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Sestanovich: Azerbaijan Vote Could Turn Violent If ‘Grossly Manipulated’

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies
November 4, 2005

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Stephen R. Sestanovich, a former ambassador-at-large and special adviser to the secretary of state for newly independent states of the former Soviet Union, says the parliamentary elections set for Monday in Azerbaijan have attracted considerable Western interest, and there is a potential for violence in the streets afterwards if the results are seen to be "grossly manipulated."

Many comparisons have been made with what happened in Georgia and Ukraine when public protests overthrew elections that were deemed corrupt, but Sestanovich, who is the Council's George F. Kennan senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies, says it is possible that, this time, elections might be fairer.

"The polls do show that President Ilham Aliyev, whose New Azerbaijan Party controls the parliament, has some residual popularity. This is a country with 10 percent average economic growth for the past five or six years, is enjoying an oil boom that is spreading, and it is not clear he has the same popular opprobrium that say, President Leonid Kuchma had in Ukraine at the end of his tenure, or President Eduard Shevardnadze had at the end of his in Georgia," he says.

He was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on November 4, 2005.

In recent elections in Georgia and Ukraine—both former Soviet republics—the results have been overturned by popular uprisings. Now, there is a parliamentary election due to take place in Azerbaijan on Sunday, another former Soviet republic. Do you foresee a Georgian or Ukrainian outcome there, too?

There are some differences and some similarities. Azerbaijan does not have the same kind of well-established, mobilized opposition that you saw in Georgia and Ukraine. But it has a lot more pluralism than you see in some of the Central Asian countries that were once part of the Soviet Union, for example, and the political parties have united as a bloc. There is much more reason to expect a real political process in Azerbaijan if the authorities allow it. There have been some interesting developments here.

Can you list them?

Well, in the past, the Azerbaijan opposition has been a collection of small, personality-based parties with not much organization, and unable to get along with each other at all. This year, for the first time, there has actually been a united opposition bloc, which is one reason to take this electoral process more seriously than ever before.

The three most significant opposition parties, the Popular Front, the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, and what is known as Mosavat have joined together in a bloc called Azadliq (Freedom).

Who is the leader of the bloc?

The bloc itself does not have a single leader. The parties have worked together in a way that hasn't been done before. A second development of interest is the much greater attention that Western governments have paid to this election in advance of the balloting. In the past, there was often a series of disagreements and complaints about the quality of the election, but this time, there has been very insistent discussion at high levels between the Azerbaijani government and Western governments.

You had high-level officials visit. You had lots of nongovernmental organization (NGO) interest, and the Azerbaijani government's response has been to backtrack steadily in its acceptance of some of the procedural norms that we think of as constituting a free and fair election. This includes, for instance, the use of accurate voter lists, voter identification documents, even finger-inking, which the United States put particular pressure on the Azerbaijani government to accept. The Azeris also said they would welcome foreign observers, and have accepted the idea that domestic NGOs with foreign funding could work as observers. Some of this may have come too late in the game to really entitle the Azeris to a favorable verdict by outside observers, but it has given momentum to the opposition.

One other thing that is new is the increased media access for the opposition. They actually have a satellite TV channel which has made a dent in what otherwise would have been government domination of the airwaves. They have also established a public television channel which has given more neutral coverage to the political campaign.

What are the details of the parliamentary election?

This is an election for 125 seats in the parliament. It would not formally require the president to step down, but if there were a very strong showing by the opposition, it could create a new political dynamic in Azerbaijan.

If the election is free and fair, what would be the likely result?

It is always hard to say of course because the lack of "free and fair" means the opposition operates under a burden. The polls do show that President Ilham Aliyev, whose New Azerbaijan Party controls the parliament, has some residual popularity. This is a country with 10 percent average economic growth for the past five or six years, is enjoying an oil boom that is spreading, and it is not clear he has the same popular opprobrium that say, President Leonid Kuchma had in Ukraine at the end of his tenure, or President Eduard Shevardnadze had at the end of his in Georgia. So, there may be a stronger base of support for Aliyev and his party.

After President Aliyev's election in 2003, there was some violence. Do you expect violence this time?

The opposition has said it would fight if the election results are unfair but they have emphasized that the protests will be peaceful. Given the record of sporadic violence, it is impossible to rule out some kind of renewed violence if the elections are seen to be grossly manipulated. The fact that the opposition is united this time probably gives them the opportunity to muster a larger protest in the streets.

There has been a lot of pressure by the government to limit the opposition through this campaign, and the record of previous Azeri elections makes it hard to predict a free and fair result. The ruling party holds 108 out of the 125 seats. If the election produces that result again, I think most people will regard it as fraud.

