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Caucasus Report: January 9, 2003

9 January 2003, Volume 6, Number 2

OSCE UNDER FIRE IN AZERBAIJAN... On past performance, holding free, fair, and democratic elections is not one of the Azerbaijani leadership's strong points. Both the November 1995 parliamentary poll and the October 1998 presidential election were marred by egregious fraud. For that reason, in the summer of 2000 the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) worked with both the Central Election Commission (CEC) and Azerbaijani opposition parties in an attempt to secure the passage of legislation that would minimize the possibility of fraud during the parliamentary elections scheduled for November of that year.

ODIHR succeeded in persuading the Azerbaijani leadership to amend the law on the CEC to increase opposition representation (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 30 June and 21 July 2000). And apparently under U.S. pressure, shortly before the ballot President Heidar Aliyev asked the CEC, first to reverse an earlier decision to bar all but five of the political that applied to contest the ballot under the party-list system from doing so, and then to register all candidates who had applied for registration to run in single-mandate constituencies (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 13 and 20 October 2000).

Yet despite the amended election legislation, the ballot turned out, in the words of ODIHR Director Gerard Stoudmann, to be "a crash course in various types of manipulation," and all leading opposition parties rejected the official returns as falsified (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 10 November 2000).

Hoping to avoid a further such embarrassing debacle during the presidential elections due in October 2003, in early 2002 ODIHR urged the Azerbaijani authorities to draft completely new election legislation. At the same time the opposition appealed to the UN to oversee the conduct of the 2003 presidential ballot. The opposition had addressed a similar request to the UN in the run-up to the 2000 parliamentary elections; but on both occasions, the UN responded that it can undertake such oversight duties only if requested by the Azerbaijani authorities to do so.

At some time in mid-2002, the Azerbaijani authorities submitted to ODIHR and to the Council of Europe's Venice Commission what Stoudmann subsequently described as "a very preliminary draft" of the new election code, which, he predicted, would duly be revised and discussed with political parties and NGOs. In a 9 July press release, Stoudmann said the OSCE would make public its comments on the draft and that the organization's Baku office would convene a series of roundtable discussions of it.

But subsequent moves by the Azerbaijani authorities called into question its commitment to making the election process truly democratic. In mid-June, President Aliyev scheduled for 24 August a referendum on 39 separate amendments to the Azerbaijani Constitution. The opposition construed two of those planned amendments in particular as intended to undercut the opposition's chances in future ballots. One provided for deputies to future parliaments to be elected only in single-mandate constituencies and not according to the proportional system, while the second reduced the minimum number of votes a candidate must receive in the first round to be elected president from two-thirds of all votes cast to 50 percent plus one vote (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 June 2002).

Both the OSCE and the U.S. administration expressed concern that the amendments were too complex to allow for a comprehensive public discussion in the comparatively short period of time available, but Aliyev rejected calls to postpone the referendum. The 24 August voting was marred by the same sort of massive violations (ballot-box stuffing, voter-list manipulation, multiple voting) that had become routine during earlier votes, leading U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher to comment, "We are concerned that this referendum...did very little to advance democratization or to lay the groundwork for presidential elections in the fall of 2003 that can meet international standards."

Proceeding on the assumption that the draft election code would be published for public discussion in mid-November, the OSCE's office in Baku announced in mid-October that its first roundtable discussion of that draft would take place in the first fortnight of December. On 8 November, four Azerbaijani opposition parties appealed to the OSCE to pressure the Azerbaijani leadership to publish the amended draft immediately in order to ensure that it would be formally adopted no later than 1 February. (The Council of Europe's Venice Commission advocated passing the election legislation no later than six months prior to the ballot.) When the 200-page draft was finally unveiled on 2 December, however, opposition politicians swiftly condemned it as "even more reactionary" than the previous legislation.

The opposition was particularly incensed by the proposed composition of the CEC. on 11 December quoted Azerbaijan National Independence Party (AMIP) political council member Fuad Agaev, a trained lawyer, as explaining that under the 2000 legislation opposition parties represented in parliament by deputies elected under the proportional system were entitled to select six of the 18 CEC members. Under the new legislation, however, those six positions on the CEC would be shared among all minority parties represented in parliament, including those that support the current authorities, thus reducing the opposition representation. In addition, three judges (who are appointed by the president) will also sit on the CEC, increasing its membership to 21. That provision, Agaev went on to argue, is only one of several that violate the provisions of the (amended) constitution. In addition, the new draft abolishes the minimum required turnout of 25 percent of registered voters which means, according to Agaev, that hypothetically a candidate could be elected president even if only a few dozen people voted for him. He called for the creation of a working group to bring the draft into line with the constitution.

But the opposition's anger was not directed only at the authors of the new draft legislation. Meeting in Baku on 11 December, nine opposition parties aligned in the so-called Opposition Coordinating Center decided to boycott the OSCE roundtable discussion of the draft legislation scheduled for 16-17 December to protest the format of that gathering, which envisaged a lengthy presentation by the authorities to be followed by five-minute comments by other participants. AMIP Chairman Etibar Mamedov and Ali Kerimli, head of the "reformist" wing of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP), both criticized the OSCE mission for failing to fulfill its mandate and for ignoring opposition suggestions on how to organize the proposed roundtable.

