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Caucasus Report: October 20, 2003

20 October 2003, Volume 6, Number 36

MISSED OPPORTUNITIES AND STRATEGIC MISCALCULATIONS. The 15 October Azerbaijani presidential election may go down in history as a turning point for three reasons. First, it provided a wafer-thin veneer of legitimacy for the transfer of power from ailing octogenarian President Heidar Aliyev to his son Ilham. Second, it demonstrated the unwillingness of the international community to risk jeopardizing geo-strategic and economic interests by unequivocally condemning blatant falsification of the ballot. In other words, the possibility of a genuine democratic transition of power was sacrificed in the name of stability and preserving the status quo. And third, by failing to condemn falsification of the ballot, the international community has, wittingly or unwittingly, signaled to other entrenched CIS leaderships (Georgia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan) that they have little to lose, and everything to gain, by following the Azerbaijani example. By the same token, it has sent a message to opposition groups that they cannot rely on the West to do any more than pay lip service to the need for democratization.

Since late last year the Azerbaijani leadership has systematically rejected all recommendations and admonishments by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Council of Europe's Venice Commission, and the United States aimed at creating a legislative framework that minimized the potential for falsification of the vote and provided equal opportunities for all candidates. The Azerbaijani authorities passed a new election law that gave the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP) and its satellites the required two-thirds majority on election commissions at all levels. Over half of all would-be candidates who tried to register for the ballot were barred from doing so. And once the election campaign got under way, the authorities resorted threats and violence in a largely unsuccessful attempt to deter voters from attending campaign rallies for those opposition candidates -- Musavat Party Chairman Isa Qambar and Azerbaijan National Independence Party (AMIP) Chairman Etibar Mammedov -- perceived as posing the greatest threat to a first-round victory by Prime Minister Ilham Aliyev.

Initial reports suggest that the range and extent of deliberate falsification during the 15 October vote exceeded even the most pessimistic predictions and surpassed the level of violations registered during previous ballots. Tens, and according to some unverified claims possibly even hundreds, of thousands of voters known as opposition sympathizers were unable to cast their ballot because their names had not been included on voter lists, and local courts to which they appealed for reinstatement were unable to process more than a fraction of such requests. In addition to such routine violations as ballot-box stuffing and multiple voting, Vidadi Mahmudlu, the opposition secretary on the Central Election Commission, told Turan on 15 October that hundreds of election commission members were forcibly evicted from polling stations or arrested. At several polling stations, Mahmudlu said, district commission chairmen refused even to count the ballot papers, and simply took possession of the unopened ballot boxes.

Musavat Party Chairman Qambar, who claimed victory with 60 percent of the vote, affirmed late on 15 October that he would not accept the official preliminary returns that gave Prime Minister Aliyev a landslide victory with almost 80 percent of the vote. According to those figures, Qambar placed second with 12.8 percent. But exit polls of 2,414 voters at 200 polling stations throughout Azerbaijan conducted by the independent ADAM Center and Turan gave Qambar 46.2 percent of the vote followed by Aliyev (24.1 percent), independent candidate Lala Shovket Gadjieva (11.4 percent), and AMIP's Mammedov (11 percent). The remaining four candidates were calculated to have polled between 3.7 percent and 0.2 percent

Ambassador Peter Eicher, the U.S. diplomat who headed the International Election Observation Mission (IEOM), and who was assaulted by police during the fighting with Musavat supporters outside the Musavat Party headquarters early on 16 October, commented that "this election was a missed opportunity for a genuinely democratic election process." Council of Europe Secretary-General Walter Schwimmer similarly expressed regret in a statement summarized by Turan on 17 October that Azerbaijan had failed to avail itself of the opportunity to meet European election standards.

The preliminary assessment released by the OSCE on 16 October was, however, more cautiously phrased, noting that "voting...was generally well-administered in most polling stations but the overall election process still fell short of international standards in several key respects. International observers noted a number of irregularities in the counting and tabulation."

That formulation echoed almost verbatim the initial OSCE assessment of the first round of the Armenian presidential election in February. That assessment described the Armenian vote as "generally calm and well-administered, but the counting process was flawed and the long-term election process fell short of international standards in several key respects." Opposition supporters, however, pointed to "massive irregularities and violence" that they claimed called into question the legitimacy of the ballot (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 February 2003).

Eicher's selection as IEOM head in Azerbaijani could be interpreted as reflecting the OSCE's desire to preclude any charges that different criteria were applied to Armenia and Azerbaijan, insofar as Eicher also headed the IEOM that assessed the Armenian presidential ballot. It would, however, be injudicious to infer that the OSCE may have decided in advance that it was politically expedient to hand down the same verdict on the presidential elections in both Armenia and Azerbaijani, even if the extent of falsifications in Azerbaijan proved to be perceptibly greater than in Armenia.

But a goodly proportion of the international election observers deployed throughout Azerbaijan nonetheless rejected the initial assessment issued by the IEOM as failing to reflect accurately the extent to which the outcome had been falsified. A statement distributed in Baku on 18 October and signed by 188 members of the OSCE/Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) contingent of the IEOM affirmed that what took place on 15 October cannot be dignified by the term "elections" because the fundamental principles of democracy were violated. The statement characterized the voting as neither free, fair, nor transparent, and as falling absolutely short of international standards.

In a statement on 18 October, the National Democratic Institute too said the 15 October ballot "did not meet minimum international standards. The counting and tabulation processes...were affected by serious irregularities, including the failure to complete protocols (tally sheets) at polling stations." The statement also noted that "widespread disenfranchisement of voters due to omissions in voter lists across the country undermined the integrity of the election process."

