IIE-SRF Fellow Leila Alieva is an internationally renowned expert on politics and security in Azerbaijan and the surrounding Caspian Sea region. In 2004, she founded the Center for National and International Studies, a think tank in Baku that coordinates and publishes research on Azerbaijani and regional policy issues. As its director, Dr. Alieva has led the Center's efforts to promote democratization in Azerbaijan and its integration into European political and social structures. In 2014, she joined the Russian and Eurasia Studies Centre at the University of Oxford's St. Antony's College as an IIE-SRF Fellow and with support from the Council for At-Risk Academics. While at Oxford, she has published two papers and participated in 16 conferences.
IIE-SRF interviews Dr. Alieva about her current work, the political situation in Azerbaijan, and her hopes for the future.
Please tell us more about your professional background and research interests?
I am an area studies expert focused on the South Caucasus (Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia) and the Caspian region (Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Iran, and Azerbaijan). My research also focuses on the other actors that affect these regions, like Russia, the United States, the European Unions, and regional powers’ like Turkey and Iran. My work is in policy and international relations, as well as social issues in the region. But my major education is in the social sciences.
What are some of the projects you are currently working on?
I am working on a few aspects of the Caucasus and Caspian politics. They include security (conflicts); relations and integration of the Caucasus states in EU and NATO; Russia’s policies; energy security; the influence of natural resources on state and democracy building; and social transformation in the region and its effect on peace and security.
You received IIE-SRF fellowship support in 2014, and with the assistance of Council for At-Risk Academics, you have been continuing your work at the Russian and Eurasian Studies Centre at the University of Oxford’s St. Antony’s College.What have been your activities with the Centre?
My major focus was the European Union’s soft power influence in the Eastern neighborhood—an area comprised of Moldova, Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan—and why the EU’s success in this regard has been so uneven. Of all six states, only the three with a more open political system signed the Association Agreement, while the other three, where authoritarian trends dominate, did not. The Eastern Neighborhood is a very interesting region, as it is characterized by strong democratization and Europeanization potential on the one hand, and closely interrelated problematic neighborhood and Soviet legacies on the other. This combination along with a strategic location and resources creates a unique dynamic in the region and attracts attention from regional and outside actors, making it a very interesting subject of research. I am trying to research factors that were decisive in the outcome of interactions between the EU and the Eastern neighborhood. My specific focus is on Azerbaijan, as a unique case, because it is the only oil rich state that is part of Eastern Neighborhood Policy. I have also been participating in other collaborative research projects, which started earlier and I managed to continue thanks to the support of the IIE-SRF.
You mention that Azerbaijan is the only country in the region that is oil rich. Are there any other factors that set Azerbaijan apart from its neighbors?
Besides oil, you can add that it also borders all three regional powers—Russia, Iran, and Turkey. Also as a Caspian littoral state, it has a strategic transit location. It also has a Muslim population, but this may be a bit misleading, as Azerbaijan has the lowest degree of religiousness of all the Caucasus states. It also has a history of industrial capitalism during the end of the 19th century and early 20th, because of the oil industry, which significantly changed its social and political landscape.
How does the academic atmosphere you are experiencing in the U.K. differ from what you left in Azerbaijan?
The academic environment in the UK differs from that back home significantly, as I left Azerbaijan when it transformed into a consolidated autocracy. Since the return to power of the ex-communists in 1993, after a brief rule of democratic-dissidents, academic freedom has gradually and consistently been suppressed and narrowed down. The suppression became especially severe between 2003 and 2005 when major oil revenues started to arrive in the country. The “spirit of Maydans,” which were waves of revolutions, popular uprisings, and street protests that characterized the post-Soviet space, made the government even more alert and suspicious of all Western influence and the last islands of freedom of thought were suppressed. Most of the independent-thinking academics left academia for the NGO sector, working at think tanks, myself included. Private Universities, which mushroomed in Azerbaijan after the end of cold war, have gradually been closing down. The government has established almost total control through the state system of higher education, and although some private Universities still exist, they are struggling for their survival. So, academic freedom is a major advantage of the British system, compared to the one back home. Of course, one can only dream of such libraries as Bodleian in Oxford. The lack of access to major world academic sources is a serious impediment to true and high level research in many countries of the former Soviet Union. The unique and international environment of Oxford University, where the best minds and scholars of the world are placed, is another very important part of my professional growth.
What is the current political situation in Azerbaijan and how has it changed, if at all, since you left?
As I already mentioned, I had to leave the country due to what was called in the literature and in human rights circles “the crackdown of 2014”. Under the influence of a changed international environment and threatened by the growing influence of the civil society in the country, the government started unprecedented persecution of activists, journalists and scholars. In a very short time, leading non-state and non-governmental organizations bank accounts were closed, travel bans on activists were imposed, and known influential human rights defenders, journalists and scholars were arrested or had to leave the country. In the past year nothing has changed, in spite of the international pressure, including the support of international NGOs and human rights organizations, an international campaign attracting attention to the issue of political prisoners, statements from officials of the European states and the United States. Not only were none of the high profile civil society and political prisoners released, but they were also given very high sentences on trumped up charges of up to 8.5 years in prison. The number of detained or arrested journalists and activists seems to be only increasing. This immunity of the autocrats to international pressure is certainly a worrying signal to established democracies and all who care about freedom and justice in the world.
You mentioned that there was a “changed international environment” that caused the Azerbaijani government to crack down on scholars. Can you elaborate on what had changed in the international environment?
There were two important events in the neighborhood--Gezi Park protests in Turkey and EuroMaydan in Kiev. Unlike the Arab Spring these protests took place in in Azerbaijan’s region. On the political side, the change of administration in the United States was also a factor. Obama is more consistent at being colder toward non-democratic states than Bush was. In addition there is rising criticism in the foreign press regarding the human rights situation in Azerbaijan; the large scale of the Sing for Democracy campaign that accompanied the Eurovsion events, that was implemented by the local and foreign NGOs. Lastly there was the unprecedented critical opinion by the [Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s’ Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights] of the 2013 presidential elections.
How does the current political environment in Azerbaijan compare with others in the region, particularly in terms of post-soviet transitions?
After 2014 Azerbaijan significantly dropped down in terms of its democracy and human rights rating compared to the rest of the East of ENP, and on certain indicators—even lower than Belarus, whose leader recently released all political prisoners. The country is becoming more like Russia in terms of the state of its democratic institutions and some other Caspian states.
How has IIE-SRF helped you continue with your professional development?
The IIE-SRF gave me freedom and safety, which are major contributions to the continuation of my professional activities. Moreover, the Fund gave me the unique opportunity to be placed in one of the top institutions in the world on Russia and post-Soviet studies at the University of Oxfords’ St. Antony’s College. Being free and supported by a scholarship gave me the opportunity not only to escape persecution, but also to continue my studies and realize all my research plans, to participate in numerous international conferences, and to significantly improve my expertise. In only six months I have spoken at 16 conferences, given talks and moderated panels, published two articles, and prepared two drafts for publication.
What are your plans upon the completion of your fellowship?
Ideally, my main plan and objective are to return home to continue my work and implement the projects which would help Azerbaijani people to reform and build a better country. But of course, my ability to return will depend on the progress of the political situation in the country.