Nothing new under the Azeri sun? There is!
Earlier this autumn we have seen elections taking place in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine (25th Oct). Soon it will be Azerbaijan’s turn to go to the ballot box for a new Parliament. On 1 November, the 125 seats in the Parliament will be re-allocated or re-confirmed. Of course the ‘big question’ is: to whom (and for whom)?
While this may seem just another election in the post-Soviet sphere with a rather predictable outcome; the elections will be of relevance, for two main reasons. First, it will have obvious consequences on the domestic level: will it unite the opposition, or divide it further? Will the government perhaps make a gesture by symbolically giving some seats to the opposition, or will it try keeping them quiet?
Second, the elections are of importance because of the reaction of the European community. The OSCE has already announced it will not send an observation mission; the efforts of the EU and Council of Europe will be furthermore significant because they have to set straight, as will be noted below, their questionable behaviour at the elections in 2013.
Have the OSCE, EU and Council of Europe made a smart move with their respective approaches to this year’s elections? And if so, do they even have sufficient credibility left to have an impact?
What is happening inside the country
The milli məclis, the Azerbaijani parliament, was founded in 1918 when Azerbaijan became the first democratic and secular state in the Muslim world. Azerbaijan remains a secular state, – however, it went a long way from the democratic state it had been between 1918 and 1921, to being one of the Soviet Republics, to the current regime of the Aliyev’s.
There are several movements in the country who strive for democratisation and westernisation. However, the pro-democratic movements cannot operate freely. Many opposition activists have been imprisoned, and so have been critical journalists and civil society representatives. As I mentioned in an earlier post, there are currently over 100 political prisoners in Azerbaijan – a dubious ‘record’ for the post-Soviet region.
But at the same time, because of the events in the early 1990s, many Azerbaijani citizens still associate democracy with the chaos, riots in the city, and widespread poverty. Heydar Aliyev, on the contrary, is seen by many as the man who returned order and peace to the country (or at least a ceasefire with Armenia). Therefore, even if critics in- and outside the country point at the immense inequality, political oppression and poverty; don’t underestimate the popularity of the Aliyevs. Both the late Heydar Aliyev as well as his son Ilham, who succeeded him to the presidency in 2003, enjoy significant support among the population.
It is also important to keep in mind that many policy-makers in European capitals have no major objections to Mr Aliyev’s reign. They may disagree with the undemocratic nature of the regime, but it is a very stable one in a region that poses threats to the EU’s own security.
The EU and OSCE in a clinch: What caviar cannot buy you
To assess the EU’s actions this year, we need to go back to the presidential elections in 2013. These will go into history books for a number of reasons.
Firstly, of course, the government announced the results a day before the elections had even taken place, and President Aliyev had a glorious victory, once again. The second surprise came when the EU and OSCE presented their respective reports. The European Parliament delegation and PACE mission produced a rather favourable assessment of the ballot. Indeed, the EP and OSCE missions ended up presenting opposite evaluations of the elections!
What had gone wrong? It later turned out that eight members of the EP Delegation had their trips paid for by the Azerbaijani regime. Naturally we may not automatically presume that there is a link between MEPs receiving benefits from an authoritarian government and them presenting a positive report on rigged elections – I wouldn’t dare. Somehow, the affair has gone by relatively unnoticed, and the responsible MEPs are not in Parliament anymore.
So, it remains to be seen if the new EP Delegation can maintain its integrity and protect the EU’s credibility by actually observing and reporting on what is going to take place at the Caspian on November the 1st.
Silence from Vienna
The OSCE’s stance is a different story, possibly less spectacular but nevertheless worth considering. The OSCE and Baku have been on tense terms for a number of years now. In 2013 the Azerbaijani government has reduced the OSCE Mission to that of a Project Coordinator Office, leaving it no space to run projects freely. This summer, even this Office has been ousted from the country altogether after increased criticism of the regime. (Although, others apparently believe the OSCE was banned following tactless pressure on the government by the USA and UK).
Initially, the OSCE was planning to send an ODIHR mission; yet the Azerbaijani government announced that the mission would have to be restricted and in reaction, the OSCE decided that it will not send any mission at all. While on the one hand this is understandable; the OSCE might have underestimated the shrewdness of Baku. The government has smartly twisted the story around. It created a narrative along the lines of: The OSCE can’t get its act together, and as a result it will not even be able to come observe our elections next month. This discourse was then echoed in Moscow.
Perhaps, indeed, there is no point trying to naively observe elections that will not serve its purpose anyway – but then again, one should consider the signal this gives on the domestic level. Not only is the pro-democratic opposition now left to itself; but by spinning the story, the regime may win even more support.
And then there’s always still the Council of Europe
However, one can only hope that the PACE mission will not fall into the same trap as some of the previous observers. Strasbourg, like the EP delegation in 2013, has suffered a number of corruption scandals – which led Knaus to talk of Azerbaijan’s ‘caviar diplomacy’, already in 2012.
Another issue at stake is Azerbaijan’s contested membership of the CoE – as it does not abide by the principles of the organisation. The proceedings at the upcoming elections will most likely influence the further development of relations between the CoE and Azerbaijan.
Conclusion: It’d better be good this time
One of the over 100 people currently imprisoned for political reasons in Azerbaijan is Anar Mammadli, who headed a local election monitoring project during the 2013 elections, partially funded by the EU and member states. Contrary to the EP, he did write a critical report after the elections. Soon after, Mammadli was arrested, accused of among others ‘tax evasion’ and ‘abuse of authority’, and sentenced to 5.5 years in prison. Who will take his place this time?
Have the three European organisations, who claim to be representing their norms in the region, made a smart choice? The past corruption in the EP and CoE should not influence our judgement of their current actions and representatives. Hopefully, the MEPs and observers of the CoE will do what they think is best, while maintaining their distance to specific regimes – whatever judgement that may be.
The OSCE has made it clear that it has had enough of Aliyev’s moves: by not sending an observation mission to Azerbaijan next week it has given a signal that it does not expect any change, and that it has given up hope for the country. But it miscalculated the government’s reaction – Baku now seems to use this move to its own benefit by spinning the story around.
Without over-emphasising the role of the international community, it will be important to see what effect the near absence of the international community will have on the opposition and on the election’s aftermath. The 1st of November may go into history books, too – hopefully in a positive way.