|Author:||By Antoine Blua|
Ilham Aliyev, who took over Azerbaijan's presidency from his father, Heidar Aliyev, in controversial 2003 elections, has only recently allowed opposition protests to take place, amid heavy international pressure. As the two-day visit to Baku of former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright suggests, pressure is mounting on Aliyev's administration to oversee free and fair parliamentary elections in November, or risk international isolation.
Thousands of opposition supporters have staged three rallies in Baku in the past few weeks to demand free and fair parliamentary elections on 6 November.
Speaking on 10 July at the latest rally, Ali Kerimli, chairman of the progressive wing of the divided Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, insisted that democracy must be pushed forward peacefully. "We will struggle by completely peaceful means, without any exception," he said. "And we will let everybody know this clear position of Azerbaijani democrats."
Recent regime changes in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan are seen as having reinvigorated civil-society groups in Azerbaijan, while also serving to remind the authorities of what could happen if the polls are not democratic.
Western envoys and delegations from international organizations have crisscrossed the country ahead of the polls in an effort to monitor preparations. One of those envoys is former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who is chairwoman of the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute and is in Baku for a two-day visit.
"My meetings here would indicate that the United States and nongovernmental organizations and the National Democratic Institute is very interested in moving forward on democratic parliamentary elections. It's the most important thing that Azerbaijan can do to give the people the opportunity to state their views," Albright told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service.
Albright -- who was due to hold talks with Aliyev -- added that the "most stable government is a democratic government." She said a country where the population doesn't have the right to express itself and where very large oil wealth is widely distributed enjoys "false stability."
Visiting the capital earlier last week, Heikki Talvitie, the European Union's special envoy for the South Caucasus, said Azerbaijan will remain in Brussels' sights throughout its election process. Anthonius de Wries, the European Commission's special representative in Azerbaijan, has suggested that failure to ensure democratic elections would impact cooperation plans between Baku and Brussels. Rapporteurs from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) have recommended canceling Azerbaijan's mandate in the body if the elections are not fair and democratic.
However, as visiting PACE rapporteur Andreas Gross pointed out on 8 July, the West wants any change to come through the ballot box. "Today, we have to speak about elections," he said. "And those who would like to change anything should engage in elections and not speak about revolution."
"There has been a very consistent message, and the message is the necessity for the [Central] Electoral Commission to be a truly independent commission that can help in making clear that the elections are free and fair and open, and a desire for there to be greater diversity in political participation." - Albright
Azerbaijan's government has made several concessions to the opposition ahead of the elections. These include the right to hold peaceful opposition rallies and the release of more than 200 political prisoners since the beginning of the year.
Nevertheless, observers say Azerbaijani leaders appear inclined to block further reforms. They note that parliament on 28 June passed amendments to the country's electoral law that did not include changes to the makeup of the country's election commissions. The election commissions are seen as leaning too far in the government's favor.
Speaking after meetings with the Azerbaijani opposition, Albright highlighted this issue: "There has been a very consistent message, and the message is the necessity for the [Central] Electoral Commission to be a truly independent commission that can help in making clear that the elections are free and fair and open, and a desire for there to be greater diversity in political participation."
According to current law, opposition members must make up one-third of the election commissions, and any decisions taken must be approved by two-thirds of its members.
Albright's visit to Baku is being compared to former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker's trip to Georgia in 2003. Baker is credited with helping to persuade then President Eduard Shevardnadze to change the makeup of the country's election commission. The Rose Revolution followed later that year and swept Shevardnadze from office.
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