The parliamentary election campaign in Azerbaijan is entering the final straight. This is the fifth such race in the country, but this time the number of runners is as big as never before: 1,243 hopefuls for 125 seats. 572 of them represent political organizations, the rest are independent politicians. During the previous race, there were almost 700 runners.
Public opinion polls and experts give preference to the ruling Yeni Azərbaycan (New Azerbaijan) party. This force is expected to get as many as 70-80% of the votes. It has 71 seats in the current parliament, for the next one it has 117 candidates. According to the party’s Deputy Executive Secretary Siyavush Novruzov, 53 candidates already are acting MPs.
The opposition runners represent 15 parties and the Freedom 2015 Bloc. 25 of them are from the radical opposition Musavat Party, 20 from the Freedom 2015 Bloc, 10 from ReAl, 2 from Nida, 4 from Ag blok, 17 from Umid.
Azerbaijani experts say that the slumping oil prices – Azerbaijan’s key export item – has not fueled opposition moods in the country as some oppositionists expected. According to President of Constitution Research Foundation Alimamed Nuriyev, the current situation in the Middle East is having a much bigger effect on Azerbaijani voters, most of whom want to see their country stable. The outcome of the elections is easy to predict, as the opposition camp has neither funds nor a leader matching the boss of Yeni Azərbaycan, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.
Director of Turan News Agency Mehman Aliyev is skeptical about the opposition’s chances. “The outcome is known. We see no atmosphere of elections, as we have no conditions for fair competition. As a result, many oppositionists have refused to run, while those running have no access to the TV audience,” Aliyev says.
Some of the running parties are well aware that they have no chances. Among them is Real Alternative (ReAl) with 10 candidates. Initially, the party had 17 nominees. The CEC registered only 11 of them. Later Erkin Gadirli refused to run.
According to analyst of contact.az Tofig Turkel, even though the opposition has nominated 80-85 candidates, it has hopes only in a couple of districts, where it has Isa Gambar and Arif Hajili. The Freedom 2015 Bloc has one strong candidate - the leader of the People’s Party Panah Huseyn.
Almost nobody in the opposition believes in democratic elections. According to an interim report by the Institute for Democratic Initiatives, over 1,200 candidates have been registered for the race but hundreds more have been denied registration. The ruling party has majority in most of the election commissions, so, they cannot be impartial. Nor is there any dialogue between the government and the opposition. Political prisoners are still in jail, mass media are still non-free. So, the Nov 1 parliamentary elections will hardly be free, fair or democratic.
Many experts expect the new parliament to be a puppet of the ruling regime. This is why the People’s Front of Azerbaijan is not running in the race. “We decided to stay away from this farce. But our opponents from the opposition hoped to use TV as a means to inform their voters of the real situation in the country. But their plans failed as they were given no TV time,” Deputy Chairman of the People’s Front of Azerbaijan Fuad Gahramanli says.
So, the key opposition forces – the National Council of Democratic Forces, Musavat and the People’s Front - have proved to be inefficient. Those wishing to replace them – like Arif Mamedov and ReAl - are no efficient either and they will hardly go further than the election campaign.
Europe has decided to send no observers to Baku on Nov 1. The European Parliament, ODIHR and OSCE PA will not monitor the elections. Only PACE will send some 32 observers.
On Sept 10, the European Parliament adopted a very tough resolution on Azerbaijan and recommended the European Commission and the EU member states to send no observers to Baku as there will be no minimum conditions for a free and transparent voting there.
The Azerbaijani authorities have already got used to this attitude and are going to ask some foreign organizations like Citizens’ Labor Rights Protection League, AJF&Associates Inc and Opinion Way to conduct exit polls on the day of voting.
They are so confident in their own selves that they can afford showing mutual dislike. The Administration of the Azerbaijani President does not care who will be in the next parliament. They have much bigger concerns than some 10-20 oppositionists in the parliament or the West’s calls for free and fair voting.
