Azerbaijanis go to the polls November 6 to vote in parliamentary elections that experts fear will be neither free nor fair. Authorities in recent weeks have clamped down on dissent, muzzled the media, and detained opposition leaders. A wave of recent pro-democracy rallies has resulted in police beatings and arrests. Some say the violence has been provoked, in part, by government fears of an Azerbaijani version of the so-called color revolutions that occurred in nearby Georgia and Ukraine. Others say Azerbaijan’s current strongman, Ilham Aliyev, is asserting greater control now that his country is awash in petrodollars. Meanwhile, the elections have put the United States, an ally of Azerbaijan, in a tough bind: How to deal with a strategically important, energy-rich ally while espousing freedom and democracy in the region?
Azerbaijan has had a turbulent time since gaining independence in 1991. Mostly made up of secular Shiite Muslims, the country has been plagued, like many post-Soviet states, by rampant corruption, slow growth, and double-digit inflation.
Today it is still far from democratic. Aliyev—who in 2003 succeeded his ailing father Heydar Aliyev—has hardly been the reformer many in the West hoped for. He has run a campaign of intimidation against the press and opposition. In the run-up to this year’s election, the president has authorized the use of force to break up public protests, prohibited rallies in Baku’s Azadliq (Freedom) Square, and forced government employees to attend rallies of pro-government candidates. He has prevented one of the opposition’s main leaders, Rasul Guliyev, exiled for the past nine years abroad, from reentering the country. He has also purged several of his cabinet ministers, including Ali Insanov, a former health minister and one of Azerbaijan’s most powerful—and richest—politicians, for allegedly financing the opposition.
Meet the opposition
More than 2,000 candidates are vying for 125 parliamentary seats. To date, the opposition has been disorganized, undisciplined, and fraught with political infighting, experts say. Unlike in Georgia or Ukraine, there is no single leader who enjoys the backing of the opposition’s various strands. This lack of unity has muddled their message: “If you ask the voters what [the opposition] stands for, people won’t be able to tell them,” says Svante Cornell, deputy director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies. Complicating matters, some opposition leaders held positions of power briefly after the breakup of the Soviet Union, a chaotic time remembered for its war and economic collapse. “Voters link these leaders with bad memories,” says Elizabeth Fuller, a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty expert on the Caucasus. “For young voters, these are yesterday’s men. They will vote for the status quo because they don’t want things to get worse.”
Still, there are some signs the opposition may be gaining in strength. Earlier this year, Azerbaijan’s three main opposition parties banded together to form a united bloc, Azadliq (Freedom). The bloc, in a nod to Ukraine, has adopted “orange” as its official color and launched a number of well-attended rallies in recent months, many of them ending in violence and arrests. Indeed, Azadliq has drawn some criticism from opposition leaders outside the bloc for holding unauthorized rallies in addition to failing to get out the vote through door-to-door campaigning. The bloc is fielding 125 candidates, but polls show its support is only around 15 percent.
Azerbaijan’s opposition parties are dominated less by platforms than by personalities. The three parties comprising Azadliq are:
- Azerbaijan Popular Front Party. “The granddaddy of them all,” Fuller says, the Popular Front Party (PFA) emerged in 1989 in response to the outbreak of the Armenian-Azeri ethnic conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. Its young and charismatic leader, Ali Kerimli, forty, has led the reform wing of the party since the early 1990s and, perhaps more than any figure today in Azerbaijani politics, has tried to unite the opposition. The party’s platform, Cornell says, “is closer to the U.S. Democratic Party, not the Social Democrats in the European sense, in that it favors a bigger role for the state.” In the 2000 legislative elections, the PFA won 11 percent of the vote and six out of 125 parliamentary seats.
- Democratic Party of Azerbaijan.The Democratic Party of Azerbaijan (ADP) is a splinter group of the party in power, the New Azerbaijan Party. Its founder, Rasul Guliyev, is a former ally of Heydar Aliyev’s and speaker of parliament. A fugitive since 1996, Guliyev, fifty-seven, is wanted on six charges, including embezzlement of $117 million in oil revenues. He was apprehended in Ukraine on October 17, as were several of his party members who were planning to protest their leader’s detention. ADP members say the charges are politically motivated, though experts say Guliyev has a dubious past. “He was head of the largest oil refinery [in Azerbaijan],” Fuller says. “Shall we say he had ample possibility to divert certain funds if he so chose.”
