Elections in Azerbaijan

Elections in Azerbaijan

Hon.
Christopher H. Smith
United States
106th Congress Congress
Second Session Session
Friday, December 08, 2000

Mr. Speaker, on November 5, parliamentary elections were held in Azerbaijan. In anticipation of those elections, the Helsinki Commission, which I chair, held hearings in May, at which representatives of the government and opposition leaders testified. While the former pledged that Baku would conduct a democratic contest, in accordance with OSCE standards, the latter warned that Azerbaijan's past record of holding seriously flawed elections required the strictest vigilance from the international community and pressure from Western capitals and the Council of Europe, to which Azerbaijan has applied for membership. Subsequently, I introduced a resolution, H. Con. Res. 382, which called on the Government of Azerbaijan to hold free and fair elections and to accept the recommended amendments by the OSCE's Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) to the law on elections.

 

From the start, there was pressure to withdraw the resolution from the Azerbaijani government and others. They argued that President Aliev had made, or would make, the necessary changes to ensure that the election met international standards, claiming to render the resolution either irrelevant or out of date. That pressure intensified as the election drew near; in fact, the resolution never came to a vote before Congress went out of session in early November.

 

It is worth recalling this brief history in light of what actually happened during Azerbaijan's pre-election period and on November 5. With respect to the election law, one of ODIHR's concerns was ultimately addressed by a decision of Azerbaijan's constitutional court, but on other important issues, Baku rejected any concessions and refused to incorporate ODIHR's suggested changes. From the beginning, therefore, the election could not have met OSCE standards, as ODIHR made plain in several statements. During the registration period, the Central Election Commission (CEC) rejected several leading opposition parties. Claiming that government experts could tell which signatures were forged, fraudulent or otherwise invalid merely on the basis of a visual examination, the CEC maintained the Musavat and the Azerbaijan Democratic Party had failed to get 50,000 valid signatures. The same thing happened to Musavat in the 1995 parliamentary election. At that time, the OSCE/UN observation mission emphasized the need to amend or get rid of this obviously flawed method of determining the validity of signatures, but Azerbaijan's authorities did not heed that advice. The exclusion of leading opposition parties drew strong criticism, both inside and outside the country, including the OSCE and the U.S. Government.

 

In early October, in apparent reaction to international concern, President Aliev “appealed” to the CEC to find some way of registering excluded opposition parties. Some CEC members objected, arguing there was no constitutional basis for such a presidential appeal or a changed CEC ruling, but the Commission moved to include opposition parties. Though their participation certainly broadened the choice available to voters, the manner of their inclusion demonstrated conclusively that President Aliev controlled the entire election process. ODIHR welcomed the decision by the CEC and urged a reconsideration of the exclusion of over 400 individual candidates, about half of those who tried to run in single-mandate districts. But the CEC did not do so, and only in very few cases were previously excluded candidates allowed to run. As 100 of parliament's 125 seats were determined in single mandate districts, where local authorities exercise considerable power, the rejection of over 400 candidates signaled the government's determination to decide the outcome of the vote.

 

Though coverage of the campaign on state media favored the ruling party, opposition leaders were able to address voters on television. They used the opportunity, which they had not enjoyed for years, to criticize President Aliev and offer an alternative vision of governing the country. Their equal access to the media marked progress with respect to previous elections, as noted in the ODIHR's election report.

 

However, this voting and vote count on election day itself, according to the ODIHR's election, would be bad enough, considering that the election was the fourth since 1995 that failed to meet OSCE standards, even if some progress was registered in opposition participation and representation in the CEC. Much more interesting and disturbing, however, were the words used in a post-election press conference by two key international observers: Gerard Stoudman, the Director of ODIHR, who generally employs measured, diplomatic language, said he had not expected to witness “a crash course in various types of manipulation,” and actually used the phrase “primitive falsification” to describe what he had seen. Andreas Gross, the head of the observer delegation of the Council of Europe, an organization to which Azerbaijan has applied for membership and which is not particularly known for hard-hitting assessments of election shenanigans, amplified: “Despite the positive changes observed in Azerbaijan in recent years, the scale of the infringements doesn't fit into any framework. We've never seen anything like it.”

