Does Russia Promote Authoritarianism in Azerbaijan?

Does Russia really demand authoritarian rule in the post-Soviet states?

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the notion of “democracy promotion”, which dates back to the first World War, has guided American foreign policy.

The admission of Central and Eastern European, post-communist states into the EU and NATO and a range of “color revolutions” in the post-Soviet world demonstrate the remarkable success of this approach and have forced authoritarian countries in the region to take counter-measures.

Therefore, the

“authoritarian backlash”

of the leaders of the former Soviet countries against the spread of democracy has been led and supported by the Kremlin.

This has led many observers to


characterize Russia as

a promoter of authoritarianism.

For example, Ekaterina Furman and Alexander Libman, in

Eurasian Integration – The View from Within

argue that:

“Russia supports authoritarian regimes in its neighbouring countries partly because autocracies have less chance to intensify cooperation with the EU and therefore should be more eager to participate in Russia-led organizations. Thus, although the institutional design of the CU [Customs Union] does not necessarily make it particularly attractive for autocracies…, it turns out that in order to promote the CU and the Eurasian integration project, Russia promotes authoritarianism abroad”.

However, an analysis of the assumption that “Moscow promotes authoritarianism abroad” and of the case in Azerbaijan demonstrate that, although Russia is indeed a stumbling block to democracy, it is inaccurate to say that the Kremlin promotes autocracy in the region.

Autocracy Promotion and Russia

Oisín Tansey


that the term “autocracy promotion”, which is loaded with connotations similar to “democracy promotion” suggests a set of activities to foster and advance autocracy abroad. He stresses that this conceptual framework creates misleading assumptions that are not supported by contemporary politics:

“While many states do actively support autocratic incumbents, there is little evidence that they seek to promote autocracy in the way that many international actors seek to promote democracy”.

Tansey’s analysis leads him to conclude that:

“Much of the activity that has been identified in the literature as autocracy promotion would be better understood as efforts at democracy resistance. For example,

several authors have framed

Russian support for autocratic practices in the post-Soviet sphere as autocracy promotion, especially with regard to policies in Ukraine and Belarus. However, Russia’s relations with its autocratic neighbors

have rested in large part on a desire to further Moscow’s geopolitical interests

by protecting and promoting compliant allies and limiting the chances that genuine democracy might bring to power pro-Western elites who would sever close ties to Moscow”.

This assessment is supported by that of several other scholars. For example, Christopher Walker, in his article for National Endowment for Democracy,

points out that


“[The] principal aim [of Russia’s soft power policies and its government-controlled international media outlets] is not to promote authoritarianism, but rather to contain the spread of democracy.”

From this perspective, we can identify three important lines in Russia’s policies with regards to post-Soviet countries:

1) the existence of Moscow-leaning political power in the leadership is a priority;

2) Russia does not meddle into the internal policies of these states unless they jeopardize Moscow’s interests in their region;

3) oppositional forces whose foreign policy agenda is pro-Weste and anti-Russia should be prevented from taking power.

The Case of Azerbaijan

In the early 1990s, Azerbaijan was lead by Abulfaz Elchibey, who is remembered by Azerbaijanis as a nationalist and democratic president.

In the foreign sphere, he was a devoted supporter of pan-Turkism. During his one-year tenure, Baku expelled Russian troops from Azerbaijan and sought an alliance with Turkey. This geopolitical vision did not work for Moscow.

Hence, in 1993, Russia assisted Heydar Aliyev, a former KGB general, to come to power in Azerbaijan. Soon after his arrival in power, Aliyev reset the geopolitical orientation of the state and brought it onto a course deemed acceptable by Moscow.

During the ten years of his reign (1993-2003), Aliyev Sr. established unchallenged dominance over all branches of government and reinstated stability in the country. As his foreign policies were in line with Russia’s interests, the Kremlin rarely if ever interfered in Aliyev’s internal policies.

This gave him the opportunity to launch democratic reforms. However, he chose to bolster his own power, intimidated the opposition and created a path to transfer the presidency to his son, Ilham Aliyev.

Russia’s policy in regards to Azerbaijan during the presidency of Heydar Aliyev give little evidence to argue that Russia promoted authoritarianism in the country.

Nor do its policies during the presidency of  Aliyev Jr., who has been in power since 2003.

As a matter of fact, Aliyev Jr. is not an ideal president to lead Azerbaijan for Russia. His reluctance to join Russia’s regional integration projects and unceasing efforts to balance Russia’s influence with the help of Turkey and the West infuriate Moscow from time to time. The Kremlin would like to see Azerbaijan as part of the Eurasian Union, and through various channels has pressured Baku to do so. However, Aliyev Jr., maintaining a balance between West and Russia, has never attempted to align with Moscow’s geopolitical rivals, either.

Being more or less acquiescent with this cautious orientation in foreign policy, Moscow has never notably interfered in the internal policies of the Aliyev regime.

Like his father, President Aliyev has also had an enormous opportunity to transfer the political system into a competitive democracy and initiate comprehensive economic reforms.

As Natiq Jafarli, a member on the governing board of the Republican Alternative Movement (ReAl)

points out

, no external power prevents the ruling elite from taking such reformist measures.

But the country’s political leadership demonstrates an absolute aversion towards fundamental reforms in a way that in fact also threatens Russia’s interests.

The experience of other post-Soviet countries has shown that regimes that stifle political liberties and fail in economic policies run the risk of being overthrown by pro-Western political forces. Both in Georgia and Ukraine, such forces toppled their own governments, brought to power radically pro-Western leaders and in doing so have created serious headaches for the Kremlin.

Aliyev’s authoritarian and corrupt policies run the risk of facing a similar fate and, therefore, like his foreign policies, do not correspond to Russia’s interests entirely.

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