Tag Archives: Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan – Economic crisis and international attitude

Ilham Aliyev, the president of Azerbaijan, seems increasingly concerned about international criticism of his country. In Aliyve’s words: [International circles] are trying to present Azerbaijan as a totalitarian and authoritarian country where rights and freedoms are violated. This trend started the day I was elected President” [1].Despite the aggressive tone, this reveals that Azerbaijan is worried about its reputation. This is a change from before and results from the global drop in energy prices, which has severely hit the Azerbaijani economy and, more broadly, the Azerbaijani sense of self-reliance.

On August 24, Mehman Aliyev, head of the independent news agency ‘Turan’, was arrested by the Azerbaijani authorities. However, on September 11, he was released from pretrial custody. According to the analyst Liz Fuller, various developments may have influenced this outcome. One is pressure from international organizations, such as the ‘Council of Europe’ and ‘Reporters without Boarders’, as well as powerful countries. Notably, the US State department called for the immediate release of Mr. Aliyev. Concern was also voiced by the UK and France, while the Norwegian Foreign ministry Tweeted: “We are deeply concerned about the situation around the news agency and, in general, freedom of the press in Azerbaijan[2]“. This apparent responsiveness to international pressures represents a clear departure from the past. For instance, during the ‘European Games’ hosted by Baku in 2015, the Azerbaijani political establishment ignored international pledges to free political prisoners, and dismissed negative press reports as merely the expression of a global anti-Azerbaijani bias.

This departure does not result from a weakening of the ruling authorities. On the contrary, as analyzed in this blog, in 2016 a constitutional reform led to the massive empowerment of the presidency. The presidential mandate was extended from five to seven years, and the president acquired the right to dissolve the Parliament under certain circumstances, and to appoint a vice-President (who is, de facto, an unelected second-in-command). With reference to this latter point, in February 2016 President Aliyev chose his wife, Mrs Mehriban Aliyeva, as the vice president of Azerbaijan[3]. This move can be interpreted as an attempt to further consolidate the continuity in power of the whole Aliyev family. In this regard, it is worth mentioning that the current president, Ilham Aliyev, is the son of late president Heydar Aliyev, who ruled the country from 1993 to 2003[4].

A more convincing interpretation suggests that this more conciliatory attitude on human rights issues could be related to the unfortunate effects of the drop of energy prices. In the past decade, lucrative oil exports fuelled the economic growth of Azerbaijan. For years, the profitability of the energy sector provided few incentives to the systematic promotion of other industries. Thus, despite the president’s emphasis on the importance of the non-oil sector, actual investments in that direction remained modest. In November 2016, the Turan information agency complained about the lack of a coherent strategy to support small and medium-sized business[5]. However, the economic crisis required some proper moves in that direction, such as the promotion of tourism.  At the beginning of September 2017, President Aliyev attended the inauguration of the Khazar Palace hotel complex in the coastal city of Lankaran, which is located relatively near the Iranian border. The complex, equipped with all modern comforts, is openly targeting foreign tourists[6].

In addition, Azerbaijan has also relaxed its visa policy. In mid-2015 President Aliyev declared that: “Everyone who wants to come to Baku should be able to receive an e-visa and not have to go to the embassy or elsewhere”. The introduction of e-visas, effective as of summer 2017, is a minor revolution for a country that “was a stalwart on the ‘Hardest-visa-to-get’ list”[7]. The simplification was welcomed with enthusiasm by Arab visitors, especially from the Gulf, and contributed to the enhancement of the tourism sector. Their increasing presence is starting a debate about the appropriateness of building hotels that are compliant with Halal requirements, as a way of further attracting Muslim visitors. Additionally, the quick increase of affordable travel options is a crucial component of the national strategy of tourism promotion[8]. Since the summer of 2017, low-cost flights have operated between Baku and Moscow three times per week. Furthermore, since the end of October 2017, an equivalent air-link has been in place between Saint Petersburg and Baku.

In brief, whether these mechanisms are effective or not[9], the drop in energy prices is posing a remarkable challenge to Azerbaijan. Other than being a crucial economic issue, this situation affects the way Baku perceives itself and its relative weight in the international system. “There can be no talk of political independence without economic independence. (…) [Our guiding principles are] non-interference in each other’s affairs and mutual respect”. These words, pronounced by President Aliyev in his last inauguration speech  (October 2013), seemed to imply that, by virtue of its oil-related wealth, Azerbaijan deserved immunity from international criticism. Since then, things have dramatically changed. The recent receptiveness of Baku to international pressures can be interpreted as the acknowledgement, for the time being, of the inappropriateness of a daring international attitude.

