Analysis: Azerbaijani Parliament Amends Election Law, Opposition Cries Foul
Opposition politicians immediately denounced the amendments as effectively precluding a fair ballot. One opposition party that earlier stated its intention to participate in the election hinted that it might reverse that decision.
Each of the four previous national elections in Azerbaijan -- presidential in 1998 and 2003 and parliamentary in 2000 and 2005 -- was preceded by an intensive and acrimonious debate on the need to enact election legislation that would preclude the sort of egregious violations that marred the 1995 parliamentary ballot. The opposition stressed in particular the importance of abolishing the ruling party's control over election commissions, which adopt decisions on the basis of a two-thirds majority. In 1998, several leading potential opposition presidential candidates opted for a boycott rather than participate in a poll in which they considered the odds were stacked against them. In response to pressure from the international community, the Azerbaijani parliament agreed in July 1998 to some opposition demands, such as reducing the minimum required turnout from 50 to 25 percent, limiting the number of signatures collected in support of a given candidate's registration that may be verified for authenticity by the Central Election Commission, and the abolition of media censorship, but not that for equal representation on the commission.
In the event, the 1998 presidential election, like the parliamentary poll three years earlier, was characterized by procedural violations on such a scale that international observers ranked it as not complying with international standards. The preliminary OSCE assessment noted specifically that while the amended law showed significant improvements over the previous version, "its implementation...fell short in meeting international standards."
In light of those shortcomings, in early 2000 the opposition prepared several new draft laws on elections and specifically on the Central Election Commission, all of which the authorities ignored. In the early summer of 2000, the parliament instead adopted government-drafted fundamental revisions to the existing election law, and proposed a model for the Central Election Commission that reduced the number of its members from 24 to 18, six each to be nominated by the parliament majority party, the minority parliamentary parties, and nonaligned deputies.
But opposition representatives objected that while apparently democratic, that model effectively gave the authorities an overall majority, given that almost all nominally independent parliament deputies support the Azerbaijani leadership. For that reason, the opposition continued to hold out for equal representation on the commission. The draft bill was finally amended to stipulate that the parliament majority and the opposition would each nominate six members of the commission, four members would be nonpartisan, and the remaining two would be chosen on the basis of consultations between the authorities and the opposition. The commission chairman would be from the majority party, while the opposition and the nonaligned deputies would each propose one of that body's two secretaries. Decisions by the commission would be made by a two-thirds vote.
Despite those revisions, however, the November 2000 ballot proved if anything just as problematic as the presidential poll of 1998. The OSCE's Election Monitoring Mission registered widespread violations in the course of the election campaign, voting, and vote count, and noted that the improvements to the legislative framework were not systematically implemented.
In July 2002, the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) issued a press release calling for "transparent and inclusive" reform of the existing election legislation. Gerard Stoudmann, at that time ODIHR director, was quoted in that press release as saying that "while it is the sovereign right of a state to reform its election system, such fundamental legislative changes should be based on a broad political consensus in order to ensure the widest public confidence in the reform process and its outcome." Yet another new law was accordingly drafted, to which the opposition raised hundreds of objections, of which the most weighty was to the proposed composition of election commissions at all levels. The draft advocated reverting to the model under which one-third of the Central Election Commission members were to be named by the political party that constituted the parliamentary majority, one third by minority parties, and the remaining third by nonpartisan parliament deputies. After a debate lasting several months, the election law was duly amended in the run-up to the October 2003 presidential ballot to redistribute representation on election bodies to give opposition parties six of the 15 members of the Central Election Commission, four of the nine members of regional election commissions, and two of the six members of local election commissions, but with the proviso that the changes would take effect only after the 2005 parliamentary election.
In June 2005, in the run-up to that ballot, the Azerbaijani parliament approved 43 separate election-law amendments proposed by President Ilham Aliyev, not including the most important changes called for by the Council of Europe's Venice Commission. Those amendments left the composition of election commissions unchanged. They also left in force the provision that domestic NGOs that receive more than 30 percent of their funding from abroad may not monitor elections. The amendments did, however, include some technical measures intended to ensure that elections are more democratic, such as reducing the deposit election candidates must pay to register, posting updated voter lists on the Internet, and cutting from five days to two days after the ballot the deadline for making public preliminary returns.
