Saturday, November 20, 2021

DOC NYC ’21: The Caviar Connection

What could a dictator with unchallenged power and vast ill-gotten wealth possibly desire? Respectability, of course. Hollywood celebrities and Western politicians are just the ones who can give it. Maybe Lady Gaga is not the worst offender, but she still gets what she deserves when she becomes the face of Azerbaijani dictator Ilham Aliyev’s serenading celebrity chorus. Conversely, Khadiya Ismayilova represents the struggles of independent Azerbaijani journalists (there aren’t a lot of them left) in Benoit Bringer’s The Caviar Connection, which is still available as part of the online portion of the 2021 DOC NYC.

Caviar Connection addresses corruption in all the nations in the Caspian Sea region, including Turkmenistan, which is bad news for Sting’s image, because he hypocritically and unrepentantly accepted a lucrative gig from the dictator’s spoiled daughter. However, the focus falls squarely on Azerbaijan. Aliyev’s father was a former KGB official, who came to power in a post-independence coup, with Putin’s blessing. He soon turned over the family dynasty to his son, whose administration was repeatedly likened to the Corleone Mafia family in leaked diplomatic cables.

Despite the many political prisoners held by the Aliyev regime, it still sought the legitimacy of full membership in the Council of Europe (the EU’s leading human rights body), so they bribed their way in. Bringer does indeed establish that pretty conclusively, with the help of Azerbaijan’s former ambassador to the Council, whistle-blower Arif Mammadov, who was basically the regime’s bag man.

Ismayilova was one of those political prisoners the Council ignored. While she was always independent, she wasn’t very political, until she saw her colleague brutally beaten by Aliyev’s thugs. However, the crude and invasive blackmail tactics the regime unleashed against her are probably even more reprehensible.

Caviar Connection
is a pretty damning indictment of institutionalized corruption and oppression in the Caspian region. The proximity to the Caspian Sea is directly relevant, because the crooked regimes are supported by the two types of “black gold” found there: oil and caviar. It certainly proves the advantages of a free entrepreneurial economy over a command-and-control natural resource-based economy. Aliyev and Putin can always turn their spigots on and off, but telling Elon Musk to be less enterprising is another matter entirely.

Cav Con is somewhat unusual among contemporary docs, in that it supports its allegations with evidence and builds its case step by step. However, more context regarding Azerbaijan geopolitical strategies and alliances would help audiences understand the stakes for Western democracies. Yet, Bringer’s talking heads make an important that has applications elsewhere. When democracies play nice with dictatorships, it does not make the letter freer. It corrupts the former and makes them less free.

egardless, there is definitely stuff that will stoke outrage at our privileged celebrities and politicians. (Do we see Merkel paying Aliyev a state visit? Oh, but of course.) Recommended for anyone concerned about the state of human rights in Europe, The Caviar Connection screens online through 11/28 as part of this year’s DOC NYC.