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Azerbaijan: U.S. Commission Focuses On Elections

The U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) held a hearing in Washington on elections, democratization and human rights in Azerbaijan. RFE/RL's Senior Correspondent Lisa McAdams attended the session on Thursday and reports testimony found the picture mixed.

Washington, 26 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) Thursday conducted a hearing on Azerbaijan that focused primarily on issues surrounding the upcoming parliamentary election in November.

The elections are critical as they will not only help to decide whether Azerbaijan is accepted into the Council of Europe, but will also determine the composition of the body that may play a crucial role in the country's eventual transfer of power.

Though opposition parties function in Azerbaijan and are represented in Parliament, the Organization For Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said the last two elections -- parliamentary and presidential -- did not meet OSCE standards.

President Heidar Aliyev has pledged to hold a fair election, but skeptical opposition parties organized an unsanctioned demonstration late last month in Baku, demanding a new election law and changes in the Central Election Commission (CEC). They also called for the release of political prisoners and opposition access to state-controlled media.

Police used force to break up the rally, injuring and detaining several people.

It is against that backdrop that U.S. Ambassador Daniel Fried directed his remarks as the principal deputy special adviser to the secretary of state for the Newly Independent States (NIS).

Fried, who took up his duties in Baku just two weeks ago, said the United States has had what he called "productive" dialogue with the government in Baku. Still, he said there is a great deal that can be accomplished between now and November such as the training of election officials and domestic observers, development of a mechanism to ensure that election results are reported quickly and accurately, and voter education.

Fried also urged the government of Azerbaijan to meet all international commitments assumed as a participating state in such bodies as the OSCE.

Fried said the U.S. message is clear that Azerbaijan's long-term stability and integration into the Euro-Atlantic community depends on action now to build democracy and civil society.

Asked what he viewed as the single biggest deterrent to the current election process, Fried cited credibility in the reporting of results. He said that is why so much effort is currently being devoted to the composition and procedures for the Central Election Commission (CEC). Fried also was asked what he thought of the various CEC formulas already suggested. Here's how he responded:

"What the OSCE, the Azerbaijani society -- including the opposition and the government -- agree to, is very likely something we can support. There is not an American formula. And I don't think it would be wise to inject one. The credibility of the process is important. There may be several ways to arrive at a credible process and that's the key."

Fried was followed by Ambassador Hafiz Pashaev, who is the first ambassador of Azerbaijan to the United States. He arrived in Washington in February of 1993 and since assuming his post has concentrated primarily on developing and enhancing bilateral U.S.-Azerbaijani relations.

Pashaev said if he had to characterize the current state of democratic reform in his country he would have to say "steady but incomplete." He said steady in the sense that there were, in his view, improvements in the areas of freedom of press and growth of the opposition, and in the registration of more than 30 non-governmental human rights organizations (NGO's).

He cited the electoral process and the judiciary as but two areas where there was still room for growth.

It was on the issue of elections, however, that Pashaev took perhaps greatest issue. He said he agreed that Azerbaijan had yet to hold a perfect election, but he said the elections the country has held were important milestones on the way to democracy:

"While there were some irregularities during the last Presidential election, no one doubts that President Aliyev received the overwhelming majority of the votes, as has been shown by numerous scientific polls, one conducted under the auspices of the U.S. State Department. And While much discussion occurred in America regarding irregularities in the first municipal election, the run-off elections generally received high marks, but virtually no publicity in U.S."

Pashaev then emphasized his government's determination to work with the opposition ahead of the November elections. He said the government is in constant contact with the OSCE office of democratic institutions and human rights, a representative of which has been in Baku and, he said, will return again next week.