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Azerbaijan Continues To Eschew Genuine Democracy

Heydar Aliyev (left) and his son Ilham have ruled Azerbaijan since 1993.
Heydar Aliyev (left) and his son Ilham have ruled Azerbaijan since 1993.
Lord Acton's observation that "absolute power corrupts absolutely" still holds true, at least in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan.

One month ago, the population of Azerbaijan voted in a referendum to remove the constitutional ban on one person serving more than two consecutive presidential terms. Incumbent President Ilham Aliyev, 47, who succeeded his father Heydar in 2003 and was reelected for a second five-year term last fall, is thus free to run for a third term in 2013.

The fact that the various constitutional amendments passed largely unopposed shows how over the years first Heydar and then Ilham Aliyev consolidated power by sidelining the liberal and democratic elements that survived from the first few years of independence in the early 1990s. In doing so, they largely destroyed the conditions for Azerbaijan to develop into a democratic society.

Typically, democratization succeeds when the capacity and determination of democratic forces to challenge authoritarian rule are backed by favorable conditions such as freedom of the media and of assembly, access to information, the existence of a vibrant civil society, plus support for democratization from external actors, including the United States and the European Union.

Losing Battle

From this perspective, democratic forces in Azerbaijan have been waging an uphill struggle since Heydar Aliyev returned to Baku as national leader in June 1993. The old-guard opposition has been split or co-opted. Elections have been routinely manipulated and political and civic freedoms undermined. Legitimacy has been ensured through clientelism and patronage rather than upholding the rule of law.

Moreover, the dividing lines between politics and economics and between the public and private spheres have often been blurred. Political power has been conceived of in terms of access to economic wealth. Key sectors of the economy, especially the oil-and-gas sector, are controlled by people with close ties to the leadership. Economic reform was implemented in such a way as to subordinate the economy to the private interests of the leadership and to reward those prepared to collaborate with it. Public resources have frequently been misappropriated or misallocated.

External pressure to conform to international standards has been virtually nonexistent, while Russia has emerged as an antidemocratic model in competition with the Western liberal democratic one.

Nowhere in the postcommunist area is power so personalized as in Azerbaijan. Even in Turkmenistan, megalomaniac ruler Saparmurat Niyazov was succeeded after his death not by a family member, but by a member of the ruling elite. Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who has been president of Belarus for the past 14 years, has given little indication that he is grooming one of his sons to succeed him, but at the age of 54 he may think there is no urgent need to do so.

Perhaps, it would be more appropriate to draw parallels with, and learn lessons from sub-Saharan Africa, where nascent state institutions were largely "privatized" to serve the interests of the postcolonial elites. For example, President Omar Bongo of Gabon has been in power since 1967.

Carrots And Sticks

To the surprise of democracy optimists, the governments of the independent states that emerged following the collapse of the USSR were authoritarian or semi-authoritarian. These regimes have all implemented Western-style institutional and legal reforms, but the state was exploited for private gain.

Ilham Aliyev's victory in the referendum was largely unopposed, much like his reelection.
It therefore makes little sense to continue to frame events in the region as steps toward or away from democratization or the consolidation of democracy. It is not that the removal of term limits would be a setback to consolidating democracy in Azerbaijan, as the Council of Europe's Venice Commission argued with reference to the constitutional amendments. Rather, doing so was a move toward the consolidation of an authoritarian regime.

As rulers of Azerbaijan, the Aliyevs have employed both carrots and sticks. They have also imposed strict control over the media, restricting public access to both domestic and international sources of independent news, including the BBC, RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, and the Voice of America. A stream of oil revenue has enabled the government to keep the police force and other "power" ministries well-paid and fit. The brutal clampdown on a protest campaign in Baku in the aftermath of the controversial parliamentary vote in 2005 is just one example.

If sticks were used to instill fear and gain mass acquiescence, carrots went mostly to the rulers' cronies, friends, and family members. The Soviet-era planned economy was not replaced by a full-fledged market with a flourishing private sector. Partial economic reform went no further than handing some state-owned enterprises over to cronies. Loyalty was rewarded with access to state resources, not only in the oil-and-gas industry but also other lucrative sectors like transportation, fishery, international trade, and customs.

Patronage was also used, with government posts being assigned in return for absolute political loyalty to the Aliyev family. The selective nature of economic reform, which benefitted the elite more than anyone else, and the prevalence of client-patron relations have prevented the formation of a genuine capitalist market economy.

These measures were enough to maintain the Aliyev regime's support base and manipulate public opinion. Added to this was international neglect and Western self-interest as regards setting priorities in the Caspian region. Oil requires large investments, and investors prefer a stable environment and predictability. Western governments' interest in Caspian oil has inclined them to support whomever ensures that precious stability.

The Russian Model

While the West has sought to balance its energy interests and stated commitment to democracy, Russia has used its model of "managed democracy" as an alternative to a more demanding Western model of liberal democracy. Under both President Vladimir Putin and his successor, Dmitry Medvedev, Russia has become more assertive and authoritarian. Putin served as a role model for neighboring post-Soviet leaders.

In a certain sense, Russia can be said to be promoting authoritarianism in the former Soviet republics by sending its election-monitoring missions to endorse the official results of usually manipulated elections and thus bestow a degree of legitimacy on undemocratic regimes. Some Western research institutes and individual scholars, as well as individual European politicians, lobbyists, and NGOs, have likewise studiously avoided direct criticism of authoritarian post-Soviet regimes.

While it seems that the new administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has adopted a "quieter" approach to promoting democracy abroad, it cannot -- assuming this is an issue of domestic affairs -- keep silent about developments in Azerbaijan.

Neither can it expunge democracy promotion from its foreign-policy agenda altogether. On the contrary, this is a textbook opportunity for the United States to take a stand on democracy. Itself a model of presidential government, the United States could urge the government of Azerbaijan to create a truly presidential system based on the separation of powers and limitations on the number of presidential terms one person may serve.

Farid Guliyev is a doctoral candidate in political science in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Jacobs University in Bremen, Germany. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL