October 8, 2008

The Forgotten War

By Michael J. Totten

Michael J. Totten - The Forgotten War

Immediately following Russia's invasion of Georgia and its de-facto annexation of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the phrase “frozen conflicts” was bandied about so often among the world’s foreign policy commentariat that it briefly became a cliché. Yet there is another frozen conflict in the South Caucasus that few have even heard of, fewer know much about, and even fewer have thought to include in any analysis. This war, the forgotten war of Nagorno (or “Mountainous”) Karabakh, has so far racked up a much higher body count – tens of thousands – than any in Georgia lately. Many more people – more than a million – were displaced. An uneasy ceasefire holds most of the time, but the conflict itself is not even close to being resolved. It’s a Mideast- and Balkan-style ethnic bomb that could easily blow up the region again and tempt Russia with another imperialist adventure in its “near abroad.”

Armenians say their ancient region of Nagorno Karabakh was given to the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic by Moscow in 1923 shortly after Vladimir Lenin's Bolshevik regime reconquered the briefly independent South Caucasus nations. Azeris insist the region did not belong to any Armenian state and that Moscow merely rejected Armenia's petition to acquire the disputed territory and kept Karabakh within Azerbaijan. As the Soviet Union began to fall apart, Armenia wanted Karabakh. Bloody communal warfare broke out between ethnic Azeris and ethnic Armenians in both countries and, most viciously, in Karabakh itself. Armenian soldiers managed to expel the ethnic Azeris and seize almost all Karabakh territory. The Armenian military now occupies the region, and also every inch of Azerbaijan to the south and west of it. The whole southwestern corner of the country – most of which is outside the disputed region of Karabakh – has been de facto annexed to Armenia.

Though it is entirely dependent on Armenia for support, Nagorno Karabakh calls itself an independent republic. No country on earth recognizes its existence.

Even if you visit Armenia, you still have to get an additional visa in the capital Yerevan (the only place in the world you can get one) to visit Karabakh. If you go there, Azerbaijan will put you on a blacklist.

Armenia and Azerbaijan – including the Karabakh region – were ethnically mixed before the war started. Now, leaving aside individuals in mixed marriages, neither are. Ethnic cleansing in both countries was thorough.

This conflict, like many of its kind, is morally ambiguous. It is also of little particular interest to most who live outside the region. As Caucasus expert and author Thomas Goltz put it in his book Azerbaijan Diary, “The Azeris...did not know how to suffer in a way that could readily find its way into the print or broadcast media.”

I spent a week in Azerbaijan while Russian troops were still busy pulling the trigger in Georgia. The Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy, which is part of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, paid for the trip. Seven of my colleagues from various magazines, newspapers, and Web sites were also invited; Abe Greenwald from Commentary, James Kirchick from The New Republic and Commentary, Adam Kushner from Newsweek, Gregory Rodriguez from the Los Angeles Times, Hollywood writer and producer Rob Long, Andrew Breitbart from Breitbart.com and the Drudge Report, and Michael Van Der Galien from PoliGazette.

Azerbaijan’s government officials are concerned that so few in the West know much about their country and hoped inviting writers to the capital Baku for a week might help change that. Their timing could not have been better. They had no idea their region would become, for a time, the geopolitical center of the world, but that’s what happened when the eight of us visited.

The next-door war between Georgia and Russia featured in nearly every conversation I had with Azeris both inside and outside the government. Their view of that war was seen through the lens of Nagorno Karabakh. Armenia is Russia’s staunch ally in the South Caucasus, and Karabakh is Azerbaijan's own South Ossetia. There but for the grace of God go we was the gist of it, along with we could be next.

Most Azeris were unhappy with Russia’s invasion, but everyone I spoke to could talk about it soberly and with caution. Fewer were able to discuss Armenia’s occupation of Karabakh without sounding obsessive and at times alarmingly ready for war. That went double for civilians who don’t work for the government. Much of the political opposition in Azerbaijan, such as it is, thinks the government is staffed with weak appeasers and sell-outs who should fight but won’t.

Heads turned in restaurants and bars at the mere mention out loud of Armenia. I had to keep my voice down at times, and I even thought I might want to come up with a code name for Armenia just as journalists have invented code names (don’t ask) for use during public discussions of Israel in Arab countries.

