Is Change Coming to Azerbaijan?

Azerbaijan’s presidential election will take place on Tuesday, October 9th. Coercive and undemocratic, the “republic” has concentrated money and power in the hands of the Aliyev family for the last twenty years.

Unfavourable Spread of Wealth

Although the country has $7 billion dollars in oil reserves and strides made towards reducing poverty, many Azerbaijanis live in poverty, with “42 per cent of the rural population [living] below the poverty line, and about 13 per cent of poor people [living] in extreme poverty.”

A 2013 Chatham House meeting summary noted that the government focuses its attention largely on big projects, rather than issues such as healthcare, education, and making it easy for Azerbaijanis to move around- there is “no public transportation in the regions- buses are prohibited and most people do not own cards, which means there are often no means of transports in the villages.”

Putting Paris Hilton to Shame

Meanwhile, the Aliyev family lives an extravagant lifestyle, with Heydar Aliyev, the president’s then- 11 year old son, purchasing US$44 million worth of real estate in Dubai in 2010. CNBC’s 2012 documentary, Filthy Rich, focused on the nation’s first family. While “Azerbaijan’s economy has tripled in size in the last seven years,” critics complain that “too much of the oil wealth goes to the ruling family and out of the country.” Despite recent reductions in poverty, the average monthly wage is still under 300AZN ($380US) per month.

First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva is a member of parliament, although according to WikiLeaks documents, she has never shown up. The president’s other two children- daughters Arzu a commercial actress whose work makes Azerbaijan look like King Midas’ wet dream, and her older sister Leyla, a fashion magazine publisher – are also extremely wealthy, owning off shore mansions, as well as a gold mine, and hold considerable stakes in the country’s mobile phone industry.

When asked about financial success at such a young age, Leila Aliyev said “The main thing is to have goals, if you have goals, then it’s easier to achieve them.” Clearly, it’s much easier to achieve your goals when you are born into a powerful and corrupt leading family than if you are minimum wage earner, or if you are a political activist trying to bring democracy and respect for human rights to the country.

Former Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus expressed uneasiness at the ostentatious display when at the Aliyev mansion for a luncheon: The “multiple courses with plenty of caviar, sturgeon, and wine, interspersed with frequent vodka/wine toasts” and “the dacha was extravagant and overwhelming in terms of its decor and size… There were several underground saunas and an enormous indoor swimming pool.”

After a series of reports came out lambasting the family for their private business activities, legislation was introduced to allow companies to keep private information about their registration and shareholders. At the same time, the government has made “numerous prominent public commitments to the principles of transparency and good governance. For example,

Azerbaijan in September 2011 joined the Open Government Partnership” once again representing the double speak that the regime has perfected. (source)

Coercive and Oppressive

Politics in Azerbaijan are hardly free and fair. Although presidential elections take place every five years, Arifa Karzimova argues that “Azerbaijan hasn’t had a competitive presidential election since Abulfaz Elchibey was voted into office in 1992.” Heydar Aliyev, (the father, not the son of the current president) seized power after being invited to Baku by Elchibey to negotiate his way out of being overthrown. Heydar Aliyev quickly seized power, and now, the regime maintains its power through physical violence, threats, false imprisonment, and even murder of opposition journalists, bloggers, and activists.

According to Human Rights Watch’s September 1st report Tightening the Screws: Azerbaijan’s Crackdown on Civil Society and Dissent, “authorities have used a range of misdemeanor and trumped-up criminal charges against these activists, including narcotics and weapons possession charges, hooliganism, incitement, and even treason” in order to silence activists.

NIDA, a youth opposition group formed in 2010, were attacked with water cannons and tear gas at a peaceful protest in March of this year. Seven members of the group have been arrested, with two of them being charged with illegal weapons and drugs charges that their parents say are bogus.(source) They could face up to eight years in prison if convicted.

In June, President Aliyev stated publicly that Azerbaijan had no political prisoners: “First of all, I’d like to say that none of my political opponents are in prison. This is absolutely wrong information. At the same time, I’d like to tell you that there are no political prisoners in Azerbaijan,” overlooking the fact that hundreds of reporters and activists sit in jail for charges such as “inciting hatred against the regime.” His remarks are especially ironic, when considering that just weeks before the presidential election, human rights activist and journalist Parviz Gashimly was arrested for “illegal weapons possession” after a police raid of his home. A court ruled that he will be held in pre-trial detention for two months, meaning he will be silenced in the remaining weeks before the election.

The New School

This year, the country’s strongest opposition groups have decided that enough is enough. They have come together as the National Council of Democratic Forces, an umbrella group that decided in July to back Oscar-winning author Rustam Ibragimbekov to face off against the incumbent president. Both domestic and international observers were hopeful about his selection, and saw him as an opposition candidate with a real chance of winning and creating change due to his fame and public criticism of the regime.

While the government has always been repressive and autocratic, in the months following the announcing of the oppositional unification, its actions have become even more blatant. The number of activists arrested has continued steadily, and perhaps fearing the same fate as the Arab Uprisings of 2011, it accused the National Democratic Institute of planning a “Facebook revolution.”

In an interview, Azerbaijan expert Bayram Balci said that although he didn’t think the presidential election was as important as the general election coming up in 2015, “this presidential election could be a test for the opposition. If the political parties can demonstrate their seriousness, this will be very positive and encouraging for the next general elections.”

In August, Azerbaijan’s Central Election Commission rejected Ibragimbekov, citing his dual citizenship as making him ineligible to run for the presidency. On September 19th , the National Council of Democratic Forces’ new candidate, Jamil Hasanli, President Aliyev’s representative Ali Ahmadov, and eight other presidential candidates, participated in a disastrous presidential debate which was complete with screaming threats and bottle throwing, ended with Hasanli understandably leaving in exasperation. Following the debate, Ahmadov claimed that Hasanli “insulted President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev, honour and dignity of his family violating article 106 of the Constitution.” The matter is now being investigated by the Commission, and is clearly another attempt to unseat an oppositional candidate just before the moment of truth.

The government opened a $6.37 million apartment building in July with “155 one-, two- and three-bedroom units to be occupied exclusively by working journalists and their families.” While a few of the tenants are opposition and independent media outlets, the majority of the inhabitants work for pro-government publications; raising concerns among journalists that this is thinly veiled attempt at bribing journalists whose salaries are not enough to maintain a reasonable standard of living, to be less critical of the Aliyev regime.

The Azerbaijani Future

When asked if the NCDF had a real chance at the presidency, Balci was Pessimistic about their chances: “Nobody believes that Jamil Hasanli can win, but it’s important for the opposition to have a candidate like him.” The incumbent president is infamous for controlling “the regime’s and state’s resources, [like] the media, and the structure of the state works for the government rather than for the opposition.”

When asked if anything would change if Hasanli was elected, Balci reiterated that he didn’t believe that Hasanli would win, but believes that “if he wins everything will be different, that’s why the regime is using all his resources to win this election and to stay in power.” Still, the election will be monitored by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and after the disappointing Malaysian, Zimbabwean, and Australian elections this year, is there reason to remain hopeful about the upcoming Azerbaijan? I tweeted at Erkin Gadirli, founder of the opposition group REAL, who tweeted back “No! In politics hope is as misleading as fear, both being a matter of choice. I do not hope. I just do, what I believe is right.”

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