In a bleakly comic turn at the beginning of Ilham Aliyev’s address to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe this week, Assembly president Anne Brasseur asked press photographers to leave the chamber and reminded those present that they were not permitted to vocalise their approval or disapproval during the Azerbaijani dictator’s stand. It appeared that Brasseur hadn’t quite meant what she said, as in the end photographers at the front of the room were merely required to move their tripods to ensure everyone in the room could see Aliyev as he spoke.
Aliyev’s speech was given to mark the Azerbaijan’s taking up of the chair of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers last month. And what a speech it was!
The man who promises to “turn initiatives into reality” (
still no idea
) told of Azerbaijan’s enormous progress in all fields, not just oil fields. He spoke of the country’s “very positive atmosphere” and listed the country’s great freedoms: freedom of political activity, freedom of expression, freedom of media… Azerbaijan was proud of these freedoms, he said. Azerbaijan knew that an uncensored internet and independent newspapers were important for democracy.
It was a lovely speech, and also one that contained barely a word of truth beyond the conjunctions. Aliyev may as well have praised the nation’s Quidditch team for defeating Ravenclaw on penalties at the World Cup. He could have told us about his new motorcar, and his adventures with Ratty, Mole and Badger, and been more believable.
Watching Aliyev, the only time one got the sense he even believed what he was saying himself was when discussing the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, and even then he was only drily insisting that the regions “geographical toponyms” (place names?) were Azerbaijani in origin: All Your Geographical Toponyms Are Belong To Us, so to speak.
The truth about Azerbaijan is quite different from the picture painted by its president this week. As Human Rights Watch
ahead of the Council of Europe speech, “In the past two years, Azerbaijani authorities have brought or threatened unfounded criminal charges against at least 40 political activists, journalists, bloggers, and human rights defenders, most of whom are behind bars.” Search for Azerbaijan stories on
, and you will find more details of those arrests and abuses.
And this isn’t exactly obscure knowledge. People know three things about Azerbaijan: it has a lot of gas and oil; it takes Eurovision very seriously; and it has a poor human rights record. After his speech, Aliyev was confronted by Michael McNamara of the CoE socialist group, who quoted Amnesty’s statistic that there are currently 19 political prisoners in Azerbaijan. Not so, said Aliyev. There are no political prisoners in Azerbaijan. The people who came up with these statistics were lying. There was a programme of “deliberate provocation” against Azerbaijan — though it was unspecified who was leading this programme.
Aliyev swore that this plot to undermine Azerbaijan would fail.
The Azerbaijani president is not alone in his capability for bare-faced falsehood. It’s a specific strain of Soviet and post-Soviet behaviour, learned from the Communist Party and the KGB. If the leader says something, it is true, no matter what the evidence to the contrary. There are no political prisoners in Azerbaijan, says Aliyev, and we encourage a free media because it is important to our democracy; Ukraine has been taken over by fascists, says Vladimir Putin, and Russia has no choice but to fight them. There is no point in putting on a play about depression in Belarus, an
apparatchik tells the Belarus Free Theatre, because there is no such thing as depression in Belarus.
“So what?” you may say. “Politicians and institutions lie.” And you’d be right. But this is a form of lying that goes far beyond “I was perfectly within my rights to claim those expenses”/”I did not have sex with that woman”. Political lies in functioning democracies tend to have to do with cover ups of personal or institutional failings. In an authoritarian society, with power utterly concentrated to the leader and his cadre, there is no such thing as an isolated failure. As a result, every aspect of life must be spun. All triumphs belong to the leader, all criticisms are propaganda, all failures sabotage. When there is no balance of power, is there really an objective truth? When, for example, the dictator Lukashenko told a journalist that journalist Irina Khalip, under house arrest, could leave Belarus any time she wanted, was that actually true? Was it true the moment he said it? Did it become true after he said it? And did it remain true?
This state of things raises a question for those of us seeking to better the lot of people living under regimes such as Belarus and Azerbaijan: can we pounce on the moments when autocrats declare as fact something we know to be untrue, cling on until they actually make it true? Or does this merely confirm the idea that truth is whatever their whim makes it?
Index On Censorship