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Forget The Azerbaijani Elections, Let's Look At The Record

A woman stands near election posters for current Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev
A woman stands near election posters for current Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev
The October 15 presidential election in Azerbaijan has challenged even the most inventive reporters. Voters seem bored and apathetic, there are no true opposition candidates, and even the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party hasn't bothered to campaign much. They don't need to.

The election outcome was predetermined from the start, and the results have long been clear. The truth of the matter is, there is no election to cover. The only detail that remains is the percentage of votes the president will claim, although this too is no great mystery. According to the official results, Ilham Aliyev won 76 percent of the vote in 2003. We know that this year's figure will have to be higher; a lower percentage would cast doubts on what he has accomplished.

So, enough on elections. What happens next? In an October 13 address to cabinet ministers, broadcast on national television, President Aliyev presented his version of his accomplishments over the last five years. He claims to have generated 741,000 new jobs, in a country with 8 million people, effectively eradicating unemployment. He said the only people not working now were those who are "lazy" and want to live on welfare. There are so many jobs now, he said, that employers in some areas have started to import laborers.

He said that Azerbaijan's currency reserves amount to $17 billion. He claimed to have presided over the construction of over 24 Olympic-standard sport facilities, and 1,600 new schools. He trumpeted Azerbaijan's rating as the fastest-growing economy in the world, thanks to the country's petro-wealth. As though such a record speaks for itself, he never once during the entire address asked his audience to vote for him. He practically dared them not to.

Opposition Intimidated

Critics offer a different version of events. In 2003, when a dying President Heydar Aliyev organized the transfer of power to his son, Freedom House rated Azerbaijan as "partly free." Not any more. The opposition has been eviscerated through intimidation, politically motivated arrests, confiscation of office space and facilities, sham parliaments, and falsified elections.

The main opposition parties are boycotting the vote, stating they prefer not to participate in such a tragicomedy. Three journalists remain in jail (down from a record 10 last year), a grim feat that the Committee to Protect Journalists recognized last year by branding Azerbaijan the leading jailer of journalists in Eurasia. Journalists have not only been beaten and jailed, but killed.

Elmar Husseinov, an outspoken government critic and editor of the independent monthly "The Monitor," was gunned down in front of his apartment 2005. His wife blamed the government for his death, and she has since fled to Norway. Far from creating jobs, the government has stolen gargantuan revenues through corruption that Transparency International rates as among the worst in the world. Oil revenues are expected to peak in five years, and yet the government has drafted no plan for structuring the post-petro phase.

So where will Ilham Aliyev take Azerbaijan now?

With virtually no independent political institutions, there's no accountability, and no internal pressure to reform. The passivity of Western standard-bearers -- including the United States, the Council of Europe, the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) -- has eroded support among Azeris for the democratic process and shattered confidence in the "international community." Feeling betrayed, citizens also have ceased to offer any effective resistance to the regime's power.

It's hard to stay optimistic. The EU has just dropped sanctions against Belarus, a regime broadly acknowledged to be Europe's "last dictatorship," and against Uzbekistan, by all accounts a thuggish regime. Russia has flexed its muscles in the region -- and won. And Kazakhstan is poised to serve in 2010 as chairman of the OSCE. The United States is distracted by its own elections and panicked by the global financial collapse.

Who cares about Azerbaijan?

Kenan Aliyev is the director of RFE/RL's Azerbaijan Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.