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Full version of "Azerbaijan's Elections 2005" report by ICG

23 November 2005 [10:41] - TODAY.AZ
International Crisis Group released a full report on November 6 Elections.

Azerbaijan's 2005 Elections: Lost Opportunity


Azerbaijan's elections, in which pro-government parties won an overwhelming majority, once again failed to meet international standards. The opposition cried foul, organising peaceful street demonstrations and filing court complaints. Though President Ilham Aliyev has pledged reforms, his actions remain tentative. If most of the results are confirmed, Azerbaijan will not have the strong pro-reform parliament it needs to push through serious change -- particularly tough anti-corruption measures. The elections were a lost opportunity for a bold step away from post-Soviet autocracy towards a democratic future. Popular apathy suggests grass roots-driven change is unlikely in the near term. If the government fails to organise real dialogue with the opposition and hold new elections in constituencies where rigging was most blatant, however, Western countries and organisations should consider measures to make it clear to President Aliyev that they are serious when they say the quality of relations depends on movement towards genuine democracy.

The oil-rich country failed on 6 November to demonstrate commitment to democracy and reform. Instead, international observers found major nation-wide fraud, including ballot stuffing and improper counting and tabulation. Only 47 per cent of the electorate turned out -- as compared with 69 per cent in 2000, suggesting serious disenchantment with a system that has repeatedly produced fraudulent elections. The opposition vows to convert its political struggle into peaceful street protest but with the government promising to repress any revolution-tinted action, the potential for violence and instability remains.

It did not have to be this way. With a booming economy and solid approval rating, President Aliyev and his administration could have welcomed a more diverse and legitimate parliament. The first stages of the campaign had been promising. Over 2,000 candidates registered, and some 1,550 stood on election day. Access to the media was better, with even some of the most radical opposition figures allowed free airtime. However, violence and refusal to allow the opposition to hold rallies in central Baku kept a lid on the democratic process. Intervention by local officials promoting candidates and warning state employees against supporting the opposition maintained an atmosphere of intimidation. The playing field was always tilted towards pro-government candidates.

President Aliyev is trying to gain acceptance internationally as a reformist leader of a country with significant geostrategic and economic potential and close Euro-Atlantic ties. Under his leadership, some positive measures have indeed been implemented, such as the release of political prisoners and greater diversity in the electronic media. In many other sectors, however, reform has been merely cosmetic. State institutions that should serve as the foundation of a system based on the rule of law and democracy need strengthening. The president has not dismantled the corrupt patronage networks that drive both politics and the economy. Instead, growing oil wealth is reinforcing the position of deeply entrenched, corrupt elites. As long as they are in power, Azerbaijan will remain a rentier state struggling to achieve democratic change.

To wage a systemic anti-corruption effort and maintain stability, the president and his government require a strong popular mandate, a politically active citizenry, and robust judicial and law enforcement bodies committed to upholding the rule of law. Democratic elections are a key component in this equation. The following steps are needed in the next weeks:

 The Central Election Commission (CEC) must adjudicate complaints received by voters, candidates, political parties and observers. A start has been made in a few constituencies but results should be annulled in all where there have been falsifications, and the General Prosecutor should investigate and prosecute where there have been serious complaints of criminal offences before, on or after election day. The courts should swiftly and transparently bring perpetrators to justice.

 The opposition should use all legal means available to seek redress for election violations, including the CEC and the judicial complaint and appeals mechanisms. Any public expressions of dissatisfaction must remain non-violent. The opposition's leaders and senior government officials, including from the presidential administration, should enter a dialogue on how to resolve the impasse over the elections.

 Local authorities should allow freedom of assembly and authorise rallies. Police should apply professional crowd control methods, refraining from excessive force and arbitrary detentions.

 President Aliyev should set a date for repeat elections where results have been annulled and issue a decree calling for all remaining issues listed as problematic by the Venice Commission (Council of Europe) and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)/ Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) in their October 2005 final opinion on the Election Code to be addressed. He should also dismiss heads of local executive committees who have illegally interfered in the elections process.

Once a democratically elected parliament goes into session, the government as a whole should reinvigorate its reform and anti-corruption efforts. Azerbaijan's international partners, the U.S., Russia, and the European Union and its member states, have accepted fraudulent elections in the past in the belief that the regime of first the elder Aliyev and then his son would maintain stability, fight terrorism and provide a secure flow of oil. This time the international community has issued more critical statements, and it should continue pressing for a democratic outcome of the 2005 parliamentary elections.

 It should set up an ambassadorial task force in Baku to continue to press on elections-related issues.

 It should urge the CEC and courts to rule fairly on complaints, demand that neither law enforcement nor the opposition instigate violence, and if opposition activists are detained on politically motivated charges, press for their release.

 If the government does not continue to take the steps recommended above to redress election violations, and particularly if it uses violence or arrests against peaceful opposition demonstrators, the following action should be considered:
- by the EU, putting on hold its talks with the government about its new Action Plan;
- by the U.S. and others, initiating a diplomatic embargo on visits by President Aliyev and his key ministers; and
- by the Council of Europe, taking steps toward suspending Azerbaijan's membership.


After Ilham Aliyev (43) succeeded his father, Heydar, as President of Azerbaijan in October 2003, there was a widespread belief, especially among outside observers, that he should be given an opportunity to inaugurate a new style of government. Many international decision-makers took a soft stand on electoral fraud because they believed he could produce reform while guaranteeing stability. So far he has maintained stability, but too often at the expense of fundamental freedoms of assembly and expression and the right to a fair trial. He has initiated tentative reforms -- in particular to meet commitments to the Council of Europe -- but many are only on paper.


