In the midst of Azerbaijani journalists’ continuing struggle against the government for press freedom, the sudden resignation of leading media activist Emin Milli from the organization he founded sparked speculation and criticism. Milli, director of the country’s only exiled independent media platform, which he co-founded six years ago, had recently thanked the government for releasing political prisoners.
In an interview, Milli discussed the reasons for his resignation and what he believes must happen to improve the situation in Azerbaijan. (Editor’s note: The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.)
Emin, your decision to leave Meydan TV was unexpected. What was the reason?
We have built in 6 years the leading independent media for Azerbaijan. Basically we did the impossible. My vision was also to create a media institution that is not corrupt, is not close to any political groups and does not depend on just one person, like many institutions in Azerbaijan do. We have achieved that Meydan TV is run by its courageous, professional, diverse and brilliant team. It was hard for me to leave Meydan TV, but I think that like every organization, Meydan TV needs new leadership, new and fresh ideas. You have to leave to let new leaders emerge and new ideas float and flourish.
Some speculate there are other reasons for your resignation. Are there any other motives, such as pressure from somewhere, an attempt to rescue your team from some danger, or perhaps you are tired?
The government knows that it is useless to put any pressure on me personally. They gave up on me in that sense some time ago. I had burnout in January, but I totally recovered in February and was enjoying our success and the impact that we have on the lives of so many people every day. The most inspiring part of my job was to see that our reporting solved individual problems for many citizens. Some government officials and some fellow citizens responded positively to our reporting by helping those we wrote about. I am not tired, but actually full of creative and cosmic energy. I’m thinking about where to apply it next.
It is dangerous to work for Meydan TV and I can save no one. It was not that. It was not health, either.
The time comes when you just have to leave after you have built something. Nobody should notice your departure, just as they didn’t notice when you were running the operation. In this way, you succeed.
Your resignation from Meydan TV has been controversial, especially because it came after you expressed gratitude to President Ilham Aliyev when he pardoned more than 50 political prisoners on March 16. Why did you thank Aliyev?
It was great to hear the news that President Aliyev released about half of all political prisoners in Azerbaijan. I was especially impressed that he released Giyas and Bayram. [Giyas Ibrahimov and Bayram Mammadov, imprisoned in 2016 for writing graffiti on a statue of the late father of president Ilham Aliyev, were released as part of the president’s pardon decree.]. I am sure this in particular was not easy for him personally, but he managed his ego well and did it. I congratulated him, thanked him on my Facebook page and invited him to release all political prisoners. I thought if he could see that it is really and sincerely appreciated even by people like me, then he might do more. I have never been concerned about what other people may think about me or what can happen to my ego or me. When you see the opportunity to help other people, you jump in to try, perhaps fail and then try over and over again. This is my philosophy; this is what I really enjoy in life. I am just finding various new ways of doing this.
Emin, after your statements of gratitude, some liberals criticized you, saying that it was Ilham Aliyev himself and his government that created political prisoners. So they claim there is no need for thanks. Why you feel the need to thank him?
Very often in life, the people who created the problem can be the solution as well, sometimes even the only solution. I explained it in my post then, that Aliyev should not keep political prisoners to keep power. It makes him neither weak nor strong. So he can release all of them and this would be great for his image. If someone wants me to solve his/her problem, but does not even thank me for what I do, then what can motivate me to solve their problem? My logic is very simple. I think about saving real people in real life. I am not a politician. I am not concerned about my political position or personal ego.
After your words of gratitude to Aliyev, the travel ban on journalists who had worked with Meydan in Azerbaijan was lifted. Are the two things connected?
I hope so. What else could influence [the lifting of the travel ban]? I did not expect it, but I am very glad it happened. In my view, it was a positive response to my positive statement. But I have no proof of that. This is just my reading of it. I am happy that journalists can travel again. I also hope that Afghan Mukhtarli, who worked for Meydan TV, will be released from jail soon, too. [Afghan Mukhtarli, investigative journalist, was abducted in Tbilisi and taken to Baku in 2017 where he ended up in prison. He was not among those released in the March 16 pardon decree.]
After the lifting of the travel ban, do you think the Aliyevs will follow up with more positive steps?
I expect real economic reforms, development of a more inclusive economic system and a less repressive political system. It can be done gradually and can benefit both President Aliyev and the entire society.
What do you mean by “more inclusive economic system"?
