Dynasty and democracy in Azerbaijan

Sabine Freizer
5 December 2003

The 15 October 2003 presidential elections in Azerbaijan represented (after Armenia in 1998) only the second significant post-Soviet handover of presidential power via the ballot box in any Caucasian or Central Asian state. They were the first elections to be held since the country joined the Council of Europe in 2001. As a member of this exclusive club, Azerbaijan’s commitments to protect democratic principles and individual human rights had substantially increased.

In the event, the election experience was a bitter disappointment to election observers, foreign governments, and most of all to the hopes for democracy in Azerbaijan. Twelve years after the Republic of Azerbaijan became independent of the Soviet Union, the state lost a significant opportunity to hold a democratic and peaceful presidential election.

According to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) the elections “failed to meet OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections.” President Bush wrote to Ilham Aliev on his inauguration on 31 October: “we have expressed our concerns and disappointments both publicly and privately with the conduct of the October 15 election.” (This letter was obtained in Baku from diplomatic sources).

The most egregious violations occurred on election night itself and on the following day, when police and internal security units used overwhelming force to break up unauthorised opposition protest rallies in the capital, Baku. At least five persons were killed, and a wave of detentions swept 625 persons, including at least 85 election commission officials, into custody.

The main opposition candidate, Isa Gambar [Musavat (Equality) Party], was kept under effective house arrest for twenty-five days, and a media campaign accused him of planning to overthrow the government with Iranian support.

All this meant that rather then serve as a celebration of Azerbaijan’s democratic achievements, its 2003 elections showed the effectiveness of violence and fraud as tools to maintain political power.

The Azeri warning

Before 15 October, both Azerbaijan’s people and international observers believed that the country could break with its previous pattern of less-than-free elections. Heydar Aliev, president since 1993 – now hospitalised in Cleveland, Ohio – withdrew from the race on 2 October in favour of his son Ilham, representing the Young Azerbaijan Party (YAP).

During summer 2003, the Azerbaijan Central Elections Commission had registered twelve presidential candidates, thus in principle guaranteeing voters a genuine choice. Elections 2003 provided Azerbaijan with a unique opportunity to organise a democratic suffrage that could be exemplary for other countries of the post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), especially in central Asia. Instead, problems already evident during the election campaign were exacerbated further on and after election day. From a democratic suffrage, the 2003 presidential vote became an autocratic dynastic succession.

It did not have to happen like this. The existence of an active civic society signifies that opportunities for democratic consolidation in Azerbaijan are greater than in nearby central Asian states. Throughout the elections process the population of Azerbaijan was thoroughly engaged. Opposition political parties, media and local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were active, encouraging citizens to use their right to vote and preparing a thorough election-day observation effort.

However, the political environment was dominated by a strong centralised state whose conditions did not favour change or even dialogue. The 2003 Azerbaijan dynastic succession thus casts doubt not only on the course of democratic consolidation in Azerbaijan but also on the future of democratic regime change in central Asian states – where there are comparable government systems but even weaker civic societies.

In this article, I argue that the nature of the state in Azerbaijan precluded the possibility for democratic elections in the country, despite the active participation of civic actors in the process. The future stability of the country has been compromised because the state has shown its willingness to use force against the opposition, and has thus legitimised violence as a political tool. I also argue that the 2003 Azeri elections forewarn the outcome of planned suffrages in 2005-2007 in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.

Civic society misses its opportunities

Contrary to expectations after the flawed parliamentary election in 2000-2001, Azeri citizens and political activists were galvanised by the 2003 campaign. The political campaign was dynamic, with pro-government and opposition candidates drawing hundreds of thousands into streets, squares, stadiums, cinemas and other public spaces to attend political party rallies.

Candidates, including lesser-known ones like Lala Shovket Hajiyeva and Ilyas Ismayilov, crossed the country, often holding three rallies a day in front of enthusiastic banner-waving crowds. In rural towns there were overflows from the cultural houses and cinemas allocated to candidates for campaign events. The police intervened with force to disperse the crowds, most notably on 21 September in four separate incidents in Lenkoran, Masalli and Baku.

Yet the violence and intimidation did not deter citizens; they continued to gather to meet their preferred candidates. The campaign culminated with several large rallies in Baku. In the city’s main stadium, approximately 40,000 university students attended an elaborately choreographed show for Ilham Aliev with singers, dancers and athletes.