Just as Israelis aren't allowed to visit most Arab countries, Armenians can't even get tourist visas for Azerbaijan. The government says it wouldn't be able to guarantee an Armenian visitor's safely. I have no doubt that's true.

Tourists from third countries with Karabakh stamps in their passports likewise won't be given a visa for Azerbaijan. “Why not?” I asked Anar Valiyev from the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. “It is it because you think such a person might be working as an Armenian agent?”

“No, no,” he said.

“Is it just because you would be mad?” I said.

“It is just because we would be mad,” he said and nodded.

“I'm a journalist,” I said. “It's my job to visit places like Karabakh. If I were to visit Karabakh in order to denounce the Armenian occupation, would I still be denied entry to Azerbaijan even though I’d be basically helping your cause?” I do not intend to do any such thing. My question was strictly hypothetical.

“If you made arrangements with the government in advance,” he said, “and told them why you wanted to go, an exception for you might be made.”

I spent the same amount of time in Georgia as I spent in Azerbaijan. And I never, not once, heard anyone in Georgia denounce the minority populations in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Georgian officials wouldn't blacklist me if I visited South Ossetia. They wouldn’t care.

Georgia rightly has a reputation for being hotheaded in its policy toward Russia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia. But I didn't detect any emotional hotheadedness in Georgia that I routinely came up against in Azerbaijan about the occupiers of its own breakaway region.

The stridency of anti-Armenian sentiment was exhausting and disconcerting to listen to after a while. It seemed unlikely that if Armenia and Russia were to sufficiently provoke Azerbaijan over Karabakh that Azeris would be able to sit back and take it in order to prevent the escalation of a war they surely would lose. On the other hand, Azerbaijan's government has so far proven itself more able than Georgia's to stoically tolerate provocation.

“Of course we support our ally Georgia,” said Fariz Ismailzade from the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. “But Georgia is more reckless in its dealings with Russia than we are. We have to put up with the same pressures and intimidation – exactly the same, all the time – but we're more level-headed and cautious about it.”

Public and even government opinion is far out of sync with Azerbaijan’s foreign policy. While their rhetoric is often alarming, their restraint is impressive. Who knows how long that can last? I heard far more complaints about the Armenian occupation of Karabakh than I have ever heard about the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory while visiting Arabic countries.

That said, nobody in my presence said they think Armenia should be destroyed. Hatred of Israel is downright genocidal in parts of the Middle East, but that kind of psychopathic derangement doesn’t exist in Azerbaijan as far as I know.

Still, nearly every geopolitical question in Azerbaijan revolves around Armenia. Russia isn’t well liked in Azerbaijan not so much because of past imperial czarist and communist tyranny but because of its support for Armenia. Azeris wanted so desperately to free themselves from the Soviet Union in part because of Moscow’s support for Armenians in Nagorno Karabakh.

Vafa Guluzade, a foreign policy advisor to Azerbaijan's president, put it this way when asked about the upcoming presidential election in the United States: “The greater candidate is whichever one will blame Armenians and Russians for their aggression.” Senator Barack Obama is not well liked because of his allegedly close ties to the Armenian lobby in the U.S. Very few American voters could care less about this, but in Azerbaijan it means everything. “Every day there is shooting from the Armenian side of Karabakh,” Guluzade continued. “If Americans do not pay attention to this, there will be another huge war. And nobody will be able to stop it.”

*

My seven media colleagues and I were taken on what could charitably be called a tour, or uncharitably called a “dog and pony” show. The state showed us what they wanted us to see. That ought to go without saying, but I still have to say it. Everything we did see was real, even so. Azerbaijan isn’t a Stalinist police state with fake “Potemkin” villages built to fool useful idiots from the outside. And in any case, we were not micromanaged or babysat. Most of us opted out of at least one item on the itinerary, and we were all free to go wherever we wanted and talk to whomever we wanted at any time without the presence of government minders.

One of our scheduled stops was a rough neighborhood in Baku that had been turned into a refugee camp for displaced persons from Karabakh and Armenia. Many of us felt a bit wary about being taken on a one-sided media tour for bloody shirt propaganda purposes – the sort journalists frequently take in the West Bank and Gaza – but it was still clear, at least to me, that displaced Azeri refugees don’t have much in common with displaced Palestinians.

