On November 1st, Azerbaijan held its fifth parliamentary elections since independence. In the days that followed, those browsing the internet for reports on conduct and outcome of the elections might have found the following headlines:
Looking at these titles, it seems like democratic prospects are all shiny and bright on the Caspian shore. Or are they really? One may have noticed that all of these articles were issued by Azerbaijani state-controlled media. Those interested in post-Soviet Eurasia, and Azerbaijan more specifically, may actually not be that surprised by the overflow of English-speaking Azerbaijani propaganda about the elections but rather by the absence of strong European and U.S. official condemnation of what can only be hailed as a “democratic masquerade.” One can wonder if this lack of adequate response is Europe and the United States’ way of admitting to their own failure in encouraging Azerbaijan to truly engage with democratization. Or if it just attests to the fact that Azerbaijan’s democratic fate is no longer on their strategic radars.
On Sunday, November 1st, 5,093,289 registered Azerbaijani voters were called to elect their legislature. The Milli Mejlis–Azerbaijan’s single-chamber National Assembly–is composed of 125 members elected in single-member constituencies using the first-past-the post system (each electoral district has one elected representative).
The elections were boycotted by the main opposition parties: National Council of Democratic Forces (NCDF), the Musavat party, and the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan. Isa Gambar, the Leader of Musavat, claimed “that a win for Aliyev’s party was a foregone conclusion “in the absence of strong opposition candidates and amid widespread violations”.”
In addition, the electoral system is shaped so as to favor President Aliyev’s New Azerbaijan Party (known by its Azerbaijani acronym YAP). Jonathan Bach, a journalist and research fellow with the University of Oregon-UNESCO Crossings Institute for Conflict-Sensitive Reporting and Intercultural Dialogue, explains:
“The electoral system is fixed in favor of the ruling party. Three commissions constitute the system through which elections are administered. The problem is: the most powerful commission, the Central Election Commission (CEC), is elected by whoever holds a majority in parliament. Constituency-level commissions are selected by the CEC. And the smaller and more multitudinous precinct-level commissions are selected by the ConECs. A number of people from political parties and society told the OSCE/ODIHR assessment mission cohort that ‘this formula, in practice, gives pro-government forces control of all commissions, undermining trust in the impartiality of the election commission.’”
According to Al Jazeera the final voter turnout was 55.7% and 700 candidates from 13 political parties and one bloc participated in the race. YAP won 70 out of the 125 seats. Other parties present in parliament are all somewhat aligned with the ruling party as opposition parties have been absent from parliament already since the 2010 elections.
Gearing-up international lobbying campaigns and silencing opponents
About five years ago, in conjunction with the 2010 parliamentary elections, a shift occurred in Azerbaijan: regime strategies to silence opposition voices were improved all the while the government’s lobbying efforts abroad–particularly in Europe and the U.S.–were significantly augmented.
Ever since, to the outside world, Azerbaijan has promoted its religious tolerance, location at the crossroads between the East and West, and modernity. More importantly, it has repeatedly used its membership in international organizations such as the OSCE and the Council of Europe to self-congratulate itself on its democratic progress. In parallel, the Azerbaijani government has, with great consistency, emphasized Azerbaijan’s strategic relevance for its European and U.S. partners as a producer and hub for energy supplies but also as military ally securing access routes in and out of Afghanistan. It has also played the card of being sandwiched between Russia and Iran–two countries with which the West has tense relations.
It looks like the Azerbaijani elite’s patience is beginning to pay off. In fact, according to French MP Thierry Mariani who travelled to Azerbaijan to monitor the elections, they were conducted in full compliance with democratic standards. But from the sidelines, one may want to ask Thierry Mariani a few questions. For instance: How large was the delegation? How were the visited electoral districts selected? Who accompanied the delegation on these visits? Did the delegation stay in the capital only or did it also go to other cities? And, maybe most importantly, who paid for this visit to Azerbaijan? Without answers to these questions, it is indeed very hard to take this MP’s word as an actual thorough assessment of the conduct of the latest parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan.
That being said, the emphasis here is on the bigger picture that emerged over the past five years, in which officials throughout the West gradually ceased to voice their concerns on authoritarian backlash in the Land of Fire. This is not to suggest that all foreign officials have neglected to criticize Azerbaijan’s democratic regression. But many of those who have tried to properly investigate some of the most pressing issues in Azerbaijan, have been marginalized. One such good example is the case of German MP Christoph Straesser who, in 2012, was entrusted with two tasks by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). His first task was to provide the Council of Europe (CoE) with an official definition of political prisoners; his second, to report on political prisoners in Azerbaijan. Both tasks, which resulted in resolutions on which PACE eventually voted on, were connected. In fact, the issue of political prisoners within CoE member states arose when Azerbaijan and Armenia joined the Council in 2001. By 2012, their number had seemingly increased in Azerbaijan.
The official definition Straesser presented to PACE in September 2012, was in essence the one the Council had been using de facto since 2001. In December 2012, Straesser then presented his report on the situation of political prisoners in Azerbaijan. Straesser encountered a major issue while drafting this latter report though: Azerbaijan repeatedly denied him an entry visa. Consequently, he had to write his report without being able to assess the situation on the ground.
The debate to adopt the resolution pertaining to the official definition of political prisoners took place on October 3, 2012 in Strasbourg, France where the CoE is based. “Several delegates then argued that PACE did not have the authority to assess such human rights violations; that task belonged to the European Court of Human Rights. Their attempt to block the definition was defeated by the narrowest of margins. It followed lobbying by Azerbaijan that one delegate described as ‘unmatched in its brazenness’.”