2003. President Ilham Aliyev entered office with a relatively weak mandate due to the undemocratic nature of the selection process. The 15 October 2003 presidential election "failed to meet OSCE commitments and other international standards…was a missed opportunity for a credible democratic process". Violations began during the campaign and culminated with "significant irregularities during voting and fraudulent practices during the counting and tabulation of election results". On the night of 15 October 2003 and on 16 October, police and internal security units used force to break up opposition rallies protesting fraud. Four persons are estimated to have died, and many were injured. A wave of detentions swept at least 625 persons, including about 85 election commission officials, into custody.
Officially Aliyev won 77 per cent of the vote; his close rival, Musavat Party Chairman Isa Gambar, received 14 per cent. However this victory was tarnished by election and post-election day developments, including the invalidation of votes from 694 polling stations (which effectively disenfranchised some 20 per cent of the electorate). International criticism was relatively muted, suggesting that continuity and energy investments were more important than democracy to Azerbaijan's partners. However, several heads of state chose not to congratulate Aliyev immediately, and he has yet to be invited to the White House to meet with President Bush.

The son reappointed his father's entire cabinet and ignored international organisation recommendations to set up an independent and credible investigation into serious electoral violations. No law enforcement officials or persons responsible for the conduct of the elections were prosecuted; indeed, many of those who engaged in fraud in 2003 also oversaw the 2004 and 2005 polls.

2004. In December 2004 when municipal elections were held, many of the problems that plagued the 2003 vote resurfaced. The government made few of the changes in the election code recommended by the OSCE/ODIHR and Venice Commission. Opposition candidates faced obstacles in registering and holding rallies. International observers found a consistent pattern of non-transparent and illegal activity in polling stations by election commission members and local executive authorities. Due to irregularities, results in 409 precincts were invalidated. Voter turnout was 49 per cent and in some municipalities as low as 20 per cent. The ruling Yeni Azarbaycan Party (YAP) won 64.66 per cent of the vote.

2005. Expectations were high for the 2005 parliamentary elections, due to better registration procedures, improved media access for the opposition, and numerous public statements from the president committing to a free and fair process. However, as in the past, election commission members and local executive authorities interfered illegally, and counting and tabulation of votes were seriously flawed. Pro-government parties won a majority of seats, with preliminary results giving the opposition only six seats out of 125.

Violations by election commission members, local authorities, and law enforcement officials, during the 2003-2005 election cycle have been carried out with impunity. With no fear of sanctions, and with no election commissions based on parity between pro and anti-government forces, election officials have had no motivation to clean up the process. The elections have done nothing to diminish the strong polarisation of the political scene. Indeed, fraudulent polls have led some in the opposition to believe that the only channel of appeal open to them is in the street. Azerbaijani citizens are clearly the greatest losers of all: indifferent to elections that do not reflect their will, having lost belief in their ability to effect change through the ballot box, less than half -- 46.8 per cent -- even turned out on election day.


More than elections, institutions are the foundation of a democracy. An independent legal system and media are essential components of an open society and are needed for a serious anti-corruption effort.

1. Respect of fundamental rights and freedoms

The judiciary in Azerbaijan remains weak and closely tied to the executive though there have been some improvements. The right to a fair trial is poorly protected. Public trust in the judicial system is low. Until recently lawyers were restricted by a "closed, tightly controlled criminal defence bar". However, amendments to the Law on Advocacy that went into effect in August 2005 simplify requirements for over 200 formerly licensed lawyers to join the Collegium of Advocates (the bar) and thereby to practise whether or not they have passed a separate bar exam. Legislation was also passed establishing a new selection process for judges, which international observers assessed as more professional. These steps may strengthen the independence and effectiveness of the courts. Efforts to improve the harsh penitentiary system, including the renovation of some facilities and construction of five new prisons are also positive. The situation inside prisons had reached a critical point in February 2005, when Ministry of Interior troops violently repressed several riots. Interrogation practices in pre-trial detention remain of concern, however, since torture and ill treatment of suspects are reportedly frequent.

Azerbaijan was admitted to the Council of Europe in 2001 though it held political prisoners. The Council repeatedly warned that they should be released, or membership might be suspended. The number of political prisoners increased when 125 persons were tried and sentenced for their involvement in post-election disturbances in 2003. According to the OSCE, which observed the court proceedings, "many of the trials of persons accused of various offences relating to the post-election violence in Azerbaijan were not in compliance with a variety of the government of Azerbaijan's OSCE commitments on human rights and rule of law". Seven leaders of the main opposition parties -- Musavat, the Azerbaijan Democratic Party (ADP) and the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (APFP) -- were among those sentenced to prison terms between two and a half and five years in October 2004.

President Ilham Aliyev, however, released almost all political prisoners during his first eighteen months in office. Among those pardoned were the seven political leaders mentioned above, whose convictions were subsequently overturned, making it possible for them to run in the 2005 parliamentary elections. The government and local human rights non-governmental organisations (NGOs) set up a task force on 11 June 2005 to settle the remaining political prisoner cases, some 45 of whom were estimated to remain in detention in October 2005, including four with serious health problems.

Though the executive appears to maintain effective control over power structures, the Ministry of the Interior's reputation was undermined when a kidnapping and extortion ring run by several of its senior officials was exposed. On 10 March 2005 the Ministry of National Security discovered the kidnapped wife of the president of the International Bank of Azerbaijan in a bunker owned by Hadji Mamedov, a senior police official. On 23 March that ministry and the prosecutor-general's office issued a joint statement describing Mamedov's gang and its crimes over eight years including murder, kidnapping and extortion. Several other senior police were implicated, and the first deputy minister of the interior was forced to resign. It is uncertain whether the affair was a serious effort to eliminate criminality or an attempt by one ministry to downgrade another. A softer measure against low-level corruption was the increase of monthly salaries in September 2005 for regular traffic police to $350 and for officers to between $500 and $700. Observers say this has had positive effect.

