The presidential election due to be held in Azerbaijan in 2003 will be an important test for the nation’s nascent democracy. Incumbent President Haidar Aliev will be 80 years old next spring, his health has been deteriorating in recent years, yet there are no clear signs as to who will replace him. Meanwhile, the country remains a zone of vital geostrategic interests for both the United States and Russia, and will play a major role in the global energy sector in the next decade.
When you ask the average Azeri what he thinks of Azeri democracy, the most frequent reply is: “We are lagging behind Georgia, but at least are not as bad as Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.” Fair enough. By many indicators, Azerbaijan has pulled far ahead of its Central Asian neighbors, but things are not as good as they might be. For the time being, at best, Azerbaijan can be described as neither democracy nor dictatorship. It has made significant progress toward nation building, certainly since 1993, when it faced civil war and ethnic separatism. Aliev has managed to establish political stability and economic recovery and prevent fragmentation of the state. Yet the process of democratization is slow and difficult, and often comes only under international pressure.
Politicians from the ruling Azeri elite like to say that democracy cannot come overnight, that the process is by definition lengthy. They also like to add that Azerbaijan is on a clear path toward democracy. In many ways they are right. In many they are not.