STRASBOURG -- As Baku readies itself for a new presidential election campaign, Khadija Izmayilova of RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service sat down with Council of Europe Secretary-General Terry Davis to discuss the state of democracy in Azerbaijan ahead of the October 15 vote.
RFE/RL: Looking at the current political climate in Azerbaijan, do you think it is possible to have a free and fair election on October 15?
Terry Davis: I think it is possible to conduct free and fair elections in Azerbaijan. That is not the same as saying that the elections will be free and fair. But if you ask me about possibility, yes, it is always possible.
RFE/RL: What, in your opinion, is the impact of the arrests of journalists in Azerbaijan?
Davis: But they do not have to be -- that is the point I am making -- they don't have to be under arrest. I am very concerned about arrests of journalists. I have expressed that view several times and I've expressed it publicly. But if the question you asked me was whether it is possible -- it is possible, [but] whether it is probable is another issue.
RFE/RL: What are your thoughts on some political parties' claims that Azerbaijan is not ready to hold free and fair elections, and that they are unable to hold demonstrations?
Davis: Well, certainly, the elections will be the subject of observation by people from outside of Azerbaijan as well as by people from inside Azerbaijan. As far as the foreign observers are concerned...the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe is going to observe these elections. If the elections do not prove to be free and fair, I would expect a very critical report to be issued by the Parliamentary Assembly.... I expect the outside observers to tell us, the rest of us, whether elections have been free and fair. I would expect that report very soon after elections before I visit Baku in December.
Freedom Of Expression
RFE/RL: In 2001, when Azerbaijan joined the Council of Europe, there was intense discussion about the status of political prisoners, media freedom, and political freedom. Seven years later, those debates still rage in Azerbaijan. Had those issues been fundamentally resolved, had the Azerbaijani authorities been more cooperative, what would Azerbaijan look like today?
Davis: Azerbaijan does cooperate with the Council of Europe and I would not like anyone to think that I am criticizing the lack of cooperation. That would not be true. But it would certainly be correct that there is a need for improvement in Azerbaijan in terms of freedom of expression. I'm very concerned about the restrictions and even imprisonment of journalists in Azerbaijan. I have said that many times. You cannot have a democracy without freedom of expression.
RFE/RL: In 2001, Azerbaijan was assessed by Freedom House as "partly free," and now, in 2007, it has a ranking of "non-free." Other organizations also consider Azerbaijan to be backsliding in terms of freedoms and democracy. Why do you think Azerbaijan's membership in the Council of Europe has not helped it improve its record?
Davis: I do not necessarily accept the judgments of Freedom House. They are entitled to their point of view, but it does not determine my point of view.
RFE/RL: During Ilham Aliyev's election campaign in 2003, his status as a "politician with European experience" owing to his activities within the Council of Europe was touted as one of his main advantages. How would you assess his performance as president? Is he acting like a European politician, in term of his readiness to listen to others and engage in political debate?
Davis: In my personal experience, President Aliyev does listen to other people. I myself had many discussions with him and I always had an impression that he listens very carefully. That does not mean he agrees with me about everything. But in democracy you don't have agreement on everything. Democracy is about debate and discussion, and about listening to other people and explaining your point of view and explaining why you disagree. I do not assess the presidents of the member states of the Council of Europe. I don't give them marks in a way that apparently Freedom House does. I'm not sure that they are justified in their assessments of people. I think to assess other people does show a certain arrogance. My role is to help people and I believe in helping Azerbaijan to have a higher standard of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. That is what the Council of Europe is all about.
RFE/RL: Do you think Azerbaijan has more media freedom now than when it joined the Council of Europe in 2001?
Davis: I think that is impossible to assess. I judge things as they are now. There were criticisms at the time. Criticism certainly exists now. I am one of the critics of the lack of enough freedom of expression in Azerbaijan. But I am more concerned with the situation there. I do not say whether it's improved or deteriorated.
RFE/RL: The Azerbaijani government had lengthy negotiations with the Venice Commission on election legislation. However, in the end, the commission's recommendations were not accepted by the Azerbaijani authorities. Any thoughts on this?
Davis: Recommendations are recommendations. People are entitled not to accept recommendations. Although I would hope that the authorities in Azerbaijan would always pay close attention to the recommendations that come from Council of Europe and particularly from the Venice Commission which is part of the Council of Europe. If they do not accept their recommendations, I'm disappointed, but it is their right not to accept.
RFE/RL: What are your expectations for Azerbaijan's October 15 presidential election? What specific improvements you would like to see?
Davis: I would expect to see that the foreign observers evaluate elections in Azerbaijan as being better than the previous ones. It is other people who make that decision, not me, because they will be there, on the spot, in Azerbaijan. And I do pay close attention to reports of observers, so I should wait for their report.
RFE/RL: You don't have any expectations of how the government of Azerbaijan will perform during the election campaign?
Davis: I expect Azerbaijan, and the authorities of Azerbaijan to do everything they can to ensure that these elections are assessed as being better than previous elections.
RFE/RL: And what if it doesn't happen?
Davis: If it doesn't happen I should be very disappointed.
RFE/RL: And what do you do when you are disappointed?
Davis: That's a very good question. What I do when I am disappointed -- and I often am disappointed, unfortunately -- I talk to people in power...and urge them to do better to improve and to start preparing for the next elections immediately after these elections.
You see, to a great extent, whether elections are good, as good as they could be, depends on what you do long before the elections -- to prepare accurate voters list, for example, [and] to agree on how you are going to prevent people voting twice. That's why I have always advocated, when someone votes, his or her finger should have a mark in ink to make sure that nobody goes and votes twice. That's what happens in Turkey, and I think it should happen in Azerbaijan. And it has happened on a previous occasion in Azerbaijan. I know, because President Aliyev decided that it should happen. I hope he will decide to do it this time. I certainly think it would be very wise thing to do. And people in Azerbaijan should want it to be done.
If I were a citizen of Azerbaijan, and taking part in the election -- as I should, it's my duty -- then I would want my finger to be inked. Why? Because other people's fingers will be inked. I know that I am not going to cheat, I want to be sure that they do not cheat and in that way devalue my vote. It's for my protection that other people's fingers are to be inked, and I cannot refuse to have mine inked when I want theirs to be inked.
RFE/RL: You said the opinions of international election observers are very important to you. The government canceled the registration of the most active NGO that was monitoring the previous elections. Also, one of the opposition leaders is unable to leave the country because he cannot get a passport. Thus, he cannot get his message out abroad. Do you think you are getting the opportunity to hear all the voices in Azerbaijan?
Davis: Yes, I think that we do get enough information and we do get all the voices from Azerbaijan. Of course, I stand for people being allowed to travel. So I am concerned about these reports I have recently received.
RFE/RL: What do you think of statements by opposition parties that they will boycott the election?
Davis: Well, that must be their choice. But I do not see how boycotting an election can help. You cannot get elected if you do not take part. And I've always taken a view that if people do not participate in an election, they cannot complain about the result.
RFE/RL: You have said you will come to Azerbaijan in December, after the election. People in Azerbaijan will be curious to see how quickly the assessments of the vote will come in, and whether the election result will be welcomed. And there are some allegations about your personal attitude with Ilham Aliyev [and concerns that it could skew the PACE assessment in a positive manner.]
Davis: Are there? That's interesting, I haven't heard any such allegations, I haven't heard any such complaints.
RFE/RL: They are not complaining, they are just saying that you are friends.
Davis: Oh, I have a very friendly relationship with President Aliyev, because I know him for many years as he was a member of the Parliamentary Assembly. There is no secret about that. But I am often harder on my friends than my opponents.