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Report on Azerbaijan's Presidential Election
Tuesday, December 01, 1998

On October 11, 1998, Azerbaijan held presidential elections. The contest pitted incumbent President Heydar Aliev, the former Communist Party leader who returned to power in 1993, against moderate opposition leader Etibar Mamedov, political maverick Nizami Suleimanov, and three other candidates with little recognition or following. While no one seriously expected Aliev to lose, the opposition candidates were hoping for a second round.

Five leading opposition politicians—Abulfaz Elchibey, Isa Gambar, Rasul Guliev, Ilyas Ismailov and Lala Shovket—boycotted the vote, unwilling to legitimize by their participation an election they believed would be unfair. Negotiations that took place in August between the government and the boycotting opposition over the most controversial aspect of the election—the composition of the Central Election Commission—proved unsuccessful, with the authorities rejecting the opposition’s demand for equal representation on the CEC. The five leaders, joined by numerous other parties and groups in the Movement for Electoral Reform and Democratic Elections, urged voters not to go to the polls. The authorities minimized the boycott’s significance, arguing that the opposition leaders knew they had no chance in a fair election and therefore preferred to claim fraud and not participate.

Beginning August 15, the boycotting parties organized a series of rallies and demonstrations to pressure the government and call for fair elections. These were the first mass street actions in Azerbaijan in years. The authorities refused to let the opposition hold a demonstration in Freedom Square, in the center of Baku, offering alternative venues instead. On September 12, protesters clashed with police, resulting in arrests and injuries. Afterwards, authorities and opposition tried to reach agreement on the demonstrators’ route, and most pre-election rallies, some of which drew big crowds, were largely peaceful.

The increasingly tense relations between the government and boycotting opposition parties were one factor in the OSCE/ODIHR’s appraisal of the election.  In ODIHR’s view, these failings outweighed the positive aspects of the election, such as the election law, which all sides acknowledged as acceptable, the freedom for candidates to speak openly on television, the abolition of censorship and provisions for domestic observers. The OSCE/ODIHR assessment was that the election fell short of meeting international norms. With the OSCE assessment placing in question the official results, the CEC’s failure to publish election protocols until long after the stipulated time period heightens doubts about President Aliev’s standing. The election was largely a referendum on his five-year presidency. Since his return to power in 1993, he has not solved the major problems besetting the country. The NagornoKarabakh conflict remains unsettled; Azerbaijani territory is still under Armenian occupation and no refugees have returned to their homes. Living standards for the great majority of the population have declined precipitously, though it is widely known that a tiny stratum of corrupt officials and businessmen have become rich. Moreover, the predominance of people from Nakhichevan - Aliev’s home region - in positions of power exacerbates general discontent.

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Cooperation is Key Cooperation is vital to the Forum 18 approach. “Cooperation in defense of human rights for all is both right in principle and more effective than competition,” the Forum 18 editors argue. “It is important to cooperate with others – including in our case providing accurate information – to help responses to violations of freedom of religion and belief and interlinked other fundamental freedoms to be as effective as possible. Our work with victims of freedom of religion and belief violations and other human rights defenders convinces us that this approach is the right one to follow.” Twitter: @Forum_18 Facebook: @Forum18NewsService

  • Helsinki Commission Announces Briefing on OSCE Field Missions in the Western Balkans

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: “THE WESTERN BALKANS: PERSPECTIVES FROM OSCE FIELD MISSIONS” Wednesday, November 1, 2017 10:00 AM Senate Visitors Center Room 202 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Since the outbreak of the conflicts associated with Yugoslavia’s break-up in the early 1990s, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and its field missions have been a central part of the international community’s response. Early OSCE efforts to counter the spillover effects of those conflicts were followed by ongoing assistance in post-conflict recovery and reconciliation. Today, OSCE field missions continue to exist in virtually every country of the region. They encourage the reform and cooperation essential to the long-term stability of the region through activities that broadly support democratic institutions and governance, particularly to strengthen rule of law; programs to promote integration of minority communities, especially Roma, and to counter violent extremism, and more; and regular reporting to the OSCE Secretariat and participating States. The briefing features three Americans who currently hold, or have recently held, senior positions on the OSCE Missions deployed in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Serbia, reflecting the importance which the United States attaches to having an OSCE presence in countries of concern.  Panelists will comment on developments in those countries during their assignment, the efforts undertaken by their respective missions to assist those countries, and the effectiveness of the OSCE as a multilateral tool for enhancing stability and promoting reform.  An OSCE official will also participate on the panel to comment on the organization’s field work from the Secretariat perspective, and the challenges not only to OSCE field activity in the Western Balkans but throughout the OSCE region. The following experts are scheduled to participate: Ambassador Jonathan Moore, former Head of the OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina (2014-2017) Mr. Jeff Goldstein, Deputy Head of the OSCE Mission to Skopje (2016-present) Mr. Michael Uyehara, former Deputy Head of the OSCE Mission to Serbia (2014-2017) Ambassador Marcel Peško, Director of the Conflict Prevention Centre, OSCE Secretariat (2015 – present)

