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Azerbaijan's unfinished election

About the author
Sabine Freizer is Caucasus Project Director of the International Crisis Group, based in Tbilisi.

The 6 November 2005 parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan were another missed opportunity for the oil-rich country in the southern Caucasus to demonstrate its commitment to democracy and reform. Massive fraud including ballot-stuffing was observed by international observers throughout the country. Only 47% of the population decided to turn out to vote, revealing a serious disenchantment with the electoral system in a country which has seen one fraudulent election after the other.

The potential for violence and a breakdown in stability continues to exist, with the Azeri opposition now vowing to bring its political struggle into the streets with peaceful demonstrations. The government has stated that it will repress any actions that even hint at the kind of revolutionary change witnessed in other ex-Soviet countries – Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, and neighbouring Georgia. Yet there is still a chance that election-related complaints will be processed through the appropriate legal bodies, leading to prosecution for offences and repeat elections.

Also in openDemocracy on resource politics and democratic struggles in the Caucasus:

Vanora Bennett, “Loving caviar to death: the view from Dagestan” (September 2003)

Chris Smith, “Baku-Ceyhan: the politics of oil” (August 2005)

Neal Ascherson, “Tbilisi, Georgia: the rose revolution’s rocky road” (August 2005)

Fred Halliday, “The contest for the Caspian” (October 2005)

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These elections were supposed to be different. President Ilham Aliev had issued two decrees, in May and October 2005, expressing a firm political intention that the polls would be fair and democratic. 2,063 candidates registered to vote, with 1,550 finally standing on election-day. Access to the media for all political forces significantly improved; even some of the most radical opposition figures benefited from free airtime.

Yet violence during the campaign, and the government’s refusal to allow the opposition to hold rallies in central Baku, kept a lid on the democratic process. Local authorities’ promotion of their favourite candidates, and their warnings to the country’s host of state employees against supporting the opposition, maintained an atmosphere of intimidation. The pre-election playing-field was always tilted towards pro-government candidates.

Violence was alread a factor in October 2003. The deeply flawed presidential elections sealed a dynastic transition from Azerbaijan’s longstanding post-Soviet ruler Heydar Aliev to his son Ilham – two months before Heydar’s death. The polls were marred by significant irregularities and failed to meet international standards, leading to widespread protest rallies on election-night and the following day. Police and internal security troops in the capital, Baku, used overwhelming force to crush the opposition; at least four people were killed and a wave of detentions swept into custody at least 625, including eighty-five election commission officials.

At the time international criticism of the elections was relatively muted, suggesting that many interested parties placed a premium on continuity and the stability of energy investments rather than on democracy. Decision-makers in the United States and European Union member-states expressed hope that Ilham Aliev, despite the circumstances of his arrival in power, would combine stability with reform. In these two years, Ilham Aliev’s government has indeed promoted legislative change to root out corruption and reform key state institutions to ensure that they protect fundamental rights; but these remain mainly paper pledges.

The economics of insecurity

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan is set to benefit in the next three years from a doubling of its gross domestic product – by at least 20% in 2005 alone. The opening of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline, the further exploitation of the Shah Deniz gasfield, and growth in construction, transportation, and services are expected to drive further economic expansion.

Yet even as foreign direct investment pours into Azerbaijan’s hydrocarbon sector, the country’s immense resources are still finite and most economic projections show a declining growth rate after 2010. It is essential that the government effectively manages the state oil fund which already has close to $1 billion in its coffers. The country risks “Dutch disease”: an over-dependence on the oil and gas sectors, high inflation, and a rapid appreciation of the local currency that would be detrimental to Azerbaijani exports. To ensure future economic stability the state needs to find ways – including rural development and the promotion of non-oil industries – to gradually distribute wealth.

Sabine Freizer is Caucasus Project Director for the International Crisis Group, based in Tbilisi.

Also by Sabine Freizer in openDemocracy:

Dynasty and democracy in Azerbaijan” (December 2003)

The pillars of Georgia’s political transition” (February 2004)

Midnight in Tashkent” (April 2004)

The International Crisis Group will publish a report on political developments in Azerbaijan next week.

Most important of all, if Azerbaijan expects to become an economic and political success story it must systematically attack corruption. In 2004, Transparency International ranked Azerbaijan 140th on its index of the 146 most corrupt nations. Despite the anti-corruption legislation of the past year, the number of people being accused and sentenced for corrupt practices has not significantly increased, especially amongst state officials. True, several high-level authorities – including two ministers – were detained in the run-up to the elections, but it remains unclear if their detention was driven by a genuine anti-corruption commitment or by a desire to eliminate potential political rivals. As long as deeply corrupt patronage networks drive its political and economic systems, Azerbaijan will remain a rentier state struggling to achieve democratic change.

To wage a deep systemic anti-corruption effort and maintain stability, the president and his government need to have a strong popular mandate, a politically active citizenry, and robust judicial and law-enforcement bodies keen on upholding the rule of law. Democratic elections are a key component in this equation: a committed and professional parliament would benefit the president by giving him a strong backbone to launch widespread reforms.

A democratic margin

This is not the parliament that Ilham Aliev is likely to get when it is stacked with MPs who have little real public support and were elected illegally. And a preliminary statement issued by the OSCE election observation mission to Azerbaijan on 7 November suggests that some people were indeed elected on a fraudulent basis. The mission concluded that the elections “did not meet a number of OSCE commitments and Council of Europe standards for democratic elections”; it described a litany of pre-elections and election-day violations, especially during the count and tabulation process.

In the coming days and months the Central Election Commission, the general prosecutor’s office and the Azerbaijani courts will be asked to adjudicate election-related complaints, cancel fraudulent polls and sentence those guilty of election fraud. The Baku mayor’s office has accepted the opposition’s request to hold a demonstration on 9 November, and the police will be made responsible to guarantee freedom of assembly and professionalism in carrying out crowd-control duties. Ultimately, President Aliev may find it necessary to dismiss heads of local executive committees for illegally interfering in the election process, and set a new date for repeat elections where, as in the most blatant cases, the results may be cancelled. The opposition will have to continue fighting peacefully through the courts for its rights, with the aim of gaining as many seats as possible in the new parliament after repeat elections.

These legal and administrative steps could cumulatively put Azerbaijan back on the path toward democratic development. If they are not taken, the country is likely to swerve towards increased instability and insecurity – a dangerous trajectory for a country at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. Azerbaijan’s international partners would do well to help it on the right path.


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