Azerbaijan: Grumbling over Referendum Results Continues in Baku
Controversial amendments to Azerbaijan's constitution may have been approved, but the changes are continuing to face resistance and criticism both in Baku and abroad.
In April 6 remarks to members of Azerbaijan's Security Council, President Ilham Aliyev characterized the outcome of a March referendum as proof that "unity between the people and the authorities has been consolidated." [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The adopted amendments "give us additional opportunities to carry out reforms more successfully," he continued.
The Central Election Commission announced that an overwhelming number of voters backed the constitutional changes, including an amendment that effectively lifted term limits on President Aliyev. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The results no doubt influenced Aliyev's pronouncement that the political situation in Azerbaijan is "very wonderful." On April 2, Aliyev signed a decree that formally incorporated the amendments into the constitution.
But not everyone shares the presidential optimism about the changes.
At an April 6 press conference in Baku, European Union Special Envoy for the South Caucasus Peter Semneby said that the removal of presidential term limits contradicts "democratic tendencies in Europe."
"Azerbaijan is still a developing country where constitutional bodies are still being formed and that is why such an amendment to the Constitution should not be made," Semneby added.
Some local analysts share Semneby's concern. International law expert Erkin Gadirli argued that since Aliyev took his oath on Azerbaijan's pre-referendum constitution, he should be held to the two-term limit it imposed. "[H]e swore on the Constitution that he would carry out his presidency no more than twice without a break," Gadirli said. Aliyev's current term expires in 2013. "[T]he recent amendment should take effect with the person who will be elected in 2013."
A constitutional expert, Fuad Agayev, sees other trouble areas. Since the legislation was hastily formulated and approved, it is open to disputes over interpretation, he suggested. "The fact that over the course of one week, the Constitutional Court and the parliament took three decisions to approve the amendment [proposal] and to schedule the referendum testified that that they did not have time to look into each of the 41 amendments and did everything hastily," Agayev said. He added that the time-frame for adoption of the amendments did not afford sufficient time for informed public debate of the changes.
The March 18 date of the referendum, on the eve of the Azeri holiday Novruz, was chosen carefully, he continued. "Authorities choose the right time for the referendum to avoid mass protests," Agayev noted. "Right after March 18, people celebrated the ten-day Novruz Bayram [festival] and everybody, including ordinary opposition members, was busy with their family and the holiday."
One Baku-based election monitor took issue with what he termed restrictions placed on freedom of press and assembly before the referendum. "As it was in previous elections, during the March referendum process . . . incidents of repression and persecution of persons, who were against the referendum, were registered, and voters were under pressure," commented Anar Mammadli, chairman of the non-governmental organization Center for Election Monitoring and Democracy.
The government, however, remains firm. A statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs asserted that the entire process "reflected the will of [the] Azerbaijani people and demonstrate[s] once again Azerbaijan's commitment to fundamental freedoms and democratic values."
Among Baku residents, however, that support is not always robust. Fifty-two-year-old Garib Heybatov recounted visiting an acquaintance who worked in a polling station. "[M]y acquaintance said that all the necessary votes had been made ready," said Heybatov, recounting that the conversation with his acquaintance took place a few days before the actual referendum date. "I felt deceived. I did not participate in the voting and could not support it."
Forty-seven-year-old Mariyam Ibadova, however, takes the government at its word. Although she concedes that she could not read all the amendments, Ibadova said that she voted for the changes because she believes in Aliyev.
Mina Muradova is a freelance reporter based in Baku.
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