Notes

[1] Turan Information Agency. 2017. ‘Azerbaijan Not to Lose Anything from Leaving Council of Europe – Ilham Aliyev’, October 5 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[2] Turan Information Agency. 2017.‘Foreign Ministry of Norway Concerned about Situation around Turan News Agency’, August 30 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[3] Notwithstanding the empowerment of the presidential figure, journalistic investigations shed light on the presidential family offshore investments.

[4] President Ilham Aliyev was elected a few weeks after the death of his father.

[5] Turan Information Agency considers that over-dependency from the oil sector is the main feature of Azerbaijan’s macro-economic structure. That makes extremely difficult to bring about radical changes in the short-run [Turan Information Agency. 2016. ‘Unjustified tariffs and rates’, November 30 (Retrieved through LexisNexis)].

[6] BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit. 2017. ‘Azerbaijan: Southern region media highlights 28 Aug – 10 Sep 17’, October 3 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[7] MENA English (Middle East and North Africa Financial Network). 2017. ‘Time for obtaining evisas to Azerbaijan reduced to three hours’, September 4 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[8] Global English (Middle East and North Africa Financial Network). 2017. ‘Land of Fire to take new steps for tourism development’, October 25 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[9] Turan Information Agency. 2017. ‘Economy Does Not Come Out of Crisis’, October 14 (Retrieved through LexiNexis).

Azerbaijan – A New Constitutional Reform: Towards a Monarchical Presidency?

On 26 September, citizens of Azerbaijan were called to vote in a constitutional referendum. The constitution, approved in 1995, was already amended in 2002 and 2009. While the current amendments concern numerous topics (including civic liberties and right of assembly), some of them specifically concern the President’s role. It is proposed:

  • To amend Article 101.1 of the current constitution, which would extend the presidential term from 5 to 7 years.
  • To introduce a “First Vice President” and a “Vice President”, chosen and appointed by the president. In the case of the president’s inability to perform his role, the First Vice President would take over. Currently, this “second-in-charge” function is a prerogative of the prime minister
  • To remove the minimum age limit to run for President (currently, it is 35). Similarly, the minimum age for parliamentarian is lowered from 25 to 18.
  • To introduce the right for the President to dissolve the parliament. This is in the event that the parliament votes no confidence to the government twice in a year or refuses the suggested appointees to the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court or the Central Bank’s main board.

In order to maximise the inclusivity of the voting process, polling stations have been established in Azerbaijani embassies. Remarkably, everything is ready in Ankara, Teheran and Riyadh.  However, notwithstanding the vocal support of the ruling party, the opposition has expressed its grave concern over the proposed changes.

While President Ilham Aliyev has not personally commented on the proposed amendments, pro-government voices have openly endorsed them. MP Siyavus Novruzov, who is the deputy executive secretary of the ruling ‘New Azerbaijan Party’, has defined the proposed amendments as necessary to enhance national security and reform of the state administration[1]. Emil Huseynli, head of the ‘Support for Youth Development – Dushunje’, declared that the various changes, including the strengthening of the presidential office, will foster the sustainable development of the country. Referring to the relaxation of the age limits, he commented that: this “will create an opportunity for the political activity of literate, prospective young people.” However, the opposition thinks that this amendment is specifically designed to favour a semi-monarchical transfer of power and, henceforth, that the children of the president would likely be the main beneficiaries of this “political opportunity”. Notably, it has been observed that Heydar Aliyev, the only son[2] of the presidential couple, will be 27 in 2025 (the most likely year for a presidential election). If his father decides to run for the presidential office in 2018 and to step down after that, the young Heydar would be an extremely probable “new” candidate. Other possible scenarios are the election of Heydar to parliament or the appointment of a member of the presidential family as vice-president[3]

In addition to being concerned about the future implication of these changes for the Aliyev family, the opposition is worried about the immediate effects of a “reinforced presidency”. Arif Hajili, the leader of Musavat party, bluntly declared that: “They [the state authorities] are not even able to explain to their citizens why we need these changes to the Constitution. They believe they can create a second North Korea here and rule in the same style[4]. Similarly, the prominent lawyer, Fuad Agayev, commented that: “An analysis of the document indicates that, if adopted, it will have an adverse impact on human rights, civil rights and freedoms, as well as power-sharing”.  This kind of apprehension is also shared by some international observers. Chris Smith, Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, sent a concerned letter to Ilham Aliyev. At one point, it stated clearly that: “By lengthening presidential terms and expanding presidential authorities, the proposed constitutional changes are susceptible to abuse that would entrench political authority, making it less responsive to the will of the Azerbaijani people.” Lastly, some observers expect the referendum to be rigged.