I’ve been to the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon, and I didn’t go as part of an organized tour. Many, if not most, people in those monstrously squalid places – which are more like urban slums than the term “camps” suggests – live in hovels so meager they defy description.

Baku’s refugee neighborhood is a bad place to live – the worst I saw in Azerbaijan – but at least people’s most basic human needs seem to be taken care of. They aren’t legally denied professional work as Palestinian refugees are in Lebanon. Decent public housing is being built for them with money from the State Oil Fund. Refugees from the country’s worst camps – they lived in tent cities for years – have already been moved.

Lebanon’s Palestinian camps are dangerous places. Bloodthirsty racist propaganda showing severed heads, the Star of David dripping with blood – that sort of thing – is ubiquitous. Children grow up in these materially, spiritually, and politically poisonous environments and live their whole lives there. The camps seethe with barely contained violent rage. It should be no surprise to anyone who has been inside these places that nearly all Israelis, fairly or not, refuse to grant their residents the “right of return.”

The people who live in Baku’s camp subsist meagerly, even pitiably, but they did not seem as miserable as they could be. I did not detect rage. I saw no anti-Armenian propaganda. Kids smiled and wanted their pictures taken. Many laughed and played.

The place was bad, but it wasn’t as bad as I expected. I’ve seen slums so horrific in Mexico and Guatemala that I ached with depression and needed to go somewhere else for the sake of my own mental health as well as my physical safety. Azerbaijan’s refugees suffer, to be sure, but there is suffering and then there is suffering. At least Baku’s displaced aren’t treated like despised fourth-class citizens the way Palestinians are in many Arab countries.

Television reporter Shafaq Mehraliyeva, with AzerTaj News, said something a bit disconcerting, however.

“Some of the refugees have said they don’t want to move to public housing,” she said. “They worry that if they do they will have given up the cause to resettle in Karabakh.”

“They should be careful,” I said. “That’s an awful lot like the attitude of many Palestinians who still don’t have a proper house to live in after 60 years.” Palestinians in refugee camps, especially children, are victims of hideous circumstances, but many are partially complicit in those circumstances for stubbornly refusing resettlement.

Mehraliyeva nodded as though she understood exactly what I meant without my needing to explain any further.

“Most of them are moving,” she said. “Eventually all of them will be moved.”

“This conflict was started by the Soviet Union,” Nizami Bahmanar, head of Baku’s refugee camp, said. “The Russian-Armenian alliance is a threat to stability in the Caucasus. A lot of what happened in Georgia can happen here.”

Indeed, the communal bloodletting in and over Karabakh took place at exactly the same time as Georgia’s ethnic wars in Abkhazia and South Ossetia that set the stage for Russia’s recent invasion. Much of what happened in Georgia has already happened in Azerbaijan.

Georgians and Azeris allied themselves with each other and with the United States to counter Russian designs in the region. “The U.S. is our strategic ally,” Bahmanar continued. “Europe is like a dependent child of [Russian President Dmitri] Medvedev.”

The U.S. is trying to remain neutral and maintain good relations with both Azerbaijan and Armenia while quietly, and with the patience of Job, trying to broker a solution through the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Minsk Group.

Meanwhile, skirmishes break out on the front lines every year. One analyst told me the front line is more volatile than even the explosive border between Israel and Lebanon. Even an unspoken threat from Moscow to ratchet up tensions may be enough to cow Azerbaijan’s government.

It is, of course, even worse now after Russia’s invasion and dismemberment of Georgia. The psychological effect in Azerbaijan is one China’s Deng Ziaoping liked to induce with a favorite strategy: “Kill the chicken and make the monkey watch.”

*

Don't misunderstand what the Karabakh war is about. It is not about religion. Azeris are not waging a jihad, nor are Armenians on a crusade. Like so many other conflicts in the Middle East, the Balkans, and the Caucasus, it’s an ethnic struggle for sovereignty over disputed land.

I recently wrote that Albania and Kosovo were the two most secular Muslim-majority countries I have ever visited. That is no longer true. Azerbaijan is the most secular Muslim-majority country I have ever visited.