To meet its Council of Europe commitments, Azerbaijan also established a public service broadcast, transforming the second state television (AzTV2) while retaining the first channel under state control. Parliament approved the nine members of the new Public Broadcasting Council. The general director it appointed, Ismail Omarov, was criticised by journalists favourable to the opposition and NGO representatives as a strongly pro-government parliamentarian, former senior administrator of AzTV1, and strident anti-opposition spokesman. The new public TV (ITV) was supposed to help break the state's control of the media, promote pluralism, and help bridge divisions between pro-government and pro-opposition press, but the way it was established suggested it could not meet these goals, at least in the short term. It began broadcasting nation-wide on 29 August 2005. During the election campaign, its coverage was indistinguishable from other pro-government channels; it devoted 68 per cent of prime time news coverage to Aliyev, the government and the ruling party.

Opposition media is often subjected to legal and administrative harassment. On 2 March 2005 Elmar Huseynov, editor-in-chief of the weekly magazine Monitor, was shot dead in front of his home. Though the government swiftly denied involvement and President Ilham Aliyev called the murder a provocation against the state, the perpetuators have yet to be apprehended. This contributes to the perception of a climate of impunity for violence against journalists.

There are many print outlets, but they tend to have a small readership and lack professional staff and funding, and most people receive news from electronic media. Some of Azerbaijan's most respected independent journalists and political figures pledged in early 2005 to set up their own independent broadcasting channel (Yeni TV). The attempt failed due to the minister of justice's rejection of the registration application and their inability to raise sufficient funds. An attempt by the opposition to set up a satellite program, "Azadlig TV", in September barely got off the ground before its reception was scrambled.

2. Anti-corruption efforts

Though the president has pledged to fight corruption, and new laws have been passed, additional efforts are needed to combat the problem seriously. For example, the criminal code does not define penalties for most corrupt activities other than bribery. The number of those charged and sentenced for corrupt practices has not significantly increased, especially among middle and senior level officials. In 2005, Transparency International ranked Azerbaijan 137th on its index of the 159 most corrupt nations.

Legislation in 2004 includes the law on combating corruption and the State Program on Fighting Corruption 2004-2006. The former defines corruption and who can be accused and outlines official responsibilities. It only came into force in January 2005, leading some to speculate corrupt officials were given time to conceal illegal practices. An anti-corruption commission was set up in April 2004, led by Ramiz Mehtiyev, head of the presidential administration and composed equally of presidential, parliamentary and constitutional court appointees. The absence of civil society and media representatives cast doubt on its impartiality and commitment to fighting fraud. Its tasks include helping formulate policy, coordinating state bodies, collecting and analysing information, and issuing recommendations. It created an ad hoc Anti-Corruption Legislative Working Group to recommend laws and has met four times in eighteen months without direct effect on any cases. It is mandated to send findings to the General Procurator's Office, which has a reportedly understaffed anti-corruption division.

Azerbaijan has a booming economy due to substantial increases in oil and gas production but these resources are finite and risk being squandered if the state does not address deeply entrenched problems of corruption, patronage and uneven financial and monetary management.

1. Macro-economic development

Azerbaijan has one of the world's fastest growing economies, largely owing to foreign investments in the energy sector, rising energy production and booming oil prices. Cross Domestic Product (GDP) is projected to grow almost 19 per cent and the external current account deficit to decline significantly in 2005. Foreign direct investments in the hydrocarbon sector have stimulated rapid growth in construction, transportation and services since 2003. By the end of the third quarter of 2004, Azerbaijan had attracted net foreign direct investment of $10.7 billion, the equivalent of 12.6 per cent of GDP. On 21 October 2005, the parliament sent to the president for review a preliminary $3.7 billion budget for 2006 that envisages a 67 per cent increase in expenditures.

Hydrocarbon production is expected to peak by 2010 and then decline. Therefore, further economic growth largely depends on effective management of current oil and gas income. After the opening of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline and further exploitation of the Shah Deniz gas field, hydrocarbon revenues are expected to double the country's economy by 2008. Hydrocarbon exports were over 82 per cent of total exports in 2004, accounting for nearly 50 per cent of budget revenues. The September 2004 decree, "On the Approval of the Long-Term Strategy on the Management of Oil and Gas Revenues", envisaged special measures for balanced economic development of the non-oil sector through utilisation of oil and gas revenues.

The late President Heydar Aliyev created the State Oil Fund of Azerbaijan (SOFAZ) in 2000, which operates under presidential authority and is managed by an expert committee. Oil revenue paid into it has been used for education, poverty reduction, assistance to internally displaced persons (IDPs), and efforts to raise rural living standards. In March 2005, SOFAZ reported assets of $994 million, a $179 million increase from the end of 2004. However, many experts expressed concerns over the potential for institutionalised corruption presented by such great wealth. A recent International Monetary Fund (IMF) report noted that policy coordination on raising social standards has remained weak, and progress on energy and banking sector reforms has been slow.

Precisely because of the economy's heavy dependence on the energy sector, some experts fear there is a risk of the "Dutch disease" -- over-dependence on the oil and gas sector, causing prices to rise to the detriment of the overall economy. Although the authorities have been pursuing a tight fiscal policy, inflation reached 14 per cent in April 2005, well above the year's 5 per cent target. There was a major crisis on 17 September, when the exchange rate of the Azerbaijani manat to the U.S. dollar fell almost 20 per cent (from 4,600 to 3,800 manat to the dollar) in a few hours. Some economists explained this by increased government oil revenues, which in turn created an excess of dollars in the Azerbaijani market and thus appreciated the local currency. But high inflation may also be attributed to the influence of monopolies, which control the prices of goods in the markets in order to maximize their profit. Constraints on imports, which former Minister Farhad Aliyev tried to eliminate before he was fired, may further exacerbate "Dutch disease".

Azerbaijan risks developing a dual economy: a fast-growing energy sector with its associated construction and service elements, which accounts for most investment and exports, and an inefficient non-oil-related sector that suffers from chronic under-investment. The non-oil sector is expected to increase by 8 per cent in 2005, compared to 13 per cent in 2004. Some observers see this as a consequence of a deteriorating investment climate caused by rampant corruption, internal squabbles among the ruling elite, and lack of banking reform, particularly in the provision of loans for small and medium-sized businesses. A recent U.S. State Department report noted that corruption remains a significant deterrent to foreign investment, especially in the non-energy sector, and identified the State Customs Committee and Ministry of Taxation as the institutions of greatest concern to foreign business.

