Another election victory cannot mask the cracks that are beginning to appear in Azerbaijan’s power structure.by Aleksandra Jarosiewicz 25 November 2015
It was a no-brainer that the recent parliamentary election in Azerbaijan would lead to no significant changes. The regime had jailed or otherwise silenced dissenters, slapped restrictions on observers, and any credible political opposition had no chance of winning.
But no change does not mean the system is immune to shocks. The purge at the helm of the National Security Ministry just ahead of the election, a controversy involving Azeri diplomats, and the worsening economic situation all raise questions about durability of the system.
The results of the 1 November election are not surprising. The New Azerbaijan Party (YAP) of President Ilham Aliev won 70 of the 125 seats in the national parliament, or Milli Meclis.
The other seats were taken mainly by candidates aligned with YAP, or by representatives of nominal opposition parties with no political influence. The new parliament largely resembles the one formed in 2010, when YAP held 72 seats.
The main difference between this election and the previous one was the absence of international observers. It was the first election in two decades carried out without the presence of watchdogs.
The Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe’s (OSCE) human rights office declined to send a team after Azerbaijan imposed limits on the number of observers. Michael Georg Link, who heads the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, said in a statement that the restrictions "would make it impossible for the mission to carry out effective and credible election observation."
The European Parliament, which adopted a non-binding resolution in September condemning the Azerbaijani regime for its crackdown on dissent, also didn’t send observers.
Baku capitalized on the dearth of independent monitors to boast about how democratic the election was. It also lashed out at its critics in the European Parliament and the OSCE, accusing the latter of both historic bias in its election monitoring and of violating its mandate by refusing to send observers.
Poisoned Relations with the West
The dispute over observers was just another sign of the deteriorating relations between Azerbaijan and key western partners. In the past two years, the country has carried out a sweeping crackdown on civil society, human rights advocates, and independent journalists defying international calls to allow pluralism.
In July, the government closed the OSCE office in Baku, and in September, the Parliament decided to withdraw from EuroNest Parliamentary Assembly in response to the EU Parliament's resolution. It’s also moved to block EU grants from reaching non-governmental organizations.
These moves demonstrate how the ruling elite seems to be purposefully damaging its relations with the West and its longstanding ties with the OSCE.
This policy is being driven by fear. Since the events at Kyiv's Maidan protests that erupted two years ago this month, the ruling elite in Baku has been afraid of a similar scenario at home.
They suspect the West of stirring dissent. Ramiz Mekhtiyev, a heavy-weight politician and head of the presidential administration in Baku, has publicly accused the West of intending to overthrow his government.
However, recent purges in the National Security and Communications and New Technologies ministries, and the dismissal of some top diplomats, demonstrate that the elite should not just be concerned about public unrest or foreign conspiracies.
On 17 October, just two weeks before the election, President Aliev suddenly sacked – without explanation - Eldar Makhmudov, the minister of National Security. It was just a beginning of a wider shake-up in the ministry.
Seven former ministry officials were accused of abuse of power, arbitrary and illegal inspection of businesses, extortion, bribery, and entering into business by means of blackmail, according to the Silk Road Reporters and a ministry statement.
Then on 12 November, Ali Abbasov, head of Communication and New Technologies Ministry, was sacked and more than 10 ministry officials were arrested. Aliev gave no reason for his decision, Reuters reported at the time.
The ministerial shake-ups came just five months after a similar reshuffling in the foreign service. Arif Mammadov, who was chief of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation mission to the EU, in May published a post on his Facebook page criticizing how the authorities handled a fire in a Baku apartment building killed 15 people. His opinion was "liked" by five other employees of the ministry, including the spokesman.
Shortly after his remarks appeared on the social media site, Mammadov was accused of misusing funds and forging documents. The diplomat responded, in a letter to Aliev, accusing a "certain circle in the presidential administration of creating an imaginary conspiracy by the West" and urged Aliev to “rid the country of this evil." He also refused to return to Azerbaijan for fear of being arrested and launched a political project, apparently based in Brussels.
Mammadov's ministry colleagues who "liked" his post were also called to account. Ministry spokesman Hikmet Hajizade apologized and condemned Mammadov, while the others were apparently sacked. The father of one of those who liked the post apparently was recalled from his job as ambassador to Ukraine.
Meanwhile, the Turan news agency reported that he authorities started putting pressure on diplomats who used to work with Mammadov and made them sign statements against him. The news agency also reported that four Azeri diplomats refused to return home, while the Armenian news website Panorama put the figure at six. Given the secrecy surrounding the regime, it is difficult to verify what happened.
Azerbaijan’s Economy Stumbles
Repression appears to be the regime’s main strategy to deter opponents and prevent instability arising from another threat – a deteriorating economy. Oil and gas revenues account for a lopsided 65 percent of government revenue and more than 90 percent of exports, according to recent figures from the Natural Resource Governance Institute.
Faced with low commodity prices, Azerbaijan is likely to see its GDP decline from 4 percent this year to 2.5 percent in 2016, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Azerbaijan’s disproportionate dependence on commodities at a time of depressed prices harms the president's ability to redistribute resources among patronage networks. The purge in the National Security Ministry can be perceived as an example of the fight over resources, as the ministry officials were also accused of attempts at illegal takeover of assets.
A slowing economy also will make it harder for the authorities to deliver on social promises after years of growth and investment in high-profile public projects – including glittering skyscrapers in Baku and elaborate facilities used to host this summer’s European Games. Public discontent is likely to increase, especially over the wealth gap between most Azerbaijanis and the ruling class.
All this means the trend toward authoritarianism is likely to grow. Yet that has inherent risks for Aliev, who inherited power from his ailing father in 2003.
More repression could fuel discontent and grass-roots action such as the anti-government protests that took place in the city of Ismayilli in January 2013. Those demonstrations triggered a police crackdown, a harbinger of subsequent round-ups of dissidents, rights advocates, and journalists that have become commonplace over the past two years.