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The dream merchants
They are Uncle Sam's brokers of democracy, peddling truth,
freedom and the American way in the far corners of Earth.
It's not always an easy sell, as Moscow correspondent
GEOFFREY YORK learns in Azerbaijan.


Monday, October 16, 2000

Peter Van Praagh was just 28 when he was dispatched from Washington last year to plant the seeds of democracy in the barren soil of Azerbaijan.

Like most Americans who have landed in this hot and dusty country in its feverish oil-boom days, he knew little of its history or politics. "I thought I was walking into a spy thriller," he recalled, nursing an ice tea on an oppressively steamy night in Baku, the Azerbaijani capital. "In fact, I was walking into a spy thriller. James Bond was here."

Just outside Baku, a film crew was shooting the exotic locales for the latest James Bond flick. Hollywood needed a landscape of murky foreign intrigue, and this former Soviet republic on the Caspian Sea is a perfect choice.

Azerbaijan, an inscrutable hybrid of Asian and Soviet cultures, has attracted hordes of foreign investors and diplomats with its vast oil riches and strategic location at the crossroads of Russia, the West, Asia and the Middle East.

The Americans, however, are different. They do want to exploit the energy wealth, to roll back Russian influence and to create a stable new source of oil for U.S. industry, but it's more than that. They want to create a new society.

To do this, U.S. advisers such as Mr. Van Praagh must become embroiled in their own Bond-style intrigues of pulling strings, plotting backroom coalitions and jousting with old-guard autocrats who threaten to lead Azerbaijan back into Moscow's embrace.

Mr. Van Praagh, now 30, is an intense and boyish crusader for the virtues of democracy. One of his friends has nicknamed him "the Quiet American" -- an allusion to the idealistic hero of Graham Greene's novel of Vietnam, an earnest and guileless secret agent who was "impregnably armoured by his good intentions."

He arrived in Baku last year as director of the local office of the National Democratic Institute, a U.S.-funded agency that promotes the development of Western-style political parties and pluralism.

Despite his youth and lack of local experience, he has quickly become a star in Azerbaijan's political constellation. He is quoted in the local media, ushered into meetings with the President's top advisers and besieged with desperate pleas for help from opposition parties. He enjoys an extraordinary degree of access to the top levels of Azerbaijan's hierarchy.

After almost two years toiling in Baku's political backrooms, he admits that the reform process has been agonizingly slow. Azerbaijan remains an authoritarian state, where elections are often rigged or controlled by an all-powerful regime. Yet he still fervently believes in his mission -- and in the uniqueness of the U.S. role.

"Americans care about this whole democracy thing, far more than the Europeans or Canadians," he says. "America really does want to do good. No other country is strong enough to say it and do it. Only the United States has the muscle to do it.

"What I tell the Azeris is, 'Friendship has its privileges, and if you want to be America's friend, you gotta do a few things.' "

The mere presence of U.S. advisers in Baku's corridors of power is a sign of Washington's diplomatic reach, of how its influence has spread into the remotest corners of what was once, in Cold War terminology, the "evil empire."

The United States is not the only country working to entrench democracy around the world -- European nations and Canada are heavily involved in similar programs. But the U.S. efforts are unique in their stark, black-and-white vision of a heroic struggle against evil.

The National Democratic Institute calls it "an indispensible American mission." Its Republican counterpart, the International Republican Institute, defines the enemy as "tyranny and totalitarianism."

This evangelical zeal, combined with Washington's vast resources, helps to project U.S. diplomatic power into every corner of the globe. For example, over the past 16 years, NDI has conducted democracy programs in more than 90 countries, using a pool of more than 1,000 volunteer experts including presidents, prime ministers and cabinet ministers.

Both NDI and IRI have field offices in dozens of countries on four continents. Working closely with celebrity activists such as former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, they have trained thousands of election observers, supported hundreds of civic organizations, bolstered political parties, improved election laws and conducted civic education campaigns for millions of voters around the world.

