Good morning and welcome to today’s hearing on the security, economic and human rights dimensions of the U.S.-Azerbaijan relationship. I am looking forward to leading a congressional delegation to Azerbaijan at the end of this month where we will attend the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Annual Session, and have bilateral meetings as well.
Azerbaijan has consistently been at the forefront of Commission attention since its independence, and for good reason: the United States considers Azerbaijan an important friend and partner in the region and that means we care deeply about its development.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is a serious obstacle to regional stability, security and prosperity, and certainly is an issue where we want to see progress because the status quo is not sustainable. I look forward to discussing today how we might further the OSCE Minsk Group discussions toward a solution to this conflict. The US and Azerbaijan have a history of strategic cooperation. Azerbaijan has played an important role in the Northern Distribution Network. It has troops serving on the ground in Afghanistan. It made a strong statement in support of Ukraine’s territorial integrity by voting with the United States in the UN Security Council. So while we have significant concerns, we also have much to celebrate with Azerbaijan.
The domestic political situation in Azerbaijan is troubling because Azerbaijan is moving in the wrong direction. While we have consistently seen problems with freedom of the media and freedom of association, the last two years have seen a high number of arrests and convictions of activists that all bear the hallmark signs of politically-motivated prosecutions. In addition we have seen journalists such as Khadija Ismayil and Rauf Mirkadirov, and human rights defenders such as Leyla Yunus harassed or detained. The election of President Ilham Aliyev last year was criticized by the OSCE and by the Council of Europe. Our concern is that rather than working to live up to its commitments in the OSCE and the Council of Europe, Azerbaijan is instead heading toward greater authoritarianism. We want to work with Azerbaijan to change that trend.
Often in the world of international affairs we see things in only black or white. Something is either good or bad and there is little room for nuance. But I believe that our relationship—our friendship—with Azerbaijan requires us to be honest and sincere. Sincere in our appreciation for the things where we agree, and honest in the areas where we see problems. The United States needs a stable and prosperous Azerbaijan. But absent real democratic progress, we will not see true stability or development.