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changes to ensure that the election met international standards, claiming to render the resolution either irrelevant or out of date.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.