Azerbaijan’s oil riches have turned its capital, Baku, into a gaudy showcase city. Three skyscrapers shaped like flames dominate the skyline, lighting up with flickering Azerbaijani flags at night. The waterfront promenade on the Caspian Sea offers a “mini Venice” complete with canals and ersatz gondolas. Ultra-luxury malls feature boutiques including Valentino, Givenchy and Alexander McQueen.
But as global oil prices have dropped, Baku’s facade has started to crumble. Showy parks are being left untended and the floodlights illuminating Baku’s historic centre are noticeably dimmed. A striking number of ambitious construction projects lie dormant, half-finished.
Farid Guliyev, a political analyst sitting in Baku’s first Starbucks, says: “Walk around the city. It doesn’t give you the feeling of being in a luxury, oil-boom town any more.”
Amid this decline, citizens last week went to the polls in a referendum designed to strengthen President Ilham Aliyev’s grip on power. Election officials announced that turnout had been 70%, and an overwhelming majority approved extending the presidential term limit from five to seven years and making it easier for the state to seize private property.
The plebiscite is the latest in a series of aggressive political responses to the economic crisis that threatens to undermine a government which has long staked its authority on being able to provide material benefits, if not civil rights, to its population.
Before the vote the government stepped up its harassment of independent journalists and dissidents to the point that Azerbaijan’s civil society was described as “paralysed” and facing “the worst situation” since the country’s independence in 1991, the UN human rights rapporteur Michel Forst said during a recent visit.
Reports of increasing repression are not surprising in Azerbaijan, long one of the former Soviet Union’s most authoritarian states. But what makes this crackdown especially striking is that, for much of this year, the news from Azerbaijan seemed to be getting better.
This spring the government released more than a dozen of the most prominent political prisoners, and state media and senior officials conspicuously ceased their criticisms of the west.
Altay Goyushov, a historian and one of Azerbaijan’s leading public intellectuals says he had been beginning to feel safer. “A year ago I was afraid to say certain things because I knew there would be punishment. Now, I see there’s no point in punishing me, they don’t want to arrest a high-profile man and have additional troubles. It’s changing.”
But Goyushov and others agree that the political changes feel cosmetic, merely a tactical shift aimed at securing concessions from the west.
They say that whatever political retreat the Azerbaijani state has made is the result of the economic crisis. For the last 15 years, soaring oil prices and substantial Caspian Sea deposits had bankrolled a massive government spending spree, a windfall that helped Azerbaijan pull itself out of the catastrophe it suffered in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union.
The government thoroughly rearmed the military, held high-profile international events such as the Eurovision song contest and the first European Games, and invested in architectural prestige projects, such as the $250m Zaha Hadid building in the shape of the signature of the former president, Aliyev’s father.
But the recent oil price collapse has inflicted serious damage. Over the last year and a half the currency, the manat, has lost half its value. Baku is reportedlyangling for loans and bailouts from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
According to Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative reporter and the best-known of the political prisoners released this spring, the Azerbaijani government “needs money … and western institutions that can give it will probably do it conditionally”—by demanding transparency and the rights of private groups to monitor them.
“This is why the government is now trying to give more space to NGOs, but it’s all an imitation. They release people but they don’t let the NGOs operate,” she said.
Ismayilova, who had produced explosive investigative reports exposing high-level corruption in the Azerbaijani government, was arrested in 2014 on charges of “inciting suicide”, embezzlement, tax evasion, and other charges widely seen as political. Shortly before she was released, she wrote a piece for the Washington Post urging western leaders not to let Azerbaijan’s government use political prisoners as “bargaining chips”.
But that’s exactly what happened, she says. “This imitation works. You see that western governments are believing in some sort of softening. Diplomats whom I’ve talked to speak about it openly, they say they see signs of softening, and I always warn them that it’s an imitation.”
That view is shared by another of the released prisoners, Hilal Mamedov. The mathematics professor, a member of the Talysh minority (a Persian-speaking group that lives along Azerbaijan’s border with Iran), is an advocate for Talysh rights and the editor of a Talysh-language newspaper. He was arrested after posting a video on YouTube featuring some Talysh men in a meyhane, a kind of Caucasus rap battle.
After the video became an unlikely viral hit in the Russian-speaking world, gaining more than 20m views, Mamedov joked on Facebook that while the government had spent millions to hold Eurovision, he made Azerbaijan famous for free. Days later he was arrested and charged with heroin possession. After nearly four years in prison, he was released this spring.
“The leadership of the country thinks that they need to be a little more cautious with the U.S. and Europe,” he says. “For example, if before we often heard criticisms against the U.S., today you almost never hear that.”
But he, too, fears that he is being used as a bargaining chip when there is little hope of real change. “I’m afraid that … Europe’s defence of human rights is more in words than deeds,” he said. “The political prisoners are part of this game, we’re just tools in the hands of these powers.”
One illustrative incident took place in March, when Aliyev visited Washington for the nuclear security summit, two weeks after freeing 15 of the political prisoners. In DC, he got a photo with Barack Obama and a meeting with his vice-president, Joe Biden. These kinds of appearances are a valuable currency for leaders of dubious legitimacy such as Aliyev, eager to show their populace that they are big players on the international scene; in a statement, Biden “welcomed the recent releases from prison of human rights and civil society activists and encouraged continued progress”.
That Aliyev managed to get a meeting with Biden demonstrated “the commodification of political prisoners—especially the rock stars like Khadija [Ismayilova],” said Richard Kauzlarich, a former US ambassador to Baku and now a professor at George Mason University.
The fact that the US is so easily swayed by cosmetic reforms demonstrates that their interest in Azerbaijan becoming more democratic is also cosmetic, Goyushev says. Western policymakers have long seen Azerbaijan primarily in geopolitical terms, as a pro-western outpost wedged between Russia and Iran, and providing oil and natural gas. “In the short term, it’s not important [to the west] that Azerbaijan be democratic,” Goyushev says.
Now, Baku seems to be trying to push the limits of what it can get away with, and the pendulum may be swinging the other way. The constitutional referendum was a surprise move. Critics have interpreted it as a power grab by Aliyev.
The U.S. offered a feeble statement on the referendum, suggesting that “Azerbaijan is not unique in terms of the presence of heads of state ruling for a long time.”
Rashadat Akhundov, a young activist who spent three years in prison for organising protests about poor conditions in the military, before being released this spring, said he feels there has been less international criticism of the government in recent months. “I can’t be sure but maybe there’s an agreement behind the curtain,” he said.