 

Mr. Speaker, in the context of international election observation, such a brutally candid assessment is simply stunning. As far as I know, representatives of ODIHR or the Council of Europe have never expressed themselves in such terms about an election that they decided to monitor. One senses that the harshness of their judgment is related to their disappointment: Azerbaijan's authorities had promised to conduct free and fair elections and had long negotiated with the ODIHR and the Council of Europe about the legal framework and administrative modalities but, in the end, held an election that can only be described as an embarrassment to all concerned. According to Azerbaijan's CEC, in the party list voting, only four parties passed the six-percent threshold for parliamentary representation: President Aliev's governing party, the New Azerbaijan Party; the Communist Party; and two opposition parties, the Popular Front (Reformers) and Civil Solidarity. Other important opposition parties allegedly failed to break the barrier and apart from a few single mandate seats won no representation in parliament. In the aftermath of the election and the assessments of the OSCE/ODIHR and the Council of Europe, the international legitimacy of Azerbaijan's legislature is severely undermined. Within Azerbaijan, the ramifications are no better.

 

All the leading opposition parties have accused the authorities of massive vote fraud, denounced the election results, and have refused to take the few seats in parliament they were given. Though some governing party representatives have claimed that opposition representation is not necessary for the parliament to function normally, others, perhaps including President Aliev, understand that a parliament without opposition members is ruinous for Azerbaijan's image. New elections are slated in 11 districts, and perhaps President Aliev is hoping to tempt some opposition parties to abandon their boycott by offering a few more seats. Whether opposition parties, which are bitterly divided, will participate or eventually agree to take up their deputies' mandates remains to be seen. What is clearer from the conduct of the election and its outcome is that President Aliev, who is preparing the succession of his son as Azerbaijan's next president, was determined to keep opposition leaders out of parliament and ensure that the body as a whole is supportive of his heir. If the only way to guarantee the desired outcome was wholesale vote fraud, so be it.

 

Prognoses of possible accommodation with the opposition, or possibly even some power sharing arrangements, to facilitate a smooth and peaceful transfer of power, have proved unfounded. Indeed, President Aliev reportedly has told the new UK Ambassador to Baku that Azerbaijan does not need to join the Council of Europe, indicating that he is not prepared to make any concessions when it comes to maintaining his grip on power and passing it on to his chosen heir, whatever the international community thinks. Even more worrisome is that by depriving the opposition of the possibility to contend for power through parliamentary means, Aliev has seriously reduced the chances of a “soft landing” in Azerbaijan. When he eventually leaves the scene, anything could happen. This is not only a frightening prospect for the citizens of Azerbaijan, its neighbors and hopes for resolving regional disputes, especially the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, it is a scenario that should alarm policymakers in Washington as well.

 

Mr. Speaker, it is not my intention to say “I told you so” to those colleagues who argued against my resolution. I would much have preferred to make a statement congratulating Azerbaijan on having held exemplary elections and making substantial steps towards democratization. Alas, I cannot do so, which should sadden and concern all of us. But I fear the consequences will be far more serious for the citizens of Azerbaijan.

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    WASHINGTON—Following years of systematic efforts by the Government of Azerbaijan to eliminate the voices of independent journalists, opposition politicians, and civil society groups, Helsinki Commission Chair Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) today introduced H.R. 4264, the Azerbaijan Democracy Act of 2015, a landmark bill that will deny U.S. visas to senior members of the Azerbaijani government. “We recognize that there are important national security and economic ties that exist between our two countries, but the United States can no longer remain blind to the appalling human rights violations that are taking place in Azerbaijan,” said Rep. Smith. “Journalists and activists are routinely arrested and imprisoned; opposition politicians are in jail and elections are not free and fair; human rights lawyers have been harassed and disbarred; and religious freedom is under attack.  The Azerbaijan Democracy Act demonstrates that the United States takes human rights and fundamental freedoms seriously, and that we will not compromise when faced by a government that represses the political opposition, the media, and religious minorities.” In addition to denying U.S. visas to senior leaders of the Government of Azerbaijan, those who derive significant financial benefit from business dealings with senior leadership, and members of the security or judicial branches, the Azerbaijan Democracy Act also expresses the sense of Congress that financial penalties should be considered. Sanctions could be lifted when the Azerbaijani government shows substantial progress toward releasing political prisoners, ending its harassment of civil society, and holding free and fair elections. “It is unacceptable that senior members of the Azerbaijani government are free to visit the United States while courageous women and men like investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, attorney Intigam Aliyev, opposition politician Ilgar Mammadov, and activist Anar Mammadli are locked away in prisons with inadequate access to legal or even medical assistance,” Rep. Smith said. “If they can pay the price for standing up for human rights, the least we can do is to stand with them.” Rep. Smith is a long-standing advocate for human rights in Azerbaijan. Following the introduction of today’s legislation he will chair a 2PM hearing to examine Azerbaijan’s persecution of Ms. Ismayilova, who was sentenced to 7.5 years in prison in early September.

