Dec 7, 2005

Eurasia insight

Azerbaijani opposition charges
US with 'double Standards'

Rovshan Ismayilov

Azerbaijani opposition leaders charge that a recent US embassy statement on the results of the November 6 parliamentary elections signals that Washington has betrayed the opposition and decided to put geopolitical interests ahead of the cause of democratic reform. The criticism comes as a sharp about-face from the campaign period, when opposition ads and media routinely presented the US as the safeguard for democracy in Azerbaijan. Though the US has denied the opposition's charges, a Wednesday meeting between US Ambassador Reno Harnish and key opposition leaders has reportedly done little to assuage these concerns.

A US embassy statement, issued on December 2, opening day for Azerbaijan's new parliament, congratulated the Constitutional Court for cancelling election results in ten constituencies allegedly tainted by fraud, and expressed optimism about working with newly elected members of parliament. It urged the government "to press ahead with prosecution of those who engaged in fraud," called on police to "respect the rights of peaceful free assembly," and reminded authorities about the need to hold fresh elections in the ten constituencies in accordance with international standards.

The embassy's reaction to the Constitutional Court decision, which removed mandates for Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan (PFPA) Chairman Ali Kerimli and PFPA activist Gulamguseyn Alibeyli, has prompted outrage by members of the tripartite Azadlig (Freedom) bloc, Azerbaijan's largest election alliance which unites the PFPA, Musavat Party and Democratic Party of Azerbaijan.

In a December 3 statement, the leaders of Azadlig, and the opposition Liberal and National Independence Parties expressed "surprise and regret concerning the hasty welcoming statement by the US about the Constitutional Court's decision."

"The US used a 'double standards' policy with Azerbaijan because we saw another American position during the [parliamentary and presidential] elections in Georgia and Ukraine [in 2003 and 2004, respectively]" the statement continued. "We regret that the US president and State Department did not fulfill their pre-election declarations and dealt a heavy blow to the democratic process in Azerbaijan."

Opposition leaders have called on the US for an explanation of the statement. During a half-hour meeting at the Popular Front's headquarters in Baku on December 7, Ambassador Reno Harnish met with PFPA Chairman Ali Kerimli, Musavat Party Chairman Isa Gambar, Democratic Party of Azerbaijan First Deputy Chairman Sardar Jalaloglu and Liberal Party Chairperson Lala Shovket to discuss the statement. The opposition leaders declined to hold the meeting in the US embassy, Turan news agency reported.

One opposition source, who was present at the meeting and asked not to be named, told EurasiaNet that the ambassador had tried to persuade the opposition to lift its boycott of parliament and to run in elections for the ten outstanding parliamentary seats. In response to questions from opposition leaders about the US position, Harnish repeated assurances that the US supports the democratic process in Azerbaijan and would continue to work with the opposition.

The source reported that Kerimli joked that the US embassy had "twice welcomed the changes in #31 Surakhani constituency," where the PFPA leader ran for parliament. The first time was when the Central Election Commission reconsidered the district's election results and named Kerimli the apparent winner, the PFPA leader charged, the second time when the Constitutional Court threw out those results. "Which one was the real position?" he asked, the source said.

Support appears to be growing among some Azadlig activists for a thorough re-examination of the group's position toward the US. «We [the opposition] gave our assessment of the elections. The US embassy issued their own completely different statement,» said one PFPA activist who had argued, along with other PFPA members, against the meeting with Harnish. «There is nothing to discuss with them.«

In an interview with ANS TV on December 6, Ambassador Harnish argued that the US had behaved consistently. «We supported and will support the democratic process in Azerbaijan in the future,» he said. Harnish named security, democracy, a market economy and oil as the US priorities in Azerbaijan, «[A]ll of them are equally important for the US ... it is impossible to talk about security or a market economy unless democracy is developed,» he went on to say.

Harnish urged the opposition to run in new elections to be held in the ten constituencies with canceled results, and argued that elected opposition candidates must go to parliament to represent the constituents who elected them.

PFPA Deputy Chairman Fuad Mustafayev, however, told EurasiaNet on December 6 that the opposition has no plans to take its seats in parliament or to take part in the January 2006 elections for the ten constituencies. The opposition's disappointment with the US position will be brought to Ambassador Harnish's attention at the PFPA meeting, he said. «Now we know that we cannot rely on American support in our struggle for democracy.»

Eldar Namazov, one of the leaders of the Yeni Siyasat (YeS - New Policy) opposition alliance, also condemned the US position. «There is a clear, big difference between the American pre- and post-election statements and actions. This issue should be seriously researched in the future. But it is a fact already that the US openly blessed the total falsifications and violations made by the Central Election Commission, Appeal and Constitutional Courts,» he told EurasiaNet on December 6.

Some European election monitors appear to share the opposition's assessment of the US's actions. «I do not understand the US position. How is it possible to work with the parliamentary opposition when there is no opposition there [in parliament]?» Andreas Gross, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) co-rapporteur for Azerbaijan, fumed at a Baku press conference on December 2. «Most likely oil got the advantage of democracy,» charged PACE election monitoring mission chief Leo Platvoet. «We hope that European leaders will be more principled in issues of defending democracy.»

In the days following the embassy statement, opposition and some independent media have published a series of articles and op-eds critical of the US. «America acts as an actor in an 'election comedy' in Azerbaijan,» read one headline in the opposition Yeni Musavat newspaper. «The US has sent democracy to the rubbish heap,» wrote Rauf Mirgadirov, political correspondent for the Russian-language Zerkalo independent daily in a December 6 op-ed.

The criticism comes as a sharp about-face from media commentary before the elections that hailed Ambassador Harnish as «the real master of the pre-election situation.»

The government, however, has welcomed the US embassy statement. Ali Hasanov, head of the presidential administration's political department, said that the government of Azerbaijan is satisfied with the US's "constructive evaluation" of the parliamentary election results. «We [the government] consider the US embassy statement ... a positive assessment of the parliamentary elections,» Hasanov told APA news agency on December 3.

Local experts see different reasons for the US actions. Many argue that geopolitical and oil interests largely dictate Washington's response. Rasim Musabekov, an independent political analyst and former candidate for parliament, told Turan news agency on December 5 that he believed the US was worried about criticism of the election pushing President Ilham Aliyev closer toward Russia.« Financially, Azerbaijan is independent, so the US lacks sufficient levers of influence on the country," he said.

Another independent political analyst, Zafar Guliyev, dismissed the argument that oil alone dictates the US stance. «The US has already satisfied its oil interests in Azerbaijan. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline is ready, American oil companies have no problems in Azerbaijan, and this process has become irreversible,» said Guliyev. «The main reason, I think, is that the US is afraid to lose Azerbaijan as an ally ... Most likely the US is worried that in case of tough pressure, the Azerbaijani authorities will change their pro-Western policy and will chose the way of Uzbekistan and Belarus.»

Meanwhile, some observers warn that the perceived change in US policy on the parliamentary elections could have negative long-term consequences for American influence in Azerbaijan. «People simply will stop trusting their [Americans'] assurances about 'solidarity with those who are fighting for freedom,'» wrote Zerkalo's Rauf Mirgadirov on December 6. «The worst scenario is if people explain the US 'double standards' by the fact that Azerbaijan is a Muslim country. It may lead to serious consequences.»

Eldar Namazov shares this opinion. «The West also lost in the elections ... The Azerbaijani people saw that the West did not keep its words and it may cause a big disappointment,» he said.

Editor's Note: Rovshan Ismaylov is a freelance journalist based in Baku.

Andreas Gross

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