Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright arrived in Baku on July 11 to meet with Azerbaijani politicians, NGO activists, and mass media and to discuss the situation in the country ahead of the November 6 parliamentary elections. Albright is currently chair of the National Democratic Institute, a Washington-based NGO. The visit of the former high-ranking American official was immediately compared to the visit that former Secretary of State James Baker paid to Tbilisi in the summer of 2003. During that visit Baker convinced then-Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze to change the composition of the election commission, which later led to the Rose Revolution.
Albright has met with the leaders of three major opposition parties, Musavat, Popular Front, and the Democratic Party, and she participated in roundtable discussions with mass media and NGO representatives. She is also expected to meet with President Ilham Aliev.
“The discussion was very useful for both sides, and the consequences of this meeting will be very positive,” said Sardar Jalaloglu, secretary-general of the Democratic Party. Musavat chairman Isa Gambar also praised the discussions, calling them “very interesting and useful.” “During the two-hour meeting, we discussed all details of the pre-election realities in Azerbaijan and it seems to be that the dialogue was very fruitful,” he added. When asked by ANS-TV commentators on July 12 what kind of positive changes are expected, Gambar replied that they might relate to the composition of election commissions, create equal conditions for all candidates to campaign, and provide the opposition parties with access to national television.
Albright herself drew the media’s attention to the need for political freedom as a precondition of democratic elections. “If there are no fair election commissions, there will not be free elections,” she said. When asked about the future of Azerbaijan, Albright replied that the country has a “happy future, if all the oil revenues are fairly distributed and there is an open market.”
Local experts see Albright’s visit as highly important. The opposition parties in particular seem to be overly optimistic about the visit, believing that it would pave a new path toward democracy in the country. Some observers even believe that Albright has come to Baku with a special message from U.S. President George W. Bush to pressure the Azerbaijani authorities to conduct free and fair elections this fall (Zerkalo, July 13). Few Azerbaijani politicians seem to understand that Albright is not in the U.S. government anymore and that the Republican White House would not be inclined to use Democratic Party members as envoys for such delicate situations.
Nevertheless, the upcoming parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan seem to be gaining more and more attention from U.S. policymakers. Last month, the Azerbaijani parliament adopted the final version of the revised Election Code, making only cosmetic changes and leaving the composition of the election commissions — the major point of disagreement between the authorities and the international community — untouched. Council of Europe and OSCE representatives expressed regret over the Azerbaijani government’s unwillingness to make the needed changes and cast doubts over the democratic nature of the upcoming elections.
The major opposition parties, meanwhile, have united in a joint coalition “Azadliq” (Freedom) and are threatening to stage a “velvet revolution” should the authorities fail to hold free elections. On July 10, they held another street rally in Baku, in which, according to some observers, more than 35,000 people participated. Rallies also took place, for the first time in the past two years, outside of Baku, including the towns of Sumgait, Sabirabad, Gedebey, Sheki, and others.
The Bush administration remains in a difficult situation regarding this crucial election. While the White House urges more democracy around the world, as seen especially in U.S. efforts to reform the Middle East, Azerbaijan has been tied to the United States in a vital strategic cooperation arrangement over energy and security issues, with official Baku even sending peacekeeping troops to Iraq and Afghanistan. Thus, the pressures from Washington come at a careful pace, after consideration of U.S. national interests in the Caucasus.
The Azerbaijani authorities seem to be nervous, yet determined to maintain control over the country. Speaking to journalists on July 12, Ali Hasanov, chief of the presidential administration’s political department, said, “Opposition representatives often say that in the fall of this year a regime change will take place in the country. But the surveys show that the rating of the opposition is only at 10% popularity. Let it be 20%, even 30%. But this does not mean a change of regime. Parliament is only one of the branches of power. The head of state is the President, and he still has three more years in his term.”
(Zerkalo, Echo, Yeni Musavat, Azadliq, APA News, Turan News, 525-ci gazet, Sherq, July 12-13)