  • Attacks on Press Freedom in Azerbaijan Investigated at Congressional Hearing

    WASHINGTON—At a hearing convened today by the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, Chairman Chris Smith (NJ-04) and other lawmakers examined the plight of political prisoners in Azerbaijan and in particular the imprisonment of journalist of Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative journalist known for her reports into the wealth of the senior leadership of the Government of Azerbaijan. “Much of Khadija’s reporting was done as a journalist for U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. This means that the U.S. government has a special obligation to do everything it can to secure Khadija’s release,” said Helsinki Commission Chair Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04). “Our government must take every opportunity, must leave no stone unturned, in the effort to secure her release. The State Department must make Khadija’s release a true diplomatic priority.” Following several months of harassment by Azerbaijani authorities, Ms. Ismayilova was arrested on spurious charges in December 2014. RFE/RL was subsequently raided and closed by the Government of Azerbaijan. After a lengthy trial that was widely condemned by the international community for numerous irregularities, in September Ms. Ismayilova was sentenced to 7.5 years in prison. Her appeal was denied on November 25. “Human rights organizations have documented Azerbaijan’s crackdown on civil society over the last three years,” Rep. Smith continued. “The human rights situation has seriously deteriorated in Azerbaijan, causing damage to its relations with the United States and other countries, and has damaged its own society by imprisoning or exiling some of its best and brightest citizens. The time has come to send a clear message.” Nenad Pejic, Vice President and Editor-in-Chief of Programming at RFE/RL, testified at the hearing. He said, “The arrest and imprisonment of Khadija Ismayilova and the closure of RFE/RL’s Baku bureau represent a targeted and coordinated effort by the country’s most senior leadership to punish journalists who report on the government’s corruption, silence independent journalism, and end RFE/RL’s operations in Azerbaijan.” “[We urge] the Commission, the Obama Administration, and Members of Congress to raise the issue of restrictions on freedom of the press in meetings with senior Azerbaijani officials, to demand the immediate release of all Azerbaijani journalists, to put an end to these trumped-up prosecutions, to abandon the practice of collective punishment and to investigate the murders of journalists,” said Delphine Halgand, the U.S. director of Reporters Without Borders. “President Obama should meet with Khadija Ismayil’s mother, and members of Congress visiting Azerbaijan should visit Khadija Ismayil in prison,” said T. Kumar, International Advocacy Director for Amnesty International USA. The Helsinki Commission has long pressed the Government of Azerbaijan to end its repression of the political opposition, journalists, and religious minorities. Earlier today, Chairman Smith introduced H.R. 4264, the Azerbaijan Democracy Act of 2015, landmark legislation to deny U.S. visas to senior members of the Azerbaijani government following years of systematic efforts by the Government of Azerbaijan to eliminate the voices of independent journalists, opposition politicians, and civil society groups. In 2015 alone, the Commission has issued numerous statements on the rapid decline of human rights in the country and held a November briefing examining how the government of Azerbaijan uses its judicial system to intimidate and imprison critics of the government.

  • U.S. Bill Seeks Sanctions On Azerbaijani Officials For 'Appalling' Rights Record

    A U.S. lawmaker has introduced legislation that would deny U.S. visas to senior Azerbaijani officials due to what he calls Baku's "appalling human rights violations." U.S. Representative Chris Smith (Republican-New Jersey) introduced the bill, titled the Azerbaijan Democracy Act of 2015, in the House of Representatives on December 16. "The human rights situation has seriously deteriorated in Azerbaijan, causing damage to its relations with the United States and other countries, and has damaged its own society by imprisoning or exiling some of its best and brightest citizens," Smith told a hearing of Congress's Helsinki Commission held in conjunction with the announcement of the legislation.

