All is quiet in Azerbaijan.

For a country seeking to raise its profile on the national stage, it remains unclear if Azerbaijan is a welcoming country for LGBT people.

Reports of raids targeting LGBT people surfaced in September raising concerns in Washington. In a letter, a bipartisan group of Senators are urging the U.S. State Department to start an investigation to determine if press reports of more than 50 gay and transgender people being detained in Azerbaijan’s capital city of Baku are credible.

“We write to share our concerns about press reports that Azerbaijani authorities have detained dozens of gay and transgender persons simply because they are gay or transgender,” the letter reads. “We urge you to investigate these reports, and, if credible, to publicly condemn these actions in the strongest terms and to push for perpetrators to be held accountable.”

The letter was led by Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Pat Toomey (R-PA), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Thom Tillis (R-NC), Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Susan Collins (R-ME).

“Indeed, U.S. foreign policy must promote both our values and our interests and any notion that the two are mutually exclusive is a false choice,” the Senators wrote. 

Daniel Baslon is the Advocacy Director for Amnesty International’s European and Central Asia operations. In a telephone conversion with The Mirror Magazine, Balson revealed he had visited Azerbaijan on multiple occasions. He described the country as a “clan based society” – one that is unwelcoming to LGBT people.

“It’s a very conservative society,” Balson said. “There is not a lot of support for LGBT individuals.”

Azerbaijan gained its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991. Located in the caucuses region on the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan has an estimated population of 9.9 million. It has been in a long dispute with neighboring Armenia over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Balson said Azerbaijan was built on an “elaborate cult of personality” where authoritarian rulers imprison dissidents and opposition leaders. President Ilham Aliyev has been in power since 2003.

“Corruption remains a substantial problem in Azerbaijan,” Balson said. “Fundamental freedoms are not available to all and free expression is curtailed.”

Oil is the major export in Azerbaijan. Under Aliyev’s rule, the country has raised in economic status on the world stage and Baku, Balson, said is an “immaculately polished city.”

Amnesty International, Balson said, has taken “no position” on reports of mass detentions of gay and transgender people in Azerbaijan. Balson said he does not believe the country is 100 percent against gay and transgender people, but coming out does have consequences.

“At all levels of society, LGBT people face a substantial issue of living openly,” Balson said. “Once they express themselves they can be quickly repressed and shunned socially.”

MIR Azerbaijan2

Photo by John McDonald.

Perviz Vahidoglu, a university student, paints a different scene of Azerbaijan than Balson. Vahidoglu, a young man in his late 20s educated in Balikesir, Turkey, said there is no reason gay or transgender travelers should feel uncomfortable in Azerbaijan.

“Don’t worry about that,” Vahidoglu said. “You can feel safe yourself whenever you come to Azerbaijan.”

When pressed about expressions, Vahidoglu drew the line at kissing.

“Yes, they (gays and trans) can hold hands in public except one thing – Kissing each other or something like this can be strange for people,” Vahidoglu said.

Like Vahidoglu, Hasan Sadigli is a native Ajerbaijani. Unlike Vahidoglu, Sadigli is gay. He communicated with the Mirror Magazine through Facebook Messenger for this story.

“I wish I could be more useful, however, I have been living outside of Azerbaijan for many years and hence will not be objective about the realities there,” Sadigli said. “There are certainly those unlucky ones who have to endure a pain that is greater than oppression and that of the occasional ‘crackdown.’

Now living in Spain, Sadigli said nothing will change until Azerbaijani establishment families demonstrate a willingness to embrace a more modern version of the extended family unit.

“The societal taboo and violence by the traditionalism of families are something that is more enduring than any government crackdown,” Sadigli said.

The Mirror Magazine reached out for comment from Senator Rubio’s office, State Department and Harvey Milk Foundation for this piece but did not receive a response to telephone messages or emailed questions.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International USA has three demands of the Trump Administration. First, increase the cap for refugees who are “genuinely in fear for their lives,” Balson said. Second, the State Department must fully staff, support and dispatch the LGBTI special envoy position. In November, the Washington Blade reported Randy Berry had vacated this position.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, begin direct communications with the Aliyev administration.

“When abuse happens the Trump administration must raise concerns directly with foreign governments,” Balson said.