Are parliamentary elections – or, for that matter, presidential polls – inevitably rigged in a Muslim country that happens to be strategically placed, oil-rich and allied to Western countries, particularly the US? The answer seems to be "yes". Not only was the presidential election of 2003 that enabled president Ilham Aliev to inherit the job from his father heavily rigged, but the parliamentary elections on November 6 were tainted by extensive and open fraud. Even Western observers criticised the manner in which the election was conducted, and called for an investigation into vote-rigging allegations by the deeply disappointed opposition candidates. But Aliev was able to get away with his undisguised fraud despite his earlier pledge that there would not be any, and the US government's call on him to hold "free and fair" elections.
Clearly, the Azeri president must have known that he would get away with any rigging – as, indeed, he did, despite public criticism by human-rights groups, international observers and US and European governments. The criticism by observers and governments was not only weak but it was not followed up. For instance, Alcee Hastings, a US congressman who led more than 600 observers from OSCE (the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe), said that the poll "did not meet standards for democratic elections". But he stopped short of calling for a re-run, although the YAP pro-government party and mostly loyal ‘independents' had won nearly all 125 seats.
The European Union expressed its "disappointment" at the fraud indicated by the OSCE report. It added: "It is essential that in those constituencies where complaints of fraud and malpractice have been made the complaints are investigated fully, quickly and in a transparent manner; and that relevant action is taken as necessary." The US government even said that relations with Azerbaijan might cool after the vote. "We note the irregularities," a US state department spokesman told Reuters pompously. All that Aliev felt it necessary to say was that the OSCE report would be studied and "serious action" might be taken – adding the claim that the election results had not been affected by the violations set out in the report. Interestingly, the Russian observers said that the election was fair and that no violations had taken place.
The rigging of the poll was not a surprise, as Aliev had been widely expected to do just that. Human-rights groups had publicly warned of the expected malpractice, as indicated by the official "campaign of intimidation" already set in motion against opposition groups. Human Rights Watch, for example, said: "The government's campaign of intimidation has extinguished the possibility of free and fair elections... Azerbaijan's history of election fraud and abuse is threatening to repeat itself."
The warnings only succeeded in prompting the US government to call on Aliev to "play fair". This was a clear indication that it was not prepared to sacrifice its energy and strategic interests by coming out strongly against Aliev to show that it is truly interested in the promotion of democratic practice in Central Asia, despite what American leaders and officials often claim. Accordingly, it saw a blandly critical comment as sufficient to keep the balance between its two conflicting interests in the country. After all, Washington's strong condemnation of the massacres in Uzbekistan's town of Andijan drove Islam Karimov, the Uzbek despot, back into Moscow's camp. Karimov and Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, signed a military alliance in mid-November. But despite Washington's obvious reluctance to challenge Aliev, the opposition parties persisted in their call on the US government to support their strong but peaceful efforts to force Aliev to order new elections to be held as soon as possible. Their continuing demonstrations, however, have led to a vicious crackdown by the regime without eliciting any meaningful response from Washington or other Western capitals.
Western analysts and commentators were unanimous in attributing their countries' failure to support revolution in Azerbaijan, as they have done in Ukraine and Georgia, to their energy and strategic interests there. Western oil companies have spent billions of dollars on building a pipeline to take Caspian Sea oil from Baku, the capital, via Georgia and Turkey to theMediterranean. The pipeline will soon be delivering oil to Western countries and, indeed, Israel. Azerbaijan is also well placed, sandwiched as it is between Iran and Russia, and therefore has military significance.
Azerbaijan's position is particularly useful to the US, which exploits it to the full, as shown by the regular visits of defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld to Baku. Azerbaijan is central to theUS's strategy to contain Islamic Iran, as Western commentators frequently point out, and as demonstrated by the fact that the US has built radar-stations near the Azeri border with Iran. Already a staunch ally of the US, Azerbaijan is one of the few Muslim countries to have sent troops to Iraq. Moreover, it continues to provide the US military with a vital air-corridor, not only to Iraq but also to Afghanistan. The US is building military bases by refurbishing Russian bases in the former Soviet Union. This highly dangerous military alliance between the two is certain to continue as long as the Aliev government is in power.
One of the worst aspects of the situation is that the Azeri people are not benefiting from their country's energy wealth, although 40 percent of them live below the poverty line. The Azeri leader sees no cause for alarm, claiming that the expected oil-boom will eradicate poverty and unemployment. But that is nonsense: most of the oil wealth received so far has been embezzled by public figures and their business allies. For instance, state-owned companies control more than half the economy, and a recent survey estimated that nine of the ten wealthiest men in Azerbaijan hold top government jobs.
The Aliev dynasty and its political and business allies will continue to persist in their highly lucrative thefts, and deprive the majority of Azeris of the new oil-wealth that is rightfully theirs. This will doubtless provoke public unrest. But because Azerbaijan was once part of the former Soviet Union the opposition is understandably inexperienced, and it is therefore difficult to tell how long it will take the Azeris to rid themselves of their local and foreign dominators and exploiters.