  • Helsinki Commission Hearing to Scrutinize Azerbaijan’s Persecution of RFE/RL Reporter Khadija Ismayilova

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: “Azerbaijan’s Persecution of RFE/RL Reporter Khadija Ismayilova” Wednesday, December 16, 2015 2:00 PM Rayburn House Office Building Room 2200 Live Webcast: http://bit.ly/1VRaf3G In December 2014 the Government of Azerbaijan arrested investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova on spurious charges and subsequently raided the offices of her employer, U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).  After a lengthy trial that was widely condemned by the international community for numerous irregularities, in September Ms. Ismayilova was sentenced to 7.5 years in prison. Her appeal was denied on November 25 and the RFE/RL Baku Bureau has remained shuttered by the Government of Azerbaijan.  As Helsinki Commission Chair Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) noted at the time of her sentencing, “[Ms. Ismayilova] is being robbed of her freedom for exposing corruption within the Azerbaijani government. Her arrest last December and the subsequent shutdown of the RFE/RL bureau in Baku were direct attacks on media freedom.”  Ms. Ismayilova is known for her well-documented investigative reports into the wealth of the senior leadership of the Government of Azerbaijan and had suffered harassment from the security services for some time before her arrest.  This hearing will examine the conduct of the trial against Ms. Ismayilova and whether or not the U.S. Government has done all it can to secure her release and to address the closing of the Baku bureau of RFE/RL. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Nenad Pejic, Vice President / Editor-in-Chief of Programming, RFE/RL Delphine Halgand, U.S. Director, Reporters Without Borders T. Kumar, International Advocacy Director, Amnesty International USA Shelly Han, Policy Advisor, Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe  

  • Helsinki Commission Chair Welcomes Release of Leyla Yunus as “First Step”

    WASHINGTON–Following today’s announcement that the Azerbaijani government has released human rights defender Leyla Yunus from custody due to her ill health, Representative Chris Smith (NJ-04), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, issued the following statement: “The long-overdue release of Leyla Yunus from prison to house arrest is a welcome first step—but only a first step.  The Government of Azerbaijan must go further and now make immediate arrangements for her medical treatment. Leyla and her husband Arif are gravely ill and it is the responsibility of the government, which persecuted and imprisoned them unjustly, to see that they have top-quality care. Furthermore, the spurious charges against Leyla and Arif must be dropped and the Yunuses permitted to resume their peaceful efforts on behalf of human rights in Azerbaijan.”

  • The Rule of Law and Civil Society in Azerbaijan

    This briefing discussed the current state of democracy and human rights in Azerbaijan following the 2015 parlimentary election.  Ambassador Morningstar, who was the U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan from 2012 until 2014, recommended that the United States focus on building trust and opportunites for cooperation with the Azerbaijani government, in order to have leverage to encourage respect for human rights. Natalia Bourjaily spoke about the increasing number of legal restrictions on foriegn NGOs in Azerbaijan and Dinara Yunus discussed the conditions under which her parents, Azeri human rights activists, were held.  

  • The Rule of Law and Civil Society in Azerbaijan

    Azerbaijan's parliamentary election in November 2015 provided further evidence of the absence of rule of law in Azerbaijan. The majority of opposition candidates were not allowed on the ballot, there was no mechanism for debate on television, election monitors faced intimidation, and Azerbaijan generally failed to abide by minimum standards of elections it has committed itself to in the OSCE. Rule of law means that governmental powers are restricted by certain standards, which includes that citizens are allowed mechanisms to hold government accountable, such as through the media and civil society. These freedoms are greatly restricted in Azerbaijan. This briefing sought to better understand the situation in Azerbaijan through the testimonies of experts, including a particularly moving testimony by Dinara Yunus, the daughter of two imprisoned Azerbaijani human rights defenders. 

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Examine Serious Decline in Respect for Human Rights in Azerbaijan

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: “The Rule of Law and Civil Society in Azerbaijan” Thursday, November 5 2:00PM Cannon House Office Building Room 311 The last two years have witnessed a precipitous decline in the respect for rule of law and human rights in Azerbaijan. Many independent civil society organizations have been forced to close due to onerous regulations, threats of intimidation, or the arrest of the organization’s leaders. Independent media has been severely curtailed or closed down. Opposition parties are harassed and often shut out of the election process. High-profile politicians are serving lengthy prison sentences on charges that many observers believe were politically motivated. This briefing will have a particular focus on the rule of law and how the government of Azerbaijan is using its judicial system to intimidate and imprison critics of the government. The briefing will also analyze the results of the November 1 parliamentary election and its implications for Azerbaijan’s future direction. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Ambassador Richard Morningstar, US Ambassador to the Republic of Azerbaijan from July 2012 to August 2014 and Founding Director of the Global Energy Center, Atlantic Council Natalia Bourjaily, Vice President – Eurasia, International Center for Not-for-Profit Law Dinara Yunus, Daughter of imprisoned Azerbaijani human rights defenders Leyla and Arif Yunus

  • Helsinki Commission Chair Chris Smith Shines Light on Egregious Rule-of-Law Abuses by Russian Government

