(Washington) - United States Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) recently held a teleconference to discuss Azerbaijan's upcoming presidential election. The October 7 teleconference included Azerbaijani opposition politicians, human rights activists, the Council of Europe's Rapporteur on Azerbaijan and the head of the OSCE's Election Observation Mission in Azerbaijan.
The OSCE has criticized the exclusion of several opposition politicians and harassment of registered opposition candidates trying to meet with voters and hold rallies.
"The October 15 election will mark a historic transfer of power in a country of strategic importance to the United States," said Chairman Smith. "With President Heydar Aliev now officially out of the running, it is critically important for improved government-opposition relations and Azerbaijan's overall stability that the election be free and fair. For that reason, reports of official intimidation of opposition candidates and violent dispersal of opposition rallies are a source of serious concern."
Rasul Guliev of the Azerbaijan Democratic Party (ADP), who was not registered to run, was in Washington with Chairman Smith. Calling from Baku were: Sulhaddin Akber, representing candidate Isa Gambar; Ilgar Mamedov, for candidate Etibar Mamedov; Asif Mahmudov and Vidadi Mahmudov, opposition members of Azerbaijan's Central Election Commission; Sardar
Jalal-oglu of the ADP; and human rights activists Leyla Yunus and Arzu Abdullaeva. They chronicled efforts by Azerbaijan's Government to keep voters from meeting with opposition candidates and to pressure them to support the candidate of the ruling party.
Also calling in were Andreas Gross, a Swiss parliamentarian who is the Council of Europe's Rapporteur on Azerbaijan, and Peter Eicher, who heads the OSCE's Election Observation Mission in Azerbaijan. They concurred that some opposition politicians had not been registered for unconvincing reasons and that opposition candidates on the ballot have encountered difficulties in meeting with voters and campaigning effectively. Mr. Eicher noted that the process of candidate registration was "procedurally and substantively flawed."
On October 4, a State Department Spokesman noted that election roundtables are being televised, NGO-funded training of election workers is underway and domestic monitors are being credentialed. However, the spokesman also noted the harassment and violence directed against opposition and human rights activists: "We call on Azerbaijan to fulfill its responsibilities for the safety of its citizens and the safeguarding of their rights, including the right of assembly."
Chairman Smith voiced regret that Azerbaijan's Government had declined an invitation to present its perspective on these assessments. "It is also very unfortunate that Baku has not invited the National Democratic Institute (NDI), which has been working with pro-government and opposition parties in Azerbaijan for years, to observe the election."
Smith added that stability in Azerbaijan depends on the emergence of genuinely democratic institutions. "In the immediate term, it is essential that the October 15 contest meet OSCE standards. Based on what I heard in my conversation, that will require a major improvement over what we have seen so far. We will be closely following events in Azerbaijan."
The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.