The past two weeks have marked new, intensified efforts by the international community to ensure that Azerbaijan conducts free and fair parliamentary elections, which are set for November of this year. Outsiders are putting more pressure on the Azerbaijani authorities to democratize and implement reforms.
Foremost, under pressure from the Council of Europe, Azerbaijani authorities have finally established a public television service. Lack of opposition television access has always been cited as one of the shortcomings of the Azerbaijani electoral process, thus creating an urgent need for the establishment of an independent public TV station. Yet, the Azerbaijani government, while satisfying the Council of Europe requirement to establish a public television station, still managed to elect pro-governmental persons both to its Managing Board as well as to the executive staff. On April 16, the Managing Board of the public channel chose parliamentarian Ismail Omarov to be general director of the channel, a step considered by many to herald the “death of the independence of public television.” Azerbaijan’s civil society sector regards Omarov, formerly with Azerbaijan state television, to be pro-government.
Meanwhile, representatives of the Azerbaijani government have traveled to Strasbourg to discuss changes to the state election code. Although the head of the Presidential Administration, Ramiz Mehtiyev, told media outlets two weeks ago that “no major changes are expected in the election code and that those changes that take place will be of a technical nature,” some analysts believe that the international community is ready to pressure the Azerbaijani authorities to amend the election code to ensure the balanced composition of the election commissions, to allow non-governmental organizations to monitor the elections, and to permit demonstrations and public rallies in the country. The U.S. ambassador in Baku, Reno Harnish, has often said that the freedom of assembly should be observed.
The Azerbaijani authorities have responded to these demands rather positively. Ali Hasanov, the head of the political department at the Presidential Administration, told ANS TV on April 10, “When the election campaign starts, public rallies will be allowed.” And a source close to the opposition has told Jamestown that the issue of allowing NGOs to monitor the elections is very near resolution. Similarly, President Ilham Aliev has instructed Tagi Ahmadov, head of the Baku metro, to lift the ban on sales of opposition newspapers. This decision came after the media launched an intense protest campaign against Ahmadov, who had openly violated the constitution and laws of the Azerbaijan. The “Ruh” journalists union even took Ahmadov to court to recoup the newspapers’ financial losses.
Although these measures, coupled with the release of all political prisoners in Azerbaijan, create a rather positive atmosphere for the conduct of free and fair elections, few experts in the country believe that much will actually change. Etibar Mamedov, leader of the National Independence Party and a member of the newly formed “Yeni Siyaset” (New Politics) election coalition told ANS TV that he did not want a velvet revolution in the country but, in the event of election fraud, revolution would be inevitable. Opposition members from the more radical coalition comprised of the Democratic, Musavat, and Popular Front parties, hold similar views. Last week, Musavat chairman Isa Gambar traveled to the United States and Britain, while Popular Front chairman Ali Kerimli went to Great Britain to persuade the international community to take a more proactive policy regarding Azerbaijan and pay more attention to the upcoming parliamentary elections.
The Azerbaijani authorities, meanwhile, seem very worried about these developments, as well as by U.S. Ambassador Harnish’s visits to Azerbaijan’s regions, where he met with opposition parties behind closed doors. Several parliamentarians have bashed Harnish for this tour, accusing him of “plotting a velvet revolution.”
Although, Harnish denied these allegations, many in the government believe there are outside powers interested in ousting the regime and continuing the chain of popular revolutions in the post-Soviet region. This, in turn, leads to a harsher government crackdown on civil society groups. Last week, members of the youth group “Yeni Fikir” (New Idea) were reportedly detained by police and harassed for spreading “anti-governmental leaflets.” Similarly, the authorities are worried about another youth movement YOX (No!) and are trying to control its activities. At the same time, sources close to the government say that a new, broad-based youth coalition, loyal to the authorities is being formed.
While monitors from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe are in Baku this week to discuss further steps towards holding free and fair elections in November, tensions between the ruling party and the opposition seem to be mounting. The challenge ahead is to avoid violence similar to the ones that erupted after the presidential elections of October 2003.
(Zerkalo, Echo, Gun, Azadliq, Yeni Musavat, Turan, APA, April 11-19)