to operate more freely in Azerbaijan, today the circumstances could not be more different. At that point the regime, concerned solely with its continued survival, removed protections for free association and speech while antagonizing the Western mores that Azerbaijan adheres to on the international stage.


A Critical Take on Western Engagement

The remaining Azeri activists are increasingly critical though of the Western governments that they used as guides in developing their own political philosophy. For Goyushov, he saw the conflict in Syria as a turning point among politically active Azeris. The slow and modest response by Washington and European capitals seems to have confirmed that “national interests have trumped a values driven foreign policy” according to Goyushov.

Closer to home, Western governments support democratization and civil liberties organizations in Azerbaijan, but Aliyev’s human rights abuses have not elicited a strong response by either Washington or Brussels. The professor instead sees Western complacency since the 1990s following the hailed “End of History” being directly linked to the primacy of economic values over human rights and civil values. He sees this leading to a shift away from Western values not only in Azerbaijan or Russia, but also in Hungary, Poland, and Ukraine.

Goyushov contends though that among a large portion of Azeris there is still latent support for the regime that is built on strong nationalism and opposition to neighboring Armenia, with whom Azerbaijan is still in a state of war over the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region. However, “despite the opportunity that the future TANAP pipeline represents for Baku, Azerbaijani’s production levels along with a fall in global prices undermines the regime’s economic stability.” Goyushov believes Aliyev must contend with a growing security dilemma, where “government suppression of an already disappointed liberal opposition opens the door for extreme movements in Azerbaijan.”

While the chances of a extremist movement sweeping across the country remains small, several Azeris have been accused of fighting with ISIS in Iraq and Syria and the Aliyev regime is keen to minimize radicalization among the small Sunni minority in the Shia majority state.


Going Forward

The professor’s own prognosis leaves little positive hope for the future of Azerbaijan without significant domestic change and the shift of regional states’ security calculus. However, Goyushov himself believes the greatest opportunity, and risk, for Azerbaijan lies north in Russia. “Without a change in Russia, change in Azerbaijan or reform within the Aliyev regime will not be possible,” he says. Continuing: “Putin is not inevitable and not invulnerable, and if there is some change in the values there, there is a chance for other former-Soviet states to make similar changes.”

Azerbaijan’s own ties to Russia, though, are largely dictated by the regional power system. Baku is not dependent on Russia the way neighboring Armenia is in the domestic economic, political, or security spheres. Aliyev has successfully positioned himself between Turkey, Iran, and Russia, while the country’s growing energy trade with Europe should have a positive effect on decreasing Baku’s future reliance on Moscow. If the regional situation remains relatively stable, the affordability of reform remains to be seen. For the professor-turned-dissident, Azerbaijan faces the same issue as the USSR 30 years ago. Once dissent has been cut out of public discourse, will any opening the political system encourage rapid change that may topple the regime? If so, what fills the vacuum?


Photo courtesy of Dr. Altay Goyushov