Azerbaijan’s November 1 vote was no cliffhanger, with President Ilham Aliyev’s Yeni (New) Azerbaijan Party, or YAP, winning as it has all parliamentary elections since 1996. What was different this year is that the region’s standard election-observation group, from the OSCE/ODIHR, was not there to assess the quality of the vote in an environment some Western human-rights watchdogs argue has gone from bad to worse.
The absence of these observers appeared to clear the stage for a variety of positive assessments — something entirely natural, in the government’s view.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe/Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) refused to send its observation mission after Azerbaijani authorities restricted the number of observers that could be sent. The observers have never deemed an Azerbaijani vote up to international standards.
But senior presidential advisor Ali Hasanov, for one, did not miss them.
The requested size of the OSCE/ODIHR mission “is a result of their biased attitude” toward Azerbaijan, local outlets reported him as saying. He also cited supposed "financial problems" caused by their presence, and questions “about their accommodation" -- this last despite Azerbaijan's hosting of the 2015 European Games.
But Hasanov argued that the matter goes beyond numbers. "We think that the number of observers is not important for observing a democratic election," he reasoned. "The most important thing is the created conditions, the satisfaction of the voters with [the] voting process and the opinion of the groups monitoring the election."
And with that, Azerbaijan, overall, had little reason to be displeased.
"Election in Azerbaijan satisfies all observers, including West," read a headline for the pro-government Trend news agency.
Particularly "satisfied" were observers from Russia and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union.
The Commonwealth of Independent States’ Russia-led monitoring group declared “unanimously” that Azerbaijani voters “were provided with the opportunity to freely make their choice.” — an evaluation President Aliyev termed “objective and depoliticized.”
Providing the chorus was Russian parliamentarian Leonid Slutsky, chair of the Russian Duma’s committee for Commonwealth of Independent States issues: “We welcome the will of the people of Azerbaijan, as expressed through free and democratic elections.”
That view came as no surprise. In the run-up to the vote, the site acting as the elections' de-facto information portal had prominently promoted commentary from Sergei Markov, tagged as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s envoy, and LDPR boss Vladimir Zhirinovsky that gave the election to Aliyev’s YAP and predicted that it would be a nice, clean vote.
With a nearly 56-percent turnout, initial results showed YAP taking at least 70 of 125 seats, with the rest expected to be distributed among sympathetic parties. The country’s largest opposition parties and groups, citing concerns about civil rights and air time, boycotted the election.
Moscow and Baku, united in their annoyance with Western criticism of rights records, may, indeed, have reason to see eye to eye about the purity of the vote, but they were not alone.
Some Western observers also gave a hearty thumbs-up. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, often bashed for alleged openness to Azerbaijani lobbying, termed the election “transparent” with “the necessary basis” for a democratic vote.
Two solo American observers — former US Congressman Joe Bata (D-CA) and Jason Katz, director of the California-based lobbying firm Tool Shed Group — expressed similar approval while voting was still underway. In a comment actively promoted by mainstream Azerbaijani media, Katz, whose organization has represented Azerbaijan’s consulate in Los Angeles, opined that the US could learn from Azerbaijan how to conduct a free and fair election.
Members of the British House of Lords’ delegation also took Azerbaijan as a model. “The difference of Azerbaijan from the UK lies in the fact that here the people value their opportunity of freedom of choice,” observed
Baroness Detta O'Cathain.
Views from the UK-based Amnesty International, not a group on which Baku looks lovingly, had been quite different, however.
The watchdog had noted before November 1 that opposition parties are only “nominally allowed to exist,” but are effectively refused public space to operate and campaign. “Almost all independent NGOs – around 20 of them – have been shut down, their offices have been sealed and their bank accounts frozen after criminal proceedings were instigated by the authorities,” the watchdog wrote.
The jailing of award-winning investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova and continued reported hounding of correspondents for the Berlin-based Meidan TV also appeared to escape the notice of observers cited in mainstream Azerbaijani media.*
Yet further tussles could be in store. On November 2, with the elections out of the way, President Aliyev signed into law changes in the country’s media legislation that permit the “organ” overseeing a preliminary criminal investigation to demand that media change or retract reports about the investigation if it is considered that the coverage does "not correspond with reality” or is "distorted." Details were not immediately available.
Any outside criticism of this move, however, likely will be dismissed with the logic displayed by one commentator for Trend in her roundup on the election.
“The West gets accustomed to some small countries’ submission and has been trying to destabilize the civil society of Azerbaijan many times during all these years,” wrote Elmira Tariverdiyeva. “Fortunately, it failed."
--Caucasus news editor Elizabeth Owen added reporting to this post.
*Khadija Ismayilova has worked as a freelance reporter for EurasiaNet.org.