Not once in a week did I heard the muezzin’s call to prayer. I saw only two or maybe three women wearing conservative Islamic clothing, and never anything more conservative than a headscarf.

A statue of the “Liberated Woman” in downtown Baku shows a woman discarding her veil.

That statue was erected almost a century ago. It’s a product of the communist era, but – unlike the command economy – it’s still there. And it still belongs there. Women in Azerbaijan remain liberated from the more backward Islamic customs and dress codes, and are far more liberated in general now than they were under the totalitarian, though secular, regime that put it up in the first place.

Azerbaijan has one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Most of Baku looks like it never was communist, and like it might not have even been all that poor.

I wondered what Azeris thought of the communist era. Anar Valiyev surprised me with his answer. He said he’s glad the communist era is over because its job is done, but he thinks it was necessary or at least beneficial on balance.

“Communism was actually good for us,” he said, “up to a point. “The communists completely destroyed the religion, which I totally approve of. They brought us jobs and health care and education. Only five percent of Azeris were educated before the communist era.” He calls himself a neo-Marxist, which seems appropriate considering his view of Azeri history. Perhaps neo-Marxist would be a fitting description for the entire government. It is, in many ways, a softer, more lenient, and market-driven version of what came before. President Ilham Aliyev took over from his deceased father Heydar Aliyev in 2003. And Heydar was once the head of the KGB in Azerbaijan and the Deputy Prime Minister of the Soviet Union.

The countryside is more conservative and religious, and it reminded me in many ways of the Middle East. Baku, though, seemed even more secular than Western Europe. The capital looks like a prosperous and mostly Westernized city-state that's slightly out-of-place in a world of the East, like what you'd get if you crashed Moscow and Istanbul together. It makes sense that Baku appears as it does. Azerbaijan is part of the pan-Turkic world and for centuries belonged to the Russian and Soviet empires.

“I am concerned that most of the world has no idea we are a moderate Muslim country,” said Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov. “Nobody here even knows what is in the Koran.”

___

This Russian Orthodox Church in Baku was refurbished with money donated from a wealthy Muslim. This Muslim man donated his own money to refurbish the Russian Orthodox Church that had been shuttered and degraded by the communist regime

___

Minister Mammadyarov thinks Azeris may one day convince Arabs to become more religiously moderate, but I have my doubts about that. Arabs hardly pay any more attention to Azerbaijan than Westerners do. That is only likely to change if Russia invades.

An Azeri man who lives and works in Washington told me he is horrified by talk in the United States of a “clash of civilizations.” Azerbaijan is part of the East, but hardly anyone who lives there thinks their country is involved in a clash with the West.

The only Western country on Azerbaijan's enemies list is Russia – and it's debatable whether Russia even belongs in the Western column at all. Azeris have diplomatic relations with Israel, they correctly view the Islamic Republic of Iran regime as hostile, and they sent soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan. They are geopolitically, diplomatically, and militarily aligned with the West. They provide blanket overflight rights to the United States for the war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Even an implicit suggestion that Azerbaijan is on the other side of a “clash of civilizations” is ludicrous.

The decision to send troops to Iraq appears to be uncontroversial in Azerbaijan. “I don't think the U.S. is fighting Muslims,” Nizami Bahmanar said. “They are fighting terrorists. We never accuse the U.S. of fighting Muslims. If they bomb mosques, it is by accident, but Russians and Armenians destroyed mosques after the fighting was over.”

Pro-Russian sentiment exists, but it's thin on the ground, and for the most part it’s either coerced or tinged with the Stockholm Syndrome.

An Azeri blogger organized a demonstration in front of the Russian embassy to protest the invasion of Georgia. The government sympathized, but the police broke it up. Officials were torn between wanting to openly support their allies in Georgia while maintaining at least a civil relationship with Russia.

“We would not have chosen to be neighbors of Iran and Russia,” said Hafiz Pashayev, former Ambassador to the United States. “But that’s where we are and we have to deal with them.”

Their balancing act can be confusing at times. One of my media colleagues off-handedly mentioned Azerbaijan's supposed “good relations” with Russia.

“We don't have good relations with Russia,” said Fariz Ismailzade, correcting him. “We have normal relations with Russia.”