2. Persistent poverty

As a result of rapid economic growth and increased social spending, the percentage of the population below the poverty level fell from 49 per cent in 2001 to 40 per cent in 2004. Though the economy is booming, a significant part of the middle class claims it is still difficult to make ends meet. In early 2001 the authorities started a comprehensive structural reform program, supported by the IMF through a Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility (PRGF). Within this, Baku has taken certain progressive steps designed to improve transparency of government spending, including by establishing clear rules for the operation of the Oil Fund and creating a supreme audit institution. The IMF program was concluded in June 2005, and authorities are considering a follow-on ten-year poverty reduction program. Although the minimum wage has increased five-fold, it is still less than $35 per month.
Azerbaijan has only begun to translate oil-based income into better lives for most citizens. Rural conditions are distinctly worse then in Baku. Some 40 per cent of the population is engaged in poorly paying agriculture. President Aliyev has underlined his intention to invest oil funds in infrastructure, roads, health and education, agriculture and environmental programs. Since 2001, over $110 million has been allocated from the State Oil Fund to assist victims of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. However, the allegations that corruption has crept into the construction of homes for IDPs points to the danger that big social projects will line the pockets of the few rather than benefit the many. The 2006 draft budget allocates some $600 million for provincial infrastructure and social development projects but the state must now make the difficult choice between spending heavily on social projects -- with inflationary risks -- and retaining funds for future generations.

Experience elsewhere suggests that:
[Sudden oil and gas wealth can be] used to keep entrenched elites in power, to postpone reforms, to underwrite the lavish lifestyles of the privileged, to engage in spending sprees on arms, to build showy and unnecessary projects, and to placate powerful special interests. Among the undesirable consequences have been profligate spending and borrowing, corruption, inequality, repression, and overvalued exchange rates that retard the non-energy sectors of economies.

To escape this, Azerbaijan must urgently increase respect for rule of law, encourage democratisation and freedom of the media, combat corruption, and implement sound monetary and investment policies.


Azerbaijan is governed under a highly centralised presidential system. After gaining a five-year mandate, President Ilham Aliyev became the head of state and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, with the power to appoint ministers, regional heads of executive committees (ExComs), judges, the general prosecutor and a host of other officials. He also heads the YAP, which in the 1995 and 2000 elections won large parliamentary majorities. These powers guarantee him the ability to effect change among all cadres and levels of government. When he became president, optimists believed he would use them to root out corruption, dismantle stifling patronage networks based on kinship and regional ties and appoint a new generation of technocratic officials. High approval ratings suggested he would have had public support to move fast on reforms.

From the onset, Ilham Aliyev was hesitant to make significant changes to his father's cabinet. Four exceptions were the appointments of Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov (45), Minister of Agriculture Ismet Aliyev (51), Minister of Communication and Information Ali Abbasov (52), and Minister of National Security Eldar Makhmudov (47). The new ministerial appointments were primarily people with Nakhichevan and Yeraz connections and a loyal track record. Of those who were dismissed, only former Minister of National Security Namik Abbasov had ever been seen as a powerful figure, even a possible rival in the succession to Heydar Aliyev. He was a minister for ten years, known as pro-Western and critical of Iran and Russia, and more balanced in his approach to the opposition than other cabinet members. In firing Abbasov, Aliyev demonstrated determination to take charge of his government, though no clear explanation was given. The new minister, Makhmudov, who previously headed the anti-drugs department of the interior ministry, embarked on large-scale staff changes, promoting former police colleagues.

Seventeen days before the 2005 elections, Azerbaijan woke up to the news that two of the country's most prominent officials had been dismissed, arrested and charged with attempting to overthrow the government, planning massive disturbances, abuse of power, and misappropriation of state funds. Farhad Aliyev, the former minister of economic development, and Ali Insanov, the former minister of health, were radically different personalities. Farhad Aliyev (42 and not related to the president) was seen as a reformer, liked by the diplomatic and international business communities, and apparently struggling to break the stranglehold of monopolies and promote new enterprises. His efforts to reduce customs barriers on imports had brought him into direct confrontation with Kamaladdin Heydarov, head of the State Customs Department. In August 2005 press stories began to link Farhad Aliyev with APFP leader Ali Kerimli. Early that month he appealed to the general prosecutor, claiming he was receiving death threats. A month later, the president transferred the responsibility of overseeing privatisation from his ministry to the re-created State Property Committee, led by Kerem Hasanov, allegedly a Heydarov ally. Even though his powers were significantly weakened in 2005, Farhad Aliyev remained influential. His brother, Rafik Aliyev, who was also arrested on 19 October, was a top business leader as president of the petrol giant Azpetrol.
Ali Insanov (59) was widely disliked, blamed for robbing the health services for personal gain. According to a senior member of the presidential administration, international representatives and the president's own advisers had been strongly encouraging Ilham Aliyev to dismiss him. He had been considered untouchable as a founder of YAP, close confident of Heydar Aliyev, and a prominent member of the Yeraz clan. His main conflict was with the head of the presidential administration, Ramiz Mehtiyev, also a Yeraz.

Much more surprising than the firings was their arrest on the charge of conspiring with the exiled Azerbaijan Democratic Party chairman, Rasul Guliyev, and other officials and businessmen, to organise a coup at the time of the elections. Government sources allege Farhad Aliyev and Ali Insanov paid Guliyev's supporters to carry out massive riots leading to a coup after Guliyev's anticipated return to Baku from abroad on 17 October. Guliyev did not land in the capital on that date; he was detained for three days in the Crimean city of Simferopol by Ukrainian authorities before they refused Azerbaijan's extradition request. Once the government learned of opposition plans to send 50,000 people to greet Guliyev at Baku airport on 17 October, the security forces mounted a large operation, imposed restrictions on movement, and detained dozens of activists. In the days following, Akif Muradverdiyev, a presidential administration official responsible for financial issues, Fikrat Sadikov, a parliamentarian and director of the state-owned Azerkimya petrochemical company, and Eldar Salayev, the former president of the National Academy of Sciences, were arrested for financing the failed plot. Overall, some twelve officials were taken into custody.

