Russia Backs Azerbaijani Leadership in Poll Controversy
Sergei Blagov: 11/10/05

Russia is aiming to improve its geopolitical position in the Caucasus through its unstinting support for Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s administration amid Azerbaijan’s parliamentary election controversy.

The November 6 parliamentary election was marred by widespread irregularities, according to leaders of Azerbaijan’s main opposition blocs – Azadlig and YeS. Their assertion is supported by the findings of Western election monitors. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The official results by Azerbaijan’s Central Election Commission (CEC) gave the governing Yeni Azerbaijan Party an outright majority in the new parliament. In the more than week since the vote, however, the CEC has reversed its original decisions, enabling opposition candidates to grab several additional parliamentary seats. Even so, only 11 opposition members at present are slated to serve in the legislature. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Opposition leaders say they deserve at least 40 parliamentary seats, and are striving to secure the annulment of all voting results and the holding of do-over elections in all 125 constituencies.

In sharp contrast to Western governments and international organizations, which were generally critical of the conduct of the Azerbaijani elections, Russia hastened to proclaim the vote legitimate. An election observer mission mounted by the Commonwealth of Independent States endorsed the poll as generally free-and-fair. In the days following the election, as Western criticism mounted, Russian officials repeatedly voiced satisfaction with the election.

On November 7, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov admitted that election violations did occur, but emphasized the scale of irregularities was relatively small. “They [violations] were not so serious as to prompt us to call into question the outcome of the elections," Lavrov said. The next day, a Russian Foreign Ministry statement reinforced Lavrov’s message, stating: "the elections generally corresponded with current Azerbaijani laws." At the same time, President Vladimir Putin congratulated President Ilham Aliyev on "the successful completion of parliament elections."

Meanwhile, Russian diplomats sought to undermine the validity of Western election assessments. For example, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin suggested that OSCE monitors were overly hasty in evaluating the vote. “As far as we understand, those statements were issued before the formal announcement of the election results by the Central Election Committee of Azerbaijan. Apparently, we see an absolutely unclear and counter-productive hastiness,” Kamynin said.

Russian backing for Aliyev’s administration appears designed to enhance Moscow’s diplomatic standing in Baku. Over the last decade, Azerbaijan’s geopolitical importance has risen markedly, driven mainly by the development of the country’s oil-and-gas sector. The United States and Russia have long maneuvered to establish control over Azerbaijan’s energy exports. With construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, the United States seemed to cement its position as Azerbaijan’s principle ally. However, Moscow has managed to maintain a harmonious relationship with Baku in recent years. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

It is clear that Russian leaders seek to make further inroads in Azerbaijan. According to Putin’s press secretary Alexei Gromov, "the presidents expressed their wish to strengthen multifaceted cooperation between Russia and Azerbaijan" during their November 8 telephone conversation.

Azerbaijan still seems to be leaning more toward the United States in the geopolitical contest, but Aliyev seems open to contacts with Russia, perhaps as a hedge against the possibility of his administration being subjected to the so-called “color revolution” phenomenon. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The United States is widely perceived by regional elites in the former Soviet Union to have been actively involved in fomenting the color revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. US officials have strongly denied playing any role in the revolutions, and of late Washington seems to have scaled back its democratization rhetoric. Still, the US State Department offered pointed criticism over the conduct of Azerbaijan’s parliamentary election. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Regional political analysts were not surprised to see Aliyev select Russia's pro-Kremlin television channel to deliver a message designed to preempt a color revolution in Azerbaijan. "We will determine our own fate," Aliyev said during comments broadcast by Russia’s Channel One on November 3. "Those who think that a puppet government can be installed in Azerbaijan have to understand that, this will not work."

Russian-Azerbaijani economic and political ties are relatively strong, but they contain plenty of room for improvement. Trade between Russia and Azerbaijan reached $665 million during the January-September period in 2005, or 11.6 percent of Azerbaijan’s overall foreign trade turnover. Russia has become a top exporter to Azerbaijan, selling goods totaling $489 million, or 15.2 percent of Azerbaijan’s total imports during the first three quarters of 2005.

Moscow also appears interested in expanding security cooperation with Baku. On October 20, President Aliyev met with the director of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, Gen. Sergei Lebedev. Both sides maintained the talks were aimed at addressing regional threats, including terrorism. However, some Azerbaijani media outlets noted that Lebedev’s visit coincided with the arrest of several high-profile politicians in Baku in connection with an alleged coup attempt. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Some opposition politicians, such as Democratic Party leader Sardar Jalaloglu, suggested that Russia may have provided intelligence that Aliyev administration officials used to make arrests in the supposed plot case.

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