Lankaran Diary: Critical Candidates, Even
More Critical Problems
By Rovshan Ismaylov: 11/05/05
With official estimates for Azerbaijan's 2006 economic
growth rate at a whopping 30 percent, voters in the country's
poverty-stricken southern regions, along the border with
Iran, are wondering how they will stand to benefit.
The area, home to the country's largest population
of minority Talysh minority, is known for its cuisine, hospitality,
strong military traditions, large families (in the Soviet
era, average family size was 8-10 children) and centenarians.
Its closeness to the Iranian border attracts particular
attention from Western diplomats and journalists.
But this election season, other characteristics are gaining
To the casual observer, the socio-economic situation in
Lankaran, the center of Azerbaijan's south with a population
of some 150,000, is much worse than in other big regional
centers like Ganja, Sumgayit or Guba. The subject of living
conditions in Lankaran dominates candidates' meetings
with voters and appearances on local television. But unlike
the cities to the north, the overwhelming majority of candidates
running for parliament in and around Lankaran have outspoken
criticism of both local and central government on the topic.
Lankaran residents say their houses have had no gas for
heating or cooking for the past decade. Electricity shortages
tend to be much more serious than in other regions. In the
central square of Lankaran City, street lamps are no longer
working, leaving the area plunged in darkness after 8pm.
Locals say that all shops, cafés and restaurants
in Lankaran have had to buy electricity generators to be
able to work in the evenings. Small street kiosks rely on
According to Elshad Ibragimov, a 35-year-old member of the
ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party (YAP) who recently withdrew
from the campaign in the #74 Lankaran village constituency,
the lack of gas means people are cutting down surrounding
forests for wood to heat their houses. Consequently, nearby
woodlands are at environmental risk.
In an October 23 man-on-the-street survey of Lankaran residents
by Lankaran TV, 19 out of 20 respondents interviewed said
that they intended to vote on November 6. Tens of candidates
are competing for 12 parliamentary seats from Azerbaijan's
six southern regions (Lankaran, Masali,Lerik, Satara, Yardimli
and Jalilabad); their posters provide an energetic splash
of color in the area's villages and towns.
How can we not criticize the government when the poverty
level in our region is unbelievable, and about 25 percent
of the young men have migrated to Russia in search of an
income? commented Takhmaz Takhmazov, an independent
candidate from # 70 Masalli City constituency. It
would be unfair to our voters.
Other candidates target transportation. Muddy, rutted roads
to remote mountain villages are being repaired, allegedly
by some candidates who are richer than others and enjoy
the support of local authorities.
Atakhan Abilov, a lawyer and independent candidate from
#75 Lankaran-Masalli constituency, claims that bad roads
makes travel to Lankaran City from the mountain villages
of Diryan, Jidi and Old Gadir close to impossible. Local
government documents suggest that these roads were repaved
several times in the 1990s, but no sign of asphalt remains.
Where is the asphalt? There is no asphalt at all,
According to Ibragimov, unemployment in Lankaran's
villages can run as high as 60-70 percent. In Soviet times,
the region's tea plantations and processing plants
provided unemployment. But now, the tea plantations
are destroyed and the factories do not work, and it fuels
unemployment and sharpens social tension in the region,
Low monthly welfare payments for families with children
(about $2 per child) further rile voter tempers, Many voters
lay blame for these payments on Hadi Rajably, the incumbent
member of parliament for #74 Lankaran Villages, and chairman
of the parliamentary committee on social policy.
Rajably and representatives of the local government could
not be reached for comment.
The socio-economic situation has also fueled some concerns
of a possible revival of Talysh separatism, according to
one candidate, who asked not to be named. Though separatism
was not an issue in the campaign, «[s]ome people say
that because of the events of 1993 [when the separatist
Talysh-Mugan Republic was declared] the authorities 'took
revenge' on the region's population. And it is a matter
Outside observers have worried that the strong emphasis
put on religion in the region could also influence stability.
The region's proximity to and open border with Iran
has sparked concern among outside observers that inhabitants
will look to more conservative strains of Islam for relief
from the burdens of everyday life. Attendance at village
mosques runs high here, and candidates routinely insert
traditional references to Allah in conversations with voters.
But locals say that the fear of conservative Islam taking
hold is misplaced. Though attendance at village mosques
is higher than in other parts of Azerbaijan, Lankaran inhabitants
travel to Iran a lot and see the real situation in
Iran is no better than here, commented Gunel Akbarova,
a news presenter for Lankaran Television.
Opium trafficking with Iran is a greater concern. Youth
addiction to opium and marijuana, coupled with high unemployment,
could feed tensions over Lankaran's dismal living conditions
still further, most candidates in the region argue. Anar
Sadikhov, the YeS bloc candidate for #73 Lankaran City constituency
and Tatiana Agayeva, the opposition Liberal Party candidate
from #76 Lankaran-Astara constituency, both call drug addiction
the region's number one problem.
But in the view of some candidates, one perennial problem
looms larger still: Nagorno Karabakh. Southern Azerbaijan
has one of the highest populations of veterans of Azerbaijan's
1988-1994 war with Armenia over the enclave. In television
debates, candidates routinely name the issue of returning
Karabakh to Azerbaijani control as their primary concern.
