Despite human rights concerns, SALTT program to visit Azerbaijan to study US-Russian relations

A map of the Caucasus region of former Soviet states

A map of the Caucasus region of former Soviet and Central Asian states

By Benjamin Pontz, News Editor

Members of the Eisenhower Institute’s “Strategy and Leadership in Transformational Times” (SALTT) program will depart this weekend bound for Azerbaijan, a former Soviet state that borders Russia, Iran, Georgia, and Armenia, as they continue their year-long study of relations between the United States and Russia under the direction of Susan Eisenhower, chairman emeritus of EI and granddaughter of 34th U.S. President Dwight David Eisenhower.

On the ground, the students will be participating in a cultural exchange with students from ADA University in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. Roald Sagdeev, a former science advisor to Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev and currently a distinguished professor at the University of Maryland, will be facilitating the trip on the ground and helping students to interpret what they see.

Sagdeev, Eisenhower’s former husband, has close ties with the Azerbaijani government, having met with President Ilham Aliyev as far back as 2008 according to Azerbaijani media sources. In 2015, Sagdeev was awarded a gold medal by the Azerbaijan Engineering Academy, and in 2016, he lectured and addressed the graduating class at ADA University.

According to Eisenhower Institute Program Coordinator David Wemer, EI has relied heavily upon Sagdeev to “foster” this trip with Eisenhower.

“We have a longstanding connection with someone who works there, so we have someone who is on the ground and help us to provide context,” Wemer explained, referring to Sagdeev.

The stated goal of the SALTT program is to “focus on the enduring challenges in American-Russian relations and their effect on all levels of American public policy.” The mission statement on EI’s website goes on to state: “Capitalizing on her extensive experience in Russia and the greater region, Susan Eisenhower will provide participants with an extensive background in the history and current dynamics of the post-Soviet Russian-American relationship, as well as the fundamentals of strategic thinking and planning. Students will learn about contributing factors to the tension between both countries and the effect deteriorating relations are having in a variety of fields including international security, science and technology, and business.”

Wemer conceded that Eisenhower does not personally have a strong connection to Azerbaijan specifically, but that, as a former Soviet state, the visit meets the goals of the program.

As of late February, the itinerary had not been finalized, but Wemer suggested that the students would be visiting memorials from the Soviet period and interacting with people who have a direct recollection of that time period. Gaining an understanding of that period is one of the primary goals of the students attending.

“It goes to a lot of what Susan thinks is the problem of US-Russian relations, which is a lack of understanding of how the Soviet Union fell,” Wemer said. “One of the main things Susan thinks we don’t realize is how bad it was in the 1990s.”

For their part, students who are attending look forward to the opportunity to experience a new culture.

“Ultimately, the experiential trip is going to help culminate everything we have been studying about US-Russian relations with Susan Eisenhower since September,” says Julia Kerr ‘18, a political science and public policy double major who is a participant in the SALTT program, “and it will give us an opportunity to study a culture to which we are typically not exposed.”

In February, students from the SALTT program met with foreign exchange students at American University who hail from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Azerbaijan to discuss cultural differences, roots of conflict, and improving bilateral relations between the United States and the respective countries.

This experience was particularly meaningful for Jared McCully ‘19, another participant in the SALTT program, who is majoring in political science.

“The students shared with us the concerns they have for their own nation, and we realized the US and Russia face many of the same challenges,” he explained. “Having a taste for diplomatic engagement with these Russian students makes me very excited to see what Azerbaijan has in store for the SALTT group.”

In spite of these on-the-ground opportunities, some Gettysburg College students have expressed concern about sending students to Azerbaijan given its domestic political situation. Recently, President Aliyev appointed his wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, vice president, which some observers fear is another step in the consolidation of power for a dynastic ruling family, which has a considerable web of economic holdings. The country also spends more than $4 million annually lobbying the United States Congress.

Moreover, Human Rights Watch reports that the Aliyev regime has cracked down on political dissidents, lawyers, and journalists who oppose the government, mistreats prisoners, and does not conduct free and fair elections. In its annual report on “political rights and civil liberties,” Freedom House rated Azerbaijan the 16th worst country in the world, faring worse than Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and noted a specific decline over the past ten years.

Wemer emphasized that students are aware of these conditions and are being encouraged to think critically while on the ground.

“They’re there to learn about the society and think seriously. We take this as an opportunity for critical thinking and engagement, not blind endorsement,” he said.

He went on to note that the Office of the Provost endorsed the trip and that it also was shared with the Eisenhower Institute National Advisory Council, Board of Trustees, and Campus Advisory Council.

“They think it’s great that we’re traveling to a new part of the world with Gettysburg students,” Wemer said. “There are a ton of issues in this country, but the students will know throughout the trip that they should be thinking critically, thinking about the challenges these countries are facing. They’re still in transition.”

Wemer said that funding for the trip is coming from a grant the Eisenhower Institute has held for many years to study US-Russian relations, and, on the ground, the ADA will be providing lodging.

Regardless, some students remain concerned about even the perception that a repressive regime will be sponsoring a trip for Gettysburg College students.

“I am concerned about students going to a country that has been deemed as ‘not free’ by Freedom House,” read a statement from one student who was granted anonymity due to ongoing ties with the Eisenhower Institute. “Furthermore, I am troubled that my college would sanction a trip to a country known for its repression of freedom of speech, assembly, political imprisonment, lack of free and fair elections, and corruption. In 2013, President Ilham Aliyev was named ‘corruption’s person of the year.’ Just last week, he appointed his wife, who has been criticized for holding a position in parliament but failing to ever show up to any sessions, as the First Vice President of Azerbaijan. Our students’ mission in Azerbaijan is not to look at the government through a critical lens, but rather to study US-Russia relations while being treated to dinners by Azerbaijani students and university staff.”

Wemer countered that Gettysburg “has sent trips to other countries with just as horrible human rights records.”

Multiple trips to China, which is ranked similarly to Azerbaijan by Freedom House, have been sponsored over the years, but these trips have not included high-level exchanges with government-affiliated agencies. Additionally, the college has sent students to Turkey and Egypt, whose human rights records have also been criticized by third-party observers.

Ultimately, Wemer defended the decision to take students to Azerbaijan.

“It has tension with Armenia, it’s had a slow transition to capitalism, and it has a connection to the greater Middle East,” he said. “It’s a case study in itself.”

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Author: Benjamin Pontz

Benjamin Pontz '20 serves as managing news editor of The Gettysburgian, a position he has held since the middle of his first year, during which he wrote 50 articles on topics ranging from student activism on campus to sports. Ben also served as the event coverage and social media coordinator and led the paper's inaugural efforts using Facebook Live and live tweeting events on campus. He is a political science and public policy double major with a minor in music, and he reads up to seven newspapers daily. Follow him on Twitter @benpontz.

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