- Mosabat.The party ofBaku’s intelligentsia, secular and nationalistic, Mosabat (Equality) claims to be the successor to Azerbaijan’s pre-Soviet ruling party from 1918-20. “This gives it a stability the other parties don’t have,” Cornell says. The party is run by Isa Gambar, forty-eight, an historian and longtime figure in Azerbaijani politics. He is a founding member of the PFA who split with the party in 1992. Some experts consider him the heir to Abulfaz Elchibey, Azerbaijan’s first elected president who assumed power in 1992 only to be overthrown one year later by Heydar Aliyev. “Of the opposition, Gambar has leadership abilities and some popular following,” says Peter Sinnot, lecturer at Columbia University and expert on Central Asia.
An economy clouded by corruption
Despite its abundance of oil, Azerbaijan remains an economic backwater. Forty percent of the country’s population is mired in poverty, earning less than $41.20 per month. The country ranks 101st out of 177 countries in the United Nations’ 2005 Human Development Index. Corruption runs rampant: Outside of its oil sector, the investment community is rife with graft; bribes to government officials are commonplace; and the state holds monopolies over half of the economy, including the oil firm Socar and Azal airlines, and is often accused of blocking outside entrants to the market. It is little coincidence that nine of the ten wealthiest Azerbaijanis work in government, according to the Baku-based newsmagazine Hesabat.
Yet polls show that Azerbaijanis are hopeful Aliyev can pull his country out of poverty, despite their economic problems. A survey in June sponsored by the International Republican Institute showed 56 percent of the population felt the country was heading in the right direction. According to the Wall Street Journal, Azerbaijan’s economy is expected to grow by 18 percent this year and 25 percent in 2006. Nearly all of that growth is due to oil: A new, 1,100-mile British Petroleum-led pipeline linking Baku to Ceyhan, Turkey began operation in May and will eventually carry up to one million barrels of oil per day from the Caspian to the Mediterranean, through Georgia. A century ago, Azerbaijan supplied nearly half of the world’s oil. Today, oil comprises 80 percent of Azeri exports and two-thirds of all investments in the country.
U.S.-Azeri relations: Strained but still strong
Azerbaijan has been a key regional ally to the United States in the war on terrorism. One of the most symbolic recent developments was the March 2002 lifting of Section 907, a U.S. ban on development aid to Azerbaijan that stretched back to 1992. Experts say the ban, put in place after war broke out between Azerbaijan and Armenia, was engineered in part by Armenia’s powerful U.S.-based diaspora. The restriction was lifted after Baku offered air-rights access and intelligence to the U.S. military in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. Relations between Baku and Washington were improved after Azerbaijan sent 150 soldiers to Iraq in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Yet as democracy continues its downward slide in Azerbaijan, Washington finds itself in a delicate spot. Experts say Azerbaijan is important to Washington because its large oil reserves—the bulk of which will be consumed by Europe , not the United Stats—will help stabilize global energy prices and is an important strategic ally in the region. For instance, there has been some talk—particularly in light of Uzbekistan’s recent decision to eject U.S. forces from its K-2 Airbase—of staging a U.S. military presence in Nasosnaya, an airfield not far from Baku, as well as installing two radars in the country to prevent the smuggling of weapons of mass destruction through what is considered a major black-market corridor.
The United States, as well as the Council of Europe, has stepped up pressure on Baku to adopt a number of election reforms. In late October, Azerbaijan’s parliament agreed to allow foreign-funded, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) monitor the polls, granted more television time to opposition candidates, and approved the use of indelible ink to mark voters’ fingers. Still, not every expert is convinced the government is sincere about electoral reform. “We’re going to see elections where the ballot box is legitimate, but everything else is suspect,” Sinnot says.
Azerbaijan’s long road ahead
Azerbaijan, given its location and large oil reserves, is a country of growing geopolitical importance. While its government is semi-authoritarian, experts say it is not completely lost to anti-democratic forces. There is an opposition present, however disorganized. There are a growing number of civil-society groups. Plus, as investors continue to flock to the country, experts say transparency and the rule of law will improve. Not to mention that Azerbaijan can provide the Shiite Muslim world with a functioning if flawed democracy.
While the ruling party is expected to easily maintain its majority in Sunday’s election, it is the electoral process, not the outcome, that may be more important, experts say. Azerbaijan’s government needs to prove it is serious about securing its legitimacy through free and fair democratic elections. Only then, experts say, can the country emerge from its economic doldrums and become a democratic model for the rest of the region.