In September various well attended protest rallies took place in Baku. The main argument is that the only aim of the referendum is to reinforce Aliev’s rule. “No to monarchy!” and “No robbery!” were the main slogans chanted[5]. Additionally, in the attempt to generate an international response, some Human Right Defenders asked to Thorbjørn Jagland, the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, to submit the proposed amendments to the Venice Commission[6]. The main points of concern they raised were: the massive empowerment of the presidential office, the authoritarian climate the referendum takes place in, the non-consultation of the parliament, and the absence of public debate[7]. In addition to the Azerbaijani Human Right Defenders, on 5 September the PACE Bureau also asked the Venice Commission to give an urgent opinion.

In response, on 20 September the Venice Commission issued a “Preliminary Opinion on the Draft Modifications to the Constitution”. In the context of widespread concern on different matters, including the repression of dissident opinions, the Venice Commission expressed clear worries about the amendments in relation to the presidency. More specifically, it noted that, back in 2009, the removal of the two-term limit to re-election had already strengthened the power of the president. In the light of that, it said that: “the modification to Article 101 which extends the Presidential mandate for longer than is the European practice, coupled with the previous removal of the two-term limit, concentrates power in the hands of a single person in a manner not compatible with the separation of powers”. In addition, the Venice Commission expressed its concern about the president’s powers to dissolve the parliament, to call early elections, and to appoint a vice-president who, in practical terms, would be an unelected second-in-command.

Even though the voting has yet to be finalised, the rejection of the proposed amendments seems highly unlikely in contemporary Azerbaijan. Henceforth, in the face of domestic and international concern, the presidential office, which is already remarkably strong, will be further reinforced. Unfortunately, this seems to be a prelude to a further consolidation of the authoritarian tendencies in the country.

This research was supported by a FP7/Marie Curie ITN action. Grant agreement N°: 316825

Notes

[1] BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit. 2016. ‘Azeri court approves referendum on constitutional change’, 26 July (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[2] In addition to him, the president has two daughters, Leyla and Arzu.

[3]Turan Information Agency. 2016. ‘It’s time for the United States to act on Azerbaijan’, September 9 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[4] Turan Information Agency. 2016. ‘Arif Hajili: Usurpation of Power Will Not Save Aliyev’. 18 September (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[5] Turan Information Agency. 2016. ‘Jamil Hasanli: Aliyev does not get tired to pervert the Constitution’. September 17 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[6] The role of the Venice Commission, with reference to the constitutional referendum in Armenia, has already been discussed in this blog.

[7] Turan Information Agency. 2016. ‘The report of “Musavat” about the referendum campaign’. 5 September (retrieved through LexisNexis).

Armenia: recognizing Karabakh? The Armenian debate and the reaction from Azerbaijan

In the aftermath of the “4 Days War” in Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian President, Serzh Sarkisian, declared that, in the case of resumed hostilities, his country would recognize the de facto Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. One month after, a bill titled “On recognition of Republic Artsakh [Nagorno-Karabakh]”, submitted by two opposition MPs, was approved by the Government and presented to the Parliament for discussion. Nevertheless, both political and media actors have bee equivocal about the suitability of the unilateral recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh. From the Azerbaijani side, it is remarkable the limited attention this event was given. In particular, President Ilham Aliyev, who in the past adopted a warmongering narrative, has not commented on this specific development.

Following the cease fire in 1994, Nagorno-Karabakh consolidated itself as a de facto state after a bloody war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Currently, its statehood remains completely unrecognized given that not even its Armenian patron has taken a formal stance in that direction. This choice has been mostly motivated by the commitment not to spoil the mediation effort of the Minsk Group, which is the OSCE group in charge of facilitating a resolution of the stalemate. For example, speaking to the representatives of the mass media in March 2013 President Sarkisian declared: “What will the citizens of NK and Armenia gain today if independence of NKR is recognized? (…) How dangerous will such a decision for the people of Nagorno-Karabakh be? (…) It means a slap in the face not only for the other side but also for the Co­chairs [of the Minsk Group]”. In brief, it is argued that recognizing Nagorno-Karabak would lead only to new troubles in the absence of tangible benefits. This position was widely shared by the Armenian political spectrum as demonstrated by the rejection of the various pro-recognition bills proposed by “Heritage Party”. However, in 2010 International Crisis Group pointed out that, in the case of resumption of full-scale hostilities, the de facto state may be recognized and a pact of mutual defense with Nagorno-Karabakh may be signed. After April 2016, political actors had to deal seriously with these issues.

“If military actions were to continue and escalate on a larger scale, the Republic of Armenia would recognize the independence of Nagorno Karabakh. With these words, on the 4th of April, President Sarkisian hinted at the possibility of formal recognition. However, after the end of the armed hostilities, no further declaration in this direction came from the Presidential office. By contrast, some actors in the opposition considered the time ripe to bring forward this issue again. = That translated into a bill called “On recognition of Republic Artsakh,” proposed by the opposition PMs Zaruhi Postanjyan (Heritage party) and Hrant Bagratyan (Armenian National Congress). On the 5th of May the Armenian government approved it for parliamentary discussion within 30 days. As expected, this triggered a debate not only in Armenia but also abroad.