  • Averting All-Out War in Nagorno-Karabakh

    Last year, the worst outbreak of violence over Nagorno-Karabakh in more than two decades erupted as the so-called Four Day War in April 2016 claimed approximately 200 lives and demonstrated that the conflict is anything but “frozen.” The Line of Contact separating the parties sees numerous ceasefire violations annually and each one risks igniting a larger-scale conflict that could draw in major regional players, such as Russia, Turkey, and Iran. Since 1997, the United States, France, and Russia have co-chaired the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the principal international mechanism aimed at reaching a negotiated solution to the conflict. The U.S. Helsinki Commission hosted two former United States Co-Chairs of the Minsk Group process as well as a renowned, independent expert on the conflict to assess the current state of the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, the Minsk Group format, and the prospects for achieving a lasting peace. Magdalena Grono, an expert from the International Crisis Group, underlined the serious potential for further flare-ups in the fighting, which could have severe humanitarian impacts and draw in regional powers. She contextualized the recent clashes and assessed that the conflict was among the most deadly, intractable and risky in Europe. According to her assessment, the conflict is beset by two worrisome trends: deteriorating confidence between the parties and in the settlement process itself as well as increasingly dangerous clashes due in part to the deployment of heavier weaponry. Ambassador Carey Cavanaugh discussed the role of the Minsk Group in the settlement process while voicing his concern that positions have hardened on all sides. Growing tensions have created risks not only of intentional but also accidental conflict, he said. The Ambassador outlined the limits of the Minsk Group’s mandate, underscoring that it is charged with helping the sides find a solution rather than imposing one from the outside. He lamented that the recent meeting between the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents apparently failed to achieve agreement on certain confidence and security building measures (CSBMs). In order to stem further escalation, he noted the importance of implementing CSBMs and establishing a direct communication channel between the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides. He concluded by calling on the leadership of Armenia and Azerbaijan to demonstrate the political will to work toward a resolution, for instance by preparing their populations for the compromises that will inevitably be required to achieve peace. Ambassador James Warlick asserted that while this was a time of significant danger, peace remains within reach. He urged the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents to engage together on principles that they know can lead to peace, saying that meetings without progress undermine confidence in negotiation efforts. Citing past negotiations, Ambassador Warlick laid out six elements that will have to be part of any settlement if it is to endure.  The Ambassador concluded by underlining that it is up to the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan to take the first step toward peace by considering measures, even unilateral ones, that will demonstrate their stated commitment to making progress, reducing tensions, and improving the atmosphere for negotiations. 

  • Kyrgyzstan election: A historic vote, but is it fair?

    For the first time in the history of Kyrgyzstan, an elected president is due to peacefully hand over power after elections take place on Sunday. But critics say the political environment in Central Asia's "island of democracy" is deteriorating. Here's a look at the issues there - and who's likely to come out on top. Elections in Central Asia are usually easily predictable - the incumbent or the ruling party's candidate wins the vote with an overwhelming majority. But the vote in Kyrgyzstan offers a real competition and choice. Nearly 60 people applied to run in the race, 13 of whom were registered to stand. Two later dropped out. The incumbent, President Almazbek Atambayev, must leave office after six years. Under the Kyrgyz constitution, he may only serve one term. In neighbouring states, laws have often been changed to allow the incumbent to run again but this did not happen in Kyrgyzstan. President Atambayev also promised not to go for the prime minister's job in order to stay in power. Although one of the main candidates - Sooronbay Jeenbekov - is from the president's party, he is not guaranteed to win the vote. He faces a strong opponent - Omurbek Babanov, a prominent businessman and a former prime minister. Some candidates made the unusual move of endorsing their opponents after the campaign started. Experts say that they went through all the trouble of getting into the race in order to increase their political influence. They try to build a greater support base, which they use to negotiate a favourable deal with stronger candidates before pulling out of the race. Politicians can easily change sides, because it's not ideology or a political platform but their own personality that they use to appeal to the voters. Observers say that over the last couple of years the political climate in Kyrgyzstan has been deteriorating. The Helsinki Commission wrote that "the vote takes place amid mounting concerns of democratic backsliding, particularly regarding the government's treatment of political opposition, civil society and human rights defenders". President Atambayev has demonstrated increasing intolerance to criticism. The Sentyabr TV station which opposed him was closed last year for extremism, and activists say that there were blatant procedural violations during the trial. Several popular independent media outlets were sued and heavily fined for insulting the president. The government also tried to intimidate critics on social media. Security services identified Facebook users who criticised the president, and gave them warnings. Several political opponents of President Atambayev have also been sent to prison. Earlier this year, leaders of the opposition People's Parliament movement were jailed for allegedly plotting a coup. Omurbek Tekebayev, a former ally of President Atambayev who turned into a prominent critic, was sentenced to eight years in prison for corruption and fraud and subsequently barred from running for the presidency. Experts saw this case as politically motivated. The atmosphere got particularly tense following a major diplomatic spat between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. It started last month after a meeting between the president of neighbouring Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, and Mr Babanov. In an unusually harsh speech, President Atambayev accused his Kazakh counterpart of interfering in Kyrgyzstan's affairs, and warned them of worse to come. "I will speak differently if our neighbours don't come to their senses," he said. Since the beginning of the campaign, there have been numerous reports of violations by various candidates. There have been reports of people going house-to-house with a list of names and addresses and offering money to citizens if they vote for Mr Jeenbekov. Mr Babanov was also accused of vote-buying, and the Central Elections Committee issued him three warnings for violation of campaign rules. The Babanov team complained that security services were putting pressure on their candidate by recording their meetings and conversations and arresting his supporters. An influential MP, Kanatbek Isakov, was detained and charged with an attempt to organise a coup. Security services denied any political motive for the arrest, but Mr Babanov said that Mr Isakov had been arrested because he endorsed him. Despite all this, many voters feel encouraged by the fact that there are several strong candidates. In their view, this will ensure that the outcome is not rigged. "Our politicians know that the people will rise if there are serious violations, so they won't go into that," said one voter in the second city, Osh. Kyrgyzstan has experienced two major uprisings that ousted presidents in the past. And in both cases, rigged elections fuelled the protest mood.    

  • Helsinki Commission Advisor Discusses ZAPAD 2017

    On September 27, 2017, Helsinki Commission Global Security and Political-Military Affairs Advisor Alex Tiersky joined Ambassador Kurt Volker, Dr. Stephen Blank, and Ambassador Eitvydas Bajarunas at a public seminar to discuss the execution, outcomes and aftermath of Russia’s large-scale ZAPAD 2017 military exercise. Hosted by the Central and East European Coalition, Russia on NATO’s Doorstep: The West's Response to the Kremlin's Wargames was moderated by Dr. Mamuka Tsereteli. During the discussion, Tiersky shared his experience as one of only two American officials who was invited by the Belarusian government (who partnered with Russia for the joint military exercise) to be present for the conclusion of ZAPAD 2017. Tiersky commended the Belarusian government for offering the Distinguished Visitors program that he participated in along with representatives of the OSCE, the Red Cross and NATO, as well as defense attachés from various countries. The program included an extensive briefing on the aims, parameters, and intent behind the exercise, as well as an opportunity to witness an impressive live-fire demonstration at the Borisov training ground.  Belarusian briefers underlined that the aim of the program was to offer as much transparency as possible; the exercise was purely defensive in nature and neighboring countries had nothing to fear, Tiersky was told.  However, Tiersky added, the program offered by Belarusian authorities – while commendable – fell short of fulfilling the spirit of commitments to military transparency under the Vienna Document, which would have provided a greater opportunity for evaluating the exercise's scale and scope through broader participation by OSCE participating states and more intrusive inspection measures.  While impressive and worthwhile, the distinguished visitors program was thus not in itself sufficient to draw broad conclusions about ZAPAD, according to Tiersky. Tiersky concluded by describing how ZAPAD did little to assuage broader concerns related to Russian unwillingness to fulfill its commitments to military transparency, including under the Vienna Document (through for example its increasing use of snap exercises), as well as Russian violations of various arms control measures that have been essential contributors to peace and security in Europe for decades.

