Azerbaijans Political Temperature Rises as Parliamentary Election Campaign Looms
The last half of this year promises to be eventful in Baku. The main pillar of the country's long-range economic development effort the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline is expected to become operational in late 2005, around the same time parliamentary elections are held in November. Already, there are indications that the election could prove tumultuous. Political uncertainty, in turn, could cloud the pipeline's prospects for a smooth launch.
Opposition parties have become increasingly active in 2005, clearly emboldened by the revolutionary trend in the former Soviet Union that has produced regime change in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan over the past 18 months. On May 21, an opposition coalition sponsored a demonstration, calling for guarantees of a free-and-fair legislative vote. The Azerbaijani government refused to sanction the rally, and police used force to break it up. Dozens were injured in the confrontation, including several journalists covering the event who were wearing special vests designed to identify them as members of the press and thus protect them from harassment. Arrest estimates ranged from 45 to 149.
Before being set upon by club wielding riot police, some opposition demonstrators could be seen holding portraits of US President George W. Bush. During a May 10 speech in capital of neighboring Georgia, Bush indicated that the United States would back democratic change in all former Soviet states. "Across the Caucasus, in Central Asia and the broader Middle East, we see the same desire for liberty burning in the hearts of young people. They are demanding their freedom -- and they will have it," Bush told the crowd assembled on Tbilisi's Freedom Square. "We are living in historic times when freedom is advancing, from the Black Sea to the Caspian." In organizing the Baku rally for fair elections, opposition leaders seemed to be acting on Bush's Tbilisi's comments.
One of the explanations given by local authorities in refusing to grant the opposition permission to assemble was a desire to maintain stability in the capital in advance of the opening ceremony for the BTC pipeline, scheduled for May 25. The event is expected to draw dignitaries, including US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, from around the world. The extent of force used by police, however, puts foreign diplomats and corporate representative in a difficult spot for the BTC ceremony. Some may end up staying away from the event out of concern that an appearance would be seen as an endorsement for the suppression of right to freedom of assembly.
The incident puts the Bush administration in an especially awkward position. As a key backer of the BTC project, Washington has developed a close strategic relationship with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's administration. US officials have energetically promoted stabilization initiatives in recent months, including a diplomatic push to break the stalemate in the talks between Azerbaijan and Armenia on a Nagorno-Karabakh settlement. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. A stable political environment is needed to help BTC realize its economic potential, many observers say.
The aggressive tactics adopted by Azerbaijan's opposition seem sure to raise the country's political temperature, running counter to the US desire for regional tranquility surrounding the BTC launch. Yet, given the Bush White House's messianic advocacy of democratic values, US officials cannot appear to discourage the Azerbaijani opposition's quest for a free-and-fair vote. A US Embassy statement, issued after the rally was suppressed, expressed regret over the police use of force in Baku, adding that American officials will closely monitor events. "We urge the Azerbaijani government to respect the democratic freedoms of the people," the statement said.
In comments made prior to the May 21 rally, Ali Hasanov, an advisor to Aliyev, insisted that the Azerbaijani government is committed to democratization. "We think this [democratization] is normal," Hasanov said in comments broadcast May 21 by Space TV. "Azerbaijan has chosen the way of evolution. Some states have chosen the way of revolution, and that is their own business."
Opposition leaders characterized the May 21 rally as a success, and gave every indication that the use of confrontational tactics would continue. "Although hundreds of people were arrested and injured, these people brought the victory of democracy even closer," said Isa Gambar, leader of the opposition Musavat Party was quoted as saying in the May 22 edition of the Yeni Musavat newspaper.
Another opposition leader, the Popular Front reformist wing's Ali Karimli, said the demonstration was "more effective than we had planned." He added that the rally offered confirmation that "Azerbaijani authorities are ready to rig the elections and that they have no respect for human rights," Yeni Musavat reported.
The Azerbaijani government's image has taken a beating since the October 2003 presidential election, and the ensuing crackdown on the Aliyev administration's political opponents. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. International monitors found numerous flaws in the conduct and the results of the 2003 vote, in which Aliyev secured his own political mandate, succeeding his father, Heidar, who died in December of the same year. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
On May 11, the younger Aliyev took action designed to improve the country's electoral image, issuing a decree to make the ballot-counting process more transparent. A week later, government officials and opposition representatives agreed to a code of conduct governing the upcoming campaign. In the so-called "Consensus of Behavior" document, both sides pledged to observe democratic norms.
Prior to May 21 incident, officials sought to persuade opposition leaders to postpone the demonstration until mid June. Opposition leaders dismissed the proposal, saying that such a postponement would greatly reduce their ability to influence the debate on possible amendments to the country's election code. Parliament is expected to take up the issue in early June.
In the aftermath of the May 21 incident, both sides' commitment to the code of conduct seems in doubt. Officials and opposition leaders have traded accusations that the other side was the first to violate the agreement. "The ink on the "Consensus of Behavior" agreement ... was hardly dry when the police wielded their truncheons [to break up] a peaceful manifestation," complained Fuad Mustafayev, the Popular Front's deputy chairman. Mustafayev maintained that the opposition was determined to promote changes to the electoral code.
A spokesman for the governing Yeni Azerbaijan party, Husein Pashayev, seemed equally determined not to give in to opposition pressure. "The government of Azerbaijan is not that weak so that it should [alter] its position just because of rally of some radical groups," Pashayev said.
"After the acts of violence performed by opposition in October of 2003 we had no confidence that they (opposition activists) will not destroy public order in the city," Pashayev said. "The fact that opposition parties did not agree ... to postpone their rally until late June shows that they are keen to create troubles."
Pashayev hinted ominously that international organizations played a role in organizing the opposition rally. However, he declined to identify any foreign entity under suspicion of assisting anti-Aliyev forces. Meanwhile, Mustafayev dismissed the notion that opposition parties received assistance from foreign "donors." At the same time, he indicated that opposition leaders had contacts and shared information with foreign organizations, noting that all such interaction was driven by a common interest in "freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and fair elections, which are the basis of any democracy."
In addition to the US Embassy statement on the May 21 clash, the European Union and the OSCE office in Baku also criticized the behavior of Baku police. Andreas Herkel, the co-raporteur of the Monitoring Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, said the "practice of banning mass actions must be abolished."
The US and EU commitment to democratic reforms is sure to be put to the test in Azerbaijan in the coming months. The Azerbaijani opposition appears determined to push the government on the election issue. Aliyev administration officials seem to view the opposition activists more as rabble rousers than democracy advocates. Thus, the stage is set for fresh, and potentially more violent confrontation as the election campaign progresses.
Some political analysts in Baku believe the government is committed to retaining power at any cost, describing as "just words" the Aliyev administration's rhetoric on the need for free elections. "The government possesses the tools to ban demonstrations, and change election statistics," said Rasim Musabekov, a skeptical political analyst.
There is a good chance that the Azerbaijani government's behavior in the coming months could force the Bush administration, along with European governments, to choose between the desire for stability and a smooth launch for BTC, and the desire to promote democratic reforms.
Latest from Azerbaijan
We would like to hear your opinion about the new site. Tell us what you like, and what you don't like in an email and send it to: firstname.lastname@example.org