Harsh suppression of opposition protests. A crackdown on foreign-funded NGOs. And a formal request to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to downgrade its Baku office.
The government of Azerbaijan has been on the offensive in recent weeks, an effort that activists say is intended to seize control of the political landscape ahead of the October presidential election.
OSCE Secretary-General Lamberto Zannier discussed Baku’s request to downgrade its mission with President Ilham Aliyev during a visit on March 15. The Azerbaijani government’s letter says the request to reduce its status from a “mission” to a “project-coordination office” was made because of the country’s “significant progress” over the 13 years since the office was opened.
Vafa Guluzadeh, a former government adviser, sees the move as an effort to cut off anticipated OSCE criticism of the upcoming election. In the past, the OSCE has consistently rated Azerbaijan’s elections as not free and unfair.
“This is not about current relations. It is about future elections. It is difficult to predict whether the OSCE will recognize the election or not. There may be concern about this, and so they want to transform the OSCE into an obedient structure,” Guluzadeh said.
Hafiz Hasanov, head of the Baku NGO Law and Development Social Union, agrees, saying he thinks the election-monitoring arm of the OSCE will not be invited to assess the October poll.
Aliyev, who has been president since 2003 and who pushed through a 2009 constitutional change that allows him to continue running for president indefinitely, is widely expected to be awarded a third term in October.
The move to downgrade the OSCE office comes in the wake of the March 14 arrests of three activists, including a program officer of the U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute’s (NDI) Baku office. Azerbaijani state press had earlier reported that the NDI was financing a “Facebook revolution,” a charge that the U.S. Embassy in Baku has staunchly denied.
During a recent tour of the United States intended to drum up support for Azerbaijan as a “stable partner” sandwiched between theocratic Iran and authoritarian Russia, ruling party lawmaker Samad Seyidov, who heads Azerbaijan’s delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, said the new restrictions on NGOs are intended to counter threats to stability.
"Unfortunately, from different sources, we can see a lot of interference. Just a few months ago, 22 so-called representatives of some NGOs were arrested by security services in Azerbaijan. Why? Because they are going to blow up the American
Embassy and the Israeli Embassy," Seyidov said.
The point man in Baku’s offensive has been presidential chief of staff Ramiz Mehdiyev. He gave a blistering interview to state media on March 15 in which he predicted that Aliyev will win the October election and said numerous “fake NGOs” were interfering in Azerbaijan’s internal affairs. He called them “threats to national security" and said the authorities should investigate and shut them down.
Mehdiyev, 74, is at the heart of an ongoing scandal involving leaked videos that show an official of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party purportedly selling seats in the legislature and saying she will pass the money on to “master Ramiz.”
In recent months, Azerbaijan has seen streets protests, many of which have been broken up by police.
Mehdiyev -- reportedly the country’s powerful gray cardinal -- may be feeling pressure to assure Aliyev the domestic political situation is under control following an unusual wave of protests since the beginning of the year. This week that unrest spread into the oil sector, with up to 2,000 oil workers protesting against low wages and poor working conditions.
The move against the OSCE has raised eyebrows, however. The Vienna-based organization approved the Baku mission’s mandate four months ago and its budget was passed only weeks ago. In addition, the head of the mission, Turkish diplomat Koray Targay, is an outspoken supporter of Aliyev.
In an interview on March 15, Targay said “the government is on a good path in every respect. In terms of democratization, in terms of increasing the effectiveness of the rule of law, combatting corruption, combating transnational crimes like human trafficking, the government’s policies are good.”
He noted the OSCE had budgeted 115,000 euros ($148,000) for election-related projects, mostly targeting young people. But he stressed the projects were to be carried out in cooperation with the presidential administration and the Central Election Commission.
Unresolved Karabakh Conflict
Nonetheless, on March 9, Azerbaijani police raided an OSCE training seminar in Baku. That event was coorganized by Germany’s Friedrich Naumann Foundation and witnesses told RFE/RL that during the raid, security officers were actively searching for Naumann, a German politician and theologian who died in 1919.
Baku could also be signaling its frustration with the OSCE-led negotiation process to resolve the dispute with neighboring Armenia over the Azerbaijani region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijani lawmaker Asim Mollazade said in Washington on March 14 that Baku views that process as “frozen” by Armenia and Russia.
"Now, not only the official negotiation process was frozen, [but] all types of contacts between Azerbaijanis and Armenians all around the world became really very aggressive. All the Armenia diaspora, after the election of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin -- they stopped everything," Mollazade said.
"No contact within the framework of the Karabakh community. No contact between parliamentarians, even within international organizations where we have delegations -- for example, in Euronest or the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe."
Although Baku’s relations with Moscow are strained -- Aliyev and Putin have not held a bilateral meeting in more than five years -- the administration’s increasingly isolationist policies seem to mirror those of Putin’s Russia. Baku’s letter to the OSCE strongly echoed the reasoning Russia’s Foreign Ministry used when Moscow ejected the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) last September.
The U.S.-funded NDI relocated its Russian staff to Lithuania for fear of possible persecution after Moscow asked the USAID to leave.
Ruling party lawmaker Seyidov said in Washington that Baku is offering “a new narrative” in relations based on “moral support.”
“If we are thinking about the future of our nation, if we are thinking about stability in the region, we have to have our roots in the West. This is a new dimension, a new narrative in our communication with Europe. Two years ago, 10 years ago, we asked, 'Help us.' And this year, today, we are asking not about money, not about [pipeline] routes, not about pipelines," Seyidov said.
"We have everything. What we are really asking about is moral support, political support. That would be a really great conjunction between East and West, between Azerbaijan and the United States of America.”
RFE/RL senior correspondent Heather Maher contributed to this report from Washington and RFE/RL Azerbaijan Service correspondent Arife Kazimova contributed from Baku.