Although most external powers did not openly comment on this decision, Russian officials manifested their opposition. Remarkably, at the beginning of May, the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lavrov, spoke against unilateral recognition. It is reasonable to say that the Russian stance may have influenced the public debate. At the moment, politicians from both the government and the opposition are adopting a prudent attitude. Prime Minister Abrahamian said that, with Azerbaijan respecting the cease-fire, there is no need to rush into recognition. Similarly, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Edward Nalbandian, reassured external powers saying that: “The conclusion of the Government does not imply an endorsement of that initiative. (… ) [In that event], the President of the Republic of Armenia, would inform his partners in advance and, first of all, the heads of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chair countries”. This moderate position is also shared by the bulk of the opposition. Armen Rustamyan, the leader of the ARF faction in parliament, declared that recognition should not be unilateral, but instead in line with the Minsk Framework. Similarly, a few days previously, former President Ter-Petrosyan stated that a premature recognition of Karabakh would irremediably jeopardize the effort of the Minsk group. Turning to the media debate, most Armenian newspapers agree that an early recognition would harm the interest and the long-terms goals of the country[1].

Given the sensitivity of the issue, Baku may be expected to react to such a move. However, it = composed behaviour adopted by Azerbaijan has taken observers by surprise. This is in striking contrast to the previously assertive narrative. Whereas in the past President Aliyev continuously reaffirmed the military strength of his country and the commitment to the re-conquest of the lost lands, recently his declarations seem more conciliatory and less in favor of resuming hostilities. Consistent with that, the reaction to the possible recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh has remained contained. Hikmet Hajiyev, the Foreign Ministry’s acting spokesperson, declared that: “By recognizing the separatist regime formed in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan, Yerevan will put an end to the Minsk peace process and should this happen, the Minsk Group will possess no negotiating mandate”[2] Thus, no explicit declaration came from the President and the media debate remained limited. Speculating on the reasons behind that, it can be hypothesized that the country, which has been severely hit by the drop in oil prices, may be reconsidering its extra-assertive attitude and narrative of the previous years. The liberation of prominent political prisoners in the past months has already been read in this vein.

In sum, even though probably it will not have an immediate follow up, the Armenian debate on the recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh is relevant not only for Yerevan but also for Baku. Thus, the fact that Armenia is acting cautiously makes new attempts of mediation possible. On 16th of May, the two presidents will meet in Vienna even though, given their irreconcilable positions, expectations for a breakthrough run low[3].

This research was supported by a FP7/Marie Curie ITN action. Grant agreement N°: 316825

Notes

[1] “Armenian press say Karabakh recognition matter of time, but not now”, BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit, May 10, (2016).

[2] Russia & CIS General Newswire, “Recognition of Karabakh independence by Yerevan to derail OSCE Minsk group’s mediation efforts – Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry”, May 3, (2016).

[3] “Armenian press skeptical about “favorable” outcome of meeting with Azerbaijan”, BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit, May 14, (2016).

 

Azerbaijan – Fall in oil price, economic crisis and possible political consequences

The drop in the global oil price represents a cold shower for the oil-producing economies. In 2008 a barrel cost $140, whereas in January 2016 it is now down to $30. The Middle-Eastern dynamics, first and foremost the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and the previously-sanctioned Iran, do not suggest a quick reversal of this trend. In light of that, the oil-rich economies have had to review their budget allocations and growth forecasts. Azerbaijan is no exception in this regard.

If we compare the first presidential speeches of 2015 and 2016, President Ilham Aliyev seems extremely aware of the trend affecting the country. In 2015, reviewing the economic performance of the past year, Mr. Aliyev proudly said: “Our main economic indicators for 2014 are very positive. I can say that perhaps they are the highest in the world”. By contrast, at the beginning of 2016 the president had to admit that: “The development which was observed in previous years has not been achieved. That was not possible, because, as I have already noted, the price of oil has fallen 3-4 times”.

The drop in oil prices is not purely an economic issue. Indeed, this dynamic may have strong repercussions on the political system, which is dominated by the president. Remarkably, Azerbaijan is by far the wealthiest country in the South Caucasus. According to CIA Factbook, in 2014 the GDP Per Capita was $17,800. In comparison, Georgia’s and Armenia’s was $9,200 and $8,200 respectively. Azerbaijan is also the most authoritarian of the three countries. In fact, according to the Freedom House, the country is Not Free. These data are relevant because various analyses point to a link between oil wealth and the authoritarian regime in the country. More precisely, Farid Guliyev[1] considers that the oil revenue, managed by a State Oil saving Fund, has benefited and expanded a patronage network and ultimately has fostered the stability of the ruling regime. Similarly Jody La Porte[2] considers oil wealth to have promoted elite cohesion and economic prosperity. These circumstances have made it possible to effectively marginalise existing and potential opposition movements[3].

