(Bloomberg) -- President Ilham Aliyev said Azerbaijan won’t seek closer integration with Europe, which he accused of discriminating against Muslims and undermining his country’s traditional values.
“Where shall we integrate?” Aliyev said in a rare public criticism of the West in a speech to university students and teachers in the capital, Baku, on Tuesday. “Shall we integrate with those who are saying ‘Stop Islam’? Shall we integrate to a place where there’s no difference being made between men and women? We definitely shall not.”
Aliyev’s remarks mark a departure from the national security strategy he approved in 2007, which said energy-rich Azerbaijan targets membership in European and Euro-Atlantic alliances. The majority Muslim but secular nation of 10 million people sandwiched between Iran and Russia forged close political and economic ties with the U.S. and the European Union after declaring independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991.
The president’s speech “was his acknowledgment of the failure of secularism and western values in Azerbaijan,” prominent Azeri journalist Khadija Ismayil wrote on Facebook. Ismayil, who’s known for investigative reports into Aliyev’s undeclared family businesses, was sentenced to prison in 2015 and freed the following year after international criticism of her detention and trial.
The U.S. helped Azerbaijan build oil and gas pipelines westward bypassing Russia. The EU regards Azerbaijan as a strategic energy partner and began talks in 2017 on a new framework agreement with Baku.
While Aliyev and his late father Heydar, who ruled Azerbaijan for 10 years before his death in 2003, refused to join Russian-led military and economic blocs, U.S. and EU criticism of the poor state of democracy and human rights in Azerbaijan have strained relations. Aliyev won a landslide to secure a fourth term and extend his rule for seven years in 2018 elections seen as flawed by Western observers and boycotted by opposition parties.
The president is “quite sincere” in his opposition to European integration because “Europe means democracy, free elections, rule of law, universal human rights and social welfare,” Altay Goyushov, an opposition politician who heads the Baku Research Institute, a think tank in the city, wrote on Facebook.
“Aliyev wants to see a medieval monarchy in Azerbaijan,” he said.