Does Arab Spring come to Azerbaijan ?

Bruno De Cordier works for the Conflict Research Group at Belgium-based Ghent University, specializes in politics and conflicts of Central Asia and South Caucasus.One of his recent research topics was on whether or not an “Arab Spring”-style revolution could happen in Eurasia, more specifically in Azerbaijan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.While analyzing the current situation in the region in the short term, the analyst believes that the answer to this question is “maybe not”, but in the long term, he notes, “some of the regimes will bite the dust, however”.The reason for both likelihoods is actually the same: a combination of youth bulge, social mobility and delayed/stunted social change, modern ICT penetration, and rigid first-family regimes. “These factors are creating the conditions that keep a revolt at bay for now but could also eventually make an explosion or a coup of some sort inevitable”, he wrote in his recent research. TURAN’s Washington DC correspondent interviewed De Cordier on Tuesday, February 28, and discussed the latest political situation in Azerbaijan in comparison to the “Arab Spring” region.Question: As the “Arab Spring” marked its first anniversary early this year, questions suchas “whether the West was behind it” keep popping up. Do you think the "Arab Spring" stillcontinues, and if so, how close is it to Azerbaijan's borders?A. I don’t think we should over-estimate the active role that the West plays or has played in the Arab Spring. There were lots of local dynamics and circumstances. I mean, it’s not like the so-called Color Revolutions where the hand of, well, certain Western governments and international and Western-funded NGOs was quite clear, and that are revolutions that have in the meantime been discredited by the neo-liberal turn that they sometimes took. The Arab Spring rather came as a fait accompli which, let’s be honest, few could predict. Take Libya, for instance. Over the last few years preceding Qadhafi’s overthrow, the general attitude in Europe was that he would grow old in power and that his eldest son, Saif al-Islam, would eventually succeed him and open up the country for European investment and tourism (as he actually had already started to do). Pretty much the same with Mubarak and his son. In short, it was about the same line as the one followed now vis-a-vis the regimes in Azerbaijan, or Uzbekistan for that matter. A ‘Eurasian Spring’ scenario in Azerbaijan will largely depend on a confluence of circumstances locally. It’s difficult to predict. The regime does bear a few similarities to Mubarak’s or that in Tunisia, yes, but it’s not as repressive as Uzbekistan’s or Qadhafi’s regimes are, or were. Something will happen sooner or later, but not as an imminent chain-reaction coming out of the Arab Spring. The moment just comes when a feeling of anger and humiliation among people wins over fear and when you have a critical incident sparking something larger. Also, there definitely are faultlines in the regime itself, for instance between younger technocrats and the older nomenclature families inherited from the USSR, between members of the armed forces and the all-powerful intelligence agency, or between the ruling family and people in the establishment who resent its growing grip on the economy. But all in all, the psychological effect of the Arab Spring is real. It showed that regimes are not eternal, and that the stability they bring is artificial. If Western interest groups want to engage with them, OK, fine. Let’s not be naive. They have their reasons and interests. But then we can assume that they know that it will maybe not last as well.Question: In Baku, for example, some people still believe that some topics such as human rights and democracy are being forgotten during discussions between the Azeri and Western officials... Is that true?Answer: I do believe that some diplomatic and political circles sincerely believe that stable democracies are best to do energy business with. But in the real world, what it comes to is getting access to diverse, non-OPEC energy resources. So, at the end of the day, why should those involved care more about human rights and democracy that they do or did with the tribal monarchies in Saudi Arabia, for instance? What I believe to be the best they can do is just to be man enough to openly admit that it’s about energy resources and that the rest comes as it is. Just stop the theatre. Everyone, as well as the people in Azerbaijan’s streets to start with, already knows that anyway.Question: There are also some opinions that the movements in the Arab World already impactedthe Western powers towards the oil-reach dictatorship countries. It is believed that democracy came on the first plan in Western capitals. How much bases do these opinions have?Answer: Yes, in some circles they do sincerely believe that and they are impressed with what happened in the Arab countries. The only thing is, the real powers for change are often mis-estimated. Is it the secular, liberal oppositionists and intelligentsia that the salons in the West would like to see in power but who actually have a very limited base and backing in society? Or is one ready to recognize the armed forces and Islamic movements as having much more popular base than many are able or willing to admit?Question: When speaking of the Arab spring, many observers note the role of Wikileaks cables that were believed to be inflammatory for the peoples of those countries. As for Azerbaijan, how do you think the Azeri people and officials should “read” those diplomatic cables?Answer: I believe that their role, as is that of the social media, is quite over-estimated as far as their impact at the popular level goes. Several of the things that are written in the cables - the control that members and cronies of the first families exercise over the key sectors of the economy, the shady dealings between Western interest groups and intelligence services and the regimes, and so on - have already been public secrets for years, no matter whether it is among oppositionist intelligentsia or in the bazaars.Question: According to the news media, a number of believers have been arrested by police inBaku recently; tensions between the state and religious Muslims have mounted in recent months.Some analysts in the region believe that the position of clerics and believers is getting strongerbecause of lack of democracy. The authorities view democracy and democrats as enemies and tryto suppress them. As a result, believers have become stronger. Where do you think Azerbaijan isgoing to end up with this policy?Answer: In my view, it’s not so much the repression that makes Islam and the Islamic movements in general grow in society in Azerbaijan or somewhere else for that matter. Also, I don’t understand why only secular democrats should pretend to have the monopoly on the representation of what people want or of people’s concerns. The bankruptcy, if not outright collapse, of both socialism and neo-liberalism has created an enormous space for something that provides both an identity and a sense of social justice, and that is recognizable because it is part of the traditional culture. Islam is there to stay and the power elites and the intelligence services, who are both not stupid, know that. That’s what makes them afraid.

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