An Interview With Rasul Gouliev

interviewIn 1991, after the break-up of the Soviet empire, 15 independent republics emerged; Azerbaijan was one of these. Even in Gorbachev’s time, a democratic process had begun in these countries, and it was our hope that it would continue. In some it did; but in others, old Politburo members of the Communist Party took over. In Azerbaijan, this was what happened when Heydar Aliyev came to power in 1993 and created the present dictatorship. He had been Azerbaijan’s Communist Party boss.

In protest against his totalitarian regime, I resigned from my Parliamentary post in September of 1996 and came to the United States, both because it is a democracy and because my adult children were already living here. If I were to return to Azerbaijan now, I would probably be arrested because of my opposition to Mr. Aliyev, especially after the publication of my book, Path to Democracy [Liberty Publishing House, N.Y., 1997].

What are your expectations regarding the elections scheduled for October, when Mr. Aliyev will run for a second five-year term?

Since he came to power five years ago, Mr. Aliyev brought the country into such a repressive situation, both politically and economically, that if genuinely free elections were held, he would lose. But if they are held, the elections, scheduled for Oct. 11 will not be fair.

Why not?

President Aliyev has created a central election commission, but its members are his supporters, so it is totally under his control, even in the matter of overseeing the counting of the votes. So no matter how the votes are cast, he is certain to win. For that reason, the five major opposition candidates have decided to boycott the elections in protest. If we took part in the elections, that would simply be a way of legitimizing his seeming victory. In all, there are over two dozen opposition groups; his way of countering them is to keep them fragmented.

Is your group, the Movement for Democratic Elections and Election Reforms, protesting in ways besides the elections boycott?

On Aug. 15 there was a rally of people who came together to demand democracy and the resignation of Mr. Aliyev. It was held in the stadium of a motorcycle racing track in the outskirts of Baku, the capital. A statement of mine was read. Aliyev tried to prevent the rally by cutting off public transportation and using physical violence. Many people were beaten, even women and children, and 500 people were arrested. But tens of thousands managed to get there anyway, coming down on foot from the hills. Another large-scale rally is scheduled for Sept. 5, this time in Baku itself. Again, Mr. Aliyev will do all he can to prevent or at least disrupt it, through the police.

Does brutal behavior of that kind reflect President Aliyev’s background as a former Communist leader?

Yes. And to give you some idea of how brutal his regime is, consider the prison situation. During Soviet times prisons were built in Azerbaijan for 20,000 people. Mr. Aliyev has added two additional prisons, and altogether they are now overflowing with more than 100,000 prisoners. Over 30,000 of these are political prisoners and their relatives–people whose crime was to speak out against him. Since he came to power, 50 have died behind bars for lack of medical treatment and as a result of severe beatings and actual torture.

Any type of active protest results in arrest. For example, a young man named Natiq Gebiyev, a member of the Azerbaijan Democratic Party who is also chairman of the Youth Committee in Defense of Rasul Gouliev’s Human Rights, was arrested on Aug. 7 for picketing in front of the office of the Government prosecutor.

Are any of your own relatives in prison?

My brother’s son, Riza, has been in prison for seven months; he has often been beaten in an effort to extract statements against me. No official reason has been given for his arrest. No one is allowed to visit him. In addition, an engineer who worked with me until 1992 in an oil refinery has been incarcerated too, again in an effort to force him to make incriminating statements. He has suffered a heart attack, but the authorities won’t allow him to have the medical attention he needs.

Are people like your nephew allowed to have attorneys?

Lawyers for the political prisoners can do very little, because the whole judiciary system is controlled by the President and his supporters in Parliament.

Do the media speak out against human rights abuses?

Radio and television are entirely controlled by the President. For the most part, the commentators simply praise him. Until very recently the newspapers were censored. As for the opposition groups, radio and television broadcasters refer to them as enemies of the nation.

Mr. Aliyev is in his mid-70’s. Do you think his son, Ilhkan, who oversees the national oil industry, will be his successor?

That is what he wants, because his son would continue with the same kind of dictatorship.

What are the living conditions of the general population?

Ninety percent of the population live in poverty. Azerbaijan is considered the second poorest of the 15 small republics that were once part of the Soviet Union. There is virtually no middle class. Sheer lack of the necessities of life, especially adequate food, has resulted in a drop of 10 years in the average life expectancy of Azeri people since Mr. Aliyev assumed power–from 62 years to 52 years. As to health care, the hospitals lack even basic equipment. The hospitals should be free, moreover, because the people do not have the money to pay. As a result, pregnant women receive no pre-natal care and have no choice but to deliver their children at home.

Schools are also in bad shape; attendance has dropped drastically because parents cannot afford books and clothing. There is homelessness, too. People come to Baku looking for work. Not finding it, they end up sleeping on the streets and begging. Among them are women and children.

In view of the poverty you describe, it seems paradoxical that Azerbaijan has great wealth–at least potentially, given its off-shore oil reserves in the Caspian Sea.

It is true that the oil reserves are beginning to be developed with exploration and the building of pipelines. Because of corruption, a few people have already become very rich, while the great bulk of the population remains in desperate need. This kind of situation exists in other dictatorship regimes too, like Nigeria. Bribes in Azerbaijan are common, even among lower-level government officials, whose salaries are as small as $20 or $30 a month. Sometimes they do not receive their salaries.

What about the big U.S. oil companies that are contracting with the Azerbaijan Government to develop the oil reserves?

The investments being made by the oil companies–from both the United States and other countries–are useful. But the companies are making their deals in a way that does not promote democracy, because in effect, Mr. Aliyev tells them that they can have the contracts on condition that they support his regime.

This past June, a year after Mr. Aliyev visited the White House, the Washington Post said in an editorial (6/11) that President Clinton was deferring to Azerbaijan’s oil wealth and overlooking its lack of democracy. Do you agree?

That is true. The oil companies, by supporting Mr. Aliyev’s regime, are preventing real democracy from coming to Azerbaijan. The companies feel very little responsibility toward the people.

Is it true that some high-profile former U.S. Government figures are now lobbyists for the oil companies?

Yes. There is Zbigniew Brzezinski, for instance, a former national security adviser in the Carter Administration. He often spoke of the abuse of human rights in the Soviet Union; and yet here he is today, in his role as an oil company lobbyist, tacitly supporting a regime that tramples on human rights. There are other former high Government officials who are oil company lobbyists too, like the former White House chief of staff, John Sununu.

What about the refugee situation in Azerbaijan?

During the war with Armenia, Armenia occupied a large section of Azerbaijan known as the Nagorno-Karabakh region. As a result, over half a million Azerbaijanis who had been living there became refugees. Now many live in wagons used during the Stalin regime to transport people to Siberia, and in shacks. A number of countries do send humanitarian aid; most of it, however, is siphoned off by the Aliyev Administration.

What stance do you think the Western world should assume toward Azerbaijan?

All we ask of the Western world is that it lend its support to democracy by putting pressure on totalitarian regimes like the one in Azerbaijan. As for the United States, there is need for more pressure. When Mr. Aliyev returned from his visit to the White House in the summer of 1997, he had thousands more arrested because of their political views. Overall, however, there has been very little response from Congress or the State Department in terms of condemning human rights abuses that groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have documented.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *