The Azerbaijan Presidential Election Doesn't Matter, But..

I doubt anyone reads this blog anymore and it's my fault. I really should be posting on the Azerbaijan Presidential election because there are few people there who were there in 2005 (just as there were few there in 2005 who lived through 2003) and who can interpret the spin that will emerge from both the USG and GovAZ. On the other hand, the election matters not one bit and what anyone has to say about it matters even less. There are forces at work in that country greater than any of us.

Anyway, the Committee to Protect Journalists put out an excellent report on the murder of Elmar Huseynov, which happened while I was there.  This article brings back lots of bad memories of all the ridiculous things that were happening at that time, things about which I knew a great deal but was restricted from talking about publicly.

I'm sure the "obsevers" in town for the "election" will put together a thorough report that demonstrates how much better this election was than the last one (that was our strategic objective in 2005, as well).  Everyone will point out how weak the opposition is and that Aliyev would have won anyway and that he's the best bet for regional stability. Then, when Aliyev does something insane (a la Saakashvili, and it doesn't take much imagination to come up with insane moves he might consider), or is overthrown by a gang of competing kleptocrats, because U.S. "democracy support" programs in the Caucusus favor personalities over institutions, everyone will panic.

I have a lot of things to say on this topic. Maybe when I am out of Saudi Arabia, I'll revitalize this blog.

Managed Democracy: Azerbaijan's Presidential Election

As the 2008 Presidential election in Azerbaijan approaches, I predict there will be a substantial amount of revisionism of what happened in the 2005 election. It's not hard to do -- so few people pay attention that it's easy for regime mouthpieces to say whatever they want without anyone challenging them -- and there's plenty to gain by persuading people who only hear what they want to hear that the election was quite democratic.

Azerbaijan's Ambassador to the U.S. wrote a letter to the NYT this week that provides good insight into the regime's talking points. He was responding to an excellent but sort of "duh" article a few weeks back by Chris Chivers called Seeking a Path in Democracy's Dead End.

"To clarify, President Ilham Aliyev issued two orders in 2005 calling on election officials to obey election laws and lifted a ban on public demonstrations. The government also fully supported the use of exit polls and the inking of voters’ fingers to prevent the practice of double-voting, both of which were historic firsts for the country.

Moreover, when the government learned of voting irregularities in 10 districts, it took the unprecedented step of annulling those ballots and holding new elections in those areas, as well as dismissing from their posts the officials responsible.

The road to democracy is a process, and Azerbaijan views it not as a “dead end” but as a doorway through which we step willingly."

I watched a lot of the "process" in 2005 and democratic wasn't the exactly the word that came to mind. I don't doubt Ilham Aliyev twice ordered officials to obey the law (a strange command, if you think about it, since it is their job), if by "obey the law" you mean "beating people in the street," "arresting some journalists" and "stealing a boatload of votes." My friend's BBC documentary "How To Start a Revolution," has some footage of some of the more compelling examples of what passes for "law obeying" during elections in Azerbaijan.

Bragging about participating in exit polls and finger inking is pretty disingenuous, since the government consented to the inking about two weeks before the election and hired its own exit pollster to dilute the impact of the non-government sponsored exit poll. It's impossible to administer an effective finger inking program (especially invisible ink) in such a short time and train precinct personnel in its usage, a point that I am certain was not lost on the regime. Accordingly, I saw people freely voting who had all five fingers inked on both hands. Both are very savvy moves, and indicative of little else but the government's desire to promote the perception of a democratic process and the willingness of the West to buy into the narrative.

The "annulling ballots" part is admirable, but only a small part of the story. In an effort to purge the 2005 election in Azerbaijan from my mind, I have blocked a lot of this out, but other people remember quite well. Thanks to Vugar Godjaev for refreshing my memory.

  • Zakatala district (ConEC #110): Arif Hajiyev of the Azadliq bloc won the election. President Aliyev dismissed governor of Zakatala District Vaqif Rahimov for alleged interference in the vote. The election results were annulled.
  • Sabirabad district: Panah Huseynov of Azadliq Bloc won the election and the President dismissed the ExCom (an Excom is a presidentially appointed governor).
  • Surakhani district: Ali Karimov of Azadliq bloc won this constituency. The President dismissed the ExCom and the election results were annulled.
  • A week after Election Day, the Prosecutors Office said four election officials were detained on suspicion of falsifying balloting results and abuse of office. These election officials were from Binagadi (ConEC #9) and Sumgait (ConEC #42) constituencies, where Azadlik Bloc’s Sardar Jalaloglu and Flora Karimova respectively won the elections

These are only the most cut-and-dried examples. There were multiple other constituencies where the USAID exit poll varied from official results, but within the margin of error of the poll, so it was hard to make an assessment. There were also plenty of protocols that showed monkey business. OSCE outlines this and other problems here.

