Baku and Washington Lock Horns in Post-Election Face-Off
The US embassy in Baku is finding itself in an awkward situation following Azerbaijan’s October 9 presidential vote as it faces unprecedented claims from both the presidential administration and Ministry of Defense that the US allegedly “advised” the government how much of the vote should be “given” to President Ilham Aliyev.
The claims, emphatically denied by both the embassy and Washington, follow outspoken criticism from the US State Department and international observers about the conduct of the election. Main opposition candidate Jamil Hasanli will continue the focus on the elections when he visits the US next month.Some analysts claim that the official criticism apparently sparked Azerbaijani officials to turn their anger from the opposition toward Washington, and to add some spicy disclosures to the mix.
On October 11, Azerbaijan’s defense ministry fired what proved to be the opening salvo when it released a statement that cited US Ambassador Richard Morningstar as allegedly telling Defense Minister Safar Abiyev in a meeting that “Criticism in connection with the results of the presidential election does not affect their results. Ilham Aliyev is the winner.” In response, the US embassy asserted on October 14 that the get-together “was a private diplomatic meeting” and, while “constructive,” the “statements attributed to Ambassador Morningstar were not accurate.”
But it was not the end of the story. On October 15, the defense ministry issued a statement retorting that it did not misrepresent Ambassador Morningstar’s words and that, moreover, it has a recording to prove it.
“[I]f the embassy insists, the defense ministry can publish the audio record of the meeting,” the statement read.
The ministry did not explain why it was recording a “private diplomatic meeting.” It has not released the recording yet, and the US embassy has not commented further.
But then, the powerful head of the presidential administration, Ramiz Mehdiyev, entered the debate on October 15 with an interview to several pro-government news agencies in which he accused the US of offering a deal to the government prior to the elections: a “balanced” response from the State Department to the elections if main opposition candidate Jamil Hasanli gets 25 percent of the vote and Ilham Aliyev receives 74 to 75 percent.
Both the US embassy and US State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki rejected the assertion as “totally” and “completely false.” But Baku does not have any plans to step back. On October 17, presidential administration spokesperson Elnur Aslanov repeated the claim, alleging that US Ambassador Richard Morningstar had “mentioned” the numbers “at various pre-election meetings with government and presidential administration officials.”
“We consider it unacceptable when they say one thing at closed meetings and completely different things for the media . . .” Aslanov told the pro-government 1News.az. “We know what their denials are worth – the whole world saw the realities in the WikiLeaks disclosures.” The embassy, in turn, repeated its denial, adding that “We will not discuss the contents of private diplomatic meetings and the disclosure of contents of such meetings is unacceptable.”
Nonetheless, for some Azerbaijanis the fact that the government is sticking emphatically to its guns in a war of words with the US comes as a surprise and suggests that some truth may lie in Baku’s claims.
Baku has a long-established and generally positive cooperation with the US in the area of defense. It also serves as a transit hub for the withdrawal of non-military cargo and American troops from Afghanistan. Baku-based political analyst Zardusht Alizade, however, believes that the scandal will not have any impact on US-Azerbaijani cooperation in military matters.
“These scandals are nothing but a tempest in a teapot,” Alizade said. Baku has conducted “such bad and dirty elections that now they are looking for an outside enemy to distract people’s attention,” he alleged. Neither the US nor Europe, however, have any interest in whacking Azerbaijan over the head with the reported vote falsifications, noted analyst Elkhan Shahinoglu. “The West understands that Aliyev enjoys real power in Azerbaijan and will continue to work with his government. They also understand that in case of serious pressure [on the Aliyev administration] he would turn the country toward Russia.” And, so, like the 2010 Wikileaks scandal, the US is expected to look the other way, added Alizade. Ultimately, he predicted, the scandal will be forgotten. Time will tell.