Azerbaijan and Armenia are diplomatically clever. Both manage to have at least decent relations with Russia and the United States at the same time. They manage to do this while remaining implacably hostile to each other. Georgia threw itself more stridently into the Western camp and was punished before everyone’s eyes. The Azeris had a front row seat to that show. They can't be as politically and diplomatically anti-Russian as they would like.

Iran, of course, is also a problem. And Iran is where most of the world's Azeris actually live. A little more than 8 million people live in Azerbaijan, but more than 15 million ethnic Azeris live in Iran. 25 percent of Iran's people are ethnic Azeris. The official name of one of Iran's provinces is Western Azerbaijan. (Iran is often described as Persian, but only 51 percent of its people are Persian. Kurds, Azeris, Baluchis, and Arabs together make up nearly half.)

The Iranian government has sponsored subversive Islamist parties inside Azerbaijan and, according to advisors to President Aliyev, still sponsors a small radical fifth column element. But I heard no talk about “Greater Azerbaijan,” about liberating or lopping off the Azeri parts of Iran and annexing them. Azeris seem to feel more kinship with Turks in Turkey – their closest ethnic cousins – than with their fellow Azeri Iranians. Perhaps they are just being realistic. Azerbaijan could only expand southward if a Yugoslav-style crackup blew Iran to pieces.

Rather than redraw the map, Azerbaijan does whatever it can to geopolitically extract itself from the neighborhood as Israel has more or less done in the Middle East.

“We want to be part of the Euro-Atlantic community,” said Ambassador Pashayev. “We don't want another big brother.” One day they might actually pull this off. Azerbaijan is an Asian country, but it’s hardly a distant Asian country. The Northern region is technically inside Europe.

“If Russia is successful in Georgia,” I said to Ambassador Pashayev, “will Moscow be able to push Azerbaijan around more?”

“Some part of the public might want to force our government to reconsider some of our stances with Russia,” he said.

“Would they be doing that out of fear,” I said, “or because they genuinely like Russia?”

“I want to make a strong statement,” he said. “We were able to get Russian troops out of the country even before the Baltic states, if you remember. It was 1990. It happened because Soviet troops came into Baku in 1990 and killed many innocent people, hundreds of innocent people. The public in Azerbaijan, in one day, in one night, built up a great hatred for Soviet troops. The Russians themselves understood that they had done something very bad. Nobody in Azerbaijan has forgotten this. And nobody will forget this. It was January 20, 1990. We call it Black January.”

26,000 Soviet troops poured into Baku, ostensibly to protect the ethnic Armenian minority as the communal violence between the two sides broke out, but also, more critically, to protect the local communist government. Massive numbers of demonstrators had gathered and were dead set on overthrowing the communists. Between 100 and 300 civilians (depending on whom you believe) were killed in Baku by Soviet troops in Black January, and more than 700 were wounded.

“It was a terrible action,” the ambassador continued. “Azerbaijan had the strongest desire out of all the Soviet Union to leave the Soviet Union, instigated by Soviet support for Armenia in Nagorno Karabakh. Since we declared independence, the feelings in Azerbaijan for bringing back Russian influence is, it's nonsense. Nobody would accept that.”

I asked a few randomly selected citizens what they thought of Russia's adventure in Georgia. Responses were mixed.

“It's an invasion,” said a man working the front desk in my hotel. “Somebody needs to do something about Russia. NATO should be there in Georgia.”

Another disagreed, and his reason was telling. He didn't think Russia was admirable, moral, or right. His support for Russia's invasion, or at least his acquiescence to it, seemed informed by a realistic and lifelong understanding of power and politics in a rough neighborhood. Why did he back Russia? “Because Russia is the second strongest country in the world after America,” he said.

The government shut down most Wahhabi mosques in the country. (There weren't all that many. Most Azeris are Shias, at least nominally and culturally if not by religious conviction, and Wahhabis are fanatical Sunnis.) Still, at least one Wahhabi mosque still remains in the ancient city center of Baku. I walked past it on a guided tour and tried to photograph the only obvious fundamentalist Muslim man I saw on the trip. He flashed me a menacing look and hid his face from my camera, but I managed to sneak in a quick shot with my zoom lens from a distance.

