Reporting in the bad old days of the Cold War had its particular inbuilt moral problem. Was it right to ring up and arrange a meeting with a dissident when the secret police on the watch was certain to add new entries to the dossier that one day would lead to a prison sentence, quite likely on some such charge as treason? The risk these brave people took just to describe the reality of life under Communism was awe-inspiring, and it bothered the conscience of those of us with a return ticket in our pocket. The dissidents themselves always insisted that the benefit of publicity outweighed any potential penalty.
This moral dilemma recurred towards the end of 2011 when I went to Azerbaijan. Previously a so-called “republic” within the Soviet Union, the country was now supposedly independent. Haidar Aliyev, a classic Soviet apparatchik, a member of the Soviet Politburo from 1969 to 1989, and a senior officer in the KGB, in fact had privatized it, in the process taking the presidency. The huge posters adorning the road from the airport into the capital Baku show his conceited face but have no captions. Once a police state, those posters make the point, always a police state.
Born in 1961, Haidar’s son Ilham is now president, making Azerbaijan an outstanding example of a dynastic republic, that increasingly popular political hybrid. He got his education and a doctorate as well in the Moscow State University of International Relations. In a first election he got 76 percent of the vote, in a second election 88 percent. Come on Ilham, one feels like saying, those aren’t the numbers for a first-class dictator.
Shiite Muslims, the Azeris are not Islamist extremists. Several million live across the border in Iran and would reject the ayatollahs if they could. Hope for peace in the region has to lie in the hands of such secular-minded people, which was what had brought me there to ask questions. I had an introduction to Khadija Ismayilova, the journalist who covers Azerbaijan for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, specializing in exposing wrongs and abuses. In her thirties, she turned out to be extremely jolly, amused and amusing, speaking her mind and in English, too. At her invitation, four or five writers came to my hotel and we talked about writing in a minority language like Azeri. Khadija has translated from Afghan Khalid Hosseini’s wonderful novel The Kite Runner.
Khadija took it for granted that she had freedom of speech. On the several occasions when I asked if she wasn’t afraid of persecution, she laughed it off the way dissidents do. Since last December, she has been held in prison. No trial, needless to say. Her arrest has been extended because Azerbaijan is host to the European games, a sort of cheap-shot Olympics. In a letter from prison Khadija writes, “They didn’t want you to see or hear us and our inconvenient truths.”
Come on, Ilham, you can either go down as a second-class dictator or be the man who at last proves that police states don’t always have to continue to be police states, even or especially if they are Muslim. Let Khadija go.