Over the years, the huge energy revenues have triggered a dynamic which often characterises oil-producing states: rentierism. Azerbaijan can be considered a rentier state since the bulk of the state budget is made up of oil and gas dividends instead of taxes. In fact, given the abundance of energy resources and the positive global energy trend (for producing states), oil and gas were the main economic focus of the country. The CIA Factbook data shows that energy commodities constitute 90% of national exports, which, in turn, compose 43.3% of the state GDP. Even if the Azerbaijani president has periodically mentioned the importance of boosting the non-oil sector, various experts seemed skeptical about the practical application of that. Farid Guliyev, analyzing the phenomenon, observes that it has mainly concretized in the form of pharaonic infrastructures, carried out by elites’ cronies and payed for by oil money[4]. Similarly in summer 2015 another local expert, under condition of anonymity, called this emphasis on the development of the non-oil sector as an empty litany: many words and no concrete actions.

This rentierism, in the absence of abundant oil revenues, does not seem sustainable anymore. Suddenly, diversification has become a top priority and the declarations about it no longer sound like an empty statement: the poor state of the local finances requires something to be done. Looking at the steps taken, the stabilization of the currency seems the main targeted area. That has been made urgent by the decision taken by the Central Bank on 21 December to unpeg the Manat (which is the local currency) from the Dollar and let the currency fluctuate. This happened only after half of the hard-currency national reserves were used up in a desperate attempt to postpone the inevitable. As a result, in a few days the Manat lost one third of its value.

The devaluation of the local currency has been feared for a long time. From mid-November, hard currency was available only in banks, tourist facilities and airports. In fact, almost everybody expected it to happen in the immediate aftermath of the European games in summer 2015. Not only citizens but also banks considered this possibility extremely realistic and started to grant loans in dollars. Radio Free Europe has reported the story of a desperate debtor who explained how, no matter insistent he was, he could not obtain a loan in the local currency. Even if it was expected, the devaluation hit  many citizens hard, seeing prices rocketing up in few hours and their life-time savings shrinking. In reaction, protests took place in various cities and in some cases resulted in clashes with the police and arrests. At the moment, measures taken to mitigate the monetary shock include: the imposition of limits on foreign currency outflows and the introduction of a 20 per cent currency tax aimed at discouraging direct investments or real estate purchases abroad[5]. Additionally, the president has recently approved some poverty-reduction measures. Among them, some pensions will be increased by ten per cent. In the next months new welfare provisions, such as scholarships and extra-employment benefits, will be probably introduced.

Considering these circumstances the state budget for 2016 has been revised and now forecasts factor in the oil price at $25 per barrel instead of $50. Additionally, the presidential office plans to grant fiscal advantages to investors who will diversify the economy. For example, for seven years entrepreneurs who import equipment in Azerbaijan not only will not pay taxes but also will have only half of their income taxed[6]. However, even if almost everybody talks openly of the economic difficulties, the new circumstances will not end tout court the willingness of the country to host international grand events. For example, the organization of the Formula One Grand Prix, scheduled for June 2016, will not be affected by any new measure.

In light of these elements, it is worth looking at how the president frames the issue. On January 2016 the website of the World Economic Forum published an article authored by Mr. Aliyev. On that occasion, consistent with what he had said in previous days (and which is reported at the top of this post), Ilham Alieyv admitted that global trends were not favorable to the structure of the Azerbaijani economy. However, he declared that the government was doing everything in its power to mitigate the negative circumstances. He also added that, in spite of the low oil price, Azerbaijan is still crucial in providing energy security to Europe. Thus, the authorities are actively managing the things they have control over. The next weeks and months will show the response of the population. There is no obvious development. Even if the Azerbaijani establishment is perfectly in control of its security forces, some nervousness among top elites can reasonably be expected. As Thomas de Waal masterfully put it: “The public, it seems, can forgive an authoritarian government almost anything except a falling standard of living”.

This research was supported by a FP7/Marie Curie ITN action. Grant agreement N°: 316825

Notes

[1] Guliyev, Farid. “Oil and Political Stability in Azerbaijan: The Role of Policy Learning.” Caucasus Analytcal Digest 47 (2013)

[2] LaPorte, Jody. “Hidden in Plain Sight: Political Opposition and Hegemonic Authoritarianism in Azerbaijan.” Post-Soviet Affairs 31, no. 4 (2015): 339-366.