The previous day, around 15,000 tightly-packed participants listened to Our Azerbaijan Bloc supporters promote Isa Gambar’s candidacy. Among a sea of flags with a white star and crescent on a blue background, one human rights activist – Rena Sadaddinova, of the Azerbaijan Foundation of Democracy, Development and Human Rights Protection – exclaimed: “Azerbaijan has not seen anything like this in ten years!”

Several political parties and well-known political figures had boycotted the 1998 presidential election, but in 2003 all main opposition leaders energetically attempted to maximise their vote. Two significant politicians in exile – former parliamentarian speaker Rasul Guliev [Azerbaijan Democratic Party (ADP)] and (former president) Ayaz Mutalibov – pledged to return to Azerbaijan to campaign, but were denied the right to register as candidates.

Isa Gambar (Musavat), Etibar Mamedov [Azerbaijan National Independence Party (ANIP)] and Ali Kerimli [Azerbaijan Popular Front (APFP)] - personalities who had been deeply engaged in the nationalist Popular Front movement in the late 1980s and early 1990s - were granted registration, as were others who had been previously active in public life such as Lala Shovket Hajiyeva, Gudrat Hasanguliyev and Ilyas Ismayilov.

Yet in failing to agree upon a single candidate, the Azeri opposition missed a key opportunity to unite around civic values and a shared vision for change. The effort to appoint a single candidate led to a meeting on 23-24 August 2003 in London between Gambar, Mammedov, Kerimli and Guliev where the four agreed to support whoever of them reached the second round of voting, but not on the identity of the candidate.

Then, a week before the elections, Gambar, Mammedov and Kerimli signed a “Draft Agreement on Setting up a Coalition Government.” It held that Musavat, ANIP and APFP would back a common candidate: Isa Gambar. The agreement further laid the blueprint for sweeping democratic reforms of the country’s system of governance, transforming Azerbaijan into a parliamentary democracy on the Turkish model.

The close cooperation of the main opposition parties spread to the regions, where such cooperation was well-established, and was greeted with enthusiasm. But only a few hours after the agreement was drafted, Isa Gambar made a different alliance with Guliev. For the vast majority of Musavat, ANIP and APFP activists, united by a commitment to regime change, this disunity was a crucial misstep.

The democratic spirit on display…

In the election itself, Azeri citizens expressed their commitment to democratic elections by volunteering as observers in their tens of thousands. Over 40,000 individuals, political party supporters and NGO representatives were deployed as observers across the country on 15 October.

Before the elections, YAP and Musavat estimated that they had registered over 10,000 observers each, two per polling station; ADP, 3,100. The four main opposition parties – Musavat, ANIP, ADP and APFP – collaborated in their observation efforts, making joint declarations and press statements on 14-15 October. Civil society groups also spent months before the elections preparing their observation strategy.

The Council for Free and Just Elections, composed of several dozen NGOs, organised the largest non-party domestic observation. It claimed to oversee 2,222 election precincts out of the country’s 5,164 polling stations on 15 October. It subsequently issued highly critical findings calling the elections “neither free nor fair”.

Both official figures and personal observations on election day indicate a large turnout. According to the Central Election Commission, 72% of the population voted. Yet the accuracy of the electoral roll was a serious concern. International observers three times saw several hundred voters being turned away because they were not on the lists. After being told to obtain court documentation, thousands of voters stood in long queues at courthouses. Their anger at having to wait for hours to meet a judge was equaled only by their commitment to protect their right to vote.

Persons interviewed at the courts alleged that they had been excluded from the lists because they supported the opposition; opposition leaders also charged that the names of their supporters were deliberately withdrawn. While such allegations were difficult to verify, citizens’ resolve to vote clearly demonstrated their desire to participate in a democratic electoral process.

…meets institutional resistance to change

Despite its active civil society and democratic opposition, Azerbaijan’s governing bodies presented formidable obstacles to democratic change. Azerbaijan was and continues to be governed by a highly centralised presidential system. Heydar Aliev came to power in 1993 via a coup followed by elections (where he ‘won’ 98.8% of the vote), then gradually consolidated his influence over the country’s political, economic, military and security structures.

Most critically, control of the state oil company (Socar) and the state oil fund (Sofar) – which are not part of the state budget – gave Aliev effective ownership of the country’s main source of revenue. Heydar Aliev appointed his son Ilham to become vice-president of Socar in May 1994.

