Azerbaijan: Europe’s only hereditary democracy

Article published on Feb. 18, 2005
community published
Article published on Feb. 18, 2005

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Despite the country’s admission to the Council of Europe, the human rights situation in Azerbaijan remains a cause for concern. The West must take a stance on this region, which is getting ever closer to Europe

With the opening of the former Eastern bloc and the enlargement of the European Union, a region that has previously received little attention draws closer to Europe: the Caucasus. Ever since the democratic opposition in Georgia was able to force Schevardnadze’s resignation through the Rose Revolution, expectations have grown of a democratic domino effect in Armenia and Azerbaijan. Yet democratic developments, or the lack thereof, in Azerbaijan have attracted little interest in Europe, even though it has been a member of the Council of Europe since January 2001. Despite irregularities in the parliamentary election of 2000, Azerbaijan was still admitted to the Council because of its previous endeavours and based on the condition that it released political prisoners and respected freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Its development along these lines is subject to long-term monitoring by the Council of Europe. In April 2002 Azerbaijan ratified the European Convention on Human Rights and many hoped that this development, along with the support from Europe, would lead to, among other things, free elections.

A ‘democratic’ dynasty

Yet not only did the parliamentary elections of 2000 exhibit such strong irregularities that they had to be repeated in January 2001, but the presidential elections in October 2003 were also marked by wide-spread manipulation. The obstacle posed by the opposition political party had already begun to emerge during the election campaign, resulting in the opposition’s demonstrations on 15th and 16th October, held at the time of the election, being brutally suppressed, the election manipulated and hundreds of the opposition arrested.

Thus, the beginning of President Ilham Alijew’s term in office was hardly in line with democratic standards. In October 2003 he took over from his father, Hejdar Alijew, as head of state, thereby becoming the first example within former Soviet territory of a successful hereditary succession within the highest office of a presidential republic. Plus, in the following weeks, the unrest surrounding the elections was used by the Azerbaijani government as an excuse to suppress the opposition and human right activists, as well as the free press. The opposition, their supporters, and a large part of society were intimidated by the brutality of the police and the arbitrary arrests. International observers confirmed reports of those in opposition being forced to leave their party, of more than a hundred politically-motivated redundancies, of the persecution of members of the opposition’s families and the wide-spread use of torture.

Resignation instead of Revolt

Since Ilham Alijew’s arrival in government, an increasing stagnation of both the state and society’s democratisation can be detected. So far his actions have been based on measures to safe-guard his power and the continued construction of a soviet-style police regime that he inherited from his father. As a result, while the wages of the excessive police force and security apparatus have been raised, the majority of Azerbaijanis still struggle daily to provide for their family. The consequences of poverty are emigration and labour migration – a last alternative for many men capable of work. According to estimates, out of a population of 8.2 million, up to 2 million Azerbaijanis are currently working in Russia. In the last few years political opponents have been leaving the country alongside the financially-motivated labour migrants. In practice, legal and economic reforms are hardly implemented and the progress expected by Europe fails to materialise. Hopes for democracy, which were nourished by Azerbaijan’s accession to the Council of Europe and the European presence at the elections, have subsided into general resignation.

As the EU’s new neighbour, the Caucasus should be accorded more attention. Substantial public interest from the West could exert a considerable influence on the internal events of authoritarian states interested in, or dependent upon, interaction with the West. A clear and decisive European policy with regard to human rights abuse and the increasing corruption is necessary, as well as help with strict conditions attached to promote civil society, in order to bring about developments towards the rule of law in Azerbaijan.