RULE ONE of the Dictator’s Handbook: Allow no one else to seriously challenge you in an election. Rule Two: Spend enough of your nation’s treasure to lure a popular Western entertainer to distract from Rule One. Previously, President Ilham Aliyev, son of a strongman who inherited his father’s distaste for democracy, enticed Lady Gaga to perform, then Mariah Carey. Now Mr. Aliyev has booked pop star Christina Aguilera for the Formula 1 Azerbaijan Grand Prix on April 28.
That will be just 2½ weeks after Wednesday’s presidential election. Mr. Aliyev has so thoroughly suffocated democracy in Azerbaijan that he will certainly win a fourth term by a wide margin. The campaign is entirely uncompetitive. Two opposition parties are calling for a boycott. Mr. Aliyev moved up the election date by six months, perhaps in order to get it out of the way before the auto race, which presumably will be more competitive than the political one.
Mr. Aliyev has never hesitated to spend lavishly to dress up his shoddy reputation. Last year he gave away hundreds of free apartments to Azerbaijani journalists; one leading editor said it was akin to a bribe. The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, a consortium of news organizations, in a report titled “The Azerbaijani Laundromat,” documented how Mr. Aliyev and others in the Azerbaijani elite used overseas shell companies to hide “a secret slush fund to pay off European politicians, buy luxury goods, launder money, and otherwise benefit themselves.” Then there was the bacchanal sponsored by Azerbaijan’s state-owned oil company, an all-expenses-paid trip to a conference in Baku for 10 members of the U.S. Congress and 32 staff members, who received silk scarves, crystal tea sets and Azerbaijani rugs.
If Ms. Aguilera has time, she may want to poke around Azerbaijan’s jails. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Azerbaijan ranks among the worst jailers of journalists in the world, with at least 10 imprisoned when its last survey was completed in December. She might also want to set aside some time to get a reality check on Azerbaijan from Khadija Ismayilova, a courageous journalist who endured a prison term for the “crime” of her hard-hitting investigative reports about Mr. Aliyev’s family wealth. Or, perhaps Ms. Aguilera could visit Ilgar Mammadov, a prominent alternative voice to Mr. Aliyev who was arrested more than five years ago shortly after announcing he would challenge the president in the 2013 elections. Mr. Mammadov was accused of inciting violence and sentenced to seven years in prison after a faulty trial. The European Court of Human Rights found his detention illegal. He is still locked away.