Despite highly controversial and disputed 2009 amendments to Azerbaijan’s Constitution that ostensibly removed term limits on the president, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s eligibility to run in the 2013 presidential election remains dubious.
The constitutional amendments were made after Ilham Aliyev was "elected" president in 2008. He was inaugurated and took the presidential oath upon the Constitution, which at that time contained a clear two-consecutive-presidential-term limit.
Thus, Ilham Aliyev should be under legal obligation not to run for a third term. His intention to do so is subject to legal challenges being currently prepared by potential opposition presidential candidates, with the possibility of international judicial review should the domestic legal process fail to be free and fair. Given the notoriously corrupt nature of the Azerbaijani legal system, the case is likely to end up before the European Court of Human Rights.
Isn’t it odd, then, that the head of the European Union delegation to Azerbaijan, Ambassador Roland Kobia, effectively endorsed Aliyev’s third term on December 5?
“I think President Ilham Aliyev will stand very good chances because he is much known, he has done a good job, but it is very important for the image of the country that you have very open space for the elections,” the APA news service reported Kobia as saying.
Why would the EU ambassador make such a statement, when earlier this year the EU Parliament passed a resolution condemning human rights abuses in Azerbaijan, while calling for immediate and far-reaching reforms?
Local Azerbaijani activists speculate that the motivation for Kobia’s statements have more to do with the various energy deals that the EU is so desperate to sign with President Aliyev. This sort of mixed message has the potential to not only damage the reputation of the European Union in the eyes of Azerbaijani citizens, but also to cast serious doubt on the EU’s impartiality in the upcoming election.
Rather than apologize and withdraw his remarks, Kobia is dismissive of criticism of his comments, saying he was merely referring to unspecified opinion polls carried out by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Azeri section (Azadliq Radio). Yet it is clear from a recent statement by Azadliq that no such polling has ever been carried out. Why does the ambassador feel the need to further undermine his own credibility?
As Azadliq anchorwoman Khadija Ismayil, one of Azerbaijan’s leading journalists, commented on Facebook, “please, Mr. [K]obia bring someone else as [a] witness with you next time." [Editor’s note: Khadija Ismayil has contributed articles to EurasiaNet.org].
Prominent Azerbaijani lawyer Erkin Gadirli, one of the leaders of the opposition REAL movement, has argued that Aliyev has no constitutional right to run for a third presidential term and that the EU ambassador, Kobia, should be withdrawn from Azerbaijan.
“Ilham Aliyev took an oath on the Constitution, which, at that time, limited the number of terms by two. Ilham Aliyev, by so doing, made a constitutional promise to the people that he will not run for a third term,” Gadirli wrote in a Facebook statement. “This promise has a constitutional force and even international connotations."
At this stage, Kobia’s superiors in Brussels and the EU External Action Service, as well as EU High Representative Catherine Ashton, should step in and attempt to limit the damage. It is obvious that Ambassador Kobia’s position as the head of the EU Delegation is no longer tenable and he should be withdrawn.
Kobia should be replaced with someone with greater sensitivity and understanding of Azerbaijani realities, and possess a demonstrable commitment to human rights and democratic values. In the short run, the EU Delegation in Azerbaijan should clarify Kobia’s comments and issue a statement to that effect. Europe’s long-term interests and presence in Azerbaijan are at stake.