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Olcott: Azerbaijani Elections ‘Disappointing,’ Pressure Mounts on Aliyev

Interviewee: Martha Brill Olcott
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
November 7, 2005

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Martha Brill Olcott, an expert on the Caspian region that includes Azerbaijan, says the results of the just-concluded parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan were "disappointing," although they were probably fairer than the last elections in 2003. She notes that the report of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) observer mission found fault with the vote counting and she thinks that this and other international criticism will bring pressure on President Ilham Aliyev to do something positive.

"If there is concern and European pressure to throw out any election where there can be a serious claim made of spoiled ballots, then I think he is going to be under serious pressure," says Olcott, a senior associate with the Russian and Eurasian Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "It seems to me to not face international pressure, he is going to have to throw out some of these ballots, but what percentage, I think, is really going to depend on what happens in the next several days."

Olcott was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on November 7, 2005.

The parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan are over and the results are very questionable. It seems the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) observers have issued a generally negative report and the political opposition to President Ilham Aliyev's ruling New Azerbaijani Party claims that 80 percent of the results should be thrown out. What's your opinion?

I think the Azerbaijani elections were disappointing. There were clearly some very positive things: The OSCE results find only 13 percent of the voting districts they visited had irregularities in the actual casting of ballots, which is a marked improvement over what happened in the 2003 elections for the parliamentary elections that preceded them. But the biggest abuses—and they are clearly very serious—seemed to be in the actual vote counting.

They did come much closer to European and international norms in the actual process of allowing people to vote. But then according to the OSCE, in the 43 percent of the polling districts that they visited, there were abuses in the counting of the ballots, which means in at least 43 percent of the sample districts the elections should really be thrown out. So, on the one hand, it means that they can actually hold an election that comes pretty close to European norms—13 percent is a huge abuse, but in the context of Azerbaijan it shows that in 87 percent of the cases they can vote in an orderly fashion. But they have clearly demonstrated they are not interested in being bound by the electoral process and that's why the fraud in the counting of ballots is so egregious.

Now of course the opposition is claiming much more than that—80 percent of the 125 election districts—to be ruled annulled and they're saying they want to have protests in the streets on Wednesday. I guess they're trying to repeat the situation that occurred in other former Soviet states like Georgia and Ukraine, for instance, where actual street demonstrations ended up producing new governments taking over. Do you think it is possible this could happen?

There will be two different dramas. There will be this drama over the central election commission and a call by the opposition to get these ballots re-examined. I think it is really important to separate the two issues. There is a procedure in these countries, in Azerbaijan, for the Central Election Commission for reviewing complaints against balloting and if I'm not mistaken, it has to be done on a district by district basis, so they will have to lodge civic complaints. At the same time, they are calling for demonstrations on Wednesday.

The Azerbaijani election law is very tough on unsanctioned demonstrations, which are not permitted. And it's hard to believe the government—which previously said it wasn't going to sanction demonstrations—would change its mind and decide it will allow a big street demonstration and allow a peaceful demonstration. It's hard for me to believe that if the government allowed it, we would have the kind of mass protesting that we had in Georgia or Ukraine, where the overwhelming majority of the population felt abused by a fraudulent election. It's not clear that the overwhelming majority of the Azerbaijanis would feel abused by a fraudulent election.

Let's say, hypothetically, that the Aliyev government was pressed by international pressure to get the election commission to review these disputed districts and even a quarter of them were thrown out. That would be an enormous victory for the opposition. It would be a big embarrassment for Aliyev, more embarrassing in some ways at home than if these elections got to stand, because I'm sure the state press is saying how democratic they were and down-playing criticism.

In fact, the reports all say, oddly enough, the exit polls and the actual results both show the New Azerbaijan Party in the lead, so I don't know if the exit polls are accurate. That would sort of undercut the opposition, right?

It would, but it doesn't change the issue of the falsification of ballots. By falsifying ballots, the government played right into the opposition's hands. The issue is not would the opposition have won, from the point of view of European governments or the United States. The issue is simply that fraudulent elections are not valid.

I read some newspaper reports, saying it is evident people are putting more than one ballot in the box.

But again, that would turn up the 13 percent that the OSCE said was invalid and saw abuses in the voting process. What they're talking about is spoiling ballots. In spoiled ballots you can't have a recount, because the ballots are spoiled.

Now independent governments, including Washington, have yet to make statements. Washington has had very good relations with Azerbaijan, right?

Yes and the Azeris have given some assurance that this election would meet international norms or come much closer than in the past. It did in terms of the actual balloting. That's why the spoiling of ballots or the fraud or reporting results are so troubling. The State Department has to be upset by it because on top of everything else, I mean this is a potential international crisis for the United States if violence is used to put down demonstrations. But on the other hand, this is a government the United States thought was going to issue orders to the local election workers to behave in a more responsible fashion. [On Monday, a State Department official said, "Adherence to democratic principles is important to us and does impact the bilateral relationship. The depth of the relationship is going to go forward as democratic and political reforms advance in the country."]

We have major oil interests in Azerbaijan, yes?

We do. Azerbaijan's oil is being developed by an international consortium that includes BP, which is the successor of Amoco and BP, so there is considerable interest. But more important is the recent opening of the Azerbaijan-Georgian-Turkish pipeline. Azerbaijan is the key to the export of Caspian oil and gas to both Russia and Iran and that pipeline is not completed but it is now partially open. There's no question that the construction will go through to the end, now.

Of course, they also have a small contingent of troops in Iraq.

They do and there have always been rumors that the Azeris would like a U.S. base but one has to remember we still have the Nagorno-Karabakh problem in Azerbaijan and Armenia where there is a frozen peace or frozen war. So there are practical restrictions on how close the United States and Azerbaijan relationship and security is able to get.

The United States politically can't do anything that would really upset the Armenians, can it?

No, and that's one of the reasons a base in Azerbaijan would be very hard to imagine in the current climate. So because of that, there isn't very much the Azeris can promise to placate Washington.

Talk a bit about Aliyev. Do you think he is likely to respond to international pressure or not?

It depends upon the form that the international pressure takes. He's not going to enjoy being dramatically embarrassed. I mean, it's hard for an outsider to know the discussions that went on behind the scenes between his people and the election commission; whether they overzealously went about insuring the defeat of some key opposition figures or whether the order was really given that they wanted 8 percent or 10 percent opposition and no more in the parliament.

Until one knows—and one may never know—whether this was people trying to please a non-democratic ruler, who wasn't fighting very hard to make this election democratic, or whether he really gave orders and made his preferences known. And not knowing makes it harder to gauge what his response is going to be. If there is concern and European pressure to throw out any election where there can be a serious claim made of spoiled ballots, then I think he is going to be under serious pressure.

A lot will depend upon whether he is able to put down these demonstrations without there being bloodshed. It seems to me to not face international pressure, he is going to have to throw out some of these ballots, but what percentage I think, is really going to depend on what happens in the next several days.

[Late Monday, in a television interview, Aliyev said: "If these are criminal violations, charges will be brought and the guilty will be punished. I will not allow officials' bad behavior to cast a shadow on these elections...We received the international observers' report, we will analyze it and will take the necessary measures since their opinion is important."]

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