In Baku, the games of power and intrigue were dominated a decade ago by a more cynical breed: the Russian apparatchik. Azerbaijan was a colony of Russian and Soviet empires for almost 200 years, and many Russians believe that it should still be the Kremlin's obedient satellite today. Just three hours south of Moscow by plane, Baku is a city of Soviet-trained bureaucrats who speak Russian and borrow Russian philosophies of politics and power.

But today, it is the Americans who buzz importantly around this city, more confidently than almost anyone else. They dine on shrimp at the Louisiana-style seafood joint. They go bowling and go-karting. They drive their four-wheel-drive vehicles into the mountains on weekends. And they struggle to penetrate the impenetrable politics, to import American ideas and implant an American-style democracy in a long-hostile land.

Most of the U.S. advisers here are energetic young activists who work together in an informal alliance, each chipping away at different corners of Azerbaijan's authoritarian traditions.

On a typical evening, you can find them on the patio of Fisherman's Wharf, the favourite restaurant and social hangout of Baku's expatriates. The music of B.B. King and the Everly Brothers drifts through the air. A U.S. football game is blaring on television, while a bodyguard with a buzz cut and an earpiece keeps careful watch over a U.S. diplomat. On the patio, the Americans are co-ordinating strategy, discussing Azerbaijan's parliamentary election next month and how to make it democratic.

"We're trying to give the people a voice," says John Boit, a 28-year-old journalist from Maine who heads the Azerbaijani office of Internews, a U.S.-funded organization that provides support to independent television stations.

On a shelf above his office desk is an expensive bottle of Irish whisky, bequeathed to him by his predecessor, who told him he cannot open it until the government has granted a licence to one of the independent TV stations that struggle to survive without an official permit.

"I don't know if I'll ever get to drink that whisky," he says. "We beat our heads against the wall when the government doesn't want to license a station. Sometimes I wonder what this is all for. But at least someone is putting pressure on the government. Without it, there would be no incentive to change anything."

Elsie Chang, a 39-year-old former Capitol Hill political consultant and fundraiser, is director of the Azerbaijani office of the International Foundation for Election Systems, a U.S.-financed group that provides voter education and legal advice on election laws.

"I want to introduce the idea of elected officials as public servants," she says. "This is a very new idea here. If there's any American twist to our policy here, it's that the officials should be accountable to the people who elected them."

At training seminars, she asks the Azeris to play a "democracy game" by choosing an item in the conference room that reminds them of democracy. The Azeris point to the room's open door, to its light switches and its windows: symbols of freedom and light.

For the Americans, progress here is often almost imperceptible. They are fighting a culture of authoritarianism and paternalism that has ruled for centuries.

But they have succeeded in nudging Azerbaijan away from Moscow's orbit. They have helped to entrench a system of elections at the local and national levels, even if the campaigns are not exactly models of fairness. They have trained thousands of election observers and have bolstered Azerbaijan's independent media and opposition parties.

The Americans have strengths that other foreigners lack. They spend money lavishly. They cultivate powerful friends in high places. And they create their own networks of grassroots organizations, sometimes using what they call the Spice Girls method: handpicking a few key local personalities, training them and funnelling them a regular supply of money.

"We pick them up by the scruff of the neck and show them how to do this stuff," one U.S. adviser confides. "We create them."

Democracy is not the only U.S. strategic goal in Azerbaijan. Some analysts believe that Washington is equally interested in less altruistic goals: economic stability, oil supply and the geopolitical aim of containing Russian and Iranian influence.

Azerbaijan is a Shia Muslim country, like its neighbour Iran, yet it is ethnically Turkic and largely secular. (Vodka is popular here, and young women prefer miniskirts and bare midriffs.)

For U.S. strategists, it is a crucial buffer state. While blocking the expansion of Islamic influences from the south, it can also stop the spread of Russian imperial ambitions from the north.

Most of its eight million people are poor, with monthly incomes of less than $100 (U.S.). Its population includes a million refugees from the war with Armenia in the early 1990s. Another one million Azeris have migrated abroad in search of better economic prospects.