The OSCE preliminary assessment of the 2005 ballot noted the "limited improvements to the electoral framework," but at the same time concluded that "the composition of election commissions favored pro-government candidates, [and] at times undermining confidence in the independence and impartiality of the election administration." And its final (February 1, 2006) report contained an entire section detailing proposed changes to the Electoral Code, of which arguably the most important was revising the composition of election commissions in order to strengthen public confidence in their objectivity. The Council of Europe's Venice Commission accordingly set about trying to induce the Azerbaijani authorities to undertake the kind of fundamental revision of the election law that would at last provide for a clean vote, the outcome and validity of which the opposition would have no grounds to question. The commission drafted, and presented to the Azerbaijani government, recommendations intended to ensure that the makeup of election commissions would inspire the trust of all political forces, and the Azerbaijani authorities duly submitted proposed amendments to the Venice Commission in early 2007.
But the Azerbaijani authorities continued to reject any demand for changing the composition of the Central Election Commission on the grounds that "you don't change horses in midstream." Ali Ahmedov, deputy chairman of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP), argued that the upcoming elections "should not be turned into an experiment," adding that in no country in the world is the makeup of election bodies changed for every successive election, day.az reported on June 4, 2007. Central Election Commission Chairman Mazahir Panahov for his part made the point that while the Venice Commission is empowered to make recommendations, it cannot insist on their adoption, according to day.az on September 7. The same agency on September 28 quoted senior YAP parliamentarian Safa Mirzoyev as arguing that there was no need for major changes to the law, given that the existing version was perfectly adequate to ensure a fair vote. And on October 16, presidential administration official Ali Gasanov warned that the authorities would not accept any changes to the election law that subordinated the Central Election Commission to any political force.
In November 2007, a three-day roundtable discussion of the authorities' most recent proposed amendments took place in Baku. During that discussion, the Venice Commission reportedly insisted that Azerbaijan's election legislation should conform to unspecified international norms, while opposition party representatives present accused the Venice Commission of not defending their interests, the online daily zerkalo.az reported in a November 9 article entitled "The Opposition Shows Its Teeth." The talks ended with the Azerbaijani authorities rejecting the commission's proposals on amending the composition of election commissions.
The authorities nonetheless agreed to make other, unspecified changes, but that may have simply been a ploy to win time. A further round of consultations with Venice Commission experts, this time without opposition representation, took place in Baku in February 2008, at which the authorities yet again refused to amend the composition of election commissions.
The Azerbaijani parliament commission began reviewing and endorsing the final draft amendments in May, at which juncture Eldar Namazov, head of the public organization In the name of Azerbaijan and himself a prospective presidential candidate, alleged that the presidential administration had submitted two separate draft bills to the legislature, one containing many of the proposals on which the Venice Commission insisted and a second, more authoritarian version, echo-az.com reported on May 20. According to legal expert Cingiz Dadashev, one draft was submitted on May 2 and the second on May 14; one gave the duration of the election campaign as 60 days and the other as 120 days (as in earlier legislation), while both drastically reduced, from 35 to 10 days, the timeframe within which prospective candidates must collect 50,000 signatures in their support. On May 28, Akif Gurbanli, who represents the opposition Umid party on the Central Election Commission, was likewise quoted by zerkalo.az as saying the amendments submitted to parliament differ fundamentally from those endorsed by the Venice Commission.
The final version of the law -- which was amended in the course of the parliament debate on June 2 -- sets the length of the election campaign at 75 days, fewer than the four months previously envisaged. Given that the presidential election has already been scheduled for October 15, the campaign will therefore kick off at the beginning of August. The number of signatures a candidate must collect in his support has been lowered from 50,000 to 40,000, but the alternative option of paying a cash deposit has been abolished. Finally, the state-controlled TV channel will no longer provide free airtime for presidential candidates, although Azerbaijan Public Television will do so.
As noted above, the various opposition factions are united in their disappointment and disapproval of the revised law, which they claim reduces to "an illusion" the prospect of holding free and fair elections. Even before the final passage of the amendments, the Azadlyq bloc, comprising the progressive wing of the divided Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, the Liberal party, and the Citizen and Development party, which for months had pegged participation in the October ballot to the creation of a level playing field for all candidates, confirmed that it will boycott the election, zerkalo.az reported on May 31. The Musavat party, which planned to nominate its veteran leader Isa Qamber as its candidate, signaled that it may opt not to participate after all.