[3]The oil revenue does not only affect domestic policies but also foreign policy strategies.  In this regard, the ESI Think Tank coined the term “Caviar Diplomacy”, which refers to the Azerbaijani strategy of winning over Western public figures in exchange for precious gifts.

[4] Guliyev, Farid. “‘After Us, the Deluge’: Oil Windfalls, State Elites and the Elusive Quest for Economic Diversification in Azerbaijan.” Caucasus Analytical Digest 69 (2015).

[5] AAP Newsfeed. “CIS: Azerbaijan imposes currency controls.” January 19, 2016.

[6] “New law excepts some Azeri entrepreneurs from tax for seven years”, BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit (2016), January 19.

 

Azerbaijan – In the aftermath of the Parliamentary Election

On 1 November a parliamentary election was held in Azerbaijan. A total of 767 candidates competed for 125 seats. As largely predicted, the ruling New Azerbaijan (Yeni Azerbaijan) party won the vast majority of seats in the Milli Majilis.

Azerbaijan election results:

YAP- 69 seats
Loyal non-partisan – 40
Other pro-govt – 16

Incumbent reelection rate – 80%

These figures confirm that, as always in the recent history of the country, President Aliyev will be able to count on a huge parliamentarian majority. This element will further reinforce the preponderance of the executive over the legislature. According to official figures, turnout was over 50 per cent.

The electoral campaign, which lasted 23 days, was plagued by controversy.

The campaign started the 8th of October and closed the morning of the 31st, exactly 24 hours before the opening of the polling stations. The Central Electoral Committee, chaired by Mr Mazahir Panahov, was responsible for setting the formal rules of the competition. The national media gave great preponderance to the provisions taken to enhance transparency and inclusiveness, such as the installation of cameras in the polling stations, the streaming on-line of the voting process, the printing of the ballot papers and the placement of ramps for disabled voters. Furthermore, the importance of involving the international media was stressed so as not to cast any shadow on the electoral process.

In spite of these praiseworthy measures, some other points seemed to restrict the national debate. For example, candidates had to be extremely accurate in filling their candidacy forms since mistakes could lead them to being excluded from the competition. Additionally, campaigning tools and venues were regulated in detail. Candidates were not allowed to put up any promotional material on buildings and monuments or to openly criticize the government. Furthermore, only media located in Azerbaijan and approved for state legislation could be used for promotional purposes.

The opposition was also concerned by the economic barriers to access media outlets. In fact, differently from previous parliamentary elections, free airtime was not given to parties presenting candidates in fewer than 60 constituencies. In practical terms, only the New Azerbaijan Party (which declined) would have been entitled to that. It resulted in the Azerbaijani public Television ITV (İctimai Televiziya) costing paid airtime at the colossal sum of 3540 Manat per minute. This provision was criticised as setting unequal conditions for independent candidates. Mr Panahov backed this provision saying, first, that it was due to economic difficulties (even though ITV is fully subsidized by the state)[1] and, second, that it was nonsensical to grant national coverage to parties that were eligible to stand in only some constituencies. He also pointed out the availability of other campaign tools such as: “Meeting directly with voters, preparation and distribution of campaign materials and paid election airtime in media outlets, including media outlets operating across the country.” However, the opposition forces complained that campaign restrictions, together with the unaffordable cost for the election-related advertisements, severely hindered the substantial competitiveness of the campaign.

Another point that raised some questions was the absence of the OSCE/ODIHR monitoring mission. Even though the election was observed by 365 international observers from 36 different organizations, OSCE/ODIHR was not among them. The inability of reaching an agreement on the appropriate number of observers was the main reason behind this forfeit. In its “Needs Assessment Mission Report” (31 August 2015), OSCE/ODIHR recommended the secondment of 30 long-term observers and 350 short-term ones from OSCE-participating states. The Azerbaijani authorities dismissed this request as unacceptable. As a result of this controversy, on the 11th of September ODIHR Director Michael George Link announced, through a press release on the official web site, that: “due to restrictions imposed by the Azerbaijani authorities“, ODIHR had decided to withdraw from observing the election. The Azerbaijani authorities described this choice as a unilateral move and invited the group not to comment further.  More specifically, Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov said that the ODIHR’s proposal to send around 400 observers was disproportionate for a country of 9.5 millions. Ramiz Mahdiyev, the head of Azerbaijani Presidential Administration, backed this position and added, in terms of comparison, that 700 observers were recently sent in Ukraine, where the population was 45 million[2]. The top official Ali Hasanov stated that OSCE/ODIHR has been generally biased toward Azerbaijan. By contrast, Rebecca Vincent, a former US diplomat currently coordinating “Sports for Rights”, an international campaign raising awareness on Human Rights in Azerbaijan, observed that “This election is taking place with no credible international observers”:

This is not the first time the OSCE/ODIHR’s actions in Azerbaijan have been plagued by controversy. In the presidential election of 2013, it was the only group to unequivocally assess the election as rigged. By contrast, authoritative bodies such as PACE (the monitoring mission of the Council of Europe) endorsed the elections as free and fair. Investigating the reasons behind this dramatic discrepancy, the ESI Think Thank argued that some enthusiastic rapporteurs had long-standing personal connections with the Azerbaijani elites and that, by virtue of these ties, in the past they enjoyed fully-funded trips to Baku and generous gifts (which is where the name “Caviar Diplomacy” comes from). The ESI report had great resonance and triggered angry reactions from the Azerbaijani establishment.

The aforementioned electoral controversies lead some opposition parties to announce their intention to boycott the elections (even if individual candidates still decided to run). The Republican Alternative party (REAL) also said it would not recognize the results. It was also proposed to postpone or re-hold the ballot. Remarkably, REAL, whose leader Ilgar Mammedov has been in jail since March 2014, suggested first working to ensure the conditions for a free and fair environment (release of political prisoners, free airtime, etc) and then to repeat the election in 2016. Similarly, the Musavat party asked to reschedule the election and to restore democracy in the country.

Looking at the actual conduct of the election, the National Council of Democratic Forces (NCDF, a platform of opposition parties) said that, in spite of the official claims, the turnout was no higher than 10 per cent and that the result was unrepresentative of the popular will. On the same note, the pro-opposition Turan Information press reported cases of carousel voting and ballot stuffing. Similar comments were made by independent Azerbaijani observers. By contrast, various international observers said that the election were free and fair. Among them the PACE Election Observation, the Bulgarian delegation, observers from Kyrgyzstan and Latvia and the CIS mission.

This research was supported by a FP7/Marie Curie ITN action. Grant agreement N°: 316825

[1] “Candidates will not get time on OTV” (2015, 09 October), Turan Information Agency (Retrieved through Lexis Nexis).

[2] “Senior Azeri official accuses Europe of double standards” (2015, November 1) BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit (Retrieved through Lexis Nexis).

Chiara Loda – Public Diplomacy and Intransigency in Domestic Affairs: The Azerbaijani Model and its Limits

This is a guest post by Chiara Loda is Marie Curie ITN “Post-Soviet Tensions” Fellow at Dublin City University

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Azerbaijan is mainly known for being a South-Caucasian country blessed by energy resources. Currently, some of its oil is directly shipped to Turkey through the BTC pipeline and in the coming years the TANAP and TAP pipelines will connect the Azerbaijani gas reserves to Europe. In addition to enhancing the country’s energy strategy, in recent years President Ilham Aliyev has been personally committed to devising and implementing a successful public diplomacy policy. Multilateral forums, sport events and international partnerships are only some of the tools designed to win international sympathy. These actions are not simply aimed at mere prestige. Instead, making the international audience more sympathetic to the Azerbaijani position with regard to the Nagorno Karabakh confict is the main aim of public diplomacy. In spite of those efforts, though, the presence of political prisoners, a policy which is denied by the establishment but which is asserted by organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, often brings international criticism to Baku.

The Eurovision Song contest, hosted in Baku in 2012, clearly showed how much Ilham Aliyev wanted the event to be memorable. Together with his wife Mehriban Aliyeva (who was the Chairperson of the Organizing Committee), President Aliyev actively participated in the preparation of the event. On that occasion, the state budget pledged $721 million to the project ($ 277 million was devoted solely to the construction of the new concert hall). This is a gigantic amount when we think that another oil-producer, Norway, which hosted the same contest in 2010, spent only $37 million. On this occasion, the president, facing international pressure, agreed to set free some political opponents. Even if some observers lamented the fact that new political arrests were made shortly after the end of the contest, the leadership did still wish to avoid negative media coverage during the event.

With time passing, those signs of goodwill have become less and less frequent and the attempt to enhance the international visibility of the country is no longer accompanied by efforts to find a point of compromise with international demands. More than that, external observations about freedom of speech and individual human rights are now often harshly dismissed as meddling in domestic affairs. This uncompromising attitude was clear during the address by President Aliyev at the Summer Session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (Strasbourg, 24 June 2014). After the speech, the members of the Assembly were invited to ask questions. Mr McNamara, from the socialist group, asked about political prisoners in the country. He was given the following answer: “There are no political prisoners in Azerbaijan. All of what Mr McNamara has said is based on false information or his biased approach to our country”.

