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Saturday 1 September 2018

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has ruled the country since 2003. (file photo)

Barring an act of God, and despite a serious economic downturn in recent years, Azerbaijan's incumbent president, Ilham Aliyev, will almost certainly be reelected on April 11 with a landslide majority for a fourth consecutive term.

Since succeeding his late father, former Politburo member Heidar Aliyev, in 2003, Ilham Aliyev has systematically sidelined or jailed his political opposition and silenced independent media outlets, correctly assuming that his country's growing strategic importance as a supplier of natural gas to Europe would outweigh the misgivings of the international community.

Of the handful of opposition candidates who in a fair ballot might have posed a serious challenge to the incumbent, Republican Alternative (ReAl) movement head Ilqar Mammadov was jailed for seven years in 2014 for allegedly organizing a large-scale public protest.

In protest at the timing of the ballot, other prominent oppositionists decided not to participate. It was initially announced in mid-January that the election would take place on the third Wednesday in October, in line with the constitution.

Less than three weeks later, on February 5, President Aliyev brought the date forward without offering any explanation for doing so. Scheduling early presidential elections was one of the additional powers granted to the president under constitutional amendments adopted in a referendum in September 2016. At the same time, the presidential term was extended from five to seven years.

Outrage And Consternation

The scheduling of the early vote was met with outrage and consternation by prospective opposition candidates, who were thus left with just five weeks to collect the minimum 40,000 signatures in their support required for registration, the deadline for which was March 12.

The National Council of Democratic Forces (NSDS) formed in the run-up to the 2013 presidential ballot, and which unites prominent opposition figures, immediately declared its intention to boycott what its leader, Camil Hasanli, termed "a farce" and "flouting the institution of elections."

Arif Hacili, chairman of the opposition Musavat Party, which is one of the country's oldest and most respected, similarly branded the ballot illegal.

Hacili's predecessor as party chairman, Isa Qambar, placed second to Aliyev in the 2003 presidential ballot, which he claimed was rigged to deny him victory.

The Umid (Hope) party, for its part, decided not to field a candidate: its chairman, Iqbal Agazade -- who garnered under 3 percent of the vote in the 2008 and 2013 presidential ballots -- explained to the news portal Caucasian Knot that the party's statutes require it to convene a congress to select a presidential candidate, which was impossible given the time constraints.

ReAl and the youth organization Nida both announced that they will not acknowledge the election outcome as legitimate, Caucasian Knot reported, while in late March, the religious movement Muslim Unity, most of whose leaders are currently in prison, called on its members and supporters to boycott the vote.

A total of 15 hopefuls sought to register for the election, of whom only eight succeeded, including Aliyev. All but one of them have run for president at least once before.

The eight candidates are:

President Ilham Aliyev, nominated by the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP);

Social-Democratic Party leader Araz Alizade (polled 0.87 percent in 2013);

Parliamentarian and United Popular Front Party Chairman Qudrat Hasanquliyev (polled 0.55 percent in 2003, 2.28 percent in 2008, and 1.99 percent in 2013);

Parliamentarian and Party of National Rebirth Chairman Farac Quliyev (polled 0.86 percent in 2013);

Modern Musavat Party Chairman Hafiz Haciyev (polled 0.40 percent in 2003, 0.65 percent in 2008, and 0.66 percent in 2013);

Democratic Party of Azerbaijan nominee Serdar Calaloglu (polled 0.61 percent in 2013);

Independent candidate Zahid Oruc (polled 11.45 percent in 2013);

And Razi Nurullayev, a former deputy chairman of the opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, which he quit in 2015.

Those refused registration, mostly on the grounds that some signatures in their support were invalid, were:

Citizen and Development Party Chairman Ali Aliyev (no relation to Ilham);

Liberal Democratic Party Chairman Fuad Aliyev (no relation to Ilham or Ali), who polled 0.78 percent in 2008;

Elsan Hasanov, who heads the unregistered Socialist Party;

Former Musavat Party youth wing head Tural Abbasli, who in 2016 founded the White Party;

And virtually unknown independent candidates Ramazan Bekirov and Asif Mamedov.