Yet its oil reserves -- as much as 20 billion barrels -- are potentially a vital source of supply for the United States. Western oil companies have signed contracts worth more than $50-billion (U.S.) in potential investment here.

Dick Cheney, the Republican vice-presidential candidate, is among the many influential Americans who have held significant business interests in Azerbaijan's oil industry.

The country's autocratic President, former KGB general Haydar Aliyev, is a frequent visitor to Washington, where he has been honoured with the red-carpet treatment from the White House. He regularly meets U.S. President Bill Clinton and is wined and dined by powerful Washington lobbyists.

At home, Mr. Aliyev shows little sign of having absorbed any American democratic influences. Instead, he has established a cult of personality. His portrait is displayed in every shop and office, and his quotations are painted on billboards all over the country.

For idealistic outsiders, Azerbaijan can be a snake pit of confusion. "Identifying the democrats here is very difficult," Mr. Van Praagh admits. "The good guys are not always the good guys. And even the good guys can get tempted and corrupted."

Mr. Van Praagh has his own small secret: He has dual citizenship in the United States and Canada and spent years as a speechwriter and policy adviser to the federal Progressive Conservatives in the late 1990s.

The Azeris are unaware of his Canadian connections. Because of his institute's links to the U.S. Democratic Party, the Azerbaijani government is convinced he is the personal representative of Mr. Clinton. While this is not quite true, his institute does not always discourage the notion.

Washington is spending $21-million (U.S.) on aid projects in Azerbaijan this year. The budget would be bigger if the U.S. Congress had not imposed limits on the aid because of the military conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. But even this amount can have a big impact in a country where most people are impoverished.

"We've nudged them in the direction they'd like to go in," says William McKinney, co-ordinator of the Azerbaijani office of the U.S. Agency for International Development, which funds aid projects.

Mr. McKinney, a flashy dresser who wears red suspenders and cuff links that read "Yes" and "No," says the United States can take credit for much of the progress in Azerbaijan in recent years, including the greater role of opposition parties, the appointment of a new chairman of the national electoral commission and the Western outlook of the country's younger generation.

"Younger Azeris are fascinated by the United States," he says. "They line up in the hundreds for visas. When they go the U.S., they come back in awe of what they've seen -- and not just the supermarkets and consumerism, but also our values and rights."

The U.S. embassy in Baku tries to fuel this enthusiasm with parties for the locals every July 4 and on U.S. election days, often featuring gigantic cakes, military bands and hot dogs and ice cream.

"A good July 4 party should be hokey and corny," says James Seward, head of the embassy's public-diplomacy section. ". . . It's our traditional folk dance. More than in other countries, our culture is tied up with our politics. Our politics is our culture."

Over his career, Mr. Seward has heard all the arguments about cultural imperialism and U.S. arrogance, but he makes no apologies for the American tendency to lecture foreigners on democracy. "This is what we are and what we do. We're trying to express our values to other people."

The NDI and IRI are two of the most aggressive U.S. groups here and receive their funds from the National Endowment for Democracy. Set up by the U.S. Congress in 1984, the endowment is financed by money that previously went to the covert anti-Communist political operations of the Central Intelligence Agency.

The NDI headquarters is housed in the decaying glory of a former oil merchant's Moorish-style mansion on the edge of Baku's old town. On one side of the mansion is Azerbaijan's ancient past, symbolized by the mysterious 12th-century Maiden's Tower of the Islamic khans. On the other is the Caspian Sea, the heart of the modern oil industry.

The institute's values, however, are straight from American mythology. Quotations from Thomas Jefferson and John F. Kennedy are sprinkled through its publications. "We are pointing the way to struggling nations who wish, like us, to emerge from their tyrannies," intones a Jefferson quotation on its Web site.

This kind of rhetoric is taken very seriously here. Despite decades of Soviet propaganda, the United States is still regarded by many Azeris as the world's greatest beacon of freedom and democracy.

