Azerbaijan: A long road to democracy
Seen through the bullet-proof windows of the multitude of Foreign Embassies in the country, Azerbaijan is a very simple country. Ruled by a reliable but slightly autocratic President, Azerbaijan’s new oil and gas pipelines provide resources to the west in a stable environment where the population doesn’t suffer from any of the unrest or Islamic fundamentalism seen in neighbouring countries.
The recent LYMEC Election Observation Mission to the November parliamentary elections presented the country in an entirely different light. Quite apart from its abundant natural resources, this country is one where Islam sits peacefully in a secular political system, where civil society is strong despite obstacles and where the generosity of the people is matched only by their optimism. The Azeris clearly have a lot to offer the world, but it is the foreign policy consensus of the international community which is playing at least a part in hampering them from doing so.
As liberals we cannot only look at a country as a tool in the functioning of the world economy, but also a reservoir of knowledge, of experience and most vitally, of individuals. With 33 registered international observers making up one of the largest missions in the country, young but motivated political activists descended upon the mountainous northern border region near Dagestan to do their bit in encouraging free and fair elections in Azerbaijan.
Life in Azerbaijan is not an easy one, especially if you are a liberal-minded political activist, young or old. Endemic corruption seeps into every aspect of political life, and the local authorities under direct Presidential control are totally unaccountable in their influence. Unfortunately this general state of affairs was very much in evidence in the elections themselves, with the mission reporting that “despite the count being an accurate statement of the ballots cast in our region, there were serious shortcomings throughout the electoral process which have to be urgently addressed by the appropriate courts and electoral commissions”.
Even concentrated in just three of 125 districts, the mission found evidence of widespread voter intimidation and coercion, direct involvement of local administrative power and a variety of other shortcomings which were documented in a formal report. Digital evidence thanks to cameras and audio-recorders helped present a compelling and unique insight into events which helped the results get coverage in media as varied as Radio Free Europe, the BBC and the New York and Moscow Times.
Our clear, loud and unambiguous contribution as election observers was just the beginning for our involvement in Azerbaijan and our new friends in the orange opposition still have a lot of work to do. As international attention wanes, the job will begin to further develop their capacity in advance of the Presidential elections.
Maybe Azerbaijan actually is a very simple country. Simple because it is a case where the people are ready for democracy, but where the state is not yet ready to grant the privilege. It is in these countries where our commitment to build up civil society and to support liberal movements is at its most critical, and it is in these countries where we must let our actions speak louder than our words.