Talks on 13-14 December between two OSCE officials and representatives of AMIP, Kerimli's wing of the AHCP, and the Democratic Party failed to resolve the standoff. The opposition reportedly set four conditions for participating in the roundtable: that the authorities and opposition be equally represented, that the opposition be represented on working groups established to amend the draft electoral code, that the roundtable be broadcast in full, and that a "conciliation commission" be set up, on which the opposition would be represented, to seek a consensus with the Azerbaijani leadership on disputed articles of the Election Code. Shahin Aliev, who heads the legal department within the presidential administration, said on 16 December that the authorities had agreed to the first three conditions but rejected the proposed conciliation commission. He argued that there is no need for such a body, given that the opposition has the opportunity to present its proposals at the OSCE-moderated roundtable.

The roundtable duly took place as scheduled on 16-17 December without any opposition representation. Also on 16 December, ODIHR and the Council of Europe's Venice Commission released a "Joint Revised Preliminary Assessment of the revised Draft Election Code of the Azerbaijan Republic." That assessment contained comments on 210 separate articles of the code, terming it "cumbersome, complicated, and repetitive," shortcomings which it claimed increase the likelihood of "technical violations." At a meeting of the Opposition Coordinating Council on 26 December, Musavat Party Deputy Chairman Arif Hajily said the opposition has proposed a total of 136 amendments to the draft electoral code, and may come up with more.

On 18 December, ODIHR issued a statement regretting the opposition boycott of the roundtable discussion, but simultaneously expressing support for the opposition's proposal to establish a conciliation commission. Presidential administration official Shahin Aliyev immediately expressed his disapproval of the OSCE expression of support for creating such a body, and "525 gazeti" on 27 December quoted Bahar Muradova, deputy executive secretary of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party, as rejecting it as unacceptable. But "Ekho" on 3 January quoted Ali Akhmedov, the ruling party's executive secretary, as having approved the proposal.

But the proposed conciliation commission has already given rise to a new dispute between the authorities and the opposition, this time over its composition. The opposition initially demanded equal representation on the commission with the authorities. The OSCE for its part proposed that the commission include all eight parties that polled at least 1 percent of the proportional vote in the parliamentary elections in 2000 be represented. But several small pro-government parties that failed to poll that minimum rejected that suggestion at a 7 January meeting as unfair, whereupon presidential administration official Ali Hasanov suggested that four small parties that won seats in single-mandate constituencies (three of them pro-government) also be included.

The OSCE's Baku office is continuing its efforts to promote a consensus on the composition of the commission. But it has been subjected to repeated criticism from both the opposition and the independent press for not supporting the opposition cause more wholeheartedly. On 8 January, noted that the OSCE staffers invariably consult the Azerbaijani authorities, but not the opposition, before making public their new proposals. (Liz Fuller)

...AS RIVAL PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES UNVEIL PROGRAMS. On 31 December the opposition newspaper "Yeni Musavat" published what it claimed is a list of 15 measures that President Aliev's son Ilham plans to implement in the event that he is appointed prime minister. They include raising wages of budget-sector employees, including the police, by 25 percent every quarter, and displaced persons' allowances by 25 percent every six months, for an unspecified period; raising student stipendia; offering 30,000 unemployed persons in Baku, and a further 10,000 in Sumgait and 5,000 in Gyanja, jobs in the public sector; making one-time payments of $10,000 from the State Oil Fund to every family of displaced persons; channeling both domestic and foreign investment into the non-petroleum sector; building factories and canneries in rural areas to process locally grown agricultural produce; reducing customs and taxes; doubling allowances for veterans of the Karabakh war; and launching a campaign against corrupt officials. (One wonders whether this latter proposal could be a euphemism for a purge of current officials who are not happy at the prospect of Ilham succeeding his father as president.)

Ilham Aliev's promises of largesse and prosperity are in stark contrast to the central point of the presidential manifesto of Liberal Party Chairwoman Lala-Shovket Gadjieva, as outlined in an interview published in "Ekho" on 3 January. Gadjieva pledged that, if elected president, she would within two years either secure a settlement of the Karabakh conflict that did not entail Azerbaijan conceding sovereignty over any part of its territory, or resign. She did not rule out a new war to secure such a settlement. In an interview several years ago, Gadjieva said that if elected president, as commander in chief of the armed forces she would insist in the event of a new war with Armenia that her only son serve at the front. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "Political life in Armenia is dead." -- Editorial published in the independent daily "Aravot" on 9 January.

"We cannot accept a situation in which society is artificially divided into 'ours' and 'not ours,' when groundless statements against the opposition are being aired. The hysteria being raised has already created the preconditions for a 'witch-hunt' [against] and repression of the political opposition." -- From an 8 January statement issued by 16 opposition parties in connection with the Armenian authorities' reaction to the 28 December murder of Public TV and Radio head Tigran Naghdalian.

"The killing of a leading media personality is not only a crime against that person but an attack on the freedom of the media.... This appalling and senseless act should not be allowed to disrupt the democratic process in Armenia." -- Council of Europe Secretary-General Walter Schwimmer in a statement condemning Naghdalian's murder (Noyan Tapan, 8 January).

"The people of Azerbaijan must be more patient. Things like this take time." -- Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leader of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party, apropos of efforts to resolve the Karabakh conflict (quoted by AFP on 8 January).