The arrests boosted the public standing of the president, who had been considered too weak to take on such influential officials. Nevertheless, they revealed deep divisions within the government and suggested his grip on power might be slipping -- talk of coups d'?tat is not normally a symptom of stable government. Moreover, the detentions appear to have been politically motivated and based on questionable evidence. According to media reports, much of it was garnered from former Finance Minister Fikrat Yusifov, detained on 16 October and thereafter kept in the notorious Department for the Struggle against Organised Crime. That the former officials were corrupt seems highly likely; that they planned to lead a coup together seems much less plausible. The fact that neither Rasul Guliyev, the alleged leader, nor any of his close associates in the opposition have similarly been charged also tends to make the story less credible.

The government should, of course, fight corruption. However the timing of the arrests, immediately before the elections, suggest they were driven more by politics and a desire to eliminate potential rivals, than a genuine anti-corruption commitment. It is essential that the investigations be transparent and impartial and the accused receive fair trials. The trials should not become the newest stage for playing out clan rivalries. Every effort should be made to replace the arrested ministers with men or women of integrity.


The 2005 parliamentary elections were heralded in advance as "a decisive test", "historical chance" and "crucial opportunity for the Azerbaijani authorities to show that they have the political will and ability to organise democratic elections". They were the last electoral test before the 2008 presidential contest and important for determining who will manage the country's oil and gas wealth.

Significantly, the 6 November 2005 vote was the first parliamentary election since the 2002 constitutional referendum, which abolished the proportional system. Candidates competed instead for 125 single mandate seats in one round. The high number of candidates in each constituency and the lack of a turnout threshold meant that relatively few votes could determine outcomes.


1. Electoral administration and legislation

Preparations began positively on 11 May 2005 with a presidential decree, "On Improvement of Election Practices", that acknowledged "a number of mistakes and deficiencies" during previous elections, and put the blame upon "unprofessional officials and members of election commissions", and, in general, the country's "post-Soviet mentality". The decree called on election authorities and local officials to implement the election code fully. It included instructions to officials to ensure freedom of assembly, deliver voter cards to all, and compile exact voter lists, and warned them they would be held legally responsible if they interfered in the election process.

Parliament amended the Unified Election Code in June; however, the changes did not include several crucial Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) Venice Commission and OSCE/ODIHR recommendations relating to the composition of the election commission, venues for elections rallies, right to campaign, NGO observation, complaints and appeals, intimidation of election staff, and inking of voters' fingers. The OSCE/ ODHIR and the Venice Commission concluded that the election code "does not fully meet OSCE commitments and Council of Europe standards for democratic elections and is insufficient to develop the necessary public confidence in the electoral legislation and practice in Azerbaijan".
Less than two weeks before the elections, on 25 October, President Aliyev issued another decree on urgent measures to boost preparations. It addressed the two requirements most demanded internationally for ensuring a free and fair vote: allowing inking of fingers and local NGO monitoring. The first is a relatively simple but important safeguard against multiple voting, which the government had called irreconcilable with national culture and pride. The second lifted a ban on observation by local NGOs who received 30 per cent or more of their funding from international sources.

The decree was welcomed by the U.S. and the Council of Europe but came too late to be implemented in full. Georgia and Denmark provided invisible ink and ultraviolet lamps for its detection but it was impossible to organise training for election commission members. The changes increased the technical complexities of procedures at a time when the OSCE/ODIHR EOM observed "widespread uncertainty and confusion on the interpretation of legal and procedural issues" among Constituency Election Commissions (ConECs) and Precinct Election Commissions (PECs).

2. Candidate registration

Compared with previous experience, registration of candidates went smoothly. Over 2,000 representing some 48 parties and blocs were registered by the CEC for 125 parliamentary seats. OSCE/ODIHR preliminary reports found no significant violations. Unlike previous elections, two of the most famous opposition exiles, former president Ayaz Mutallibov, and former parliament speaker Rasul Guliyev, were allowed to register.

The political landscape before the vote remained starkly polarised between pro-government and opposition parties. Party development is relatively weak, based more on personalities than ideology. The strongest parties have all developed out of the nationalist movement of the late 1980s/early 1990s and tend to rely on family and regional networks for members and financing. None, including the ruling YAP, articulated a clear platform.

The YAP was founded in 1992 by former President Heydar Aliyev and has won every election since 1995. Together with a handful of smaller pro-government parties, it controlled more than 70 per cent of the seats in the previous parliament. YAP has never been monolithic, however, and divisions along regional, financial, and generational lines have become particularly obvious after Heydar Aliyev's death. Although some analysts predicted its disintegration at that time, it has kept a semi-unified front and nominated 101 parliamentary candidates. Some of the most prominent were Mehriban Aliyeva, the president's wife, Jalal Aliyev, his uncle, Murtuz Aleskerov, the current speaker and Ali Akhmedov, the party's general secretary. Candidates tended to use slogans heralding continued economic growth and calling for gradual reforms, especially improved delivery of social benefits.

For the first time leaders from the three main opposition parties -- Musavat, the progressive wing of the APFP and the ADP -- united in a common pre-election bloc, Azadlig (Freedom), which registered candidates in 116 constituencies. In the previous parliamentary elections Musavat and APFP won eight seats -- but four of those elected had since left the parties, while the others have boycotted sessions since 2003. The bloc called for free and fair elections and a complete change of political leadership, in particular criticising the government for failure to solve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and distribute oil funds widely.
YeS (Yeni Siyaset, New Politics) was a less radical, "soft opposition" bloc, uniting the Azerbaijan National Independence Party (ANIP), the Social-Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, and a few individual politicians. It put forward 71 candidates and was largely seen as a loose coalition of strong personalities with different political views, including former President Mutallibov and Eldar Namazov, once an aide to Heydar Aliyev. The Liberal Party of Lala Shovkat was closely associated with YeS initially but withdrew to back 70 of its own candidates. The inability of all opposition forces to agree on common candidates divided the protest vote.