Just a few days after I left Azerbaijan to cover the war in Georgia, someone threw a hand grenade inside that man's extremist mosque. Perhaps the grenade was thrown by a radical Shia. It's possible. Iran's government has been messing with Azerbaijan for some time. Tehran funded the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan before Baku shut it down. Iran, though, is not the top suspect. One of my sources in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said they think it was Russians.

*

Azerbaijan is not a democracy. It sort of was for a brief period after its declaration of independence from the Soviet Union. But in the dark days of the Karabakh conflict, Heydar Aliyev was elected to replace President Abülfaz Elçibay. Democracy didn't last. Aliyev governed as dictator until he died in 2003. His son Ilham now presides over the country.

The old man's portrait is still ubiquitous in Baku.

From the looks of the place you'd think Heydar, not his son, was still breathing and ruling if you didn't know any better.

Aside from the portraits and billboards, however, Azerbaijan doesn't feel like a dictatorship, at least not to visitors. Qaddafi's Libya and the Hezbollah-controlled parts of Lebanon can feel oppressive even to casual visitors, but political repression by the Aliyev government isn't as suffocating. Azerbaijan is more like Kuwait and Dubai than it is like Iraq under Saddam Hussein or Iran in the grips of the Islamic Republic regime.

Azeris from Iran like to visit Azerbaijan because they are more or less free for the duration of their holiday. Azeris in Azerbaijan, unlike Azeris in Iran, can eat what they want and drink what they want. Iranian women are required by law to wear headscarves, but Azeri women are not. Hardly any women in Azerbaijan dress like Iranian women. An Iranian visitor might conclude that the Islamic religion barely even exists in Baku.

Azerbaijan's missing freedoms are still troubling, even so. Eight journalists were arrested last year for “libel,” which is still on the books as a crime. Five were pardoned by the president and released, but three remain in jail. A few civilians told me they were afraid of the government and did not want to be quoted – never, ever, an encouraging sign.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs sponsored a conference at the Hyatt Regency Hotel about how Americans and Azeris see each other.

I had lunch with several government officials and members of parliament during the break, along with James Kirchick from The New Republic and Commentary. All said they were irritated by the constant pressure from the U.S. government to liberalize and democratize their political system.

“We need more time,” was the standard complaint.

Well, maybe they do, but I got tired of hearing that excuse after a while. I could tell by the look on Kirchick’s face that he was tired of hearing it, too.

“I’ve been to Iraq five times,” I said to everyone at the table. Kirchick nodded. I could tell he knew where I was going with this. “You won’t be surprised to hear this, but Azerbaijan is in much better shape than Iraq. I’m mostly impressed with what I've seen so far here.”

“And yet Iraq has a free press and competing political parties,” Kirchick said.

“Exactly,” I said. “Iraqis also need more time to get their country together, but they’ve made an enormous amount of progress even in the midst of insurgency and civil war. Azerbaijan has much more potential than Iraq, at least in the short and medium term, and it’s not exactly clear to me what you need more time to do.”

I did not mean to be rude to my hosts, but I had to say something. Politely accepting their excuses would only validate their excuses. And anyway it was obvious that they don't expect Americans to have any opinion other than the one I gave them. They’ve been getting an earful from Americans and other Westerners for years. They made that perfectly clear. If they were offended, they didn't show it, or at least they were used to it.

The people who run Azerbaijan's government seemed decent and reasonable. I didn't detect a thuggish odor on any of them. Their cultural values are not so different from those we hold dear in the West. The regime is technocratic and moderately authoritarian; it isn't theocratic, fascist, communist, or otherwise ideologically driven. Western values came to Azerbaijan through Russia, which distorted and muted them. But they’re there, and they have been for almost 200 years, since Russia lopped off what is now modern Azerbaijan from the Persian Empire.

The current system is dysfunctional, and it doesn't even work well for those in it. A well-connected American resident of Baku told me that even members of parliament are afraid of their colleagues sometimes. “They're nervous wrecks,” she said. “Sure, they're in favor now and live well, but what if they fall out of favor tomorrow?”

Even the leaders of fear-based political systems suffer the consequences. They don’t fear the authorities, but they do fear revolutions, coups, and back-stabbing colleagues. It was so bad for Saddam Hussein that he couldn't sleep in the same palace two nights in a row.

