This year’s peregrinations are rapidly coming to an end. I’m in Turkey this week, Lebanon next, and then will soon be “going back to Cali, Cali, Cali.” Yet already – the curse of an addict – it’s difficult to not think about possible future destinations and the experiences that may lie in wait. Yemen – despite Graeme’s recent talk of impending implosion (more from Tarek Amr on Global Voices) – is still high on my list, and I feel fortunate that I will finally be meeting Ghaida’a next week in Beirut.

baku azerbaijan

Baku, Azerbaijan by “teuchterlad”

But another place I am increasingly curious about is Azerbaijan. Over the past year or two I’ve met several young leaders from Baku, the capital, and they have all assured me that it is my kind of city: an awkward and vibrant confluence of Islam, Caucasian culture, ancient streets, and a surprisingly good underground bar and club scene. There is also plenty to be wary of.

baku boats

Baku Boats by “novon”

Like so many other former Soviet republics, Azerbaijan officially declared its independence from the USSR in December 1991, when the Soviet Union was officially dissolved. The excitement of independence, however, was overshadowed by the ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh War between Armenia and Azerbaijan which escalated in the winter of 1992. (As is so often the case in world history, the British fled the region after World War I without facilitating agreement about independent national boundaries.) In 1994 a ceasefire was brokered by Russia, but tensions have remained high ever since. According to the CIA’s World Factbook:

Armenia supports ethnic Armenian secessionists in Nagorno-Karabakh and since the early 1990s has militarily occupied 16% of Azerbaijan; over 800,000 mostly ethnic Azerbaijanis were driven from the occupied lands and Armenia; about 230,000 ethnic Armenians were driven from their homes in Azerbaijan into Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.

As of 2007 an estimated 600,000 people have been forced to flee their homes due to the conflict.

Interview with Global Voices Caucasus Editor Onnik Krikorian, a British citizen of Armenian descent, discussing the complex though rapidly changing relations between Armenians and Azeris.

Last week the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan met in Munich for the sixth time to discuss the seemingly unresolvable issue of Nagorno Karabagh. Both men threatened to use military force. And when Turkey, a longtime ally of Azerbaijan, normalized diplomatic relations with Armenia last month, Azerbaijan responded by removing Turkish flags at a Baku monument to Turkish soldiers who “died while fighting for Azerbaijan’s independence before it was absorbed into the Soviet Union in 1922.”

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Azeri girl enjoying the sun in Baku, by “Leonid Yaitskiy”

Despite initial hopes at the dawn of Azerbaijan’s independence, the country has slipped further and further from representative democracy. Following the October 2003 presidential elections Sabine Freizer, the Europe program director of the International Crisis Group, described Azerbaijan as “a state governed by a closed elite, its rule enforced by brutality, legitimated by corrupt elections and perpetuated by nepotism.” George Soros, striking a more optimistic tone, wrote just before the 2005 parliamentary elections:

The government must lift a ban on foreign funding of local election observers. It must also give citizens their right to protest. There remain key legal provisions and unofficial levers that enable the ruling New Azerbaijan Party to sway the elections. The party and its satellites dominate the central and local election committees; and some evidence suggests the government is using state resources to back favorites.

Another pillar of power for Mr Aliev’s regime is the media. Most of Azerbaijan’s 8 million citizens get their information from state-controlled television. Not surprisingly, coverage brazenly favours pro-government candidates. Further, the much vaunted creation of public broadcasting—a requirement of the Council of Europe, which Azerbaijan joined in 2001—has proved a disappointment. The state exerts a heavy hand in selecting the channel’s governing body and key executives.

maiden tower

View from the Maiden Tower of Baku by “retlaw snellac”

Earlier this year a constitutional referendum passed which removed presidential term limits (allowing President Ilham Aliyev to stay in power until 2018) and restricted media freedom. Voice of America, the BBC, and Radio Liberty were all banned from broadcasting on national frequencies, leaving Azeris only state-controlled media to stay informed. Most recently, Azeri bloggers believe that diplomatic pressure was behind the departure of the International Republican Institute, which promoted democratic institutions and processes.

Parvana Persiani, a leader of the OL! youth movement based in Budapest, discusses the use of new media by Azeri activists and the arrest of two fellow OL! activists for posting a satirical video to YouTube.

As Parvana explains in the above video, with Azerbaijan’s government increasingly clamping down on the freedom of civil society and media, pro-democracy activists have taken to the web. OL! (“Be!”) was founded in February 2006 by a group of 20 students as a “non-political social movement” aimed at the “formation of independently thinking responsible youth; the satisfaction of youth’s cultural, scientific and other non-material demands; and the assistance in their education and their realization from a professional standpoint.” Through the savvy use of Facebook, blogs, YouTube, and Twitter the membership of the group has swelled to several hundred over the past few years.

On July 8, 2009, OL! co-founders Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizada were beaten by strangers in a downtown Baku restaurant. When they went to the police department to report the incident, they were instead detained and charged with hooliganism. A couple weeks ago they were sentenced to 2.5 and 2 years in jail respectively.

Despite all of these setbacks the youth movements continue their impressive work. Ali S. Novruzov notes that a number of youth movements have come together to form a coalition to strengthen their cause. In response the government created its own youth institution reminiscent of the Soviet “Komsomol.” No representatives from the opposition youth movements were present.

You can stay up to date on the cases of Adnan Hajizada and Emin Milli on Threatened Voices. Supporters are also collecting video messages of solidarity from people around the world (including good friend Portnoy). Participants of the World Blogging Forum in Romania drafted a statement of support for Adnan Hajizade and Emin Milli and all detained and imprisoned bloggers worldwide.

Other interesting links include an interview with Elizabeth Métraux of the DOTCOM citizen journalism project which teaches youth in Azerbaijan how to produce digital media and an interesting two-part feature from Al Jazeera about Azerbaijan’s Islamic revival.