The Aliyev regime is going to be making a lot of effort this year to demonstrate to the US and European partners that Azerbaijan is "democratic and lawful." We'll be keeping a watch out here. We specialize in lost causes.

Black January In Baku: What Did We Learn?

One of my favorite Eurasia sites, Window on Eurasia, has an excellent post on the impact events of January 20, 1990 in Azerbaijan had on the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union. With the Soviet system on life support, Gorbachev sent the army in to quash popular protests in Baku. Scores of people who had taken to the streets in support of independence were murdered, and it's an important national day of remembrance in Azerbaijan (photos and story here)

In Azerbaijan, the Kremlin’s action convinced even those who had doubted it before that they could have no future inside the USSR. Indeed, the day after the killings, many Communist Party members there, including some of its most senior leaders, tore up their party cards, an action that showed there would be now going back.
And elsewhere in the USSR the message Gorbachev and the Soviet leadership hoped to send backfired. Both where many were already seeking independence from Moscow and where few had yet thought about it, Soviet actions in Baku 18 years ago today did not intimidate but rather destroyed the fear that had kept the USSR together.

In addition to urging the west to give Azerbaijanis their due, he also argues that citizens themselves should never forget the critical role they played in bringing down Soviet rule. They should resist the urge to look back on those days with nostalgia.

I draw slightly different conclusions about the lessons of January 20th.

Read more: Black January In Baku: What Did We Learn?

Five Myths About the 2008 Presidential Election in Azerbaijan

Did you like Russia's election? Get used to that model because many of the same strategies and tactics will be used by Azerbaijan's ruling party (YAP) in the October 2008 Presidential election. I doubt, however, that Ilham Aliyev will be satisfied with Unified Russia's 64%.

Radio Free Europe wrote about five myths about the Russian election last week. Because the myths are the same, it provides an excellent platform to discuss the Azerbaijan election.

Read more: Five Myths About the 2008 Presidential Election in Azerbaijan

An Azerbaijan Terror Plot Reality Check

Sorry for the silence lately, but I was in Afghanistan for work and transited through Baku. Lucky for me, I was there during the "foiled terror attack" that forced the UK and US Embassies to shut down for a day or two.

Personally, I'm pretty skeptical of the whole story. Whenever Azerbaijanis, or Russians for that matter, claim credit for showy crackdowns on Islamic extremists, my bullshit detector goes off.

A story in Pravda, the FOX news of the FSU, was pitch-perfect for international consumption.

The National Security Ministry foiled a radical Islamic group's plot to carry out a "large-scale horrifying terror attack" against government structures and diplomatic missions in Baku, the Azerbaijan capital.

It said that one suspect was killed and several others were detained in a weekend sweep outside the capital.
The British Embassy in Baku closed temporarily and the U.S. Embassy scaled back its operations in response to the threat.

The ministry said in a statement that the radical Islamic group included an army lieutenant who had stolen 20 hand grenades, a machine gun, four assault rifles and ammunition from his military unit and made them available for the planned attack.

Security forces tracked down the group and arrested several of its members during a sweep Saturday in the village of Mastaga about 30 kilometers (20 miles) northeast of Baku. One member of the group offered resistance to the arrest and was killed, the statement said.

The ministry said that a hunt for other members of the group was still under way.

That story has all the critical elements of a tight war on terror narrative: high profile targets; a "large scale horrifying" attack in the works disrupted by a daring raid by the Ministry; an Army lieutenant with links to Islamic groups arrested and resisters killed in a gun battle in a village far enough from Baku to deter careful scrutiny. It's a nice tidy package handed over to western governments who want Azerbaijan's oil and western journalists who are too lazy, ignorant or too far away to dig a little deeper.

Are there any sources to verify all these claims, other than the Ministry of National Security? Has anyone bothered to ask around? Has anyone seen the weapons that were confiscated or the damage from the gunbattle? Do the arrestees have lawyers? Of course not. It's an open and shut case. The US and UK Embassies were protected and terrorists were killed.

