Azerbaijan: from bad to worse

Sergei Markedonov
30 March 2009

On 20 March 2009, Novruz Bayram was celebrated in Azerbaijan. This holiday marks the end of winter and the coming of spring. It is celebrated here with true oriental panache. A public holiday was declared from 20-28 March, which gave people a chance to enjoy the beginning of spring. But it was politically significant too. Two days before the holiday, a referendum on changing the constitution was held.

Azerbaijan's constitution was passed by national vote on 12 November 1995. In March 2009 its citizens voted for 41 amendments to 20 of its articles. The most important amendment extended the permitted term of presidential powers. Previously, the office was limited to two terms. But from now on the president can stand an unlimited number of times.

18 March marked the beginning of a new stage in the political history of post-Soviet Azerbaijan. The Caucasian state made a symbolic transition. But unlike Novruz, it is a transition from spring (early spring, if we consider the condition of state institutions and their power) to winter.  The personal power of the head of state will be practically unlimited.

The powers of the head of state in Azerbaijan were extensive even before the amendments. The president had the right, without the agreement of the national parliament (Milli Mejlis), to appoint individual ministers, issue decrees on appointments to the higher court and create the "vertical" of executive power.

He was supposed to appoint the head of the cabinet of ministers with the agreement of parliament. But the weakness of executive bodies of power in the post-Soviet space meant that this right was de facto in the hands of the president. Articles 111 and 112 gave the president wide powers to declare a state of emergency and martial law.

But this was not enough. The constitution was changed to expand the head of state's power still further. There has been a departure from democracy (if not its complete destruction), commentators in the USA and Europe, as well as in Azerbaijan, have concluded. Expert reports by Freedom House and the American State Department at the beginning of this year classed the situation in Azerbaijan as a "decline of democracy".

The authoritative Baku political scientist Arif Yunusov speaks of the "Uzbekistanization" of Azerbaijan.  By this he means that the Azerbaijan elite has adapted the experience of Central Asian republics to its political practice (the extended term of the head of state, the establishment of harsh control over power in the regions and the minimization of the opposition's influence).

Yunusov deems that by the beginning of this century the former Soviet command and administrative system had effectively been restored in Azerbaijan: "All power was in the hands of the president and his office (the former central committee of the Communist Party). The functions of former regional committees of the Communist Party were transferred to bodies of local executive power, the heads of which were appointed directly by the president, answer solely to him and have all the power in the regions." The list of similarities between the Soviet and current system of power in Azerbaijan could probably be continued.

Elements of democracy

At the same time, significant differences must also be acknowledged. The new post-Soviet statehood of Azerbaijan is unthinkable without elements of democracy. These include joining the Council of Europe in 2001, and the existence of political parties and non-governmental structures, including human rights organisations. It also includes a degree of freedom for the media (which is quite considerable compared to Central Asian countries).

Most importantly, it includes electoral procedures. What stopped Ilham Aliev from simply issuing a decree extending his powers? To avoid being classified as an "outcast country", and to develop relations with the USA and the EU, the president of Azerbaijan goes through the motions of an election and legitimises his own power by legal means, rather than on the basis of "tradition" or "charisma".

He took a similar path a few years ago when he tried to legitimise the political influence of his wife, Mekhriban Alieva. There was nothing stopping him from simply using informal influence (which is both understood and accepted in the Islamic East). But in November 2005 the president's wife was elected as a Milli Mejlis deputy i.e. she entered the government formally.  It should not be forgotten that it was Mekhriban Alieva who initiated the amnesty project just before the 2009 referendum.  This was, of course, not in any way connected with the referendum:  it was linked to Novruz and affected over 10% of all prisoners.

While understanding the role of lobbying in the campaigns of both 2009 and 2005, we cannot ignore a fact that is uncomfortable for both local human rights advocates and democrats. Ilham Aliev would have been successful anyway, even without the administrative and bureaucratic pressure. Perhaps the amendment to the constitution would not have received 92.17% of votes, but only 55-65%. 

To see the truth of this one only has to see how closely Azerbaijan's human rights advocates and opponents of the regime, many of whom dislike the president, identify with the concept of the state as a patrimonial mechanism. "Another five years lie ahead. If Ilham Aliev can show during this time that he is really president of the people, and not of the corrupt, if he eliminates the abuse of power by officials, and unemployment, ensures freedom of speech, the press and assembly, and releases political prisoners, then I will be the first to campaign for him to be given the right to stand for president again". This statement was made shortly before the referendum, not by a representative of Ilham Aliev's administration, but by the head of the Dilyara Alieva Society for the protection of Women's Rights, Novella Jafaroglu.

So how accurate is it to classify these developments as a ‘decline of democracy?'" How much of an increase in democracy was there in previous years, i.e. during the establishment of independence? It is more relevant to address this question than to lament the "defeat of democracy" the victory of an "authoritarian / totalitarian dictatorship".

The ghost of oriental autocracy

When post-Soviet Azerbaijan proclaimed its independence, it declared itself the legal successor of the first independent national state of the Azerbaijan people, which lasted 23 months.

The Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR) of 1918-1920 raised the issue of introducing the institution of president. The main claimant to this position was Mamed Emin Rasulzade (the leader of the Musavat party and head of the Azerbaijan national council, which proclaimed the independence of the ADR).