Talk about U.S.-Azeri relations. With the oil in that country, how does that play out with the United States?

The United States has, for more than a decade, tried to encourage an increase in Azerbaijan's energy exports, both oil and gas, notably through the construction of the Baku-Tbilisi [Georgia]-Ceyhan [Turkey] pipeline, and in addition, Azerbaijan has been a very eager partner for the United States since 9/11. It has personnel in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The government of Azerbaijan would by any standard be considered very friendly to the United States. On the other hand, the administration wants President Ilham Aliyev to show that he has taken steps forward in respect to institutionalization of democratic practices. That has meant a stream of high-level statements and visitors calling for free and fair elections.

The administration has wanted to make clear that it is not advocating a revolution. In fact, Daniel Fried, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, who was in Baku last month, spoke in a lecture of revolution as a "failure," trying to encourage the idea that Azerbaijan has an opportunity to show a model of peaceful evolution. Peaceful evolution will involve mobilization of a strong opposition with a real popular base.

What is the status of Rasul Guliyev, who I gather was once a leading opponent of President Heydar Aliyev, the late father of the current president?

He was the former speaker of the parliament, and fled Azerbaijan in the mid-1990s, charged with embezzlement of some $117 million, and was subsequently granted political asylum in the United States. This didn't mean the United States thought he was innocent of those charges, only that he had a legitimate fear of persecution if he were extradited to Azerbaijan.

He has a real political base in Azerbaijan. His party, the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, has remained strong, partly, it is said, through his funding. Recently he tried to return to Azerbaijan to take part in the elections, but was kept out of Azerbaijani air space. He was detained in Ukraine, but Ukrainians have refused to extradite him to Azerbaijan as the government asked just a day or so ago. President Aliyev and President [Viktor] Yushchenko of Ukraine had a phone conversation about this in which Aliyev protested the Ukrainian decision.

What is the reaction of the other members of the opposition bloc to Guliyev?

I think it is fair to say that the other opposition parties are probably not completely distressed that he was unable to return, but they certainly work with his party and his party strengthens the bloc, no doubt about it.

Tell me something about President Aliyev. Had you met him when you were ambassador to the former Soviet republics?

I met him a number of times, always in the presence of his father, at a time when he was an official of the state oil company. He had been trained as an airline pilot. He had a reputation for high living and little interest in politics. The superficial impression he made on Westerners at the time was of someone not naturally inclined to politics, very much in his father's shadow. But his father was determined to have him succeed him, and he organized that transition before his death in 2003. The younger Aliyev had been elevated to be prime minister, and took over as acting president and won a special election that was not marked by "excessive competitiveness."

Very diplomatic.

One further thing about young Aliyev: Because he doesn't have a long background in politics, his natural authority within the elite is less than his father's. There were many people who did not like his father, but everybody acknowledged that he was an exceptionally savvy and effective politician, very smart and capable. Ilham commands less of that respect, although he may in time prove to be a leader with more Western instincts. He speaks English, he had more international exposure, the kinds of hopes that people typically invest in the young offspring of elderly dictators, who have been in the West and have spent time in fast social circles. These are characteristic of the hopes that have been invested in Ilham. It is unlikely he will satisfy all of these hopes, but in some ways, he has already given more ground in allowing an open election than you would have expected his father to do.

A bit of history to satisfy my curiosity: In 1992, there was an election for the presidency in the newly independent Azerbaijan, and Abulfaz Elchibey was elected. He was overthrown by Heydar Aliyev?

In the first years of Azerbaijan's independence there was more political turmoil. Elchibey represented the populist movement that ultimately proved unable to govern the country, or win the war with Armenia over [the republic of] Nagorno-Karabakh. The elder Aliyev made a return to power. He had been first secretary of the Azerbaijan Communist Party in Soviet times. He came as a unifier and ruled from 1994 to his death in 2003.

Azerbaijan borders Iran. Does that mean there is a strong religious party or any party with pro-Iranian orientation?

No. There is a stronger sense of Azeri national identity than you might expect. There is no very strong religious party in this election. There are some smaller parties that call themselves "Islamic," but they deny they are radical fundamentalist, and it does seem as though the more credible opposition is essentially secular.

What is the situation now in Nagorno-Karabakh? Does Armenia control events there?

De facto, yes, although the authorities assert they have established their independence as a political entity in their own right. All Azeri political parties take a very strong, hard line on the issue. The elder Aliyev was more interested, and had the political clout, to pursue a compromise settlement. There has been much less movement since Ilham took over. If he tried to reach a settlement, the opposition would definitely leap on this.

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