OSCE Chairman in Office Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has provided a loophole for the IEOM to redefine its stance in its final election assessment. In an 18 October statement (, he affirmed that "only elections that allow all parties to campaign in an atmosphere free of intimidation and where the population can exercise their vote freely in a democratic, secret and fair poll, are fully accepted by the people, thereby endorsing the legitimacy of the newly elected leadership."

The falsification of the ballot proved, however, to be only the first step in what appears to be a concerted effort to break the back of the Azerbaijani opposition. Since the 16 October clashes in Baku between police and thousands of mostly young Musavat supporters, the authorities have rounded up not only persons suspected of participating in those clashes, but activists from local branches of Musavat, AMIP, the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, and both wings of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party. Some of those opposition activists have been subjected to severe beatings, according to Turan on 17 October. Local offices of the Musavat Party are being ransacked; one was burned out. In addition, local opposition representatives who served on district election commissions in Gyanja, Beylagan, and elsewhere are being pressured to sign forged tally sheets.

Both opposition and international diplomats in Baku had anticipated that the authorities would do all in their power to prevent an opposition victory. At the same time, international oil companies and Western diplomats apparently signaled that they would turn a blind eye to a minimal level of falsification, if indeed falsification were needed to give Prime Minister Aliyev the 50 percent plus one vote needed for an outright first-round victory. AFP on 13 October quoted an unnamed Western diplomat in Baku as saying, "the election is a fait accompli, everybody knows that," while "The Wall Street Journal" two days later similarly quoted a "senior Western diplomat" as saying, "we are not going to the barricades because the opposition claims they were robbed of power by 4 percent of the vote."

Opposition leaders for their part repeatedly affirmed in the run-up to the election that they would resort if necessary to "the most radical measures" to prevent, or to protest, falsification of the vote. But although Qambar and Mammedov took pains to stress that those measures would not entail violating the law or the constitution, senior Azerbaijani officials, including presidential administration head Ramiz Mekhtiev, responded by accusing the opposition of planning to destabilize the political situation and seize power during or after the presidential ballot as its presidential candidates had no hope of winning. The authorities warned that any such attempt to "seize power" would be crushed.

Those same officials are now adducing the violent clashes in Baku during the night of 15-16 October and during the afternoon of 16 October between several thousand opposition supporters, on the one hand, and police and Interior Ministry troops on the other, as substantiating the subversive intentions they imputed to the opposition. The opposition -- or at least some of its most reckless supporters -- thus appears inadvertently to have played into the hands of the authorities and furnished the latter with a strong legal case for arresting persons suspected of organizing and participating in the 15-16 October clashes.

In a statement released on 16 October, YAP called for the arrest of Qambar and of the leaders of all the other parties (some 30 in all) aligned in the Our Azerbaijan bloc that backed Qambar's presidential bid. Democratic Party of Azerbaijan Secretary-General Sardar Djalaloglu was duly arrested late on 18 October by masked men who forced their way into his apartment and threatened his small children, Turan reported. Also on 18 October, President-elect Aliyev branded Qambar "a provocateur" who "has blood on his hands," Reuters reported.

While the Azerbaijani authorities continue to argue that the election was free and fair, that Prime Minister Aliyev is the undisputed winner, and that the police action against opposition demonstrators was justified by the need to restore law and order, Qambar, who is under virtual house arrest, has blamed the violence on the authorities, arguing that his supporters would not have taken to the streets if the ballot had not been falsified.

The post-election violence is disturbing not just per se, but because it lends credence to an observation made by Ambassador Peter Burkhard, who heads the OSCE Office in Baku. In an interview published on 27 September in the online paper, Burkhard said, "I have the impression that the participants in the election process in your country perceive the elections as a merciless and uncompromising struggle bordering on war." And both sides are now portraying that "war" in terms of moral absolutes. The government newspaper "Azerbaycan" described the election as "a struggle between good and evil," RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service reported on 17 October. AMIP Chairman Mammedov on 15 October told journalists that by rigging the election, the authorities are "ignoring the people's will, [which] is a crime against the state, the nation and Allah."

Such statements can serve only to exacerbate the polarization of Azerbaijani society and make it all the more difficult for the Azerbaijani leadership to embark on the democratic reforms based on dialogue with the opposition that Council of Europe Secretary-General Schwimmer has advocated. Whether such a political commitment to genuine democratization exists is, however, debatable. The way in which the Azerbaijani leadership systematically demonized the opposition in the run-up to the ballot, and then used the spontaneous protests against falsification of the vote to rationalize mass arrests, could be seen as substantiating the hypothesis outlined in the previous issue of "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," (10 October 2003) that with Ilham Aliyev as president, Azerbaijan is likely to become more totalitarian, rather than more democratic. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "This is just a disgrace. The [Azerbaijani authorities] simply can't do this." Norwegian Ambassador to Azerbaijan Steinar Gil, commenting on the violent reprisals against opposition supporters in Baku on 16 October (quoted by the "Chicago Tribune" on 18 October).

"We are not blind. We see what they've done here. [Ilham Aliyev] is making himself president. It's all fake. It's a joke. People see him talking and immediately turn off the television." -- Unidentified kiosk owner in Baku, quoted by "The New York Times" on 15 October.

"I can't ask the people to stand by while their votes are stolen." -- Opposition presidential candidate Isa Qambar, quoted by "The Guardian" on 16 October.

"The Islamic world needs to adapt itself to Russia, and Russia needs to adapt itself to the Islamic world." -- Former Russian Nationalities Minister Ramazan Abdulatipov, in an interview with "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 17 October.

"...We still have such a Soviet mind-set that even if we do know something, we feel that we don't have the right to talk about it. We need to break free of that." -- Abdulatipov, ibid.