Azerbaijan’s October 11 presidential election is expected to return the 75-year-old President Haidar Aliev to power for another five-year term, assuming that his health will allow him to complete it. Seen in a long-term perspective, the balloting and the campaign that preceded it mark a milestone on the difficult road to democratization, in a society that never knew democracy and is hardly prepared for it at present. In the short term, this election is about control and stability in a country that commands huge oil deposits, has recently attracted almost 40 billion dollars worth of Western investment commitments, and–sandwiched between Russia and Iran–commands the sole, narrow gateway between resource-rich Central Asia and Europe. Political instability in Azerbaijan would place the security, independence and economic development of a host of countries at serious risk. The authoritarian, pro-Western Aliev has restored that stability after 1993 and ensured it since against Russian attempts to undermine it.
The best-known opposition leaders are boycotting the election, having apparently expected a poor showing against heavy odds. The opposition alliance consists of a very large number of minuscule but vocal groups, loosely united around five leaders with presidential aspirations (the “quintet”). Two of these might have been viable, though clearly underdog candidates: Popular Front leader Abulfaz Elchibey and Musavat Party leader Isa Gambar, who were president of the country and chairman of parliament, respectively, before Aliev came to power.
Had they participated in the race, these opposition leaders and their parties would have faced two almost insuperable obstacles. First, Aliev’s incumbency advantage, dominance of the media, and control of the state apparatus. Second, and perhaps no less importantly, they would have had to run against their own record in power in 1992-93, a record widely seen as disastrous.
Yet these opposition leaders also had some assets that could have been played to advantage. First was popular discontent over the hardships of transition, official corruption, and the “clan” phenomenon associated with Aliev’s rule. Second was Aliev’s need to legitimize his reelection through an exercise that would at least look pluralist. And third was the desire of many in the West to promote democracy in the country, see a genuine electoral contest in Azerbaijan in order to stabilize its politics and encourage a compromise among antagonistic forces. These considerations gave the main opposition leaders a certain counterleverage. If it recognized those bargaining assets, the opposition forfeited them by sticking to the boycott decision to the bitter end.
With Western support, the opposition leaders obtained important concessions from the authorities during the months that preceded the election. The authorities abolished censorship and improved the electoral law in ways that met Western requirements and standards. But the opposition leaders appeared to overplay their hand by demanding parity in the composition of the Central Electoral Commission as a precondition for participating in the election. At this point Western support petered out, even if the CEC’s chairman had in the same capacity presided over widespread irregularities in the 1995 parliamentary election.
The boycott also meant that the opposition leaders missed their first opportunity since 1993 to gain massive television exposure. By contrast, the five challengers to Aliev in this race used the television exposure to overcome obscurity and to compete for the advantages of the runnerup position (see the Monitor, October 8).
The opposition leaders undermined their own anticorruption campaign by entering into an alliance of convenience with the expatriate former chairman of parliament, Rasul Guliev, who is widely perceived to have amassed a very large personal fortune while in government. It is widely assumed in Azerbaijan that Guliev financed some of the opposition’s activities from his own funds. Moreover, some of the opposition’s rhetoric and tactics reminded many of the period 1992-93, when the current opposition leaders governed amid chaos. The opposition, moreover, advocates a military solution to the conflict with Armenia. It seemed to overestimate the electorate’s readiness to support a war in order to recover Armenian-occupied territories and Karabakh.
The many-shaded opposition alliance includes ultranationalist groups that espouse pan-Turkic views and call for the formation of a “united Azerbaijan” by incorporating northern Iran. Elchibey himself is a leading exponent of this agenda, which undermines the opposition’s own goal to maintain Azerbaijan’s independence from Russia as well as the prospect of economic development. Finally, opposition leaders and groups raised eyebrows through suggestions that they might revise international oil contracts for political or economic reasons. In sum, the opposition leaders appeared to overplay their hand. Ultimately they became prisoners of their own initial decision to boycott the election and to give up the bargaining power they had possessed.
The Monitor is a publication of the Jamestown Foundation. It is researched and written under the direction of senior analysts Jonas Bernstein, Vladimir Socor, Stephen Foye, and analysts Ilya Malyakin, Oleg Varfolomeyev and Ilias Bogatyrev. If you have any questions regarding the content of the Monitor, please contact the foundation. If you would like information on subscribing to the Monitor, or have any comments, suggestions or questions, please contact us by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, by fax at 301-562-8021, or by postal mail at The Jamestown Foundation, 4516 43rd Street NW, Washington DC 20016. Unauthorized reproduction or redistribution of the Monitor is strictly prohibited by law. Copyright (c) 1983-2002 The Jamestown Foundation Site Maintenance by Johnny Flash Productions