Classical Popular Front Party chairman Mirmahmud Miralioglu, who had announced in late January his intention of participating in the election, withdrew his candidacy two weeks after the revised date was announced. He argued that without a substantive revision of the electoral law and the release of political prisoners the elections could not be considered democratic.

Given that neither Ilqar Mamedov, Hasanli, nor Qambar are participating, there is every chance that President Aliyev will receive a higher proportion of the vote than ever before. In 2003, he polled 75.38 percent, with three influential oppositionists, Qambar, Lala-Sovket Haciyeva (Liberal Democratic Party), and Etibar Mammedov garnering 21.70 percent between them, and in 2013 he polled 84.55 percent (NSDS head Hasanli placed a distant second with 5.53 percent). By contrast, in 2008 when, as now, he faced no serious opposition challengers, President Aliyev won 89.04 percent of the vote.

President Aliyev's reasons for bringing the election forward by five months remain unclear. Presidential administration official Ali Hasanov told journalists that, since the presidential term has been extended by two years, the incumbent wanted to secure a vote of confidence from the electorate. Hasanov also cited a heavy schedule of important events later in the year, starting with the centenary in late May of the proclamation of the short-lived independent Azerbaijan Democratic Republic.

Tensions And Dissent

Analyst Togrul Cafarli, however, suggested that the real reason was tensions and dissent within the ruling YAP. President Aliyev has resorted before to wrong-footing potential rivals, most recently in 2016 when he scheduled at short notice the referendum on constitutional amendments that empowered him to appoint his wife, Mehriban, as vice president.

The actual election campaign, which kicked off only on March 19, has been muted. Hamstrung by a chronic lack of both financial means and organizational resources, opposition candidates had few possibilities for making their views known. True, state-controlled media outlets allocated free airtime, but it was confined to a series of one-hour debates among the candidates. Meanwhile, the cost of airtime on private channels was, to quote Calaloglu, "astronomical" -- up to 3,000-6,000 manats ($1,800 - $3,600) per minute of prime time.

Even President Aliyev was not campaigning energetically, having announced just days after setting the date of the ballot a 10 percent pay raise for all public employees at a cost of 40 billion manats ($23 billion). According to economist Qubad Ibadoglu, up to 2 million voters, or almost 40 percent of the total 5.2 million electorate, will benefit from that increase.


State-run media, meanwhile, gave extensive coverage to the president's engagements.

While the outcome of the ballot is a foregone conclusion, the geopolitical, economic, and domestic political context of this election nonetheless differs significantly from previous ones. The national currency has plummeted in value over the past three years, as have oil prices. Vahid Magerramli of the NSDS estimates that Azerbaijan's gross domestic product and budget are currently no more than $40 billion and $10 billion, respectively, compared to $75 billion and $25 billion three-four years ago.

Despite these obstacles, President Aliyev has managed to strengthen his position by removing from power several ministers with extensive private economic interests and replacing them with younger, Western-educated technocrats who, unlike their predecessors, are not tainted by allegations of corruption.

This approach, which essentially undercuts the influence of the country's oligarchs, allowing for the implementation of badly needed fundamental economic reform, is likely to continue after the election, Caucasian Knot quoted Turan News Agency director Mehman Aliyev as predicting.

In addition, the president-elect will nominate a new prime minister and government, a requirement that could bring about the retirement of Artur Rasizade, now 83, who has served as prime minister since July 1996, apart from a three month period in 2003 when Ilham Aliyev was maneuvered into that post to govern in the run-up to his father's death.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili

Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili has publicly appealed to Russia to embark on “sensible, if small” steps aimed at breaking out of the impasse in bilateral relations caused by Moscow’s recognition nearly 10 years ago of Georgia’s breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.

Tbilisi formally severed diplomatic relations with Russia in retaliation for that move and Kvirikashvili also affirmed, once again, his readiness for direct dialogue with those two breakaway polities.

