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Ten Days In Baku That Changed My Mind

Christel Fricke,
Professor, Oslo University, Norway

Lin Xiaobo has been awarded this year’s Nobel Peace Prize and China has shown us one more time the ugly face of a totalitarian state. Whether the choice of the committee will actually contribute to the promotion of democratic change in China remains an open question. International attention and pressure will hopefully be able to put an umbrella of protection over the individual dissident. But the request for democratic change cannot reach its goal unless it is supported by the people. Meanwhile, we should not forget that there are in the world many democratic dissidents who dedicate their lives to peacefully claiming democracy, freedom of speech, the rule of law and the practice of human rights for the totalitarian countries of which they are citizens – at high costs for themselves and their families.

I have recently visited Baku. The capital of Azerbaijan is on the move: a building site on the Caspian sea where extravagant modern buildings line up at the sea front and where apart-ment blocks replace old residential quarters. Only the old part of the city has been refur-bished carefully and provides some picturesque sights. What I did not realize at first was that I was at the front line which separates the political establishment from the small minor-ity of democratic dissidents.

A front line? Is Azerbaijan not a democratic republic? Constitutionally it is. But the constitu-tion is one thing, the political culture and practice another. Factually, Azerbaijan is run as a totalitarian state with an almighty president at the top and political institutions which basi-cally follow his orders. All opposition is suppressed. There is no freedom of speech. There was no information in the official media about this year’s winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. There is no rule of law. And human rights are constantly violated.

The democratic dissidents pay a high prize: They cannot get jobs (unless working for international organizations) and if they dare to attract any public attention to their case they risk being put in jail, accused of espionage or hooliganism. Many of the democratic activists from the time when the Union of Soviet Republics came to an end and Azerbaijan got independent have emigrated. Those who remain in Azerbaijan dedicate their lives to a better future of their country. One of their concerns is what happens to the money Azerbaijan earns by selling its oil. Statoil is, after BP, the second largest business partner of Azerbaijan engaged in exploiting its oil.

Since 2006, there is a program of ‘Scandinavian Studies’ at the University of Languages in Baku; this program is funded by the Norwegian ministry of foreign affairs and now organ-ized by the University of Oslo. I went to Baku for 10 days in order to teach a course within this program. While I was there, two young men were released from prison. The case of these two ‘bloggers’ had attracted a considerable amount of international attention: As members of the democratic opposition, they had been beaten up and then, by some powerful but invisible authority, been transformed from victims into perpetrators: They found themselves accused of hooliganism. They were sentenced to 2 and 2.5 years in jail. What had upset the president of their country was a video blog of a fake press conference where a donkey responds to questions concerning corruption in the country. Probably, the president of Azerbaijan misinterpreted this blog and felt personally offended. What brought the sentences of the two bloggers finally to an end (after more than 12 months in jail) was a second interference from the side of the president: Probably, he hoped to silence international criticism of the recent parliamentary elections for first suppressing any campaigning of the opposition and for then having manipulated the counting of the votes so that no independent candidate got a seat in parliament.

I had the opportunity of joining in the celebrations of the release of the two bloggers. The father of one of them is an old friend of mine. I shared his concern for his son. More than a year in prison had affected his health severely. But it was difficult to find a doctor who would treat him. Helping a democratic dissident can bring any doctor into the focus of atten-tion and expose him or her to punishment from the side of those in power.

When my friend suggested that I ask my students in Baku about what they actually knew about the case of the two bloggers – official media had not reported on their case – I first tought that that would be an interesting thing to discuss with them. But I finished by not raising the issue. I had the order of not discussing Azeri politics with my students. It was only then that I realized how close I had got to the front line of the democratic movement and – at the most harmless opportunity – refused to take any risk. As a visiting lecturer of the Scandinavian program, I had been told to keep out of politics and not provoke the clos-ing of the program. My friend was disappointed, even though not surprised.

Back in 1951s, Theodor W. Adorno famously claimed in his Minima Moralia: ‘There is no right life in the wrong one.’ (‘Es gibt kein richtiges Leben im falschen.’) But today’s peaceful democratic dissidents provide a counterexample. Liu Xiaboe shows us what it means to live in the right way under political conditions that are wrong. And so do the democratic dissidents in Azerbaijan. We have to recognize them as heroes of the right life. They remind us of how precious our political freedom actually is – and how geographically limited. They deserve our attention and support. And they need it. My friend in Baku is only one of them. Public attention to his case and international awareness of the lack of real democracy in Azerbaijan can help them.

Was it political prudence or lack of personal courage that I missed the opportunity of bring-ing his and his son’s case to the attention of my students in Baku? I don’t know. But I have acquired a better understanding of the challenges democratic dissidents are facing – those who live at the front line without a return ticket. And I am not sure whether, had I not been lucky enough to be a citizen of a democratic state where I enjoy the freedom of speech and the security of the law and human rights, I would have had the courage to live the right life in the wrong one: Living a right life in the middle of the right is easy. Being a democratic dissident is much more challenging.

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