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A free and fair election in Azerbaijan? No chance

Parliament building Baku

Azerbaijan's parliament building in Baku. Tony Bowden under a Creative Commons Licence

Today Azerbaijan is going to the polls in their presidential elections. It is certain that the current President, Ilham Aliyev, will win – reports claim that the flowers for his inauguration ceremony have already been ordered. The chances of the result reflecting crosses in boxes are slim, and the possibility of a free and fair election is zero. A heavily censured press and a year marked by a huge number of political arrests has ensured this election will be like previous ones: undemocratic.

Ilham Aliyev became president in 2003 after the death of his father Heydar – who has been in power since 1993. Aliyev’s rule was entrenched by the signing of what was dubbed ‘the contract of century’ in 1994. This brought 11 corporations, including BP as the operating company, into a consortium to extract oil from the Caspian Sea. It also gave the Aliyev family vast wealth and important international allies, and freed them from reliance on citizens’ taxes. As such, there was little incentive for Aliyev to listen to people’s voices, respect their interests or create any form of democracy. No election in this 20-year period can be characterized as fair or transparent.

This time there are 10 presidential hopefuls; but this does not mean there are nine people genuinely campaigning against Aliyev. Most of candidates are ‘pro-government’ and use their allotted campaign time to talk in favour of the autocrat. There is only one serious opposition candidate: Camil Hasanli. This professor of history was the replacement choice of the National Council of Democratic Forces after their original candidate, the filmmaker Rustam Ibragimbekov, was disqualified on the grounds of his dual Russian citizenship. The National Council represents an attempt to bring together two of the major political parties Musavet and the People’s Front – along with NGO and civil society groups, to present a joint candidate.

Ibragimbekov is not the only candidate disqualified from entry in the elections – Ilgar Mammadov of the Republican Alternative was also refused registration. He has been held in pre-trial detention since January and was declined registration in late August on the grounds that some of the signatures supporting his candidacy were invalid – a claim that is widely contested. Mammadov joins 141 other political prisoners in Azerbaijan, including bloggers, journalists, youth and religious activists. The number has more than doubled since January thanks to increased repression in the run up to the election.

All the major state and private television channels support the government; during the last few weeks, TV screens in Azerbaijan have been filled with pictures of the president and his wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, opening empty golf clubs and hospitals with mannequins instead of patients on their ‘nationwide tour’. One media opportunity extended to the other candidates was the televised presidential debates, although Aliyev himself declined to take part – he probably had too many kindergartens to visit. In one debate, opposition candidate Hasanli found his six minutes of air time cut short when a pro-government candidate threw a bottle of water at him after he brought up the topic of the regime’s corrupt business dealings. It is this corruption that has led to large amounts of Azerbaijani wealth finding its way into offshore bank accounts.

Now that Azerbaijan’s oil production has peaked – initially declining from 800,000 barrels per day to 660,000 – gas becomes crucial for the regime. In the upcoming years over 10 billion cubic metres of gas a year will be produced via a $40 scheme to unlock new reserves from the Shah Deniz gas field in the territorial waters of Azerbaijan. The gas will be transported via the Euro-Caspian Mega Pipeline, a huge piece of infrastructure which will (in the first instance) cross Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, Greece, Albania, go under the Adriatic Sea and finish in Italy. There is potential for the pipeline to be extended further, to Iraqi Kurdistan or Turkmenistan for example; at this point Azerbaijan would switch from being a producer to a transit country.

Azerbaijan borders both Russia and Iran: this means that Aliyev’s regime plays a pivotal role for Western geopolitical and energy ambitions; powerful players support his dictatorship. Azerbaijani civil society organizes under extreme pressure and many now fear reprisals after the election period, yet it is hard for Azeris to find support among the international community, who are mostly concerned with keeping relations with Aliyev friendly.

In the summer, EU commissioner Barroso welcomed Aliyev to Brussels and praised the country for its progress on democracy and human rights. In return, Aliyev promised Europe 2 trillion cubic metres of gas reserves. BP, when asked whether its development of the Shah Deniz gas field would enhance the reputation of the Aliyev regime, pointed to European Union support for the project. In such a context few are interested in asking difficult questions about what gas deals with an illegitimate regime mean for the people of the country.

Azerbaijanis are not waiting for Europe; many spend every day engaged in a struggle against Aliyev. Despite the repression they face the democracy movement is growing in Azerbaijan and the country’s activists are optimistic: dissenting voices within the country are slowly increasing. European decision-makers are once again making the continent reliant on undemocratic regimes for its power and creating an energy infrastructure that ensures Europe’s energy demands are at odds with people’s demands for democracy. From Azerbaijan’s capital Baku you cannot see the country’s oil and gas fields, which lie offshore over 100 kilometres away, yet on election day their impact on the country is only too visible. 

To hear the stories of four people silenced by the Aliyev regime, visit the Platform website.

Emma Hughes is a campaigner with Platform London.

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