Azerbaijan's presidential election campaign has begun, a month before the vote takes place on October 15. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz speaks with Khadija Ismayilova, the Azerbaijani Service's Baku bureau chief, about the situation in the country as campaigning begins, and about expectations in Azerbaijan for the ballot.
RFE/RL: As a journalist, how do you view the situation for media freedom in Azerbaijan, and how do you expect it to influence the upcoming presidential election?
Khadija Ismayilova: The incumbent president, Ilham Aliyev, is likely to win. It is widely expected and experts share that opinion. He is running for the second time. Observers believe he will enjoy huge resources -- both informational and administrational resources -- in the elections.
The preelection coverage in the media shows that he enjoys most of the time on the television and most of the radio channels in the country. The opposition claims all of the TV channels are controlled by the government. There are five private TV channels in the country. However, the general director of one of them is the president's cousin and the general director of another TV channel is the brother of the minister for diaspora [officially the State Committee of Azerbaijanis Living Abroad]. So far, the international monitoring of the media coverage of elections shows that they have extensively covered the ruling party. And their coverage of the opposition was mainly critical and even an insulting pattern. I'm talking about all of the private channels.
RFE/RL: Is there any chance for an opposition candidate to defeat Aliyev when voters cast their ballots?
Ismayilova: Seven candidates are running for the [presidential] office. The opposition has boycotted the election because they believe this election will not be free and fair under the existing election laws and the existing preelection situation.
Campaigning starts on September 17. It's just 28 days before the elections on October 15. And that is one of the main concerns for the opposition, as they say it is too short a period of time to introduce their programs to voters. They say they have no opportunity to hold rallies. Their freedom of gathering is extremely limited. They say the country lacks freedom of media and so they have no opportunity to communicate with the electorate. They cast doubts on the results of the election. They say they will not consider the election result legitimate because they think this election will be falsified.
We will see what will really happen. But international monitoring of previous elections shows that elections in the country so far have been assessed as far from being free and fair, and they have never met international standards in this country.
RFE/RL: How does this election campaign differ from previous elections in Azerbaijan? Are there any expectations that outsiders will play any role in the election -- either international observers or officials from other countries?
Ismayilova: The expectations from the international actors are just approval of the results or disapproval of the results -- whatever will be decided, whether they will consider the process and the result legitimate or not. The situation now is different from what it was in 2005 or 2003 -- the previous parliamentary and presidential elections -- because in 2005, there were allegations that the Russian Security Council chief had been advising Ilham Aliyev, the Azeri president, on how to deal with the opposition -- some new techniques that have been used by the government in dispersing the opposition.
But right now, there is no problem of the opposition in the elections because the opposition is boycotting the elections. And the observers expect a very low turnout of voters and very low election activity. Basically what we can see right now is that there is no battle going on in the country for the office. Experts that we are talking to are saying that these are the least interesting elections in Azerbaijan's history. Most of them are saying there are no elections in place because voters are not provided a choice.
RFE/RL: How important to the election is the issue of the frozen conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh?
Ismayilova: For sure, [Nagorno-Karabakh] is one of the biggest issues in the election campaign -- as it has always been. Of course, all of the candidates will probably put in their [election] program that they are going to resolve the issue and that they have a key to resolving the issue. But we have yet to hear it because, so far, their [election] programs haven't been published. It is illegal to promote their programs before the campaign really starts.