Azerbaijan's parliamentary elections on November 6 are shaping up as an important test for US foreign policy, providing an opportunity for Washington to show how American strategic interests have been harmonized with the Bush administration's democratization desires.
Azerbaijan's electoral history in the post-Soviet era, like most other former Soviet republics, is far from stellar. Accusations of unfair campaign practices and ballot manipulation have tainted elections, including the Azerbaijan's 2003 presidential vote. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. From the start of this Azerbaijani parliamentary election campaign, US officials have sought to change the pattern, encouraging President Ilham Aliyev's administration in Baku to conduct a fair and transparent vote.
A wide variety of top-level US officials have repeated the same message: the United States expects the "upcoming election in Azerbaijan to be fair," as National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley put it on October 24, adding that Azerbaijan "has to realize that a free, fair and just election will advance this country's democratic development."
Ruling elites in Eurasia tend to suspect that the United States is the architect of the "color revolution" phenomenon, which has produced regime change over the past two years in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. While espousing democratization, US officials have flatly denied that the American government is intent on stoking a global democratic revolution. Daniel Fried, Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia who is close to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and worked with her at the National Security Council, said on a recent visit to Baku that Washington does not export revolutions. "Revolution is a failure," Fried said. But, he stressed, the United States will support local initiatives that seek to promote reforms and expand liberty.
High-profile members of Washington's foreign policy establishment, such as Sen. Richard Lugar (Republican of Indiana), have bluntly stated that "a [color] revolution is not expected in Azerbaijan." Lugar should know: he served as US President George W. Bush's personal envoy in Kyiv during the Ukraine's Orange Revolution in December 2004.
On October 27, Matt Bryza, the US deputy assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia, welcomed Aliyev's presidential decree that aims to increase election transparency. He emphasized, however, that the success of the transparency steps ordered by Aliyev will be linked to the implementation of the presidential decree. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
For the parliamentary election, the US Agency of International Development is funding a comprehensive exit poll that seeks to provide a reliable way to cross-check official results. Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain (Republican of Arizona) sponsored a Senate resolution calling for a transparent Azerbaijani parliamentary election. Resolution co-sponsors included Lugar, Sen. Sam Brownback (a Kansas Republican), Sen. Joseph Biden (a Delaware Democrat) and Sen. Chuck Hagel (Republican of Nebraska).
While the United States has an abiding interest in democratization in Azerbaijan, Washington is also keeping its considerable geopolitical and economic interests in sight. Those interests include: ensuring the steady growth of energy production in the Caspian Basin; attracting oil exports from Kazakhstan for the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline; promoting a settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict; and potentially establishing a US military facility in Azerbaijan. "Elections in Azerbaijan are strategic, not tactical," said S. Enders Wimbush, a senior fellow and director of future strategic studies at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC. "Azerbaijan is in play, and the players are China, Russia, Iran, India, Turkey and the United States. Azerbaijan and Georgia are about the East-West trade routes, as well as the North-South ones."
Azerbaijan's strategic importance for the United States is clearly increasing, as many Washington policymakers share Wimbush's assessment. The announcement that two new radar systems have begun to operate in Azerbaijan, and that Kazakhstan will also play a role, is significant for counter-proliferation efforts. The two radar stations have been established close to the Russian and Iranian borders. These radars equipped with advanced technologies are able to clearly and easily observe all suspected ships, planes and activities on the ground in the southern and northern parts of the Caspian Sea. Moreover, they have the capacity to tap wireless telephone calls.
The Pentagon is especially anxious to protect its assets and thus is not anxious to see any change in the status quo in Azerbaijan. The color revolution phenomenon has been a major factor in the rapid erosion of the US strategic position in Central Asia. Many experts believe Uzbekistan's leader, Islam Karimov, ordered the eviction of US troops from the country because he perceived the United States to be an advocate of regime change. Publicly top Defense Department officials, including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, have downplayed the strategic importance of the lost Uzbek base at Karshi-Khanabad. Privately, however, two senior analysts with ties to the military, who spoke on condition of anonymity, bemoaned the loss of the Uzbek facility, and expressed concern that a continued US emphasis on democratization could cause serious damage to the United States' geopolitical position down the road.
Another important element of the US policy-making calculus involves Azerbaijan's political opposition. For much of Azerbaijan's post-Soviet existence, opposition leaders have feuded among themselves and have generally not inspired faith in the international community that they would be up to the task of governing. Over the past year, opposition leaders, including Musavat's Isa Gambar and Popular Front leader Ali Kerimli, have attempted to burnish their troubled images, and the fractious main opposition parties have formed a coalition, known as Azadlig, for the parliamentary vote. However, with domestic support for Azadlig believed to be lagging behind that of governing New Azerbaijan Party, US officials remain inclined to believe that the best bet for Azerbaijan's stable political and economic development continues to be Aliyev's administration.
Alexei Malashenko, a Caucasus expert at the Carnegie Endowment Moscow Center, asserted that President Aliyev and his New Azerbaijan Party enjoy significantly more popular support than do the Azadliq coalition and its leaders. Malashenko also indicated that Russia too is hoping to see political continuity in Baku. "This is a unique case where Russia and the United States are both interested in stability in Azerbaijan," he said.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation and co-author of Eurasia in Balance (Ashgate, 2005).