The November 6 parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan drew significant international attention, partly driven by the desire to see if another democratic “color revolution” would take place in the post-Soviet region. Foreign journalists and international observers flooded the streets of Baku. Historically a geopolitical battleground, Azerbaijan once again became a hotbed for the competing interests of foreign powers. This competition, in turn, has generated various, often opposing, assessments of the elections.
Whereas the United States and EU member countries have been pressing for democracy and respect for the rule of law from the beginning of the campaign period, other regional powers chose to support the ruling New Azerbaijan Party (YAP). In this situation, Russia’s position was the most predictable. Having “lost” Georgia and Ukraine to the West as a result of democratic revolutions, the Kremlin has been determined to maintain its influence in Azerbaijan though supporting the Aliyev administration and the status quo. This stance was not a surprise to many, as the opposition in Azerbaijan is more pro-Western than the ruling party, which promotes a balanced foreign policy. Thus, a possible “Velvet Revolution” in Azerbaijan would not be in Russia’s interests.
It is not a coincidence that Vladimir Rushailo, the executive secretary of the Commonwealth of Independent States and the head of the CIS monitoring delegation, has been praising the electoral process since his arrival in Baku several weeks prior to the actual vote. His actions have angered members of the opposition, who claim that Rushailo is interfering in the domestic affairs of the country. Following the elections, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs rushed to declare, “The elections have passed according to Azerbaijani legislation,” and Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev, on “successful parliamentary elections” (Azertaj News Agency, November 9).
Russia inserted nearly 100 of its observers inside of the OSCE/ODIHR short-term observation delegation. Some diplomatic sources from Western countries were not happy about the OSCE making such a concession to the Kremlin and have privately told Jamestown that the presence of the Russian observers inside OSCE/ODIHR was aimed at softening the group’s final assessment of the election process.
Iran has chosen a similar pattern of action, highly praising the elections and supporting Aliyev’s party. “There have been some small technical problems, but overall the elections were very orderly and democratic,” said the Iranian ambassador in Baku, Afshar Sueymani (AzTV, November 7). This position is easy to explain, as Iran, having been confronted by major U.S. pressures on its nuclear programs, has been trying for the past two years to improve its relations with official Baku and ensure the latter’s neutrality in the case of a U.S.-Iranian conflict. American officials are said to be pushing Aliyev to allow a U.S. military base in Azerbaijan.
Official Ankara, although not openly praising the Azerbaijani elections, was somewhat supportive of President Aliyev and his policies to improve the electoral process in the country. Although the Azerbaijani opposition maintains very strong ties with political circles in Turkey, and its leaders made frequent visits to Istanbul and Ankara on the eve of the elections, relations with the incumbent authorities seems to top the Turkish government’s list of priorities.
Perhaps the most critical assessment of the elections was given, as expected, by Western governments and organizations. However, there was a wide range of opinions in this category as well. Whereas U.S. Congressman Alcee L. Hastings, head of the OSCE’s Parliamentary delegation mission, said, “The shortcomings that were observed, particularly during the election day, have led us to conclude that the election did not meet a number of OSCE standards,” softer assessments came from the observers dispatched by the European Parliament, NATO Parliamentary Delegation, and a number of private American and European delegations. Swedish Parliamentarian Goran Lindblad told participants at a Johns Hopkins University teleconference on November 7, “Elections were a sign of a step forward,” and a number of Bulgarian observers held a press conference on the same day, to note Azerbaijan’s improved electoral process. Meanwhile, Radio Free Europe reported EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner as saying that she regretted reports of electoral violations in Azerbaijan’s legislative elections, but she also pointed out that the European Union took note of “some improvements” in the electoral process (Reuters, November 7). U.S. State Department spokesperson Adam Ereli shared the OSCE conclusions, but also noted some improvements.
It is also clear that the major regional powers do not want to spoil relations with the Azerbaijani government due to the current high level of economic, energy, and security cooperation. Thus, most of them have accepted the election results. Questions now arise across the Azeri political spectrum about the reasons for the harsh statements by the OSCE and the Council of Europe and whether these organizations have their own agendas. “Some European organizations are very worried about the growth of Azerbaijani military spending and harshly criticizing elections is one of the ways to keep pressures on the Aliyev regime,” said one local analyst.