Azerbaijan’s Elections: An Opportunity for a Deeper Partnership

This article is released by Nasimi Aghayev, Consul General of Azerbaijan in Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES, Oct. 24, 2013 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — On October 9, Azerbaijan staged its 6th presidential election since its independence from the Soviet Union 22 years ago. The outcome was of little surprise: incumbent Ilham Aliyev was re-elected with an impressive margin.

The reaction of many international observers, including those from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and European Parliament, was quite positive. “Overall around Election Day we have observed a free, fair and transparent electoral process,” the Parliamentary Assembly delegation reported. It was also an observation echoed by American monitors, such as Former Democratic Congressman Michael McMahon, who wryly observed that “there were much shorter lines than in America, and no hanging chads” at the polling places he visited in Azerbaijan.

Twenty-two years ago, the new states that emerged from the ashes of the Soviet Union, were seeking a new direction as they set about creating truly representative government after seven decades under the totalitarian communist regime. For its part, Azerbaijan opted for a close relationship with the United States, even though the geopolitics of a volatile region did not make this an easy choice. To us in Azerbaijan it was a slam-dunk decision, however, and my country has never wavered, offering immediate, unconditional assistance following the 9/11 tragedy, invaluable help during the war in Afghanistan and serving as a reliable provider of energy for the European allies of America.

But despite Azerbaijan’s commitment to friendship with the U.S., its efforts have not always been fully reciprocated. One example has been the infamous Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act, which bans any direct U.S. government aid to Azerbaijan. Passed by Congress after intensive lobbying by Armenian pressure groups, Section 907 has been waived every year since 9/11 in recognition of Azerbaijan’s support against terrorism – but its very existence risks undermining Azerbaijan’s faith in the United States.

In 2010, two Senate Democrats, members of the Armenian caucus, blocked President Obama’s nomination of Matthew Bryza as America’s ambassador to Azerbaijan. The result was the loss of a tremendously gifted diplomat who had more than 20 years’ experience in Moscow and former Soviet Union countries.

Most importantly, there has been a lack of sufficient engagement from the U.S. government on the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. Armenia continues to illegally occupy 20% of Azerbaijan’s internationally recognised territory, in violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions and contrary to the international peace plan. Despite having both the capability and the motivation to persuade Armenia to withdraw its troops, Washington has not done so and virtually left peace negotiations to others.

Azerbaijan’s sense of neglect was underscored when the State Department issued a condemnation of last week’s presidential vote. The State Department is entitled to its own opinion, of course. But that statement, which relied heavily on a single negative report by a small group of election monitors from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), didn’t acknowledge that some 1,300 other international monitors from 50 countries praised the election process. Nor did it acknowledge that the OSCE mission was itself divided on the issue: Michel Voisin, special coordinator of the observation team, said that the election was “free, transparent and fair” and “improvement compared to previous elections,” while the chief of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s team Doris Barnett from Germany said that the vote was “well-prepared and, in many respects, almost no different to elections in Germany.”

Also, an exit poll of voters conducted by a renowned U.S.-based pollster Arthur J. Finkelstein and Associates, Nixon’s and Reagan’s former pollster, predicted a result almost identical to the official tally.

Explaining President Aliyev’s election-day sweep is simple: unlike the opposition, which is unpopular and disorganized, Ilham Aliyev is a proven leader and the most popular politician in the country. Under his presidency, Azerbaijan has become an island of stability and prosperity in a very difficult region. During Aliyev’s tenure, average incomes rose more than fivefold, per-capita GDP leapt from $850 to $10,500; and Azerbaijan’s poverty rate dropped from 49% to 6.5%. Supported by the prudent management of the country’s energy wealth, Azerbaijan is today the economic powerhouse of the Caucasus, and its capital Baku has been transformed into a dynamic and glamorous metropolis. Politically, Azerbaijan has become a rising power in the region, with a seat on the UN Security Council and growing global links. It remains a stalwart ally in the fight against terrorism and provides a vital transportation route for U.S. and other NATO forces in Afghanistan.

So in light of Azerbaijan’s strategic importance, its contributions to U.S. national interests and, most crucially, the overwhelming evidence of a free and transparently conducted election, it was strange – and disappointing – to hear such a biased and negative statement from the U.S. administration.

Many in Azerbaijan already feel neglected by America’s lack of engagement in our region. Washington should take time to ponder whether it is in U.S.’s best interests to alienate Azerbaijan – a staunch ally and friend in a critical region – or instead help it towards even greater democracy and stronger independence.

Nasimi Aghayev is Azerbaijan’s Consul General to the Western United States

SOURCE Consulate General of Azerbaijan in Los Angeles