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Azerbaijan: News of IRI departure met with concern

IRIFollowing the cessation of radio broadcasts from foreign stations such as the BBC, Voice of America and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty in Azerbaijan, as well as the sentencing last week of two video blogging youth activists, comes news of what some see as yet another threat to the slow, fledgling process of democratization in the former Soviet republic.

On 3 November it was announced that USAID would not be extending the work of the local branch of the International Republican Institute (IRI). Officially, the reason given was that IRI had not submitted an application, but many have since cast doubts on this explanation as one comment on In Mutatione Fortitudo explains.

After an initial covering up by the Embassy (claiming IRI didn’t even submit a proposal to stay) more information came out in the press. It seems the US (more specifically USAID, a branch of the State Department that oversees development projects) is not cutting its budget for democracy programs, rather they are devoting all of them to the National Democratic Institute. It seems it is not a change in US foreign policy, but it has major foreign policy consequences, it seems they are not unhappy with IRI’s work, but they are destroying the very projects they have spent millions on to build.

The blog post itself speaks highly of the IRI's Country Director, Jake Jones.

[…] Jake was for Azerbaijani blogosphere what Columbus was for Americas – something like he was the first discoverer of it. And this discovery happened at those times, when I was almost the sole English-language blogger out there on the ground and was writing under a pseudonym of “a political scientist from Azerbaijan.” I now hear that a lot of foreign organizations in Azerbaijan are thinking of pumping support into blogging, bloggers, et cetera, but it was Jake and IRI who first noticed the potential of new media field in Azerbaijan, and are still careful enough not to overestimate it as other organizations and individuals do.

Flying Carpets and Broken Pipelines, set up with the encouragement of Jones, also comments on the main force behind the organization's work in Azerbaijan.

About a little over a year ago, I was skyping a friend living and working in Baku. The topic of our discussion that day was finding a name for my blog you are currently reading. It took us a while but at the end, “flying carpets and broken pipelines” was created.

[…]

I have never met a person so interested in the region. He learned the language, traveled the country and gets on well with everyone. When Emin and Adnan were arrested, he was there to support and help in any way he could. […] All of this is only a small portion of what Jake and IRI has done in Azerbaijan, which also involves endless trainings and seminars held all over the country.

[…] IRI presented itself as an institution investing in the country and hoping to have made an impact (among other international institutions working in the country). It would be a loss for Azerbaijan to see IRI leave so please USAID (if anyone there is reading this blog) let them stay and do their job because they are worth it!

There seems to be a general misunderstanding that IRI didn't make any proposals for its next year activities in the country. It is NOT true, IRI DID propose. In fact there are local partners who can SUPPORT and JUSTIFY for this.

Both blog posts also report that a Facebook group, Keep IRI in Azerbaijan!!!, has been set up. At time of writing it has 830 members.

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