In Azerbaijan, the president appoints people to key state positions, including judges and the powerful heads of executive committees in the regions. These were distributed through networks of patronage based on family ties, then on regional background. The dominant regional network under Heydar Aliev was composed of Azeris from Armenia (Yevraz) and from the western Nakhichevan territory.

The rentier nature of the state under Aliev created a bureaucratic vested interest and obstacle to democratic change. Any change of regime presented mid- and higher level officials, who had obtained their positions due to personal or network ties with President Aliyev, with the prospect of immediate dismissal, even criminal prosecution for embezzlement and corruption.

Pro-government forces circulated wild rumours that all people from Nakhichevan would be expelled from Baku if the opposition came to power. Thus, after Ilham Aliyev was appointed prime minister, the nature of the state contributed to a closing of ranks among bureaucrats around his candidacy, and deepened political antagonisms.

The proclaimed results of the 2000-2001 parliamentary elections had failed to reflect the political will of citizens, and exacerbated the zero-sum nature of the government and opposition’s relationship. The OSCE / Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) report on the elections concluded that “election day polling was marred by numerous violations and the vote count was completely flawed.”

The YAP obtained a majority of the seats; the APFP, Civil Solidarity Party and the Communist Party were the only other forces polling enough votes to gain seats in parliament. Musavat, which claimed to have received 50% of the vote, remained outside parliament along with the ADP, ANIP and the Liberal Party.

After the 2001 elections, parliament did not provide a forum for democratic debate on issues of policy relevance. On several occasions it degenerated to the level of an abusive arena for personal vendettas. Its lack of policy engagement and authority, and the exclusion of the main opposition parties, meant that there was little opportunity for government-opposition dialogue within existing institutional frameworks.

In 2002, Heydar Aliev organised a referendum – a presidential prerogative – to establish appropriate mechanisms enabling a constitutional dynastic succession of power. In August, several sweeping changes to the constitution were passed, including the abolition of the proportional element in favor of a purely majoritarian system for parliamentary elections.

Most importantly the succession to the president, should he die or become incapacitated, was shifted from the parliamentary speaker to the prime minister. Official turnout was 88%, with 96% voting yes – though international observers reported violations, fraud and voter intimidation.

A year later, from his Cleveland clinic, President Aliev issued a decree appointing his son Ilham as prime minister. This was adopted by a 102-1 vote in parliament. The referendum, and the power of the presidential decree, provided Heydar Aliev with the constitutional right to handpick his successor.

The weapon of uncertainty

The state’s elites employed a subtle yet highly effective strategy to secure its power in the run-up to the 2003 election: the orchestration of an atmosphere of uncertainty and insecurity through the restrictive dissemination of information on the health of Heydar Aliyev.

Until 2 October he was still the official candidate of the Young Azerbaijan Party (YAP) and the campaign frontrunner. Yet he was invisible during the campaign. Aliev, aged 80, collapsed twice on 21 April 2003 while making a live televised speech. After 8 July when he had traveled for treatment to Turkey, he made no public statements; on 6 August he was flown to Cleveland for additional care.

Official Azeri statements tersely announced that the president’s health was steadily improving, and that he would soon return to the country. The waiting and the growing public doubt that Heydar Aliev would indeed return left a power vacuum in the approach to the elections. Top-level officials deftly manipulated this factor by delaying their public change of allegiance from Heydar to Ilham Aliev in order to leave insufficient time for public discussion about the transition. The overall atmosphere of uncertainty worked in the government’s favour, justifying authorities’ calls for increased vigilance against instability and eventually the use of force against the opposition.

A flawed electoral process

In the months leading up to 15 October, violence was legitimised as an acceptable response to peaceful political gatherings, as government authorities warned that the opposition was committed to instability and overthrowing the state.

For months police regularly used excessive force to break up protests by ADP supporters calling for the registration as presidential candidate of Rasul Guliev. The opposition banded together to organise the first large-scale gathering of the election session on 9 August, when some 8-10,000 persons marched to protest the appointment of Ilham Aliev as prime minister.

On 11 August the ministry of the interior and the prosecutor’s office responded, issuing a joint statement stating that they would act resolutely to curtail “any negative developments that threaten the interests of the state.” Despite this, Musavat organised another large demonstration, attracting 10-15,000 participants, on 7 September.

The previously restrained policy of the security forces towards such large gatherings changed dramatically from mid-September. On 21 September police used brutal force to disperse crowds of several thousands of people who had come to attend two separate rallies in support of Isa Gambar’s candidacy in Baku. As mentioned earlier, similar incidents occurred in Masalli and Lenkoran (at AMIP/APFP) events on the same day.

