Brussels, 27 October (RFE/RL) -- At least officially, the EU is increasingly viewing Azerbaijan's preparations for the 6 November parliamentary elections as a watershed event.
Speaking in front of the European Parliament on 26 October, Ferrero-Waldner said the conduct of the elections will be a "litmus test" of the country's will to align itself closer with the EU.
But, she noted, developments in Azerbaijan do not bode well.
"The commission has been following with the greatest attention and some concern, I must say, the preparations for the parliamentary elections now on the 6 November of this year," she said. "The events that took place last week, within such short time before the elections are indeed a source of even greater concern to us."
Azerbaijan, together with Georgia and Armenia, has been included in the EU's "neighborhood policy." All three await "action plans" which will spell out in concrete terms how the EU will assist their development in the coming years.
However, the action plans are being held up as a result of a spat between Azerbaijan and EU member state Cyprus over Baku's toleration of air links to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Azerbaijan has close political and cultural links to Turkey. Cyprus, under its internationally recognized Greek-community government, has forced the EU to blockade the northern part of the island.
Ferrero-Waldner said the action plans are likely to be delayed until next year.
She also came close to suggesting that Azerbaijan's democratic record will also weigh heavily on an eventual EU decision on whether to give the country a neighborhood "action plan" at all.
Ferrero-Waldner criticized the recent dismissal of a number of ministers by President Ilham Aliyev. She said that while the EU could not interfere in Azerbaijan's judicial proceedings, it is crucial that any investigations or trials be carried out fairly and thoroughly in a "very transparent way."
The commissioner said recent arrests and other recent disturbances already cast a pall over the elections.
"These arrests are inevitably contributing to [a] worrying deterioration of the atmosphere, of course, in this election campaign," Ferrero-Waldner said. "And, I would say this election campaign unfortunately already is marked by some violence and some specific incidents."
Azerbaijani authorities have, in the past week, sacked and arrested several cabinet ministers and other government officials on accusations that they plotted with exiled opposition leader Rasul Quliyev to overthrow the government.
Quliyev -- a former parliament speaker who is wanted in Azerbaijan on embezzlement charges he denies -- has described allegations that he is preparing a coup as "fairy tales."
Quliyev on 17 October was detained in Ukraine while reportedly flying back to Baku from London after nine years of exile. A Ukrainian court later turned down an extradition request filed by Azerbaijan and ordered Quliyev's release.
Ahead of Quliyev's expected return, Azerbaijani authorities detained members of his Democratic Party and sent troops reinforcements to Baku.
A Bad Climate For Voting
Ferrero-Waldner said such a "climate" threatens to undermine the quality of the elections -- regardless of some recent government moves to comply with international pressure for free and fair elections.
"We have learned of dozens of candidates who have withdrawn in the last hours," she said. "Access to state and public TV is no longer being granted to opposition parties, or [if, then] it is with so many restrictions that, indeed, we can not be satisfied with it."
More than 400 would-be lawmakers have withdrawn from the election race in the past few days. They include many independent candidates, but also several members of the Yeni Azerbaycan (New Azerbaijan) ruling party.
Azerbaijan's Central Election Commission on 26 October ordered the use of ink to mark voters' fingers in the upcoming elections.
On 25 October, Aliyev asked lawmakers to expedite legislation that would ensure that voter lists include voters' addresses and that would allow Azerbaijani nongovernmental groups that receive more than one-third of their funding from foreign countries to monitor the polls.
Council of Europe Secretary-General Terry Davis has welcomed the proposed measures, saying they "should clear the way for a better domestic observation...and improve the prospects for impartial conduct by the state administration during the elections."
The United States also welcomed the move.
Opposition parties in Azerbaijan expressed similar satisfaction. However, they voiced skepticism about implementing the new measures less than two weeks before the vote.
Respect For Basic Freedoms
Ferrero-Waldner said the EU has strongly insisted in its contacts with Azerbaijani leaders on respect for fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of expression.
She said the EU has also asked opposition parties to exercise such rights -- when granted -- in a "moderate and peaceful way."
During a relatively short debate that followed Ferrero-Waldner's speech in the European Parliament, her analysis drew support from socialist and liberal deputies.
Speaking for the largest, conservative "People's Party" faction, British deputy Charles Tannock appeared less critical. Although concerned about curbs on media freedom and the right of assembly and protest, Tannock welcomed a recent decree by president Aliyev obliging electoral officials to ensure the polls are free and fair. He also said the ministers dismissed in recent weeks had been members of the "old guard" and resisted change.
However, Tannock noted, Azerbaijan's political system remains heavily presidential and there will be "no real change" in the exercise of power until the 2008 presidential elections.
Tannock and other deputies who spoke said Aliyev must transparently use its growing oil revenues for the benefit of the entire country.
On 27 October, the European Parliament will vote on a short resolution on Azerbaijan.