Since we'll never really know for sure what happened on Monday, let's take a look at two other news stories that have come out Azerbaijan this week that shed light on the current environment in Azerbaijan.

First of all, former Economic Development Minister Farhad Aliyev was sentenced to ten years in prison for "embezzlement."

BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) - Azerbaijan's former economics minister and his brother, the former chief of the Caspian nation's largest private oil company, were convicted Wednesday on charges of embezzlement, bribe-taking and tax-evasion.

The Court for Grave Crimes in the capital, Baku, sentenced Farhad Aliyev, the former minister, to 10 years in prison. The court also handed out a 9-year prison term to his brother, Rafiq, who headed Azpetrol oil company.

Farhad Aliyev denounced the verdict as politically motivated revenge. "I was conducting an active fight against corruption and supported Azerbaijan's integration into the European structures, and many people didn't like it," he said....

Aliyev lost the minister's job and was arrested in October 2005, along with a dozen of other people, on charges of plotting a coup. His brother was arrested at the same time on economic charges.

I was in Baku when Mr. Aliyev was arrested in in October, 2005, just before the parliamentary elections. The roadblocks and tanks in the streets -- bulwarks against the "coup" he and Rasul Guliyev were planning -- were impressive. Methinks Mr. Aliyev doth protest too much about his courageous stand against corruption and I do admire his jail-house conversion to human rights activism, but Aliyev was a favorite of the US Embassy and was considered a "reformer" by Azerbaijan standards. Arresting a top government official in Azerbaijan for corruption is like arresting water for being wet. Of course he was corrupt. Did he present a serious challenge other interests within the government? Almost certainly. No longer, though. He's had all his property holdings appropriated and is headed to the big house.

(EurasiaNet has a good article about the Aliyev trial)

There was another interesting court case this week too. Eynulla Fatullayev, the founder and editor of two independent newspapers (two papers described by RSF as "the most important" in Azerbajian, sort of a tallest building in Topeka situation in a country were all newspapers have a combined weekly circulation of about 20,000) was sentenced to 8 1/2 years in prison for suggesting that Azerbaijan might suffer if it is used as a staging ground for a US attack on Iran. He even listed facilities in the country that might be targeted by Iran in response. The charges? Terrorism threat, tax evasion and inciting racial hatred.

The point of this post is not that I think it's impossible that Islamic extremists are operating in Azerbaijan. I don't deny the possibility at all. I just haven't seen a lot of evidence from sources that don't have something to gain politically from the perception.

My point is that there just might be angles to this story that have nothing to do with Islamic extremism in the Caucasus and everything to do with Azerbaijan's murky political and economic environment. In a country where many powerful interests within government control private militias and wage fierce internal battles for control over lucrative income streams, where journalists are jailed as terrorists for pointing out the obvious and uppity Ministers are jailed for corruption and coup plotting, a dramatic bust-up of a terror plot deserves a bit more than casual scrutiny. As so do a lot of other stories in that country.

Bogus Azerbaijani ‘Human Rights Group’ Goes to Washington

Back in July, Ken Silverstein wrote an interesting article for Harpers about the how big PR firms in Washington acquire and serve foreign governmental clients. He posed as an agent for a shadowy company that wanted to hire a firm to improve Turkmenistan's image in DC. Under the ruse, he collected proposals and price sheets from the biggest, most well-connected firms.

Although I don't think the article provided a whole lot of new information about how DC firms work ($50,000 monthly retainers! Shocker!), it was interesting to see the whole package and sit in on the pitches. It is definitely worth the read.

Recently, Silverstein was invited to a press event in Washington featuring the Association for Civil Society Development in Azerbaijan (ACSDA) by a firm called Bob Lawrence and Associates. Since Silverstein pointed out in his article that "independent press events" are among the tools used by Washington firms to improve their clients' images, he posted a follow-up on Harpers' website (you have to wonder who thought it was a good idea to invite him in the first place).

Who is ACSDA? It's an "NGO coalition" backed by the Government of Azerbaijan designed showcase Azerbaijan's vibrant civil society to outsiders who don't know any better. Bob Lawrence and Associates also coordinated President Aliyev's 2006 trip to Washington to meet with Bush, Aliyev's reward for not killing any election protesters after the 2005 election.

Read more: Bogus Azerbaijani ‘Human Rights Group’ Goes to Washington