Elections in Azerbaijan: A Win for Democracy’s Favorite Dictator

Written by: Jack Urban

On April 11, 2018, Ilham Aliyev was re-elected to a fourth term as President of Azerbaijan. Despite Azerbaijan’s close ties to the West, their standing as the first muslim majority secular country in the world, or their massive oil reserves, this event went largely unnoticed by the world. Moreover, in order to understand why this election was ignored, and why Aliyev remains the West’s unsavory ally, we must first understand who he is, and what he has done in Azerbaijan.

Ilham Aliyev is the 4th president of Azerbaijan, ruling since his election in 2003, as well as leader of the country’s nationalist, secular New Azerbaijan Party. The party, created by Aliyev’s father and predecessor Heydar Aliyev, who ruled the country for around three decades during and after the Soviet Union, lacks any true political ideology and is rather centered around a cult of personality. Believing himself to be a “custodian of stability,” Aliyev’s authoritarian rule has been welcomed by the people of Azerbaijan, who are still too familiar with the turmoil of the Soviet breakup. 

Despite his popularity, like many post-soviet dictators, his corruption runs deep. The Aliyev family owns significant parts of at least eight major Azerbaijani banks, has partial ownership of the country’s state oil and gas industries, major telecommunication groups, and construction firms. Moreover, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project has found that Aliyev, and others in the Azerbaijani elite, use overseas shell companies to hide a secret slush fund to pay off European politicians primarily to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses, buy luxury goods, and launder money. 

In addition to his corruption, Aliyev has used two constitutional referendums to move Azerbaijan further away from democratic rule. The first came in 2009, where a 70% turnout and a 90% approval of the amendment brought an end to presidential term limits: an outcome that the European Commission said “signalled a serious setback.” The second came on September 26, 2016, which critics said “effectively [cemented] a dynastic rule,” in Azerbaijan. With around a 60% turnout, the passage of this referendum granted the president the ability to declare an early presidential election and to dissolve parliament under certain circumstances, restricted press freedom, extended presidential term lengths from five years to seven years, and removed the age requirement to run for president while also reducing the age requirement to stand for legislature from 25 to 18. 

Though Aliyev claimed the referendum was for “stability and democracy,” it instead consolidated and severely upset the balance of power, giving, as the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe stated, “unprecedented control to the President.” Furthermore, this referendum even prompted Members of the US Congress to send a letter to Aliyev, warning that “the […] constitutional changes are susceptible to abuse that would entrench political authority, making it less responsive to the will of the Azerbaijani people.” However, with no debate in parliament, or public discussion about the referendum leading up to the vote, the consolidation of power was a foregone conclusion.

In addition to expanding his own powers, the referendum created the office of First Vice President, which Aliyev promptly gave to his wife, Mehriban. With the establishment of this new post, powers now devolve to the First Vice President before the Prime Minister, making Mehriban Aliyeva first in line to succeed her husband, while also allowing her to oversee the country’s cabinet, and maintain her chairmanship of the New Azerbaijan Party.

Much like the the aforementioned referendums, all elections since 2003 have fallen short of democratic standards. The most recent election, held 6 months before originally scheduled, was barely contested, leaving Aliyev to win with 86.02%, and second place at around 3%, with the Azerbaijani Elections Commission officially reporting a presumably inflated turnout of around 75%. 

The election left much to be desired in the way of competition. Though many were barred or intimidated away from running, of the seven that did run, many praised the incumbent in the run-up to the election, and two even voted for him. Despite Foreign Policy calling this a “sham” election with a “manufactured slate of ‘candidates’,” Aliyev will get to rule the country at least until 2025. 

Notably, no opposition figures stood for election in this race. The National Council of Democratic Forces (NCDF), the Musavat Party, the Republican Alternative (REAL), among others, boycotted the election, deciding to instead stage mass protests on March 31, calling for the release of more than 100 political prisoners. Arif Gajily, head of the Musavat Party, explained it by stating, “We don’t recognize the election’s results and call for a transparent election.”

In reaction to the election, the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE), stated that the vote had taken place “within a restrictive political environment … under laws that curtail fundamental rights and freedoms, which are prerequisites for genuine democratic elections.” However, the election monitors’ news conference was halted when Aliyev supporters began to bang on the table, shouting that the report was biased. Additionally, a response by the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry called the OSCE report “unfair and not objective.”

Though the Azerbaijani government refuses to legitimize the report, many violations were found by various election monitors. It was found that there was a “widespread disregard for mandatory procedures, a lack of transparency, and numerous signs of serious irregularities.” Additionally, there was voting without registration at 47% of polling stations and ballot-box stuffing and multiple voting in 53% of polling stations, with only 8% of locations without major violations. Leading up to the election, election monitors also observed an environment of “increasing restrictions on freedoms of expression, assembly, and association.”