Analysis: Domestic Pressure On Abkhaz President Intensifies
Those statements of support for the Georgian leadership have been paralleled by international efforts to coerce the Abkhaz leadership into accepting the most recent peace plan unveiled in late March by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. Those efforts may, however, prove counterproductive, insofar as pro-Moscow politicians and groups opposed to de facto Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh have reacted by calling for the Abkhaz leadership to "reconsider" its renewed participation in talks with Georgia under the aegis of the Group of Friends of the UN Secretary General.
In early May, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza traveled to Sukhum(i) for talks with President Sergei Bagapsh. On May 30, the ambassadors of 15 EU member states likewise met with Abkhaz leaders in a bid to persuade them to resume direct talks with Tbilisi, which were suspended in 2006. The Abkhaz have repeatedly said they will return to the negotiating table only after Georgia withdraws the Interior Ministry troops it deployed to the upper reaches of the Kodori Gorge in August 2006.
On June 5, EU Foreign and Security Policy Commissioner Javier Solana traveled to Tbilisi, where he told journalists that the purpose of his planned visit to Sukhum(i) of June 6 is to try to determine whether and how the EU can contribute to strengthening Georgian-Abkhaz contacts. Also on June 5, the European parliament enacted a resolution advocating that the peacekeeping operation in Abkhazia should be revised given that "the Russian troops have lost their role of neutral and impartial peacekeepers." It therefore proposed "bolstering the international presence in the conflict zone by sending an ESDP [European Security and Defense Policy] border mission to the region," civil.ge reported on June 5. The ESDP has had a police mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina since 2003.
The Abkhaz leadership is, however, highly unlikely to agree to the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeeping force, for two reasons. First, those peacekeepers are seen as the sole effective deterrent to an anticipated new Georgian offensive: Abkhaz Security Council Secretary Stanislav Lakoba told RFE/RL's Georgian Service on June 2 that their withdrawal would be a "risky step" that would lead to a "direct confrontation...that is not in anyone's interest." And second, the pro-Russian domestic political opposition to President Bagapsh unequivocally supports a continued Russian presence.
Meeting in emergency session on April 30, the Abkhaz parliament called on Bagapsh to suspend talks with Georgia under the UN format until the Group of Friends gives an "objective" assessment of what it termed Georgia's recent "aggressive" actions. Then on June 4, on the eve of Solana's planned visit to Sukhum(i), a congress of the public organization Aruaa, which unites veterans of the 1992-93 war, issued a statement criticizing the "dangerous" multivector foreign policy pursued by the Abkhaz present leadership as "clearing the way for Georgia to join NATO," kavkaz-uzel.ru reported on June 5.
That policy, the statement continued, undermines Russia's role in the negotiating process and as a guarantor of the nonresumption of hostilities. It also, the statement continued, creates a situation in which NATO may become involved in resolving the conflict, and that could lead to the loss of Abkhazia's independence. The 489 delegates to the congress adopted a resolution similarly criticizing that foreign policy as undermining "brotherly relations" with Russia and as splitting Abkhaz society, and they formally voted no confidence in the Abkhaz leadership.
The chairman of Aruaa, which was founded one year ago, is Lieutenant General Vladimir Arshba, a former first deputy defense minister whom Bagapsh unsuccessfully tried to persuade to withdraw his candidacy in the March 2007 parliamentary election, accusing him of plotting a coup d'etat. Also present at the congress was Vice President Raul Khadjimba, Moscow's preferred candidate in the 2004-05 Abkhaz presidential election.
Analysis: Former Armenian President Plans Mass Rally
In a written statement, Ter-Petrossian's Popular Movement, an umbrella structure uniting more than two dozen opposition groups, offered to cooperate with the municipal authorities and the Armenian police in maintaining public order during the planned rally. Senior Ter-Petrossian aide Levon Zurabian told journalists that the organizers will formally ask the Yerevan mayor to authorize the gathering. But he made it clear they will urge supporters to converge on the city's Liberty Square even if that application is rejected.
The date of the planned demonstration is just three days before the start of the June session of the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) that will discuss Yerevan's compliance with a PACE resolution adopted in mid-April on the political situation in Armenia. One of the key demands of the resolution is the repeal of controversial legal amendments that enable the authorities to ban antigovernment street protests practically at will.
The authorities have been keen to thwart such protests since the deadly March 1 clashes between security forces and thousands of Ter-Petrossian supporters protesting against official results of the disputed presidential election. The violence left at least 10 people dead and nearly 200 others injured, leading to the imposition of a 20-day state of emergency in the capital.