First peace for Azerbaijan, their message goes, then prosperity
for the country's south.Editor's Note: Rovshan
Ismaylov is a freelance journalist based in Baku.
With less than a day before Azerbaijan's parliamentary
elections, unanswered questions still exist regarding the
exit polls that were intended to serve as a check on official
vote results. Among the more problematic issues, according
to a Central Election Commission source: which of three
main polls to use for comparison with official results.
One poll will be run by a group organized by the Washington,
DC-based PA Consulting Group in 65 constituencies and funded
by the United States Agency for International Development.
New York-based Warren Mitofsky International and the Estonian
firm Saar Poll will run polls in all 125 constituencies.
The source, who asked not to be named, said that the commission
is quite confused by the number of polling companies conducting
exit polls for the election, as well as by differences between
their margins of error. Presidential administration officials
have stated that an investigation of a polling station will
be launched if the discrepancy between a polling station's
official result and that of an exit poll exceeds the standard
margin of error of the exit pollster's work.
The source said that the CEC for now has no set plan for
which exit poll to use for comparison with official results.
We hope that there will be no discrepancies between
the results of the exit poll companies, the source
said, adding that if such a discrepancy did occur we
will find a solution.
Confusion also surrounds the margin of error which would
be used as the benchmark for comparison with official results.
Both Mitofsky and Saar Poll claim that their results have
less than a 3 percent margin of error. PA Consulting Group's
website states that its polls have a 3.5 percent margin
of error. However, during a visit to Baku earlier in October,
Assistant US Secretary of State for Eurasia Daniel Fried
told a press conference that the USAID- funded exit poll
could have a margin of error of no more than 2 percent.
Speaking to journalists on October 27, Ali Hasanov, head
of the presidential administration's public and political
affairs department, only said that three companies will
conduct exit polls in Azerbaijan, and that all three are
In his May 11 decree on providing for free and fair parliamentary
elections, President Ilham Aliyev ordered local authorities
to provide all opportunities for conducting exit polls and
for [the] fair and transparent disclosure of the results
of the parallel voting."
Unlike the government, the opposition has been outspoken
in its reaction to the three exit pollsters. The opposition
believes that both Mitofsky and Saar Poll have the government
as their clients, albeit using front organizations. Reluctance
by both Mitofsky and Saar Poll to discuss their clients
has fueled these doubts. Mitofsky originally claimed that
its exit poll is sponsored by a Switzerland-based company
called Renaissance. Saar Poll has named its client as Santo
Communications, a British financial institution, the company
background see the EurasiaNet Insight archive].
On November 1, Turan News Agency reported that it had received
a letter that allegedly identified the client of Mitofsky
International as Renaissance Associates, a lobbyist firm
which represents the Azerbaijani government in Washington.
In response to the claim, Mitofsky International stated
on November 2 that Renaissance Associates is a respected
organization with which Mitofsky has had experience working.
Opposition accusations of bias have also dogged PA Consulting
Group's two local partners, Baku-based SORGU (Survey)
and GORBI, an opinion research firm based in Tbilisi, Georgia,
which will act as a technical advisor. They have the
reputation of being biased organizations, said PFPA
Deputy Chairman Fuad Mustafayev. We do trust PA Consulting,
but not their contractors. The opposition traces its
reservations to a May 2005 opinion poll commissioned by
GORBI and implemented by SORGU, which gave President Ilham
Aliyev a 77-percent approval rating, and was incorrectly
attributed to polling giant Gallup International.
Choice of constituencies is another trouble spot for poll
critics. PA Consulting Group chose the 65 constituencies
in which it will conduct exit polls by random selection.
None of the constituencies include races between opposition
leaders and nominees of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party.
The head of one non-governmental organization who shares
the skepticism about SORGU and GORBI, has commented that
if the random selection procedure had taken place in the
presence of journalists, belief in the poll's objectivity
would have been stronger. Maybe it would be worthwhile
to choose two organizations - one trusted by the opposition,
another by the government, said Leyla Yunus, director
of the Peace and Democracy Institute.
Speaking to EurasiaNet earlier in October, PA Consulting
Group representative in Baku David Hoffman said that the
random selection of constituency is a widely used polling
practice and that there is no reason to abandon it.
Domestic and international reactions to the polls and their
role in the election process promise to be mixed. Elin Suleymanov,
senior counselor in the presidential administration's
foreign relations department, commented that the exit poll
can be viewed as an auxillary method for vote counting,
but in no way official. Sabine Freizer, director of the
International Crisis Group's Caucasus Project, named
international observers as a preferable means for determining
how far and free the elections since they will see the actual
process of voting.
For now, with many Azerbaijani voters, curiosity about the
polls appears to be winning out over any doubts about their
effectiveness. Baku resident Sona Mamedova, 18, will be
voting in her first elections on November 6 and says she
has thoroughly researched all three polling companies. Mamedova
conceded that she has doubts about how effective the polls
will prove as a check against official results, but added:
[I]t is good that we have an exit poll. . . I like
the fact that the opinion of people like me is interesting
Editor's Note: Rovshan Ismaylov is freelance
journalist based in Baku.
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