President Ilham Aliyev promises a fair and transparent election for 125 parliamnt seats on November 6th. But with police breaking up opposition rallies and jailing some government critics, many analysts are skeptical.
Days before the elections, President Aliyev issued a decree recommending measures to ensure free and fair elections. The measures include permitting observers sponsored by foreign funds to monitor the elections, the use of special ink on voters' fingers to prevent multiple voting and making lists of voters' addresses accessible to all parties.
But Human Rights Watch says that the government's systematic intimidation and violence against the opposition during the campaign rule out the possibility of fair elections in Azerbaijan. According to the report, recent political upheavals in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan have raised concerns among the country's leaders that similar unrest could take place in Azarbaijan.
Fear of Revolution
Ilan Berman, an analyst at the American Foreign Policy Council, a political research organization here in Washington, says leaders of former Soviet republics tend to fear protests and demands for democracy and they believe them to be instigated and financed by western organizations.
"This is, I think, a significant perspective because in the aftermath of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, Rose Revolution in Georgia and Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan, there is a sentiment among autocratic leaders that there are external forces at work that are trying to unseat them."
Mr. Berman says that's why the authorities took extraordinary measures against the planned return of Rasul Guliyev, the head of Azerbaijan's Democratic Party. Mr. Guliyev fled the country nine years ago when he was accused of embezzling more than 100-million dollars in state funds and now lives in the United States. The Azerbaijan government deployed hundreds of armed troops in riot gear throughout the capital city of Baku, especially around the airport where Mr. Guliyev was expected to land last month. A number of people, including two ministers and a well-known academician, were arrested on charges that they conspired with Mr. Guliyev to overthrow the government.
Preveting Unrest or Generating a Crisis?
Azerbaijan's ambassador to the United States, Hafiz Pashayev, says the government is committed to preventing upheaval. "President Aliyev wants orderly transition as our last few years of unprecedented economic growth would be jeopardized by political instability," says Mr. Pashayev.
But many analysts say Rasul Guliyev does not have a large enough following to spark major protests, let alone a revolution. President Aliyev, on the other hand, enjoys substantial support. Thus, many observers, including Audrey Altstadt, professor of history at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, conclude that the government generated a political crisis to ward off some of the international pressure for truly democratic elections.
"The regime seems to be unwilling, or unprepared, or unable to do that. And if there is an atmosphere of crisis preceding the election, than the regime really can get away with more suppression of the opposition than would otherwise be possible."
Professor Altstadt says the alleged conspiracy was the government's excuse to remove some of its potential opponents or competitors. She adds some of the arrested people do not even have much in common, least of all a conspiracy to overthrow the government. But President Aliyev's tactics of intimidation have drawn voters' attention from real issues, she says. In her words, neither President Ilham Aliyev's Yeni Azerbaijan Party (New Azerbaijan) nor the opposition alliance Azadliq Front (Freedom) has seriously discussed the unresolved conflict with neighboring Armenia and the growing rich-poor gap in the election campaign. These issues, she says, may become more of a threat to Azerbaijan's stability than a revolt of opposition groups.
"When you go to Baku, you see that the most lavish villas are built around various neighborhoods in the city. And at the same time, you see other people that are working seven days a week to make less money than they made in the Soviet period. And this is one of the long-range dangers in terms of social stability -- this gap between the incredibly rich and the poor." Professor Altstadt blames rampant corruption of those in power and their tight control over the country's wealth for this state of affairs.
Despite its shortcomings, most analysts say Azerbaijan has achieved more political and economic progress than most other former Soviet republics. That may be one of the reasons behind overall support for President Aliyev's government, says analyst Ilan Berman.
"I simply don't see a situation in which the Azeri opposition is robust enough and has enough external support to really upset the apple cart, as it were (overthrow the regime). I think what's going to happen is there's going to be a re-affirmation of Ilham Aliyev's rule and the degree to which it happens with a pluralistic mindset and with the ability of the international community to watch and make sure that the elections are free and fair is going to re-affirm his status in the eyes of Europe and the United States."
Ilan Berman says if Azerbaijan continues on the current path of political and economic liberalization, it could serve as a model to other central Asian states as a Muslim country with a democratic, secular government. President Aliyev's government seems to be making every effort to prove to the world that it will be so.
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