The authorities initially maintained their de facto ban on opposition protests even after the end of emergency rule by enacting controversial amendments to the law on public gatherings, but in response to Western pressure, the Armenian parliament passed in the first reading in late May a bill easing those restrictions. Council of Europe officials have welcomed the move.
However, the Ter-Petrossian camp insisted on June 3 that the changes are "cosmetic." Its statement said the administration of President Serzh Sarkisian has also failed to meet other demands included in the PACE resolution such as the launch of an independent inquiry into the March 1 violence and the release of political prisoners.
Speaking at a news conference on June 3, Zurabian would not say what the Ter-Petrossian-led opposition will do if the police again cordon off Liberty Square and surrounding streets in the city center. He said only that the opposition would hold the authorities responsible for any ensuing violence.
On May 30, Ter-Petrossian's movement praised the revised and final assessment of the February presidential election released by the Organization for Security and cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Whereas the initial assessment made public shortly after the ballot was largely positive, the final report concluded that serious irregularities during the vote count and recount "devalued the overall election process." "While the 2008 presidential election mostly met OSCE commitments and international standards in the preelection period and during voting hours, serious challenges to some commitments did emerge, especially after election day," according to the OSCE final assessment. "This displayed an insufficient regard for standards essential to democratic elections and devalued the overall election process. In particular, the vote count demonstrated deficiencies of accountability and transparency, and complaints and appeals procedures were not fully effective."
"The OSCE has effectively abandoned its previous evaluations legitimizing Armenia's recent presidential elections, as the Popular Movement demanded," the opposition said in a statement commenting on the OSCE assessment. That statement said the OSCE observers' initial conclusion that the presidential ballot was administered "mostly in accordance" with democratic standards only emboldened the authorities to use lethal force against opposition protesters. "Had the evaluations been objective right from the beginning, the regime would not have dared to take the criminal step of slaughtering its own people," it claimed.
Analysis: Are Armenian-Turkish Relations Headed For Breakthrough -- Or Breakdown?
Yet even against this backdrop of internal challenges, there have been recent signs suggesting a possible new opportunity for a breakthrough in Armenia's strained relationship with its western neighbor, Turkey. Even before his election as president, Sarkisian outlined his vision of how Armenian-Turkish relations could be positively transformed by Turkey's admission to the EU. In an article published in December 2006 in "The Wall Street Journal," and again in an interview with the "Financial Times" one year later, Sarkisian expressed support for Turkey's bid for EU membership, albeit for purely pragmatic geopolitical reasons, suggesting that EU membership would make Turkey "more predictable" and thus strengthen Armenia's national security.
In a positively worded message on February 21, Turkish President Abdullah Gul -- one of the first foreign heads of state to congratulate the new president -- expressed the hope that Sarkisian's election victory "will permit the creation of the necessary environment for normalizing relations between the Turkish and Armenian peoples, who have proven over centuries they can live together in peace and harmony." "I sincerely hope that...an atmosphere based on reciprocal trust and cooperation can be established that will contribute to regional peace and prosperity," Gul added. A subsequent letter from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ali Babacan last month similarly noted the need for a new "dialogue" with Armenia.
In response, the new Armenian prime minister, Tigran Sarkisian (no relation to the president), was quick to "reaffirm" Armenia's desire for a "constructive dialogue and the establishment of normal relations without preconditions." This was also echoed in a second formal response from Armenian Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian, who admitted that earlier efforts to bring about an Armenian-Turkish rapprochement "failed," and called for a fresh approach and "new style" to be followed by unspecified "positive steps." Speaking in Brussels on May 28 at a session of the North Atlantic Council, Nalbandian again stressed that Armenia sets no preconditions for the normalization of relations with Turkey. He further noted that the preamble to the Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) Armenia signed with NATO in 2005 affirms that "Armenia seeks normalization of relations with Turkey and is determined to pursue constructive dialogue, including direct talks with Turkey, towards this end."
At one level, the exchange of letters and professed readiness to embark on a new dialogue seemingly reflect a renewed sense of optimism, especially as Armenia has reiterated that it has no preconditions to any normalization of relations with Turkey. Yet such optimism -- if indeed it is sincere, and not pro forma -- could prove misplaced in light of a sobering record of earlier half-hearted diplomatic initiatives and ill-fated unofficial attempts at forging a common ground between the two countries.