On January 23, 2013, the debate over the resolution on the situation of political prisoners in Azerbaijan followed. As The Economist put it, “Some delegates called Azerbaijan’s refusal to let Mr. Straesser visit unacceptable; others claimed his report therefore lacked credibility.” PACE eventually rejected Straesser’s report. Three days later, Azerbaijani courts sentenced another five demonstrators to prison.
Closer to the November 2015 parliamentary elections, the fate of Azerbaijani journalists critical of the government was sealed again. In early August, the journalist Rasim Aliyev, known for his critical stance towards the regime, was beaten to death in the most bizarre circumstances after having criticized a Gabala FK soccer player. Aliyev’s death was most certainly the culmination of the dangers independent journalists and activists face in today’s Azerbaijan. In fact, the same month, “a Baku court has sentenced Azerbaijani human rights activists Leyla Yunus to eight and a half years in jail and her severely ailing husband Arif to seven years after judging them guilty of economic crimes”–a trial that was reported to be all but fair as it was politically motivated. On September 1st, investigative journalist Khadija Ismaylova was also sentenced to seven and a half years in prison as she was found guilty of tax evasion, illegal business activity, and abuse of power. Ismaylova has been instrumental in unveiling wide-scale corruption schemes incriminating Azerbaijan’s ruling elite–most notably the presidential family.
Ousting OSCE/ODIHR election observers and controversies within PACE
In August 2015, an OSCE/ODIHR Needs Assessment Mission (NAM) was sent to Azerbaijan. This is a routine procedure for OSCE/ODIHR which permits the organization to define the scope and size of its electoral observation mission to a member state for a given election. OSCE/ODIHR issued its NAM report on August 31st.The report recommended that “30 long-term observers would be sent to follow the election process countrywide, as well as 350 short-term observers to follow election day procedures”. On the same day, Azerbaijan’s Permanent Mission to the OSCE issued a statement indicating that its government was only ready to accept six long-term and 125 short-term observers. A two-week period of negotiations between the OSCE and Azerbaijan followed, at the end of which OSCE/ODIHR decided not to send an election observation mission to Azerbaijan. According to Michael Georg Link, Director of OSCE/ODIHR, “the restriction on the number of observers taking part would make it impossible for the mission to carry out effective and credible election observation.” “Regretfully, we are compelled by these actions to cancel the deployment of ODIHR’s observation mission for the parliamentary elections,” he continued.
In one of the article titles above, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suggested that OSCE/ODIHR did not cover the elections because of “its weaknesses”. Maybe the OSCE indeed demonstrates some institutional weaknesses that made it possible for one of its member states to ultimately avoid scrutiny over its non-democratic practices. In any case, ODIHR is the most recognized electoral observation body in the OSCE region and it is highly unfortunate that, in this case, it was not able to proceed with the mission all the OSCE member states had initially entrusted it with. For certain though, given the number of electoral districts–125, only six long-term and 125 short-term observers as suggested by the Azerbaijani government would clearly have been insufficient to implement ODIHR’s thorough electoral observation missions’ methodology.
Conversely, PACE sent a 28 member delegation to observe the elections. Three of its members distanced themselves from the rest of the official PACE statement on the elections which was surprisingly positive given ODIHR’s complaints. MPs Ute Finch-Kraemer, Germany, Michael McNamara, Ireland, and Frank Schwabe, Germany’s were straightforward:
“(We) express our regret that the we cannot regard these elections as a step towards free, fair and democratic elections. Though we acknowledge the technical and logistical achievement that mark these elections, the situation in the country with respect to political freedoms, freedom of expression and media, and freedom of assembly and association does not provide conditions for holding free and democratic elections.”
In fact, elections may be soundly conducted from a technical and logistical point of view, but without a sufficient level of political freedom and an actual pluralistic competition among political opponents, they are and will remain void of any democratic meaning.
According to the Azerbaijani Central Election Commission, about 300 international observers from 42 countries as well as 50,000 local observers covered the November 1st elections. In fact, observers from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and the International Conference of Asian Political Parties (ICAPP) praised the conduct of the elections. Yet, most Asian and CIS countries are rather famous for their own undemocratic traits, thus undermining the validity of such statements. On the other hand, Ukrainian media denounced the undemocratic nature of the elections.
Timid Western responses and prospects for the future role of civil society inside Azerbaijan
The European Union and the U.S. State Department both issued very timid and short statements about the November 1st elections in Azerbaijan. This can leave democracy defenders with much frustration and several questions. The most prominent one being: how could things get this far? This is especially important because of the amount of European and U.S. development aid money being granted to Azerbaijan to strengthen its democracy. Is Azerbaijan really of such strategic relevance that Europeans and Americans alike have more interest in toning their concerns down rather than speaking up? If Azerbaijan has indeed played a strategic role for the West until now, this may no longer be completely accurate: developments in global energy markets decrease Azerbaijan’s relevance for Western energy security and so does the prospect of improved relations between Iran and the West.
In the absence of innovative European and U.S. approaches to further strengthen true political pluralism in Azerbaijan, prospects are dire. As former U.S Ambassador Richard D. Kauzlarich pointed out: “In illiberal democracies like Azerbaijan, governments will shut down the foreign organizations and persecute local partners. New approaches including creative use of social media must be considered to minimize the risk to local partners—the individuals and organizations who become the targets of the regimes.”
In the context of renewed authoritarianism, dissidents on the ground need to be protected. But they also need to be encouraged and reinforced in their fight for freedom and democracy. If democratic voices are literally dying in Azerbaijan, it is not solely a result of internal processes; it is partly due to the fact that their alleged democratic allies abroad have failed them.