With the election of Ilham Aliyev as the new president of the oil-rich secular Muslim country of Azerbaijan-which is attempting to be legitimately accepted by the world community-advocates of democracy hoped to usher in a new era of reform. Yet, to many, Aliyev's election seemed more reminiscent of the Soviet-era selection of leadership than it was a valid example of democracy in the decade since the country achieved independence after the breakup of the U.S.S.R. Aliyev is the sedate son of the immensely popular yet iron-handed authoritarian, Heydar Aliyev, who died late last year and whose image and tributes still command a large portion of the daily print media.
On election day, international observers and Human Rights Watch noted obvious errors of process, leading to corruption charges being leveled by the opposition party. Few would refute that voter fraud did occur throughout the country. So, following Ilham Aliyev's victory, opposition leaders rallied their followers to demonstrate in the streets. In the capital of Baku, several people were killed as the police cracked down on the protests. Some of the more boisterous opposition party leaders were jailed for their incitement of demonstrations and protests.
There were charges reported in the opposition press, outrageous to some yet believable to others, that Ilham Aliyev's victory was the product of a conspiratorial plot hatched by the United States to ensure that Azerbaijan's oil would flow to the West. It is true that the Caspian basin and its capability of producing 4.7 billion barrels of oil per day has been identified by Vice President Dick Cheney as an area of immense "strategic importance" to the United States. Currently, the U.S. and other Western interests are supportive of Azerbaijan's plans to build a $3 billion pipeline to carry its oil to a Turkish port for distribution to the West.
With this political backdrop, keynoted by the congratulations of Deputy U.S. Secretary of State Dick Armitage, the Azerbaijani press heralded the election as validation of the country's move toward democratic reform. Yet, many reformers seemed dubious of the likelihood of true reform, in light of the fact that so many of the new president's advisors were carryovers from his father's repressive regime. They had a proclivity for a continued repressive, top down, closed style of government instead of the grassroots, open democratic approach that Ilham Aliyev had promised to bring to Azerbaijan upon his election.
An important component of any truly democratic society-open and diverse media channels free of government or other political control-are not yet evident in Azerbaijan, but this country of over 8 million people does have active proponents laying its groundwork. The true test will be if this mostly-Western trained group of communication professionals in journalism, public relations, public affairs and marketing communication can create free and independent media within Azerbaijan society.
In a recent visit to Azerbaijan, as part of the U.S. State Department's speaker program, I had the opportunity to meet and discuss with government and political spokespersons, print and electronic journalists, professors and students interested in the media, public affairs and public relations experts-as well as average citizens of the oil-rich republic. I was impressed by the dedication and professionalism of those who want to bring Azerbaijan onto the world stage, for the first time in history, as an independent player that plans to determine its own future free of outside influence.
Not surprisingly, the existing state-controlled media, with roots in the Soviet era, claim that the average Azerbaijani is presently served well. According to this line of argument, the opinions of the average citizen are truly reflected in the present media coverage and the state controlled media news agenda. Yet, when pressed for support to back such assertions with answers to queries about the last time average citizens were contacted for their attitudes and opinions-via focus groups, polls, interviews or other means of assessing the mood of the constituency-executives in the established media shrugged their shoulders. Such a survey was not needed. The state media spokesperson explained that the "will of the people" is known (perhaps intuitively or divinely?), by the party leadership and, therefore, there is no reason to bother talking to the men and women on the street for their feedback. End of discussion.
It was my hope that such an interest in tapping the opinions of the masses might be a motivating interest of what is now called the "opposition media" in Azerbaijan. While initially portraying themselves as representative of the people, further rhetorical probing negated this claim. Discussion with this group of media professionals revealed their primary emphasis to be implicit in its name-the opposition media. More of a tool of the political moguls aligned against the Aliyev government, the opposition media's primary goal was to attack the established party. No one would question this divergent perspective to be an important element of the checks-and-balances system of the media in an open society.
Interestingly enough, both kinds of media-opposition and state-shared a similar claim. Each argued that they represented the opinions of the average citizen. Likewise, the opposition media seemed uninterested and unmotivated when asked how they assessed public opinion, or how they concluded their stance was in the best interests of the average Azerbaijani. The opposition media leadership "just knew" what was best for the citizens of Azerbaijan-and it was not the policies or plans of those now in power.
So does anyone really bother to communicate with the men and women on the street at the local level? Is there hope for establishment of media outlets that seem more "bottom up" than the traditional post-Soviet "top down"? Such independent media would not only help balance those of the state and the opposition, but also help establish democratic values within the Azerbaijani society and nurture decision-making, participation and leadership at the local level. There are encouraging signs within the country that the younger generation's media leaders, many of whom have been educated in the West, understand the important role of the media in promoting democracy and shared decision-making.
One can see this in the burgeoning development of independent media groups of all kinds and professionals in public relations, NGOs, advocacy groups, marketing and political communication. There is now a Public Relations Society of Azerbaijan. Meetings and dialogue with this young group of change agents indicated an intense yearning for a fairer system, coupled with a realization that there would be resistance to any modification of an outdated system. There are also promising developments in the formulation of curriculum and credible media and journalism programs at Khazar University, whose academic leader, Hamlet Isaxanli, is keenly aware of the need for his and other colleges to nurture leaders of free thought and diversity in the media. One can also sense the need among the students and younger faculty at the state college and universities for a radically new curriculum. The next media generation needs this change. There is a long way to go, but the country appears to be willing to consider changes in the purposes and practices of all media.
The growth and development of independent media within Azerbaijan could also be an important tool of President Ilham Aliyev in helping establish his own identity nationally and internationally.
As a participant in the speaker's program of the U. S. State Department, obviously I applaud "soft diplomacy," particularly in an era characterized by the spectacle of bloody battlefields. It is at the grassroots level that true change will take place and people-to-people exchange programs help foster relationships that are essential to the peaceful achievement of local and global goals.
The true challenge will be to see if Ilham Aliyev will make good on the reforms he promised in his campaign. In doing so, he will have to dismantle much of the outdated bureaucracy constructed by his father, and face the wrath of those opposed to such radical change. If President Aliyev follows his Western education and instincts, he will encourage the development of free media in transforming his country into a democratic society with the economic potential to make good on the hopes and dreams of its people.
The above article was published in Media Ethics , Spring 2004 (15:2), pp. 10-11.