During the remainder of the election campaign, a strong police presence was visible during the majority of opposition rallies. Police and state authorities continued to use intimidation and violence against opposition supporters, NGO activists and journalists. Before the AMIP was to hold a rally in the southern town of Saatli on 1 October, its office was looted and its district chairman detained. The rally itself almost turned into a violent confrontation when a large number of pro-government provocateurs armed with sticks, led by district executive authorities, threatened opposition supporters.

Such state-sponsored use of excessive force during the pre-election campaign served to radicalise the opposition, intimidate the broader population against political participation in election events, and limit the public space for political engagement.

A night and day of violence

This willingness by Azeri authorities to use force against opposition activists presaged events on the night of the election and the following day. As the voting day drew nearer, the minister of internal affairs and the head of the presidential administration warned that the opposition was planning massive disturbances on 15-16 October with the aim of taking control of the state by force.

Against their predictions, however, the vital day was generally peaceful. Tensions began to rise when military vehicles appeared in the late afternoon in front of Musavat’s Baku headquarters. They later temporarily withdrew and a few hundred Musavat supporters gathered in front of the party headquarters to show support for their candidate and obtain news.

By early evening the number of police, special forces, military and plainclothes provocateurs around Musavat was close to double the number of opposition supporters.

In at least two separate incidents during the night of 15-16 October, security forces attacked peaceful opposition activists. Officials later claimed that Musavat supporters instigated the violence by attacking police; though on election night the police chief in charge of the operation stated that he had to break up the rally because it was causing public disorder. Quick and effective mediation carried by one local NGO activist avoided a storming of Musavat’s headquarters around 3am and yet more violence.

The four main opposition parties had, as prescribed by law, requested authorisation to organise a public meeting in central Baku on 16 October five days before the event. As so often before, they were denied the right to meet in the town centre. Instead, they were offered a space in the city’s outskirts.

But in the early afternoon, several thousand pro-opposition supporters gathered defiantly in front of the Lenin Museum – at one of the locations initially requested by the opposition. Amidst a police presence, they began marching to Freedom Square some 500 metres away. On the way, some demonstrators vandalised windows and vehicles, and attacked police forces with metal bars and stones.

At the square itself, the protest speeches began, but police and military forces quickly surrounded demonstrators and used overwhelming force to disperse them. The most vicious attacks appeared to come from young army recruits who wielded truncheons against protestors already on the ground and posing no threat. Film of events on 16 October shows police officers on several occasions intervening to stop soldiers from violently attacking demonstrators. The decision to call in the army to confront civic activists was the most extreme step that the state could have taken to defend its position short of initiating a full-scale internal war.

The aftermath: a collapse of trust

The violence of 15-16 October initially succeeded in turning international and Azeri attention away from purely election-related developments, including the state’s recourse to massive fraud to ensure Ilham Aliyev’s victory, to the need for stability. A meeting of OSCE ambassadors accredited to Azerbaijan on 20 October focused not on electoral violations, but on ways to mediate between government and opposition, and to obtain from Isa Gambar a public renunciation of violence and acceptance of Ilham Aliev’s mandate.

Yet widespread procedural and technical violations had occurred on election day, which could put into question the veracity of official election results. The OSCE’s Election Observation Mission (EOM) reported “serious irregularities and efforts to cheat through ballot-box stuffing, pre-marked ballots, ballots without serial numbers, ballot issuance to voters not on the lists and multiple voting.”

It also noted unauthorised persons directing the work of commissions, attempts to influence the voter’s choice, the adding of large numbers of voters on the electoral roll. Moreover, 30% of the counting centres visited by OSCE observers were assessed as having “many significant problems”, and an additional 25% as having “a few significant problems”. The National Democratic Institute also came to the conclusion that “serious irregularities undermined the integrity of the voting process.”

These questions were reinforced by the waves of detentions of election officials. On 15-16 October at least 85 election officials from the opposition were brought to police stations and instructed to sign election protocols. They refused to sign what they considered to be falsified results, and were sentenced to periods of administrative detention. In Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second city, over thirty election staff were thus pressured. Large numbers of opposition election officials fled their homes – one presidential candidate claimed a few days after the elections to be hiding 300 election staff who would not sign the protocols.

A second wave of detentions indiscriminately targeted opposition supporters. People were arrested for allegedly participating in violence on 15-16 October, even though many were not even in Baku at the time. While in detention some were pressured to make televised “confessions” and denunciations of opposition leaders.