A more inclusive economic system means more freedom and more opportunities to start up, develop and expand businesses in Azerbaijan, enable talented businessmen and entrepreneurs to develop small, local, but also global corporations going even beyond Azerbaijan. This can create more jobs and means more revenues for the state budget. I imagine a government that is a meritocracy and the elimination of corruption could create miracles. Government needs that and the nation is waiting for this move. There is enough money and wealth in Azerbaijan. Those who have money and power could become like venture capitalists, offer loans to talented business people from Azerbaijan and all over the world, for entrepreneurs, invest more in those who are successful and stop funding those who are not effective. Those who have money and power will have more of it as a result of such policy, but many more people and the entire society could become richer and develop institutionally on all fronts. This could give hope and inspire the entire nation, engage the entire society and enable further gradual and stable, long-term development of the economic and political system. I am not smarter than our government, there are very smart people who share the same dreams and work in this direction and I wish each one of them to succeed. Somehow I am positive that Azerbaijan will gradually move in this direction.
Opposing government in an authoritarian country like Azerbaijan is very difficult. Why do you think the Azerbaijan opposition is still weak and ineffective?
Azerbaijan has oil. Just this factor alone, let alone some other factors, makes us very different from Georgia, Ukraine and Armenia. It creates totally different political dynamics and an imbalance of power in society. Political scientists call this phenomenon the “resource curse.” As a country, we have serious negative institutional factors that deprive us of political and economic development. I can only hope that we can all see this, start by creating a more inclusive economic system, and then one day in the future, we can transform our political system.
Emin, what exactly do you expect from the Azerbaijani government?
I expect development of a more inclusive economic system. We cannot copy China, Singapore, South Korea, Brazil in the ‘70s and ‘80s or other models of development and transformation. But we can learn from them and adapted some reforms to Azerbaijani context to develop our economy. Context here is a key word.
We need to build a strong, diversified and more inclusive system first. If Azerbaijan is to have a democracy in the future, it needs strong economic fundamentals and institutions first.
Even if we held democratic elections tomorrow and Aliyev left, I do not think much would change in our political system. Maybe just another political group would hijack power and impose another form of authoritarianism. We have to develop a more inclusive economic system and institutions first, to avoid the chaos and collapse that happened in the 90’s. If we don’t do that, then we will end up in the same trap.
But economic reform might work against the interests of the government. So, isn’t such reform unlikely?
This is not entirely true. It depends on how you manage it. Economic reform can actually strengthen the government, too. Spain under authoritarian Franco made huge economic progress that never threatened his power. When democracy came, it was successful and sustainable because there was a strong economic basis. The government should fear nothing. Government and society can only win from having a more inclusive economic system and a more prosperous society. This is the basis of any future democratic system, which we are far away from now. We need to do our homework first. It will be a long journey.
There is no reform going on right now in the country, so why are you still positive? What has changed?
I am pessimistic about political reforms at this stage. Aliyev does not want to give up his power and no one is able to force him to do so. People are completely silent, inactive.
This does not mean that civil society does not need to demand change and push both for reform. In fact, such pressure can be one of many reasons why government could adopt some reforms at some point. But the greatest incentive for government to make economic reforms is the falling oil revenue. This trend may continue in the coming years and it gives me the greatest hope that it will force the government to undertake real economic reform to increase revenue. It is becoming a necessity for this government. This is what makes me positive about the prospect of possible economic change.
But if there is only some economic freedom without any more political freedom, how sustainable will that progress be?
If you look at China’s development, you will see that they entirely changed their economy without changing their political system. Some political scientists argue that China’s development is not sustainable, but decades of growth turned China from one of the poorest into one of the richest nations on our planet. China may still transform politically one day, too.
My dream for Azerbaijan is that it turns into a market economy and a democratic country like Germany. But it is not possible now. We must have a vision of gradual, long-term development and more specific plans. The government that holds power in Azerbaijan will not adopt political reforms and nobody can force them to do so. But economic changes are both in their interest and in the interest of the entire nation. This is the basis on which we could build a dialogue and new hope for Azerbaijan.
Emin, you have indicated in your various statements that you are ready to work with the government, if reforms start in Azerbaijan. How and under what conditions would you cooperate with the government?
It depends on so many factors that we cannot predict now. It may or may not happen. I could be arrested in Azerbaijan if I go back today. But my main intention here is to send a very positive message and invite President Aliyev to lead genuine economic reforms that could benefit him personally, his government, our economic system, and create the basis for the gradual transformation of the political system in Azerbaijan. I love creating institutions, networks, new enterprises, new infrastructure and of course, I would be ready to apply my talents to initiate and support real reforms in Azerbaijan without any hesitation. Is it realistic or just my dream? We will see.
Emin, what will be next for you?
It is summer now, time to relax, empty our minds and open our minds to new ideas and development opportunities. I will write about my plans when I will have them. For now I have nothing and I am nothing. It is great moment in life and I am trying to enjoy it as much as possible.
Emin Milli, 39, worked for various political international NGOs (International Republican Institute and Friedrich Ebert Foundation) from 1999-2005. He is a former political prisoner who now lives in Europe. He co-founded and was director of the leading independent online media in Azerbaijan, Meydan TV (2013 -2019).