Three days after Kvirikashvili's March 9 appeal, the Russian Foreign Ministry responded with a commentary welcoming Kvirikashvili’s initiative.

But at the same time, the ministry implicitly placed the onus on Tbilisi by stipulating that “Russia…is ready to go as far as Tbilisi is.”

That response neatly glosses over the more problematic aspects of Kvirikashvili’s statement, while signaling approval or acceptance of other proposals.

Kvirikashvili cast his overture as the pragmatic and logical next step in a gradual process launched following the advent to power in 2012 of the Georgian Dream party of which he leads.

The talks that got under way four years ago between Kvirikashvili’s special envoy, Zurab Abashidze, and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin have yielded concrete steps towards resuming economic cooperation, and the Russian Foreign Ministry declared its readiness to deepen that cooperation.

Georgia's special envoy on relations with Russia, Zurab Abashidze
Georgia's special envoy on relations with Russia, Zurab Abashidze

But Kvirikashvili appeared to contradict himself by first affirming the possibility of breaking out of the “vicious circle” of mutual recrimination occasioned by the August 2008 war that culminated in a humiliating military defeat for Georgia and Russia’s formal recognition of the two breakaway state-lets -- and then casting doubt on the possibility of such a reset in light of “a chain of tragic incidents” for which he implicitly blames Moscow.

The Russian Foreign Ministry response made no direct reference to that implicit reproach, or to the 2008 fighting. But it did hail Kvirikashvili’s professed desire to achieve “real progress” in the internationally mediated talks in Geneva on overcoming the security and humanitarian consequences of the war, “regardless of who heads Georgia’s delegation to Geneva.”
Kvirikashvili declared in December 2017 that he is prepared to participate personally in those talks if doing so would serve a useful purpose -- even though, as several Georgian analysts pointed out, the issues under discussion are not of the magnitude that would require his direct participation.

Moreover, progress on that front is fraught with serious problems given that the position and priorities of Georgia on the one side and Russia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia on the other, differ so widely.

Tbilisi has consistently focused on discrimination against the Georgian minorities in the two breakaway regions and on Russia’s deployment of military personnel on those territories and unilateral demarcation of the borders between them and the rest of Georgia.

Russia, by contrast, criticizes as a potential threat to the two regions the military assistance Georgia has received from the United States, including the recent sale of Javelin antiarmor missile systems.

It therefore prioritizes the signing of formal nonaggression pacts between Georgia and the two breakaway polities. Tbilisi has dismissed that demand, arguing that it is Russia, rather than Abkhazia or South Ossetia, that poses a threat to regional peace and stability.

As for Kvirikashvili’s parallel offer to Abkhazia and South Ossetia to embark on direct dialogue, the Russian Foreign Ministry lauded it as “the only real way of addressing the problems that worry Georgia and that do not fall within the framework of bilateral relations.”

That circumlocution is tantamount to a direct rejection of Tbilisi’s long-standing argument that the Abkhaz and South Ossetian leaders are merely Russian puppets that obediently carry out its orders, and that responsibility for the situation on the frontiers between Georgia and the two breakaway regions lies exclusively with Moscow.

In that respect, Moscow’s decoupling of two issues that Kvirikashvili linked together -- Georgia’s relations with Russia on the one hand, and with its breakaway republics on the other --is clearly intended to convey the message that those republics’ de facto presidents have complete freedom in conducting what, from Russia’s standpoint, are their respective foreign policies.

The Abkhaz leadership has repeatedly made clear that dialogue with Tbilisi is contingent on Georgia’s recognition of Abkhazia as an independent sovereign state. Moscow for its part has repeatedly ruled out the possibility of rescinding its formal recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

As noted, the Russian Foreign Ministry commentary did not make any direct reference to the August 2008 fighting. The 10th anniversary of the outbreak of that war, to which Kvirikashvili pointedly pegged his initiative, is still five months away.

That raises the question of whether Kvirikashvili’s primary objective may have been to deflect opposition criticism of his government’s handling of the most recent in the “chain of tragic events” to which he refers.