The first ever European Games, hosted in Baku in June 2015, sum up new situation as a whole: the desire to host grand events and the inflexible resistance to external pressure. In 2012, after being rejected as a candidate country for the Olympic Games in 2020, Azerbaijan was the only country to volunteer to host the newly-established European Games in 2015. After securing the bid, President Aliyev constantly demonstrated his interest in the success of the event by visiting the newly inaugurated facilities almost every month and by often mentioning the importance of the event for the country. For this event too, his wife, Mehriban, chaired the organizing committee.

In addition to spending significant sums on infrastructure and promotional activities (the inauguration event alone, which was attended by no less than Lady Gaga, cost $100 million), the organizers volunteered to cover the travel and lodging expenses of all the foreign delegations, including the Armenian one. Additionally, the city was polished up for the event. Weddings and funerals in the capital were suspended for the month of June. In Baku, a few days before the games, almost everybody was complaining about the closed traffic lanes, the inflexibility of the traffic police, and the exorbitant costs of the events.

Given this massive effort, some personalities in Azerbaijani society expected the president to pardon some high-profile jailed dissidents. That would have sheltered the country from some criticism. Instead, the aforementioned attempts to impress visitors were not matched by other signs of goodwill and, in spite of international organizations and media outlets calling for the release of political prisoners, no action was taken. Remarkably, nobody was even pardoned by the president on the 28th of May, which is the Azerbaijani republic day, even such an amnesty almost always occurs each year on this day.

Even if domestic dissent was not widely voiced, the Azerbaijani intelligentsia seemed highly perplexed by this contradictory approach. A local scholar, interviewed a few days before the games, revealed his scepticism. According to him, governing elites failed to realize that all the Western reporters would have mentioned in their articles not only the magnificence of the stadiums but also the issue of political prisoners. Another prominent figure said bluntly (on condition of anonymity) that keeping people in jail only makes them popular and that this obstinacy on the domestic front is directly hindering the national energy strategy.

The media coverage seemed to confirm those worries. Media outlets such as the BBC and the NY Times, writing about Azerbaijan on the day of the opening of the games, did not hide their concern for the mixed human rights record of the country. In addition, on the same day (12th of June) the German Bundestag adopted a resolution which linked the Azerbaijani presidential elections in 2013 with the deterioration in rights. On the state TV Channel, AZTV,  Mr. Aliyev condemned the perceived attempt by Germany to set global normative standards.

The international reaction to the games (which were attended by only a few heads of state) constitutes a lesson not only for the Azerbaijani establishment but also for future emulators. Public diplomacy efforts are likely to be severely undermined by intransigency on domestic affairs. Ilham Aliyev, a strong proponent of this model, now has to rethink the cost-benefit ratio. Time will tell if the country will become more responsive to international requests, if only symbolicly, or if the closed nature of the regime will be reinforced. The challenges presented by the drop of the global oil prices, together with the possible return of Iran to the energy market, are additional factors that further complicate this equation.

Chiara Loda is Marie Curie ITN “Post-Soviet Tensions” Fellow at Dublin City University. Currently she is based in the South Caucasian region where she is conducting extensive fieldwork. This research was supported by a Marie Curie Initial Training Network within the 7th European Community Framework Programme (grant no: 316825).

Azerbaijan – President Aliyev re-elected for a third term

Azerbaijan held its presidential election on Wednesday. President Ilham Aliyev was aiming to be elected for a third term, the two-term presidential term limit having been abolished in a March 2009 referendum. Unsurprisingly, President Aliyev topped the poll.

The Azerbaijan news agency is reporting the following official figures:

  • Ilham Aliyev – 84.55%
  • Jamil Hasanli – 5.53%
  • Igbal Aghazadeh 2.40%
  • Gudrat Hasanguliyev – 1.99%
  • Zahid Oruj – 1.45%
  • Ilyas Ismayilov – 1.07%
  • Araz Alizadeh – 0.87%
  • Faraj Guliyev – 0.86%
  • Hafiz Hajiyev – 0.66%
  • Sardar Mammadov – 0.61%

The OSCE has been critical of the electoral process. The preliminary report states that the election “election was undermined by limitations on the freedoms of expression, assembly, and association that did not guarantee a level playing field for candidates. Continued allegations of candidate and voter intimidation and a restrictive media environment marred the campaign. Significant problems were observed throughout all stages of election day processes and underscored the serious nature of the shortcomings that need to be addressed in order for Azerbaijan to fully meet its OSCE commitments for genuine and democratic elections.”

One story that has been used to confirm this interpretation was a seemingly official announcement of President Aliyev’s victory the day before the election took place. The presidency developed a special election app to cover the election. However, one subscriber claimed to have taken a picture on the app announcing the president’s victory in advance of the poll.

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It should be noted that the app underestimated the president’s vote quite considerably and in any event there was little doubt that President Aliyev would be re-elected with a landslide.

Legislative elections are scheduled for 2015.