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Who Are The Shadowy Western Observers Weighing In On Azerbaijan's Election?

Azerbaijani election officials empty ballot boxes at a polling station in Baku on October 9.
Azerbaijani election officials empty ballot boxes at a polling station in Baku on October 9.
Its name sounds impressive: the Independent American Center of Political Monitoring.

So does the umbrella organization it says it's a part of: the International Expert Center for Electoral Systems.

Along with official observers from the European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and other international bodies, members of the group were in Azerbaijan this week to observe the October 9 presidential election.

But ask any Azerbaijan-watcher or journalist outside of the pro-government media who they are and nobody seems to know for sure.

Some have never heard of the organization. Others suspect that they're paid by Baku or government proxies to give a favorable assessment of the election's conduct. Such an assessment -- particularly coming from Western observers -- would be a useful counterargument to allegations of massive fraud by the country’s political opposition.

According to its barebones website, the Independent American Center of Political Monitoring is based in the small city of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. It says the group is a nonprofit founded in 2005 to monitor elections in the former Soviet Union.

Most of its members are described simply as "experts," with an accompanying list of elections they say they've monitored, but little additional detail.

The organization describes itself in grammatically incorrect English as "a young and influential organization that has earned the trust and respect of political many scientists and electorate of North America and the rest of the world."

It also pledges to maintain impartiality and objectivity in offering a "comprehensive" report after the elections it monitors. However, links to previous election-monitoring reports from Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and other former Soviet republics lead to empty pages.

Bizarrely, under the "press release" section are headlines such as "Obama has less leverage than you think" and "Obama not being a [president] of all Americans."

The website also offers no information about its funding. Calls and e-mails to the organization inquiring about its source of funds were not returned.

'For Just Elections'

In the hours after polls closed in Azerbaijan, the pro-government APA news agency apparently referenced the group, reporting that "the U.S. group of observers" found "free activity" at polling stations.

The article says former U.S. Congressman Solomon Ortiz (Democrat-Texas) represented the delegation of "former congressmen and journalists" in declaring the election "transparent and free."

More well-known monitors have yet to release their final assessments.

On the eve of the October 9 vote, the American Center's umbrella organization, the International Expert Center for Electoral Systems (ICES), held a press conference in the Azerbaijani capital.

There, RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service asked Anna Curdova, a former member of the Czech parliament and an ICES election observer, for details on the organization's funding.

She identified an NGO that she said was based in Ukraine.

RFE/RL: "An ethical question: who is funding your visit and how did you get here?"
Curdova: "I have told you already -- we are an NGO that deals with various projects. Our visit is funded out of the income we generate from other activities we engage in at times when no elections take place."
RFE/RL: "But who, in particular, or what organization [pays you]?"
Curdova: "I've already told you -- we are called For Just Elections."
RFE/RL: "Meaning that you are funding your own visit here?"
Curdova: "Yes, yes. Well, not myself personally, but my organization is. For Just Elections -- that's what it's called."

Election observer Michael Hohendahl, a lawyer from Germany, also told RFE/RL that his work was funded by the NGO.

Hohendahl was previously quoted by Interfax-Ukraine as praising the conduct of Ukraine's 2012 parliamentary elections, a contest that Western observers described as highly flawed.

Both Curdova and Hohendahl expressed surprise when RFE/RL mentioned alleged rights abuses under the government of President Ilham Aliyev.

The ICES website says the organization is registered in the Netherlands. It also says the organization is a signatory to the Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation, which requires the disclosure of funding sources. The website does not, however, mention the For Just Elections NGO or any funding information.

Those claiming that the shadowy observer groups may be funded by Azerbaijani government interests also point to a U.S. company whose affiliation is more transparent.

Arthur J. Finkelstein & Associates, led by the longtime Republican strategist of the same name, has released the results of an exit poll it conducted after the October 9 vote.

The results show the incumbent Aliyev with nearly 83 percent of the ballot and opposition candidate Camil Hasanli with just under 9 percent.

The pro-government APA news agency published the result -- and said it had also ordered the exit poll.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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