The incident in question is the death last month of Archil Tatunashvili, a Georgian whose family fled South Ossetia in 2008, but who periodically returned there to sell fruit and vegetables.

Meeting in Gori to commemorate Archil Tatunashvili on March 4, 2018.
Meeting in Gori to commemorate Archil Tatunashvili on March 4, 2018.

According to de facto South Ossetian authorities, Tatunashvili, 35, was apprehended on February 22 and taken to the main police precinct in Tskhinvali for questioning on suspicion of having committed war crimes against the civilian population during the 2008 fighting and of plotting “acts of sabotage” in South Ossetia in the run-up to the March 18 Russian presidential election.

Tatunashvili is said to have assaulted a police officer while being taken back to his cell, lost his balance during the ensuing struggle, and sustained unspecified injuries falling down a flight of stairs. He was taken to a hospital where he died early the following day, allegedly of heart failure.

Tatunashvili’s family and Georgian officials reject that version of events, saying his death was the result of torture.

According to Georgian Human Rights Ombudsman Nino Lomjaria, Tatunashvili had been beaten and was already dead on arrival at the hospital.

Furthermore, RFE/RL’s Echo of the Caucasus reports that in August 2008, Tatunashvili was serving as part of the Georgian peacekeeping contingent in Iraq, and therefore could not have participated in the fighting in South Ossetia.

To date, South Ossetian representatives have steadfastly rejected appeals by the Georgian leadership, the head of the Georgian Orthodox church, and also the UN, the European Union, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in their capacity as co-chairs of the Geneva talks, for Tatunashvili’s body to be handed over to his family for burial. They say this will be done following a further autopsy to be conducted in Russia.

The Russian Foreign Ministry’s explicit inclusion of the Tatunashvili case among those issues that it says can only be solved by bilateral talks between Georgia and its breakaway regions thus constitutes a rejection of statements by some Georgian politicians (but not Kvirikashvili) laying the entire blame for Tatunashvili’s death on Russia as the “occupying force.”

In a long interview with InterPressNews, veteran political analyst Ramaz Saqvarelidze postulated that it may have been one of Georgia’s Western partners that persuaded Kvirikashvili to go public with his overture to Moscow so the West would have a valid reason to pressure Russia to respond.

If true, that could explain the unconventional medium Kvirikashvili opted for -- a post on his Facebook page -- rather than resorting either to the contacts between Kvirikashvili’s representative, Abashidze, and the Russian Foreign Ministry, or co-opting a neutral intermediary.

Meanwhile, Georgia’s opposition parties, in particular the former ruling United National Movement (ENM) and European Georgia, which split from it early last year, have lambasted Kvirikashvili for “capitulating” to Russia by implicitly abandoning Georgia’s previous consistent designation of it as the occupier of parts of Georgia’s territory, and for failing to stress the importance of restoring Georgia’s territorial integrity.

The ENM has demanded that Kvirikashvili publicly apologize for the wording of his statement and resign. One of its lawmakers, Salome Samadashvili, accused Kvirikashvili of having “exonerated Russia from all legal and political responsibility.”

European Georgia leader Davit Bakradze was less categorical, but nonetheless characterized Kvirikashvili’s initiative as “a major error,” warning that any move to alter the format of the Geneva talks risks playing into Russia’s hands, with potentially dangerous consequences.

Speaking at a cabinet session on March 14, Kvirikashvili defended his initiative and denounced the criticism it was met with as “absurd.” He insisted that every single step taken by his government serves Georgia’s interests.

“When our country needs it, and when it’s about preventing serious provocations and maintaining stability in the country, we politicians must do everything in our power to defuse tension, regardless of its consequences for our image,” civil.ge quoted him as saying.

Notwithstanding the opposition’s outrage over Kvirikashvili’s gambit, on March 16, following two weeks of consultations, the Georgian Dream, ENM, and European Georgia parliament factions announced they have reached what ENM lawmaker Sergo Kapanadze called “a common position” that will be reflected in a joint statement condemning human rights violations in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in particular the death of Tatunashvili.

(The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.)

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About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.

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