During his reign as President, Aliyev has committed a plethora of human rights abuses; as explained by multiple human rights groups, his authoritarian government has pursued a “sustained crackdown on dissent:” which he denies. Aliyev has cracked down on freedom of expression and speech, instituted policies of arbitrary persecution and strict restrictive regulations to force foreign human rights NGOs (HROs) from the country, and shutdown domestic HROs. In addition, unfair trials have become commonplace, often including detentions without access to a lawyer, the use of torture, beatings, and humiliation by police for forced confessions, in addition to failing repeatedly to investigate suspicious deaths in custody. 

Though it may seem like Aliyev already has a pretty strong grip on power, much of that comes from his control over the media. First off, there have been a growing number of crackdowns on opposition in recent years, especially among journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists has even ranked Azerbaijan among the worst jailers of journalists in the world. In Azerbaijan, journalists are subject to arbitrary arrest and mass censorship. Under the Aliyev regime, Azerbaijan has gained a reputation for “muzzling media, blocking access to independent and opposition news sites, arresting activists, journalists, rights defenders and bloggers,” while even creating their own troll factory. According to Human Rights Watch, Azerbaijan authorities have waged a “sustained and concerted assault on government critics, threatening the survival of independent activism in the country,” and at least 25 journalists and political activists were sentenced to long prison terms in politically motivated trials in 2017 alone. Furthermore, all those not being persecuted lie under effective government control.

One prominent opposition figure, Ilgar Mammadov, has fallen victim to Aliyev’s censorship machine. In 2013, he was arrested for announcing that he intended to run for president. He was accused of inciting violence and sentenced to seven years in prison after an unfair trial. Though the European Court of Human Rights has found his detention illegal, he still remains in prison. Moreover, on December 5, 2017 the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe triggered infringement proceedings against Azerbaijan under Article 46.4 of the European Convention on Human Rights to order Azerbaijan to release Mammadov, though a lack of enforcement power will most likely continue to prevent his release. 

After hearing about the corruption, authoritarianism, and persecution taking place in Azerbaijan, many inquire as to two things: why is Aliyev generally supported by his citizens and by the international community? First of all, other than the repression of all opposition, Aliyev has in many ways been successful in developing his country. Under Aliyev, the country has enjoyed fairly stable economic growth, despite a fall in global oil prices contracting the economy and weakening the currency, seeing GDP increase five-fold, rising from $8.7 billion to $37.8 billion. Moreover, life expectancy has raised from 64 to 71 and poverty rates have fallen from 49.6% to 6%, though income and wealth inequality are still rampant. Aliyev has made many efforts to combat disease, illness, and disorders in the country while also decreeing mandatory health insurance and high quality health services as a major objective for the nation. Additionally, though their success can be debated, Aliyev has adopted five anti-corruption bills from 2004 to 2018. Ultimately, as Elkhan Sahinoglu, head of the independent Atlas Research Center in Baku, stated, “people want to see the preservation of political stability, the deepening of economic reforms and an even more active fight against corruption;” in other words, rights are not high on their list of priorities. 

As for why the international community supports Aliyev, the answer is energy and location. Azerbaijan is a significant exporter of oil and gas to the west, having these commodities make up around 90% of their total exports, with 45% going to Italy, Germany, France, and Czechia alone. Moreover, because of these exports, Azerbaijan plays a huge role in Europe’s hopes of reducing energy dependence on Russia. For many in the west, because of this fact, they cannot afford to alienate Azerbaijan by pressing Aliyev on human rights issues; with their strategic location bordering Russia and Iran, the West prefers to keep warm ties with Azerbaijan and rather focus on Putin’s Russia or Lukashenko’s Belarus, who, for example, are both targets of the Magnitsky Act, while Azerbaijan is not. 

Ultimately, Aliyev has done a lot for Azerbaijan. He has grown their economy, created a larger social security net, and thoroughly expanded their international standing. However, though the stability and secularism that he has brought is important, and should be acknowledged, it is too steep a price to pay for massive human rights abuses and the complete destruction of democracy within the nation. 

The West should, in the name of energy security, keep warm ties with Azerbaijan much like the United States does with Saudi Arabia; but, it is of the utmost importance that the West, and the world, begin to demand greater transparency, fairer democratic processes, the due process of law, and the protection of human rights in Azerbaijan. Additionally, it is important for Azerbaijanis and others alike to begin to pressure the Aliyev regime. A great example of this is the #Knowyourdictator movement. Started by Ordukhan Teymurkhan, an Azerbaijani exile and regime opponent, the movement has one goal: bring down the Aliyev dictatorship. As Teymurkhan has said, “if there is one word Ilham Aliyev does not like, it is being called a dictator.” Though the movement has no official name, no structure, and no authority, it is open to any expatriate, and recently staged a successful protest in Berlin.

In the end, the first step to improving the human rights situation and attack on democracy in Azerbaijan is educating people about it. The international community needs to not only pay more attention to what is going on in Azerbaijan, but begin to factor in human rights, and the interests of local populations, when crafting its foreign policy.