An unprecedented number of independent candidates registered, over 1,500, though the majority of these had close ties to the ruling party. Some were YAP members who were not on the official list, including eleven of the 26 candidates running in one Baku constituency. A senior YAP official told Crisis Group this was a tactic to encourage many YAP members to stand so that weekly polling could be conducted to determine the strongest candidate, after which the others were encouraged to withdraw. Some of the genuinely independent candidates were successful entrepreneurs or NGO and media representatives, but even their impartiality could be questioned because of strong governmental control over those fields. By election day over 500 candidates had pulled out of the race.

3. The campaign

While opposition candidates had greater opportunity to present their message to voters than in the past, the playing field remained tilted in favour of government supporters. There was an active campaign with election posters, media advertisements, and rallies evident throughout the country. Yet, it was marred by widespread arrests and intimidation of opposition party members and supporters.

Though Azerbaijan's legislation guarantees freedom of assembly and the right to organise public rallies, local authorities often put limitations on those rights, including through use of excessive force. This was observed in Baku on four separate occasions when Azadlig was denied authorisation to hold a public gathering in a central location. Hundreds of people were detained, often for short periods, but in some instances for several days. Rally participants, as well as police, were reportedly injured during the altercations. Campaign activities encountered fewer problems in the provinces, though police and local authorities obstructed some opposition events despite the presidential decrees of May and October 2005 which had ordered authorities to ensure freedom of assembly. PACE stated that "the disproportionate violence and brutality, bordering on outright cruelty, displayed by police forces while breaking up public rallies…is unacceptable in a democratic society".

The violence and obstruction of rallies inflamed the environment and focussed debate on the "lawfulness" of the process. While opposition leaders may have tried to use the bans on meetings in Baku to attract international support, the authorities miscalculated, trying to use the confrontations to portray the opposition as irresponsible and bent on violence.
As in past polls, international observers noted significant intervention by the authorities. This included campaigning for YAP candidates, using state resources to support YAP campaigns, putting pressure on state employees to vote for particular candidates and not attend opposition events. As noted, the May presidential decree had said officials who interfered with the campaign would have to answer before the courts. The October decree complained of illegal intrusion by authorities and use of administrative resources by candidates. President Aliyev orally reprimanded ExCom regional authorities for allowing some candidates to use state resources to gain an unfair advantage. Close to election day, the OSCE observation mission found that "the continuing failure of election commissions and the prosecuting authorities to address or redress serious violations by executive authorities and candidates has had a marked and negative effect on the election process". Outside Baku, where a large part of the population is dependent on the state for employment or services, voters were more vulnerable to efforts to influence or intimidate.

Compared with past elections when they had little or no access to the media, opposition candidates were given significant free airtime. Nevertheless, most prime time news and other information programs presented heavily favourable coverage to pro-government candidates. From 17 to 20 October, AzTV banned live broadcasts by Azadlig candidates, and the CEC did not address the complaint. In contrast to the other five main channels -- AzTV, Public TV, Space TV, Lider TV and ATV -- the private broadcaster, ANS, generally provided more balanced coverage, including a greater diversity of views and more time for the opposition.

To promote independent and constructive news coverage of the elections, media organisations signed a Code of Ethics in July. Nevertheless, both pro-government and pro-opposition media outlets continued to employ unethical methods. The media environment was also negatively effected by harassment and beatings of journalists covering the campaign. In a clearly politically motivated move, the Sheki regional studio of ANS CHM Radio was closed on 30 September after broadcasting a daily 30-minute news program with interviews and debates with a range of local candidates.


6 November 2005 was a disappointment for those who had hoped the elections would be free and fair. The OSCE observation mission said in its preliminary statement that:
[They] "did not meet a number of OSCE commitments and Council of Europe standards for democratic elections.…Voting was generally calm, but the election day process deteriorated progressively during the counting and, in particular, the tabulation of the votes.

The U.S. Department of State supported the OSCE findings. President Aliyev responded that "the elections were held in a free and democratic atmosphere…the results of the election reflect totally the will of the people". Representatives from all the main opposition blocs rejected this positive assessment. After reviewing data from 113 Constituency Election Commissions and 4,000 observers in polling stations, Azadlig published a litany of violations and concluded that "it does not recognise results of the…parliamentary election and declares that it will start a continuous and systematic… campaign using peaceful and non-violent means…to cancel these results, for restoration of justice and holding new parliamentary elections".

Some election day violations could have been avoided and trust in the system increased if Azerbaijan had implemented the recommendations of international experts for parity of representation on election commissions. Voting in Azerbaijan is administered by a three-tiered administration, the CEC, 125 Constituency Election Commissions (ConECs) and over 5,000 Precinct Election Commissions (PECs). The CEC has fifteen members, elected by the parliament using a convoluted formula which effectively gives an overwhelming majority to the ruling YAP and other pro-government parties. Lower level election commissions are composed based on a similar formula, but with nine ConECs and six PECs members. The YAP nominates all commission chairpersons and with its supporters has a commanding two-thirds majority to push through all decisions. During past elections, opposition PEC and ConEC members were detained, intimidated, fired from jobs and forced to sign flawed and fraudulent protocols. Confidence in the neutrality and impartiality of the commissions is weak.

The government's refusal to create balanced commissions led PACE to conclude that "any serious irregularities on election day…could be construed as a lack of political will on behalf of the authorities".

The most serious violations occurred during counting and tabulation. The OSCE observers assessed the ballot counting process as bad or very bad in 43 per cent of counts observed in polling stations and in 31 per cent of the ConECs visited. Repeatedly party and NGO observers were intimidated, unauthorised persons were present during the count, the final tabulation was not completed in pen in front of observers immediately after the count or was not transferred directly to the ConEC, and results were not posted in polling stations. Crisis Group observed all these violations as well as ballot stuffing in a suburban Baku polling station. Other international observers saw cases of modification of results.