Azerbaijan's officials know change is inevitable and probably even desirable. Heydar Aliyevism can't last, nor should it. Ilham Aliyev may want to preserve his family's dynasty for the usual self-serving reasons, but his own government's reforms may bring about an end to his rule.

“We took out all the observers right after the last election ended,” an advisor to Aliyev told me. “As a result, many of the candidates, especially those who lost the election, complained that the we, the government, faked the elections. But now we will have observers throughout the entire process. We will have observers inside the rooms where the votes will be counted.”

I expected to hear something like this from officials, especially since they know very well that most Western reporters expect nothing less.

“We have special ink that we will put on each voter's finger that will last three days to make sure no one can vote twice. Any complaints about the election will be investigated within one day. After previous elections sometimes it took as long as ten days. And now the observers will be able to interfere directly in the election process if they see anything suspicious. They can stop the process right there.”

I felt like I and my colleagues who heard this were being spun. Azerbaijan’s government paid for our trip, after all. Of course they wanted good press in return for their investment. Any official we were scheduled to meet was bound to say something encouraging about election reform whether or not it was true.

“Who are the election observers?” I said with a slight tone of disbelief in my voice. “Who decides who these people are?”

“We have internal and external observers,” he said. “OSCE [the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] is the head of the foreign observers. We also have observers from the Council of Europe, the European Union, and international NGOs. We will have up to 700 international observers in Baku alone. Some observers will be here only short term, so they will come only on election day. Others will be here two months before the elections. They will be monitoring everything and talking to the media. They won't leave until after the elections. We will also have internal observers, including representatives of every candidate running in the election.”

I was impressed by his answer. It was not what I expected to hear. It was either one hell of a lie, or the government really is working on reform. Don't expect Syria's tyrant Bashar Assad to ask observers from the Council of Europe to monitor the next bogus “election” where he wins 99.9 percent of the vote. Anyway, Arthur Lenk, the Israeli Ambassador to Azerbaijan, confirmed over dinner with no Azeris present that international observers from European institutions really are coming.

Perhaps I was a bit more suspicious than I needed to be, but authoritarian governments routinely pretend to be more open and democratic than they really are. And why are three journalists still in prison? Why are photos of a dead dictator still plastered up all over Baku? Why did some of the civilians I spoke to in private say they’re afraid of the government?

We’ll have to wait and see what happens next before we’ll know for sure what kind of country Azerbaijan really is. But we won't have to wait long. The next election is on October 16, 2008.

Democracy is a process. Elections are capstones. Some peoples and countries aren’t ready to hold elections. Opposition movements are sometimes more unfit to govern than the autocratic regimes they hope to displace. I don’t think Azerbaijan is one of those countries. There is no need or even excuse for the grim calculus many apply to Syria where Assad is seen, correctly or not, as less of a problem than his potential replacements. There is no movement of radical Islamists popular enough to topple the Aliyev government and turn Baku into the capital of an Iranian-style theocracy.

There is, however, the matter of the forgotten war of Nagorno Karabakh. The Aliyev government is much more restrained in its policy toward the Armenian occupation than the general public would like. What might happen if Azerbaijan were to fully democratize, as it should, and let more of the country's hotheads have a say in the Karabakh policy? I do not know.

What I do know is that the occupation of Karabakh – whatever the merits of protecting an ethnic minority nominally inside a country that’s hostile to them – is a loaded gun pointed straight at a Western ally in a renascent Russia’s back yard. No peaceful resolution to the war the world forgot is coming any time soon.

“The U.N. was supposed to end the Armenian occupation,” said Fariz Ismailzade, “but after more than ten years nothing has happened. They are totally useless.”

We can ignore this one for a time while hoping the slightly less useless Minsk Group can pull off the near-impossible, but it may be foolish to do so. Robert D. Kaplan published Eastward to Tartary in 2001 and tried to warn his readers that the oil-rich and geopolitically volcanic Caucasus region may become a critical flashpoint in the early 21st Century. And he was right. The former Soviet region between the Black Sea and the Caspian has a way of rudely reminding the rest of the world that it matters more than we think when it’s quiet.