    WASHINGTON—At a Congressional hearing today, the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, spotlighted the many recent violations of the rule of law committed by the Russian government. “Forty years after the signing of the Helsinki Final Act, we face a set of challenges with Russia, a founding member of the organization, that mirror the concerns that gave rise to the Helsinki Final Act,” said Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), who called the hearing. “At stake is the hard-won trust between members, now eroded to the point that armed conflict rages in the OSCE region. The question is open whether the principles continue to bind the Russian government with other states in a common understanding of what the rule of law entails.” “Russia’s annexation of Crimea and subsequent intervention in the Donbas region not only clearly violate this commitment, but also every guiding principle of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act.  It appears these are not isolated instances.  In recent years, Russia appears to have violated, undermined, disregarded, or even disavowed fundamental and binding arms control commitments,” Smith continued. “[I also] question Russia’s OSCE commitment to develop free, competitive markets that respect international dispute arbitration mechanisms...[and recent government actions] demonstrate Russia’s readiness to abuse its laws and judicial system to limit individual freedoms both within and beyond its borders.” Witness testimony highlighted case studies corresponding to each of the three dimensions of comprehensive security established by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE): politico-military security; economic and environmental security; and human rights and fundamental freedoms. Tim Osborne, executive director of GML Ltd., the majority owner of the now-liquidated Yukos Oil Company, said, “It is clear that the Russian Federation is not honoring its obligations and commitments under the rule of law or in a manner consistent with the Helsinki process.  Russia’s tendency, more often than not, has been to ignore, delay, obstruct or retaliate when faced with its international law responsibilities…Russia cannot be trusted in international matters and that even when it has signed up to international obligations, it will ignore them if that is what it thinks serves it best.” “Russia had engaged in the uncompensated expropriation of billions of dollars of U.S. investments in Yukos Oil Company,” observed former U.S. Under Secretary of State for Economic, Business and Agricultural Affairs Ambassador Alan Larson. “American investors—who owned about 12 percent of Yukos at the time of the expropriation—have claims worth over $14 billion, and they are entitled to compensation under international law even though they have no option for bringing claims directly against the Russian Federation.” Vladimir Kara-Murza, a well-known Russian activist and the coordinator of the Open Russia Movement, said, “Today, the Kremlin fully controls the national airwaves, which it has turned into transmitters for its propaganda…the last Russian election recognized by the OSCE as conforming to basic democratic standards was held more than 15 years ago.” “There are currently 50 political prisoners in the Russian Federation,” Kara-Murza continued. “These prisoners include opposition activists jailed under the infamous ‘Bolotnaya case’ for protesting against Mr. Putin’s inauguration in May 2012; the brother of anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny; and Alexei Pichugin, the remaining hostage of the Yukos case.” “A clear pattern emerges when one looks at Russia’s implementation of its arms control obligations overall,” observed Stephen Rademaker, former Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security and Nonproliferation. “Should Moscow conclude such agreements have ceased to serve its interest, it will ignore them, effectively terminate them, violate them while continuing to pay them lip service, or selectively implement them…Russia believes that this is how great powers are entitled to act, and today Moscow insists on acting and being respected as a great power.” Chairman Smith was joined at the hearing by a panel of lawmakers including Commission Co-Chairman Senator Roger Wicker (MS) and Representative Robert Aderholt (AL-04).

  • Bipartisan Congressional Delegation Represents US at OSCE Parliamentary Assembly; Also Visits Ukraine, Czech Republic

    Forty years after the signing of the Helsinki Final Act established the precursor to today’s Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), five members of the Helsinki Commission and four other members of Congress traveled to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Annual Session in Helsinki to demonstrate the U.S. commitment to confronting Russian aggression in Ukraine and elsewhere. Led by Commission Co-Chairman Senator Roger F. Wicker (MS), the bicameral, bipartisan delegation organized by the Helsinki Commission included Commission Chairman Representative Chris Smith (NJ- 04); House Commissioners Robert B. Aderholt (AL-04), Steve Cohen (TN-09) and Alan Grayson (FL-09); and Representatives Gwen Moore (WI-04), Michael Fitzpatrick (PA-08), Richard Hudson (NC-08) and Ruben Gallego (AZ-07). Before attending the Annual Session from July 5 to 7, several members of the delegation also visited Ukraine and the Czech Republic. A central concern to the delegation throughout the trip was Russia’s restrictions on democracy at home and aggression in Ukraine, along with Russia’s threat to European security.

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