In the town of Ali Bayramli, a Musavat activist was sentenced to fifteen days’ detention, held in solitary confinement for five days, threatened with a criminal case and told that his family members would be assaulted if he did not publicly denounce Musavat. He was filmed by a local TV station doing so and was subsequently released.

The third wave of detentions was aimed against opposition party leaders. Four deputy chairmen of Musavat, the secretary-general of the ADP, and the leaders of two smaller parties who had supported Isa Gambar’s candidature were arrested and accused of “attending and organising massive disturbances” on 15-16 October. These crimes are punishable by four-to-twelve years’ imprisonment.

In the weeks following the election detentions, politically-motivated firings and intimidation of opposition supporters and other members of civic society continued. The new president followed the political line defined by his father, reappointing to their positions all the high-level authorities belonging to his father’s inner circle. Ilham Aliev even renominated as prime minister 67-year old Artur Rasizade, who had resigned in Ilham’s favour due to health problems three months earlier.

International expectations that Ilham Aliyev would bring in younger, more westernised professionals to serve in government were thus initially dashed. Official statements concerning the imminent return of Heydar Aliev also continued. The polarisation between civic society and the state remained deep; popular trust in democratic procedure weak; and the state disposition to use violence against its opponents clear.

A crisis of democratisation in Azerbaijan

The commitment of Azerbaijan’s civic society to democratic change through fair elections led to its active participation in the 2003 presidential vote. Decision-makers within the country’s centralised state apparatus who had little interest in supporting a democratic process dashed these expectations. The outcome of the 2003 poll was the combined product of flawed parliamentary elections, a doctored referendum, the opposition’s inability to overcome personal differences and rally behind a common presidential candidate, and the creation of an atmosphere of uncertainty around the health and accountability of the nominal president, Heydar Aliev.

Before 15-16 October 2003, opposition leaders felt confident that law-enforcement officials, police and soldiers would not fight against fellow Azeris. The events of 16 October in particular proved the contrary. State institutions on election day and in its aftermath demonstrated their unwillingness to loosen their iron grip on the country’s political and security-based sources of power. Operating against this state, civic society’s efforts were largely futile.

The implications for Central Asia

The flawed Azeri presidential election risks being a setback not only for democratic processes in Azerbaijan but for those in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. As the most western-orientated Turkic country of the CIS, Azerbaijan has often served as a model for its Central Asian counterparts. For centuries, Azerbaijan was linked to central Asia by the Silk Road; today new transportation routes (Traceca, the Transport Route Across Caucasia, Europe, central Asia) and strategic gas and oil pipelines (Baku-Ceyhan, Blue Stream), are being built to bridge the Caspian Sea.

Rivalries based on conflicting claims to oil reserves in the Caspian, and on preferred pipeline roots, have at times divided Azerbaijan from its central Asian neighbours. But at the political level central Asian states have often followed Azerbaijan’s lead. Civic society in central Asia tends to be much weaker than in Azerbaijan with few opposition parties openly criticising the state. Yet many of the institutional arrangements evident in Azerbaijan also characterise Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. In particular, the four countries are governed by centralised presidential systems where patronage and rent-seeking networks breed an atmosphere of state-sponsored corruption.

Parliamentary and presidential elections are expected in 2005-2007 in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Already several of the warning signs that anticipated the outcome of the 2003 presidential vote in Azerbaijan are evident. As in Azerbaijan, these four countries of central Asia have weak parliaments where flawed parliamentary elections did nothing to open a space for political dialogue between government and opposition forces.

All central Asian presidents have used referenda to extend their terms in office. In 2003 in Kyrgyzstan, President Akayev organised a referendum to guarantee himself and his family immunity from criminal prosecution; in Tajikistan, President Rakhmonov’s referendum will allow him to serve another two terms after the planned 2006 elections. The presidents of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have placed their children in positions of political and economic influence, possibly preparing for their own dynastic successions.

Most worryingly of all, violence has been used to repress peaceful political protest – openly in March 2002 in the Jalalabad province (Aksy district) of southern Kyrgyzstan and regularly in Uzbekistan with massive detentions of persons expressing opposition to the state. In these circumstances, it is urgent that western countries, bilateral donors and international organisations carefully study the lessons of the Azerbaijan presidential election. They should use its lessons to define a strategy that can truly encourage civic society promotion and democratisation in central Asia.


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