However, Rasulzade believed that his fellow citizens were inclined to idolise their leaders, and that this could affect the nature of the state itself. The leaders of the ruling Musavat party often appealed to democratic values and declared their wish to build the first free state in the East.  In reality the "first republic" was far from attaining the declared ideals.  This was demonstrated by its inflexible approach to the "national question" and to relations with neighbours (not just Armenia, but Georgia, where the ADR disputed Borchaly and Saingilo).

The Soviet model in Azerbaijan also had its special features: communist autocracy combined with local informal clan connections. There was good reason behind the popular theory, even in the Soviet period, that the natives of the Nakhichivan ASSR were naturally predisposed to hold positions of authority. The political scientist Vagif Huseinov has justly commented that "Heydar Aliev came from the depths of the Azerbaijan countryside; he had a special professional understanding of the real moods in society, the importance of national features, traditions and the nature and lifestyle of social groups, circles and levels.  This gave him a unique understanding of the power of the clan communities grouped around important or influential figures".  This was how Heydar Aliev built a powerful quasi-state under the formal control of the decrepit politburo while he was first secretary of the central committee of the Azerbaijan Communist Party, 1969-82.

Furthermore, Vagif Huseinov has rightly commented that "the way the ghost of a neo-monarchy haunted the republic's democratic façade was a direct result of the contradictions inherent in the period before Gorbachev's perestroika, as well as in the difficult period of independence. The last 30 years have seen the development of many of the socio-economic preconditions for an oriental autocracy.  The social fabric has been reinforced by structures based on the state-tribal rule built by Heydar Aliev when he was first secretary of the central committee of the Azerbaijan Communist Party."

In Azerbaijan, the brief period of "freedom" initiated by Gorbachev's "perestroika" and the collapse of the USSR came to be associated above all with the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.  Anti-Soviet protest was largely nationalist and populist. It was not democratic, like Solidarity or the political clubs of the "Prague spring" in 1968. Azerbaijan's democracy stopped where the criticism of Soviet evils ended and Karabakh began.

These feelings were harnessed in the late 1980-1990s by politicians like the second president of independent Azerbaijan, Abulfaz Elchibey, and his colleagues from the National Front (NFA).  In 1990 they suffered a temporary defeat at the hands of the local national communists supported by Moscow. But in 1992 they turned the tables and returned to build a new, non-Soviet Azerbaijan.

Their collective portrait was drawn brilliantly by Dmitry Furman and Ali Abasov: "Clearly the most ‘revolutionary' group has come to power, led by the most ‘idealistic' politician of all the factions and politicians ruling in different countries of the former USSR. The president is surrounded by people who are mainly first-generation members of the intelligentsia, from the countryside, like Elchibey himself.  They did not move up the bureaucratic hierarchical ladder and they came to their positions as dedicated revolutionaries."

However, it soon turned out that an ability to win over a crowd and unmask the scheming of Moscow and Armenia was not enough to govern a country, conduct a war, build institutions of power and sort out socio-economic systems. The new leaders quickly lost contact with reality. They started promoting ideas of "Turkic integration" and battling with the Kremlin intrigues and "world Armenism". They openly challenged Iran, demanding the unification of the "two Azerbaijans".

Only a third of Elchibey's protegés had the education and experience required. The consequences were chaos, loss of control and failure on the Karabakh front. For the average Azerbaijani democracy came to be associated with the period of National Front rule. Hence the nostalgia for the "golden age" of Aliev and the much-vaunted stability.

The opinion of one ordinary Azerbaijani voter who came to vote on 18 March 2009 is very telling: "I well remember how the National Front ruled Azerbaijan in 1992-1993. All high-level positions were held by members of the National Front party. What did they think about - the people? No, they thought about stuffing their pockets. I have no illusions about those in power now. They too think only of themselves. But what would happen to the country, to all of us, if Ilham Aliev were to stand down in 2013? There would be a re-division of property, which could lead to civil war. Does Azerbaijan need this? No!"

At the same time, the opposition repeats the National Front rhetoric from the early 1990s (there are obvious parallels here with Russian democrats, who have been unable to offer voters anything new apart from unmasking the "cursed past"). The regime's opponents are unable to come up with new faces, programmes or ideas. After the failure of their idea of "boycotting" the presidential elections, they campaigned for boycotting the referendum. This did not work either. Voters prefer the familiar Soviet model adjusted for national independence. As the independent Milli Mejlis deputy Elmira Akhundova put it: "The main thing is not who is elected president, and how many times. What matters is the stability of Azerbaijan. Today that is associated with one person - Ilham Aliev."

This is the most serious problem for Azerbaijan's stability. Aliev's personal power has increased, thanks less to the scheming of the head of state and his сlosest associates as to public opinion. Whatever the regime's opponents may say, there were no mass protests against the results of the referendum, or the falsification of the results. The regime has received the support of the people.

However, a regime of personal rule only remains sound as long as the president is healthy, confident and has not lost contact with reality or become intoxicated by his own greatness. But it is very difficult to play the part of an "enlightened moderniser" when ruling in an authoritarian style. As soon as the president's strength falters, the entire structure of the regime begins to collapse. Yesterday's unquestioned guarantor of stability then risks falling victim to his own former ardent admirers and supporters.

There is no proof that the collapse of such a regime will result in liberalisation, let alone a stable democracy. The worst elements in society could well triumph. This has been demonstrated by many events in post-Soviet history - not only in Azerbaijan, but in Chechnya too. But these conditions are invariably followed by "stability" and a dictatorship of greater or lesser severity. With elements of democracy or without.

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