In an effort to prevent multiple voting, a problem in past elections, the CEC implemented a series of measures. Unfortunately these did not help. While voter cards were issued for the first time to stop multiple voting, the head OSCE observer singled them out as the biggest problem in the preparatory phase. Until 6 November it remained unclear whether voter cards would be required to vote. Ultimately they were not. Another controversial and ultimately unsatisfactory reform was the late decision to use invisible ink. On election day there were reports that observers were not allowed to test the ink and allegations that water was substituted. Inking procedures were not uniformly applied, reducing their effectiveness as a control on multiple voting.

Two days after the elections, the CEC issued preliminary results, according to which the YAP won 63 seats; independents 41; the pro-government Ana Vatan (Motherland) party two; Musavat four; the APFP two; and the pro-opposition Civil Solidarity Party two. The small Democratic Reform Party, Great Revival Party, Umid (Hope) Party, and Whole Azerbaijan Popular Front Party each got one mandate. Candidates not representing any party won three seats. Thus the "radical" opposition gained six places, two fewer than in the outgoing parliament. The 46.8 per cent turnout, slightly more than two million voters, was significantly less than in the last parliamentary elections. In most cases winners polled less then 40 per cent and some as little as 18 per cent. Predictions that the elections would bring in a wave of young, independent reformers were not borne out. Close to half those elected were incumbents, and the 2005-2010 parliament will look very much like its predecessor. Immediately after the elections, it was announced that Murtuz Aleskerov (77), speaker since 1996, would again chair the assembly.


Immediately after the elections the CEC began to consider some 550 voting-related complaints. The CEC chairperson stated that results in twenty constituencies should be declared invalid and violators punished, while President Aliyev cited shortfalls in seven or eight constituencies the day after the elections. The CEC annulled results in two constituencies on 8 November, a third on 13 November, and a fourth on 15 November. It also invalidated the votes in 42 polling stations. The opposition, which refused to recognise the election results, considered these to be negligible changes and demanded that at least 100 constituencies be re-run if altogether new elections could not be held country-wide.

In the week after the 6 November elections, the opposition under a new common banner, the Democratic Popular Front -- including Azadlig, YeS, National Unity and the Liberal Party -- announced a boycott of the parliament, stating that it did not recognise its legitimacy. It claimed that Azadlig had been robbed of some 38 to 40 seats, and the opposition as a whole of some 50. It organised a first demonstration in Baku on 9 November, followed by a second on 13 November and the announcement that more would follow, including on 19 November. Precise participation numbers were impossible to gauge. Police reported 5,000 on the 9th and 4,500 on the 13th, while the opposition claimed over 25,000 both times. Crisis Group observers considered the turnouts lower than those for the biggest rallies of the 2003 campaign, certainly not a critical mass of average citizens for a city of over three million. The opposition insists that if such a critical mass is reached, it will set up tents and move to a round-the-clock protest. Police warn that this would be illegal and not permitted. Smaller protests also spread to the towns of Zagatala, Bilasuvar, Nardaran and Surakhani, where some activists were allegedly briefly detained.

The post-election situation developed more-or-less along the same lines as the aftermath of the contested parliamentary poll of 2000. Like his father then, President Ilham Aliyev cancelled results in a few constituencies and fired a handful of ExComs with illegal interference in the elections process. In 2000 this was enough to persuade the Council of Europe and other Western partners that the government was acting in good faith. The opposition decried the steps as mere tokens but ultimately all except two elected from Musavat took their seats in the parliament. Opposition parties other than Musavat also agreed to contest eleven 2001 re-runs. This time the opposition insists that it will not participate in any re-runs unless there are at least 100 and the composition of the election commissions is changed. The question is whether opposition-government negotiations can now forge a compromise on the number of re-runs. The government will undoubtedly try to implement its normal strategy of dividing the opposition to secure a deal, probably gradually increasing the number of opposition seats by selectively annulling some results and allowing new votes in a few constituencies where the opposition is strong.

The CEC and the courts will continue to process complaints and appeals until 26 November, after which the Constitutional Court has ten days to confirm the final results. The president would have to appoint a date for any re-runs -- most likely in early 2006. Opposition protests are likely to continue at least until the reruns are held and perhaps for a few additional months. But if much larger numbers of citizens do not turn out, these are not likely to worry the regime greatly.


During the pre-election period, Azerbaijan's partners were much more critical of violations than they had been in the past. However, much of the criticism focussed on technical aspects, not more fundamental weaknesses in the electoral process or political system. Several rather optimistic Western analysts, including some diplomats in Baku, have suggested that fifteen years after the end of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan remains a country in transition which should be congratulated for such small steps as it has taken towards democratisation rather than criticised for the remaining substantial shortcomings. Others believe that with political will it could do much better.

EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner made a highly critical analysis of the pre-election environment and the prospects for democratic parliamentary elections. The EU Presidency, which had issued a pre-election declaration on 28 October, published a short, neutral statement on 8 November, noting that "these elections have shown some improvements on the Presidential election of November 2003" but the Presidency of the EU was "concerned at reports of serious problems in the counting and tabulation of votes…and at report[s] of interference". The Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly has consistently urged deeper election reform. After the elections, PACE co-rapporteurs on Azerbaijan strongly criticised fraud, going so far as to hint that the PACE might consider suspending Azerbaijan's membership during its next session in early 2006.

The OSCE observation mission's preliminary statement immediately after election day and agreed by the heads of its main constituent parliamentary delegations from the EU, Council of Europe and NATO, was more critical then its statement on the 2003 presidential election had been, just as each of its three pre-election interim reports was more critical than the last. However, some disaccord appeared within the OSCE on 9 November when the chairman in office (CiO), Minister Dimitrij Rupel (Slovenia), published a newspaper editorial stating "the parliamentary elections were less then perfect but marked an improvement.…[T]he priority is now to prevent the country from slipping into violence".