What they care for is rising religious extremism, falling oil price and own officials. Recently the Azerbaijani special services detained 42 people on suspicion of contacts with Islamic radicals. Over the last days, the Azerbaijani authorities have been fiercely fighting radical forces. Particularly, they fired a group of National Security Ministry officials, including four generals.
They in Baku are annoyed to be watched by the West and are reluctant to do its bidding.
The West keeps applying a carrot-and-stick policy with respect to Azerbaijan. This year it has been as critical as never before. The Americans were the first with a series of seminars and congress discussions. The Europeans followed suit. On Sept 10, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on Azerbaijan. The resolution recommends the EU to apply sanctions against Azerbaijani government officials and judges violating human right and urges the Azerbaijani authorities to set free all political prisoners.
The Azerbaijani leaders have often been criticized by their western partners before but “target sanctions” are something new.
On the one hand, both the Europeans and the Americans keep assuring that the Azerbaijanis are their strategic partners. Three U.S. top government officials have visited Baku since the end of European Games 2015 and all of them spoke about strategic partnership. The first visitor was Amos J Hochstein, the Special Envoy and Coordinator for International Energy Affairs leading the Bureau of Energy Resources (ENR) at the U.S. Department of State, who was followed by Richard Hoagland, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary in State’s Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, and Evelyn N. Farkas, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia/Ukraine/Eurasia.
But all they said was words only. So, seeing that the West’s declarations are mere talk, the Azerbaijani authorities have begun acting appropriately.
They have stopped being politically correct. And even more, they have applied a very indelicate term to the European Union – they said it was suffering from a “political climax.” “The steps they are taking prove that they are suffering from a ‘political climax,’” Head of the Azerbaijani President’s Administration Novruz Mamedov said.
Earlier, the Azerbaijani President’s social-political assistant Ali Hasanov reproached the European Parliament for “losing the sense of reality” and even called it a “toy in the hands of some western circles.”
Ilham Aliyev was also tough. Even before the European Parliament’s Sept 10 resolution he said that in 2011 and 2012 the West was planning an “Arab spring” in Azerbaijani. They said it was inevitable and undertook thousands of attempts to destabilize the country. “They were plotting a maidan in Azerbaijan. They broke the lives of the young people they involved in their plots. They spent tens of millions of USD to destabilize our country and to bring their men into power,” the Azerbaijani president said.
Later he said that Azerbaijan had its own development model based on independence, national values and patriotism. “We must protect our youths from harmful external influences and values. Some western circles seek to create their zones of influence here but we have our own road and nobody can influence us. Some forces keep trying to subdue us and whenever they fail, they start bad-mouthing us,” Aliyev said.
In the meantime, Azerbaijan’s relations with the West are experiencing a deep crisis. With 40% of its GDP, 65% of its budget and over 85% of its exports based on oil and with billions of USD invested in its oil and gas industry by western partners, Azerbaijan cannot break them off at once. But the West’s “political climax” is becoming unbearable for the Azerbaijani authorities and they are starting to look for alternatives.
And the best alternative is Russia. Many Azerbaijani experts believe that today is a very good time for economic rapprochement with the Russians. The war of sanctions is forcing them in the Kremlin to seek support from their close partners. And they are using both political and economic methods here. For them Azerbaijan is a very valuable partner.
The GDP of that country amounts to $167bn (according to the WB’s PPP index for 2014). This is just a little less than in Belarus ($172bn), Russia’s key Eurasian economic partner. Even given the slump in oil prices, in Jan-June 2015 Azerbaijan registered a 6% growth in its GDP and a 9% growth in non oil and gas sector. Thus, the Azerbaijani economy can be а good foothold for the sanction-ridden Russia.
Azerbaijan is also inclined to cooperate with Russia. Much worried that the West may try to organize a Maidan in it their country, the Azerbaijani authorities are gravitating toward Russia. The Nov 1 elections will hardly change this tendency
Though still forced to listen to the moral preaching of its oil-buying partners from the West, Azerbaijan may one day lose its patience and insist on real support and strategic partnership.
(1) Alexander Karavaev, Russia-Azerbaijan: From Soviet Modernization to Import-Substitution, https://ia-centr.ru, Sept 17 2015.