  • Refugee Crisis in Europe and Turkey

    Since 2015, more than 2 million people have traveled north across the Mediterranean Sea, seeking refuge from wars, political repression, famine, and climates of economic and social hopelessness. In 2017 alone, more than 133,000 refugees and migrants have arrived on European shores. At least 11,309 people died or went missing on this perilous sea route since the start of the crisis, including more than 2,655 this year. Using overland routes, more than 3 million registered refugees have reached Turkey, fleeing the Syrian civil war and other desperate circumstances from points further east. These massive flows of humanity bear with them significant humanitarian, economic, political, and security implications. Such large population movements also leave thousands of people vulnerable to exploitation by human traffickers and other predators. The briefing brought together experts from the United Nations and international NGOs to assess the current humanitarian situation facing these refugees and the root causes of their flight. Speakers addressed the response of international organizations, receiving national governments, and civil society. These practitioners and experts also contributed their recommendations for action from domestic and international actors at all levels, including the United States. Mr. Reynolds provided a brief overview of the UNHCR and its response to the current crisis and urged support for all countries receiving and hosting those forcibly displaced. He called for renewed efforts to address root causes and find solutions and protection for refugees before they embark on the perilous journey by sea, where the risk of dying is one in thirty-nine. Additionally, he said that traditional humanitarian responses need to adjust to the problem of forced displacement and pursue greater engagement in stopping root causes so that voluntary repatriation becomes the norm. Mr. Reynolds concluded by saying, “We stand at a unique juncture, and this opportunity must not be lost.” Mr. Dall’Oglio focused on the need to establish long-term solutions to the crisis. Because many of the migrants traveling across the Mediterranean are coming from East Africa for a variety of social, economic, and political factors, these flows are expected to last for a much longer period of time. Mr. Dall’Oglio said that problems in the region require a comprehensive approach between source countries and destination states to improve the situation for migrants on both sides and to expand legal resettlement options for those seeking protection. He also called for more resources for navies and coast guards to rescue refugees and migrants at sea. Speaking from Copenhagen, Mr. Hyldgaard emphasized the impact of the crisis as it relates to human trafficking and provided a personal account of the current refugee situation. He also laid out A21’s three-prong approach, which is to reach, rescue, and respond. While A21 is not a humanitarian organization, it recognizes that refugees are highly vulnerable for human trafficking and has worked to counter human trafficking on multiple fronts, stepping in immediately to provide substantive relief, but with a long-term focus on providing anti-trafficking information and training for refugees and workers. Ms. Gerschutz-Bell highlighted Pope Francis’ movement with “Share the Journey, saying that the refugee crisis is a crisis of solidarity and expressing the hope that fostering a culture of solidarity will change the environment into which migrants are thrust. On a policy level, Ms. Gerschutz-Bell urged greater responsibility sharing among European states, calling attention to the current failures of the Dublin System and stressing the need for safe channels into Europe along with better implementation of resettlement processes. She then appealed to civil society as a whole to speak up when governments fail to fulfill their agreements, saying, “It’s not enough for someone to have courage; we need to do something about it.”

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Focus on Refugee Crisis

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: “REFUGEE CRISIS IN EUROPE AND TURKEY: CURRENT CHALLENGES AND RESPONSES” Tuesday, October 10, 2017 2:00 PM Russell Senate Office Building Room 188 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Since 2015, more than 2 million people have traveled north across the Mediterranean Sea, seeking refuge from wars, political repression, famine, and climates of economic and social hopelessness. In 2017 alone, more than 133,000 refugees and migrants have arrived on European shores. At least 11,309 people died or went missing on this perilous sea route since the start of the crisis, including more than 2,655 this year. Using overland routes, more than 3 million registered refugees have reached Turkey, fleeing the Syrian civil war and other desperate circumstances from points further east. These massive flows of humanity bear with them significant humanitarian, economic, political, and security implications. Such large population movements also leave thousands of people vulnerable to exploitation by human traffickers and other predators. The briefing brings together international experts and NGO representatives to assess the current humanitarian situation facing these refugees and the root causes of their flight. Speakers will address the response of international organizations, receiving national governments, and civil society. These practitioners and experts will also contribute their recommendations for action from domestic and international actors at all levels, including the United States. The following experts are scheduled to participate: Matthew Reynolds, Regional Representative for the United States and the Caribbean, United Nations High Commission for Refugees Luca Dall'Oglio, Chief of Mission, International Organization for Migration (Washington, DC office) Philip Hyldgaard, Executive Director, A21 Campaign Jill Marie Gerschutz-Bell, Senior Policy and Legislative Specialist, Catholic Relief Services and on behalf of Caritas Europa  

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