The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) mission, in contrast, concluded that the elections accorded with Azerbaijani law, would stabilise the socio-political environment, intensify democracy building, and integrate Azerbaijan into international structures. Having visited some 3,000 precincts, it observed that "the vote proceeded in a calm and good working atmosphere in [the] majority of precincts" and that "certain violations and misgivings in the pre-election campaign process were not massive, and did not significantly effect the free expression of voters' will and the results of the polls". The CIS mission had an unprecedented 640 observers, including 42 long-term observers. Russian President Putin was swift to congratulate his Azerbaijani colleague on the "successful completion of the parliamentary elections held in a democratic atmosphere".

Russia also openly expressed dissatisfaction with the OSCE mission's findings and conclusions. The foreign ministry criticised its preliminary statement, saying "we have always spoken out against such rushed assessments, which show bias, …we are against one-sided, black-and-white interpretations of complicated and sensitive election processes". A Russian short-term observer (a department director in the foreign ministry), issued a dissenting opinion on the statement of the OSCE mission, which he called "non-objective". Russia had sent 81 short-term observers (STOs) to the OSCE mission, its largest delegation and the first time in OSCE observation history that Moscow had such substantial presence. Relations between the Russian and other STOs were often collegial, and some Russian STOs expressed dismay at the dissenting opinion that was put out in their name.

The Russian foreign ministry clearly intends to increase its influence in election observation missions in the future. It sought to have one of its observers at the table to finalise the preliminary statement with the OSCE, PACE, NATO and EU delegation heads. When this was denied, it claimed that the preliminary statement was "personal opinion made by individuals, but not the opinion of the OSCE -- i.e. of its 55 participating states". Preliminary statements are written and issued by observation missions but Russia has in the past requested that they be voted on in Vienna at the Permanent Council. This would require them to be agreed by consensus, significantly, perhaps irremediably, delaying their issuance. Russia is also seeking to modify the way OSCE election observation missions operate in line with proposals made in 2004 in the CIS Moscow Declaration.

The U.S. said the polls "were an improvement over previous elections in some areas. However, we share the preliminary assessment of the OSCE Observer Mission that, despite these improvements, the elections did not meet a number of international standards". The U.S. Ambassador in Baku regularly attempted to serve as a facilitator between the government and the opposition, both before and after the elections. Several ambassadors met with opposition leaders at the UK embassy on 11 November and reportedly offered to recommend that the government give twenty seats to the opposition. When opposition leaders turned this down, they upped the proposal to 30 seats. This suggests that embassies are engaged in horse-trading, which aims to appease the opposition but does not ensure that the elections honestly reflect the will of the voters. Their role instead should be to continue working with the authorities and opposition to insure that elections are implemented fully according to international standards and the commitments Azerbaijan has made to the Council of Europe. They could usefully establish an ambassadorial-level working group to press the CEC and the courts to consider complaints fairly and cancel fraudulent results. Before re-runs are held, the group should also call for full implementation of Venice Commission and OSCE/ODIHR recommendations on modifying the election code, in particular establishment of balanced election commissions.


Before election day, some observers were suggesting that Azerbaijan was ripe for a colour revolution like those in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan if the polling was unfair. However, the state's monopoly on power and its readiness to use force put the country in a different league. Hydrocarbon wealth provides the means to co-opt potential rivals and assure the loyalty of the governing network. The development of new political elites, independent journalists and civil society activists has been stunted. The absence of a true government-opposition dialogue and power-sharing practices has made politics a zero-sum game, played out all too often in the streets rather than in state institutions. The biggest differences between Azerbaijan and those ex-Soviet states where post-election revolutions have happened in the past two years are the lack of popular engagement in electoral politics and citizens' weak belief in their ability to effect change.

Compared to the 2000 election, there has been somewhat greater cohesion this year among opposition parties, which were encouraged by the Georgian and Ukrainian experiences. The U.S., the EU and its member states and some Western institutions have been more outwardly critical but at this point seem disinclined to put serious pressure on the Azerbaijani authorities to meet the oppositions' demands at least halfway or suffer consequences of some sort in bilateral relations. Rather they appear likely to concentrate on persuading the opposition to abandon its boycott and agree to contest repeat elections in January in a handful of constituencies. A tougher stance is only probable if peaceful opposition rallies are broken up violently by police, resulting in large-scale casualties.

If Azerbaijan wants to be accepted as a genuine political and economic regional leader with close Euro-Atlantic ties rather than merely an oil cash cow and anti-terrorism gendarme, however, it needs to do better. Those who control its government have an exaggerated fear of losing financial and political power, reflected in their obsession with coup attempts and hesitancy to enact reforms. They need greater confidence in their country's future as a democratic state, where rule of law is assured and poverty reduced, and to treat the opposition as a partner not an enemy. Elections should be seen as an opportunity and not a threat.

In October 2005, President Bush reportedly wrote to President Aliyev to the effect that if Azerbaijan's elections were free and fair, a consequence would be to "elevate our countries' relations to a new strategic level", implicitly including a state visit to Washington and closer military and political ties. The 6 November 2005 parliamentary elections clearly did not meet the test. Washington should draw the appropriate conclusions. If the government does not continue to take the steps recommended in this report to redress election day violations, and in particular if the 2003 post-election situation repeats itself with violence against and arrests of opposition activists, measures considered by the international community should include a diplomatic embargo by the U.S. and others on visits by President Aliyev and his key ministers, the EU holding back on Action Plan talks, and the Council of Europe initiating moves that could lead to Azerbaijan's suspension early in 2006 if matters are not set to right over the elections.
It is not too late for the U.S. and others in the international community to help save some of the opportunity the election day should have represented. But if they are to do so, they will need to be prepared to adopt a common voice and act tougher about the consequences of continued authoritarianism.

Baku/Brussels, 21 November 2005


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