"When I first got here, I was amazed at how people here look to America as an inspiration," Mr. Van Praagh says. "I've been to poor regions of this country where the people have nothing, but they give me a huge feast because they're so happy to have an American in their midst."

Novella Jafarova, leader of an NDI-supported women's rights group, is a long-time fan of U.S. presidents from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan. She is convinced that a 1993 letter of support from first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton has protected her from arrest by Azerbaijan's heavy-handed police. She brandishes the letter like a magical talisman.

"When the police come, we show them the letter from Hillary Clinton and they always leave," she says. "Mrs. Clinton's letter is a shield for us. For the police, America is a symbol of power and justice. They are probably afraid that America could do something to them."

One of Mr. Aliyev's top foreign-affairs advisers, Rauf Huseynov, is a young Harvard-trained official with a love for all things American. In his office cabinet is an election campaign button with a picture of the Statue of Liberty and an inscription reading: "Save the American Dream. Vote Ross Perot 1996." Nearby is a coffee-table book commemorating one of Mr. Aliyev's visits to the United States, with a cover photo of the President meeting Mr. Clinton.

"We are simply destined to be the friend of the United States," Mr. Huseynov says. "We will love them, even if they don't love us. They are the only way we can preserve our independence."

While he welcomes the presence of American groups such as NDI, he often disagrees with their advice. "They go too far," he says. "Sometimes they interfere too much. We got rid of the Kremlin, and we don't want the U.S. State Department to become another Big Brother."

Washington does, in fact, get involved more aggressively in Azerbaijan than it would dare to do in a bigger country such as Russia. This sometimes triggers an anti-American backlash among high-ranking Azerbaijani officials who resent the outside pressure.

The backlash was visible this summer when the U.S. advisers were repeatedly thwarted in their efforts to improve Azerbaijan's regressive election laws. They lobbied fiercely to revise the laws, but only one amendment passed.

In defiance of the U.S. lobbying, the Azerbaijani authorities decided to ban several of the biggest opposition parties from next month's parliamentary election. And then, for good measure, they barred thousands of Azerbaijani election observers who had been trained by an NDI-financed organization. (The ban on the opposition parties was later reversed.)

The Americans vow to fight on. For them, the struggle of good against evil has never ended. "What we believe in is essentially good," Mr. Van Praagh says, without embarrassment or diffidence.

"Some values are universal, and democracy is one of them. It's good work, and someone's got to do it.

"I think the Americans have a greater sense of public service than others do."

By the numbers

The influence of the United States stretches far and wide. For example, it is the world's biggest source of development aid. In 1998, U.S. assistance -- from both private and official sources -- to developing countries and multilateral organizations totalled $48.2-billion.

(All figures are in U.S. dollars.)
27% U.S. share of the aid given by 21 countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. 1998.
$75-billion: U.S. development aid (private and official) in 1997. The amount dropped dramatically the next year -- while staying at No. 1 in the world -- because of the Asian, Russian and Latin American economic crises, experts believe. It is expected to increase again in 1999.
$9.1-billion: U.S. official aid in 1999, second to Japan's $15.3-billion.
21: Rank of that aid among 21 OECD nations, as a percentage of gross national product.
$36-billion: Private U.S. aid in 1998.
30 per cent: Percentage of official aid that goes to Middle East.
Israel: Top recipient of U.S. official aid, followed by Egypt, Russia, Bosnia, Peru, India, Jordan, Bolivia, Ukraine, and South Africa.
160: Countries with U.S. State Department offices.
115: Democratic nations, 1995.
58: Democratic nations, 1980.
36: Number of countries that installed democratic governments from 1980 to 1995 and received aid from U.S. Agency for International Development.

Research by Rick Cash
Sources: OECD, USAID, Wall Street Journal, U.S. State Department


Saturday, Oct. 14: Overview
Monday, Oct. 16: Diplomacy
Tuesday, Oct. 17: Culture
Wednesday, Oct. 18: Science
Thursday, Oct. 19: Business
Friday, Oct. 20: Military

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