Over the past 15 years, there has been only minimal contact between Armenia and Turkey. That absence of formal relations stems from two main impediments: Turkey's support for Azerbaijan in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh and its reaction to attempts by the worldwide Armenian diaspora to obtain broad international recognition of what they call the Armenian genocide of 1915. These two factors have come to dominate Turkish policy regarding its small neighbor, resulting in the imposition of an economic blockade in 1993 and a stubborn refusal to even establish formal diplomatic relations.
But to date Turkey has gained little from that policy and, in fact, has actually lost significant diplomatic and economic opportunities. Moreover, many Turkish officials have privately admitted that Turkish foreign policy regarding Armenia has become far too limited and seemingly hostage to Azerbaijan's implacable opposition to any improvement in relations with Armenia.
Despite the poor record of past initiatives, the potential benefits from even the most basic and rudimentary form of engagement are clear for each country. For Turkey, opening its closed border with Armenia would constitute a new strategic opportunity for galvanizing economic activity in the impoverished eastern regions of the country, which could play a key role in the economic stabilization of the already restive largely Kurdish-populated eastern regions and thus address a significant national security imperative of countering the root causes of Kurdish terrorism and separatism with economic opportunity.
Likewise, an open border with Turkey would offer Armenia not only a way to overcome its regional isolation and marginalization, but also a bridge to larger markets crucial for economic growth and development. In addition, the commercial and economic activity resulting from opening the Armenian-Turkish border would foster subsequent trade ties between the two countries that, in turn, would lead to more formal cooperation in the key areas of customs and border security. And with such a deepening of bilateral trade ties and cross-border cooperation, the establishment of normal diplomatic relations would undoubtedly follow.
Thus, the opening of the closed Armenian-Turkish border could not only bring about a crucial breakthrough in fostering trade links and economic relations, but may also serve as an impetus to bolster broader stability and security throughout the conflict-prone South Caucasus.
Yet the divide between potential and reality seems as wide as ever, as participants at a one-day conference on Armenian-Turkish relations in Yerevan on May 20 acknowledged. Organized by the Yerevan-based Analytical Center on Globalization and Regional Cooperation with the support of the Eurasia Partnership Foundation and the U.S. Agency for International Development, the conference brought together several leading Armenian and Turkish experts and analysts for an open discussion of the prospects for a normalization of relations between the two countries and helped to dispel some of the more disturbing stereotypes of Turks that have come to drive Armenian perceptions.
As one of the participants later wrote in the May 22 issue of the "Turkish Daily News," the conference was able to forge a shared recognition of "a lack of clarity and a gap between declarations and practice on both sides." Highlighting a new sense of optimism, Diba Nigar Goksel, a senior analyst at the European Stability Initiative and the editor in chief of the English-language "Turkish Policy Quarterly," went on to stress that "it also seemed hopeful that the sides could move closer to a shared view of history, as long as they set reasonable expectations," adding that "sometimes it takes a trip eastward to appreciate how far Turkey has traveled and the untapped potential it has for more influence."
But at the same time, the conference seemed to confirm that any breakthrough in Armenian-Turkish relations hinges above all on timing, given that in the past each side has on more than one occasion extended a cautious hand to the other, but those overtures have never coincided. This divergence has also assumed a new political dimension, as the new Armenian government is in desperate need of a strategic breakthrough in foreign policy as it struggles to overcome the ongoing internal political crisis.
Yet even this imperative for progress from the Armenian side is not enough to overcome the stalemate in relations, as the truly revolutionary degree of change now under way within Turkey suggests little likelihood for a breakthrough. And while the dynamic process of redefining and reassessing the very tenets of Turkey's national identity and strategic orientation may present a new opportunity for modifying its failed policy toward Armenia, Turkey seems wary of alienating its traditional ally, Azerbaijan. As recently as May 26, the Turkish daily "Zaman" quoted Economy Minister Mehmet Simsek as saying that the border with Armenia will not be opened until Yerevan solves its problems with Ankara and with Turkey's "regional ally," Azerbaijan. Simsek added that Armenia has more to gain than Turkey from establishing "normal relations" between the two countries, and therefore Armenia should take the first step toward rapprochement.
Therefore, while it may seem attractive to blame Turkey for failing to seize the initiative and reap the benefits from a fresh approach toward Armenia, the real impediment lies in Turkey's desire to allay Azerbaijani concerns, at least in the short term.